Daniel Berrigan on WOMEN PRIESTS from 1977

Of Priests, Women, Women Priests, and Other Unlikely Recombinants: A Diary

Daniel Berrigan S.j.

Published in Movement Magazine: Journal of the Student Christian Movement of Britain and Ireland, in a special supplement Why Men Priestsedited by Mary Condren, (Dublin: SCM Publications, 1977): pp 8- 10).

You have to taste life, a real taste, bitter and sweet together before you can celebrate life. This seems plain fact, truth of the soul, on the face of it. But what to make of all those liturgical experts who year after year, gather to tell one and all what motions to go through, and when and why, around the cold altars?

The dominant mood, in public and private, in church and state, is something deeper than depression; a stupefaction. People go in circles, sleep walk, blank faced. There are no maps. Most plod along in the old track, interminably. Or they go where forbidden. The old taboos fall in the name of freedom, sexual or psychological, a kind of mauve scented slavery. And Big Bro grins his wolfish grin.

Women who want to enter the priesthood, or who are already ordained, have at least some inkling of the stalemate within the ranks. The truth of being woman is a good boot camp for being a nobody; in culture, in church. And ‘nobody’, ‘non person’ is a good definition of a priest today, female or male, given both church and culture. Properly, soberly understood. Some say the scripture says that’s where we belong.

A non person. You don’t signify. They look you over, but you don’t meet acceptable standards. Or the big boys meet, make big decisions, plans, projections. You aren’t invited. Or rather, you’re disinvited. World without end.

Priesthood? One could huff and puff about mystery, sacrament, sign, moments of grace. These I take to be realities. I am also consoled that they are out of our grasp, control, consuming.

And this is the Day of the Consumer. The Day of Seizure; Don’t Forget It. Above all, don’t forget it, women. The caste implications, the control units, are humming. If you come in and join up, the machos will know how to deal with that too. Which is to say, the penal implications of the penis ought not he misread. To be deprived is to be a ‘case’, a patient, a freak, an example. It is To Be Dealt With.

When something is working badly for those it was designed to work for, what solution? Commonly culturally speaking, do more of the same. Multiplied mistakes cancel out the initial mistake; the sublime logic. What then to say to women who want to join the Early Mistake? mistaken identity? One has to think of starting over. But whether women can correct the massive and multiplied misservices of the Hippos On Highthis seems to be matter for valid questioning.

We do well in a bad time not to multiply the bads. Men I respect in the priesthood aren’t particularly happy in thinking male. They feel miserable under the weight of life today, just as women do. That ‘just as’ needs of course to be treated carefully; women are outside, men in, the difference is not slight.

At the same time, it’s worth saying that spite gets us no where. And on the question of priesthood, the ‘in’ male and the ‘out’ female meet on a ground that’s fairly familiar to each; one barely making it meets another not making it. To say that life isn’t offering a great deal to any of us, doesn’t heal the long untended wounds.

A better beginning might be the common admission of a common plight, male and female, in the effort to be faithful to a human vocation; violation, insults, jail, the beetling brow of the law. Each has the right to kick and scream until we have 1) a common share of our common patrimony (matrimony)which certainly includes equal access to ministry, pulpit, sacraments, right up to bishoprics and papal tiaras (for those who feel called lo such bric-a-brac), and 2) a vote on where and how our lives get lived, used, spent, given.

Access to the mysteries, the good news made both good and new. Need I tell anyone we are being drowned in bad news; certainly bad, hardly new? I think on the contrary, good news waits on women; I think it waifs on men. It waits on each of us, reborn.

Please don’t wash us in hog wash. A big case is made in anti-priest-women polemics, of the huge shift in symbols required if women are to stand at the altars. This is to say the least, reading history through the rear view mirror. Such ‘scholarship’ is always late, always after the fact, invariably in service to special interests. It loves to act as though those in command just arbitrarily appear there, wide eyed innocents, open to every prevailing or contrary wind, nothing on their minds except disinterested service of the truth. Thus the scholars become apologists, indifferent to injustice; and the apologists become ideologues. They prefer historical jousting to a simple look at manifest injustice. A fascist stalling tactic.

