· Vatican City ·

More women are needed for the formation of priests

Cardinal Marc Ouellet, Prefect of the Congregation for the Bishops, gave the Lectio magistralis of the specialist course “Women and Church”, at the Institute of Higher Studies on Women, in the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum (Vatican Media).

25 April 2020

It is a fact.  Women often represent a numerically greater presence among the recipients and collaborators of a priest’s pastoral interventions. In number 151 of the Ratio fundamentalis,  2016, we read that the presence of women in the formation process of the Seminary has its own value, also with regard to the recognition of the complementarity between men and women. But, for Cardinal Marc Ouellet, Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, much remains to be done. The model is still clerical. A cultural revolution is needed.

Your Eminence, you have already stated you are in favor of the presence of women in the formation of priests and in spiritual accompaniment. Can you explain why? And, for what purpose?

Women can participate in many ways: in theological and philosophical teaching, in the teaching of spirituality. They can be part of the team of instructors especially in the discernment of vocations. In this field we need  a woman’s opinion, their intuition, their ability to grasp the human side of the candidates, their degree of emotional or psychological maturity.

As far as spiritual accompaniment is concerned,  woman can be of help, of course, but I believe that it is best if a priest accompanies a candidate for their priesthood. Woman, on the other hand, can accompany instruction, which is an aspect that in my opinion in insufficiently developed in seminaries. There is a necessity to evaluate the candidate’s degree of freedom, their ability to be coherent, to establish their life program, and also their psychosocial and psychosexual identity.

Affectivity is a field in which priestly formation seems lacking. There is another sensitive issue, which is clericalism, the caste spirit of priests, and even the feeling of impunity sometimes. Can the presence of women on the teams of trainers help, in your opinion, with  these crucial points?

I believe that the experience of collaborating with women on an equal level helps the candidate to envisage his future ministry and the way in which he will be able to respect women and collaborate with them. If you do not start during their training, a priest risks living his relationship with women in a clerical manner.

In 2016, the Congregation for the Clergy published the Ratio fundamentalis.  In it, an integral formation of the priest, capable of uniting the human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral dimensions is proposed. In this context, is the presence of women integrative, or fundamental?

I believe that this text needs further openness and development. We are still adopting a clerical conception of formation that strives to progress, but remains in the continuity of what has been done before. There are more elements with regard to human formation, but I believe that it is still very much lacking with regard to the integration of women when it comes to formation.

It is often said that women should be given positions of responsibility. This is certainly important. But if I understand you correctly, do you, above all, want a cultural revolution? Perhaps a change in mentality?

Yes, exactly. In a recent speech at the plenary session of the Congregation for Catholic Education, I recognized the creative value of the Forward of the Holy Father’s document Veritatis gaudium (Pope Francis’ Apostolic Constitution on Universities and Ecclesiastical Faculties, January 29, 2018) for the renewal of higher studies. But, I pointed out that the dimension of the problem of women and the Church’s response is missing. It is not only a matter of promoting women, but of considering them as an integral part of all formation. It would have been necessary in a text of this importance for it have been able to look to the future. There was at least one allusion to it. This is indicative of where we still are! When I spoke at the plenary session of the Congregation for Catholic Education, at which the rectors of the Roman universities were present; there were many women, but proportionally just one in ten. There is still much to be done in the higher studies at Catholic universities. A cultural revolution requires a change in mentality.

To return to priestly formation, a priest can be prepared to preach well, to perform all the functions as they should;  but, pastoral care is first and foremost the care of people. And attention to people is a naturally feminine quality. What counts is a woman’s sensitivity for the person, less for their function. Pope Francis, in all his pastoral conversion, asks us to take people into consideration, to ask ourselves how we can accompany them to grow. So far we have been concerned above all with orthodoxy, to know the doctrine well, to teach it well. But all those poor people who have to digest it, how are we going to accompany them?

Relations between priests and women are still subject to many conditions. There is often a mutual “uneasiness”. A difficulty in establishing an equal relationship, as you said before. What is this due to? Are there some gaps in priestly formation?

