YONKERS – Polls generally show that 50 percent to 60 percent of Roman Catholics in the United States believe that women should be eligible for the priesthood.
Sister Sara Butler understands this impulse – because she once felt the same way. In 1978, she headed a task force of the Catholic Theological Society of America that came out in support of female priests.
But as she continued her work as an increasingly prominent theologian, her thinking began to change. Now, in a new book – "The Catholic Priesthood and Women: A Guide to the Teaching of the Church" – she attempts to explain the underpinnings of the all-male priesthood to doubters and skeptics who think the way she used to.
"The tradition is traced to the will of Christ, not to decisions made by the church," Butler said last night at St. Joseph’s Seminary, where she has taught for four years.
The church’s teachings must be better explained, she said, because many Catholics see the all-male priesthood as a symbol of patriarchal power and sexism, and many more who stay silent are probably befuddled.
"Their confidence in the church’s teaching authority has been badly eroded," she said.
Several hundred priests, nuns, seminarians and lay visitors greeted Butler with sustained applause, a measure of their respect for her and their approval of the church’s position.
Critics of the all-male priesthood were in short supply.
Butler made Catholic history two years ago when she became one of the first two women appointed to the Vatican’s International Theological Commission, an influential group that advises the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
"This appointment places Sister Sara among the highest-ranking women in our church today," Monsignor Peter Finn, rector of the seminary, said when introducing her.
Butler made the case last night that the all-male priesthood is grounded in Jesus’ choice of 12 male apostles and the Catholic Church’s sustained understanding of what this meant for the priesthood.
"The answer is discovered in a tradition of practice that is traced back to the Lord’s choice of the 12," she said.
To change the church’s traditional understanding of the priesthood, she said, would be to change the priesthood itself and disconnect the church from the apostles, ending what Catholics believe to be their church’s God-given power to teach.
…Polls continue to show that Catholics are divided. But Cardinal Francis George of Chicago hopes that Butler’s book will alter the conversation. "If this book is well used," he writes in a blurb, "it will change the presently sterile discussion of who can be ordained to the Catholic priesthood."
We hear so much in the press about dissenters on the issue of women’s ordination that it is truly nice to see one from a person now inline with Church teaching. Another nice thing about the article is that the usual critics are not trotted out for a refutation, though there is too much emphasis on polls. Christianity and polls have a bad track record – just ask Jesus when he asked "Who do men say that I am?" Only one got it right and he had help from an outside source – the Holy Spirit.