In such matters, it helps to stay with a few simple ideas, and see where they lead. But some critics make history (in this case male history, a bad start) into the enemy, adversary, obstacle to a better human arrangement. They also mistrust people, including their fellow Christians; the majority of whom do not sit in endowed university chairs announcing the facts of life to those ‘below.’ (A little like life guards scanning the sea beaches from chairs the height of The Empire State building)

Would Christians accept the ministry of women alongside men? My experience is that immense good will is available; people adjust quickly, even with excitement, to new arrangements, especially when these are presented as forms of requital, righting of wrongs. ‘How sensible; I never thought of that before’ is a common reaction in such matters, from the pew or the church door. But from pulpit or podium, the process is infinitely more tortuous, the minds inverted, lost. Out of touch.

Ours was a church of outsiders, from the start. This is often said. The implications are just as often ignored or sidestepped; because the ‘outside’ character of our beginnings is of course, taught by insiders.

Still, a cold comfort is better than none, considering common shortages. We might ponder Jesus; who, it could be argued, is still shivering on the lintel of this or that sublime chance! He cannot be washed hands of, he will not go away. A perpetual embarrassment to grand and petty inquisitors alike.

In all this, it won’t do to comfort ourselves with ‘Well in any case, it’s psychiatrically verified that sons (daughters) always kick out the old man in order to come into their own...’

Their own? The old man? But Jesus didn’t come on, in the first place, as big daddy at all; but defenceless, otherworldly, an artisan, a worker, a friend, a ne’er do well, ambitionless really, empty of hand and pocket, a non belonger and no joiner.

It seems to follow; all who wish to meet him must do so on his ground. He won’t come in. Won’t be assimilated. A Jew is a Jew, take it or leave it. You want to meet him? Step outside, into the dark. But who wants to hear such talk?

The healing of woman bent double, in Luke 13. Nuanced and delightful. I cannot for the life of me, find anyone who treats it adequately; so here goes a try.

She was bent over, Luke says (and he ought to know) by a diabolic spirit. Could it be that she was fated to dramatize in her frame, the fate of women, in that culture, in every culture? No one says so. Males write history generally; then to place things beyond doubt, they write male commentary. But Luke steps aside from all that; or better, Jesus does. In freedom, he walks over those puerile taboos and drawn lines. He takes the initiative with the woman; ‘He called her over when lie saw her condition..’ Then he ‘laid his hands on her. And simply announced her cure. She straightened up. And ‘she gave glory to God.’ How sublime! A woman bent double (bent doubly) under the burden of hideous culture and worse religion, is healed of this evil spirit.’ For a spirit is at work in her, not a disease; or better, a diseased spirit. The culture, the religion, are rightly regarded by Jesus as demonic. The woman must be exorcised, of culture, or religion. Then she stands upright, then with all her wit and will, she responds to God. Can you see her face at that moment?

The keepers of the status quo are of course outraged. If we know anything, we know why. The miraculous is of no account to them Religion is business. The rule is business as usual. Business is good.

But something deeper than tins is in question; the healing of——a woman. Her face alight with hope and joy, is an affront to their consecrated gloom, the atmosphere of a sanctuary which is a counting house.

Would they, have struck back with such irrational fury, had a man been healed under the same circumstances? One is allowed to doubt it. In any case, Jesus is at pains to note that he has liberated not a man, but a ‘daughter of Abraham’ This is her dignity. He refers to it, against all custom. A daughter of Abraham stands, upright; stands up, as we say, for her rights.

In the gospel, the title is unique, where macho ‘sons of Abraham’ abound. In the Jewish bible, the title is unthinkable.

But no commentator notes these things, as far as I can find.

There’s little doubt that when the gospels got written, people leaned quirkily, stormily, on charisms, resonances, right speech, a passion to serve, the ictus that went further than plod, wisdom and wisdom’s outreach. And not to forget in a spineless time, courage, raw as a wound. Jail experience and savvy, street smarts. The range of eye was wider then, the understanding more worldly, they had more

news to call good. Passion was in the air, firm claims, symbols pushed hard. It was faith erupting into history, not airlifted; the underground was surfacing, not lava.