The problem is probably deeper. It comes from the way women are treated in families. There is an uneasiness, because there is fear; more so by men in their consideration of woman than by women regarding men. For a priest, for a seminarian, women represent danger! Whereas, in reality, the real danger is men who do not have a balanced relationship with women. This is the danger in the priesthood, this is what we must radically change. That is why during their formation it is important that there is contact, confrontation, and exchange. This helps the candidate to interact with women, in a natural way, and also to face the challenge that the presence of women, the attraction towards women, represents. This must be taught and learned from the beginning: so as not to isolate future priests who then find themselves in brutal reality; for this is when they can lose control.

Many think that if women had been more associated with  formation (and the life) of priests, the abuse crisis would not have reached such dramatic levels. Is this true, or is it just a cliché?

There is certainly some truth in that;  because, man is an emotional being. If the interaction between the sexes is absent, there is the risk of developing [the need for] compensation, which can be of the alimentary type, or expressed in the exercise of power, or in closed relationships, a closure which becomes manipulation, control, and which can lead to abuses of conscience and sexual abuse. I believe that for the priest, [who is] to learn how to relate to women in training is a humanizing factor that promotes the balance of the personality and affectivity of the man.

You have said many times that the women question requires an important investment on the part of the Church, and that what has been done is insufficient . Why is the urgency of this issue not perceived?

The last forty years have been marked by great social transformations, at least in the West. The awareness to the presence of women in the world of work, and in public life, is still a novelty, so to speak. The Church walks slowly. We have to catch up because society has gone further. It has also helped to slow down the claim to achieve total ministerial equality, as if sexual difference didn’t count at all. We are also faced here with the male, ideological, homologation that is imposed. We really need creativity, so that there is a greater presence of women, for example in the prophetic field, in testimony, and also in government. There are many curiae where there are women chancellors, who coordinate pastoral activity. But, the problem is the clerical ecclesiological model. In the Church there are those who play leading roles: who preach the Word, who give the sacraments, as if priests were the essential reality of the Church, but this is not the case. The center of the Church is not ministry, it is baptism, that is, faith. And, precisely the testimony of faith is the place where women can occupy an extraordinary space.

How do you respond to Catholic women who are irritated by the exaltation of the female genius, by certain stereotypes about femininity? It has been written that we have moved from misogyny to positive mythification!

Both of these are incorrect approaches, yet in the end they are identical. There’s a lack of foresight. On this, I think that even theological reflection has steps to take, even anthropological and spiritual reflection on women, or on the man-woman relationship. For centuries, exegesis has made a complete abstraction of sexual difference in the doctrine of the Imago Dei, the image of God. Why? Because God is spiritual. But the meaning of the Genesis text is the dynamic of love between a man and a woman which is the image of God. That is, the couple as such. Today, exegetes have developed this thought; but, to make it pass into culture requires an assimilation of what man and woman are.

The predominance of women among those who actively participate in the life of parish communities is now proverbial: where, then, does the idea that the Church is a masculine reality come from? Perhaps because the ordained ministry is reserved to men and this creates an inferiority of women in the Church, relegating them to less “noble” tasks?

Thank you for asking that important question. The answer is,  because the model is clerical. If a woman has no power of function, she doesn’t exist. While function is considered secondary because it is in the service of baptism, it must make the divine filiation live in men’s hearts. This is the Church! And everything else, the proclamation of the Word, the gift of the sacrament, serves to make this essential reality live. Pope Francis says this by taking up an idea of Hans Urs von Balthasar. He says that in the Church, Mary is superior to Peter because Mary represents the baptismal priesthood in its highest expression, she is the mediator of the gift of the Incarnate Word to the world. Therefore, the form of the Church is feminine because faith is the reception of the Word and there is a fundamental reception of grace that is feminine. Mary is its symbol. It is this Ecclesiology that I call “nuptial”, because when I say nuptial I place love in the foreground. This applies not only to the married couple but also to the consecrated life, to the priestly, ministerial life, everything is unified in this nuptial relationship between Christ and the Church which reveals to the world the mystery of God who is love.

by Romilda Ferrauto