That passion shaped us, But then we cooled. People once died for beliefs; killed others too. But we come swaddled in something called security; from cradle clothes to shroud. And who today dies for anything at all, anyone at all? we don’t die ‘for’; we die ‘of’; decline and fall. The martyr is now the patient.

I believe we were created for ecstasy. And redeemed for it, at considerable cost. Certain vagrant unrepeatable moments of life tell us this, if we will but listen. Such moments moreover, are clues to the whole native structure and texture of things; not merely are such glorious fits and starts meant to ‘keep us going’, a fairly unattractive idea; but ecstasy fuels and infuses us from the start, our proper distillation and energy of soul. One could dream the world, the poet says, and one could even dream the eye; but who can imagine the act of seeing? We will never have enough of this, we will never have done with it.

If tomorrow or the day after, women stood toe to heel, with men at the altars of the church, and in the pulpitswhat then? Would we have the same old church? We would probably have the same old world. And that, in the old phrase, ought to give pause.

If all those destructive cuts and thrusts had disappeared in Christ, as Paul says they were meant to; if all those divisions and hatreds and put downs (a few of which Paul helped along, on the side)if these disappeared tomorrow, and if this vanishing of the old disorder of things were made clear heyong doubt, were reflected in service, worship, office, dignitywhy, what then? We would probably have the same old world.

Probably. But at least one element of that world, which thinks of itself a~ drawn forth from that world, differing from that world, opposed to that world’s rule and conduct—at least that element, that yeast, that little flock, that tight knit unfearing witnessing knot of trouble makersat least this would once have spoken and been heard, would be something to turn to. (Would, (take it or leave it), be something else than the fitful, selfish, death ridden world. And in this sense the world would no longer be the same. It would have lost all claim over us,

There is nothing more crushing in fact, and most revolting to the moral nostril, than a church which ignores the outcry of the disenfranchised. We’ve all suffered under it, our flesh torn asunder with the sense of nightmarish unreality, the wound in the very nature of things. Let the world act in such a way, let the megacorporations or the armed forces or the state departments act this way. It is the way of the world; dog eat dog, devil take the hindmost. But what shall we do, what is to become of us, when this mechanized macho spirit infests the church and turns on us, claw and tooth? We go hoarse, talking to statuary with chipped ears; we lose spirit, we give up. And we bring home bad news, too often for our own good; we begin to look as though it were true.

Those who are lucky (my own luck is good) find a few friends who help cut the knots, free up the soul. And try as best we may, to do good work ourselves; that news gets around.

I wish someone could draw us out of trivia, where many are trapped. I wish someone could draw us out of trauma. Sanity? We have a monstrous public scene, inhuman authority, the dance of death, people reduced to a quivering jelly. And then the trivial, much of it in the name of religion; the children’s hour at church, extended to 24 hours per day. Adults treated like children.

I wish someone could help us get sane, or stay sane.

I wish someone could cleanse and heal our eyesight, help us turn our wooden heads away from non questions, false questions, destructive questions. I mean the questions that a straight faced straight jacketed culture keeps pushing like crazy. Like, how many millions can we kill and still get away with it. Or, why not a bit more experimentation on prisoners. Or, let’s go back to capital punishment, that’ll show those muggers, crooks, killers once and for all. Or, let’s cut the welfare system, there are too many chiselers among the poor. Or, let’s sell the latest lethal toys to both sides of a dispute; that way, we get the buck and they get the bang. Or, let’s get massive abortion going, there’s not enough food and housing and jobs around for people (which is to say, for us, our bottomless bellies)let alone for the unborn.

The question of alternatives today. People ask, with varying degrees of despair, where they might go. The question is all the more grievous, as voiced by people of stature, merit, intelligence; who love the church, long to give of their lives. And they witness the imbecility, connivance, wheeling, base politics, neglect of the poor, defamation of Christ’s spirit. Where to go, when in good conscience, one can hardly stay? Up till recently, it was publicly titillating, a story’, news, when one ‘left the church.’ Now the meaning of the phrase is clouded, the act brings yawns of ennui.

Part of the trouble is that so few who walked out, landed anywhere. Frying pan to fire, they left the church and the culture swallowed them whole. It seems better as a rule, to hang around where one was born, trying as best one may, to make it with a few friends, family, to do what one can in the common life; instead of launching out in the wilds, by and large more savage and unresponsive than the church.

Unless of course, there is manifest injustice, against one’s person, one’s convictions. In which case, one is advised to take chances, yell, loud and clear, and walk out yelling. (But have a landing pad as well as a launching pad!)

But the weight is in favor of hanging on, I think.

I’m struck that the women are battering at the church doors, just when everything in church and culture, is announcing an ‘end of things’. Not the end of the world maybe (though that could he argued too, soberly discussed as it is by the nuclear bandits.) But certainly the end of the culture as we know it, as we were born into it, and came to self understanding by resisting it...

Women have always washed corpses and prepared them for burial. Women are in charge of delivery roomsin more ways than one. A metaphor for today? Women will make the death decent and birth possible.

Sunday at St. Stephen’s in Washington. This is one of very few parishes that took in street people during the cruel winter months, housed and fed them. They also welcomed the peace community from Jonah House, when they sought a place to pray and plan for Holy Week. So it was quite natural and moving and befitting that I be invited to preach; a homecoming.

The eucharist was conducted by women. And they invited me to serve communion, along with several others. Black, white, young, old; and women orchestrating, setting the tone, announcing with authority, reverence, verve, the Lord’s body and blood.

It was overwhelming. (Most worship today is crashingly underwhelming.) It was like a quiet expedition of a few friends, to the other side of the moon, from this clamorous and polluted side. Solvitur ambulando. The absurd sexist knot of the centuries, tightened by macho muscle and muddle, was cut.

And all so naturally. The children wandered quietly about, the folk prayed, talked up, sang, took communion. No one seemed to think of anything that moment, beyond the sublime faith and bread and death and hope that were on the air, was taking place. I wondered if a bigger stir would have gone through us, if Jesus had walked through the chancel door. I doubt it

How did all this come about, how did great changes get proposed, accepted, even rejoiced at! One could note the absence of hyperpsychologizing, expertise, sensitivity session, expensive gurus imported for hot and heavy breathing, shrinkings, touchy feely follies, inflations of spiritall that plague of self indul- gence. No, the people met with their pastor, they prayed together, struggled, things were worked through. One notes something else. Liturgy here is no fetish or idol; the god is not fed on the hour, Enshrined, to deplete and suck off life energies. The same parish that welcomes women ministers, feeds and houses the homeless and hungry. The parish also blesses and helps those who prepare for non violence at the pentagon, in defense of life. The main business of the parish is not maintaining a nest, womb, space station, esthetic cave for the middle class. It is stewardship and service, up close, day after day, blow hot, blow cold. Such conduct I think, accords with, and confers sanity.

Thus what might be considered audacious, innovative elsewhere, is taken for granted here. I saw no boasters in the assembly; people had the look of those who work at their faith. And the media were absent. Two good signs.

On despair; it is utterly rational, it can offer 50 perfectly plausible reasons why it should be in everyone’s better home and garden. Beginning with this one; Made In America. Hope on the other hand, offers no reason for its existence, no come on, no commercial. It has no goals, no five years plans, no assurance it will be around tomorrow. IF is (like God) essentially useless. Hope will not ease life nor make money while you sleep; it is neither an energy pill nor a (non addictive) sleep inducer.

Despair is a cultural conclusion, deductive. Anyone can own one; time payments, easily arranged. Read the clock on the cover of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, the stock market report, the rising index of food costs, the........

Hope is something else; a gift Paul calls it, a grace. Its highest expression is an irony; ‘hoping against hope.’ You take all the reasons for giving up, you admit their weight, you grant their crushing power, you wince and cry outthen you toss them off your back. And you go on.

I think of these things; Philip in jail once more, a six month sentence for the Holy Week blood pouring at the pentagon. This month is the tenth anniversary of Catonsville. He’s now served over four years in jail, speaking truth to power. Has the country changed, has anything changed! Have people struck out on a new path, are they giving a new example? The questions seem to me an invitation to despair. The proper answer is, things are worse than ever.

But that’s beside the point. The point of hope; which is, Philip has been faithful, so have our friends. So would I be. Hope on!

(Philip Berrigan was Dan Berrigans brother who predeceased him).