The Ordination of Women and the High Calling of Dissent

06/03/2011 03:03 pm ET | Updated Nov 07, 2011

Like so many issues of justice in the Catholic church, the ordination of women to the priesthood is one that is not ready to disappear anytime soon. And as Maryknoll Fr. Roy Bourgeois, a priest for almost four decades and an activist in the cause of ordaining women, recently discovered, the church will act against anyone who challenges that rule.

His most recent warning was a letter demanding his recantation under threat of excommunication. He is refusing to back down.

"We state that the call to be a priest is a gift and comes from God," Bourgeois told the National Catholic Reporter. "How can we as men say our call from God is authentic, but your call as women is not? Who are we to reject God's call of women to the priesthood?" It is hard not to admire Bourgeois' conviction and stubbornness while under the threat of losing almost everything else.

Christians of other ecclesiastical backgrounds have worked tirelessly to establish gender equality in their contexts. The Presbyterian Church (USA) began ordaining women early in the 20th century. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America emerged out of a union of Lutheran churches that began ordaining women in the 1970s. The Episcopal Church also began ordaining women in the 1970s with the first woman in the role of Bishop in the late 1980s. These changes did not come without hard work, patience and sacrifice.

Not all Protestants have found this type of success. The conservative and evangelically-centered Presbyterian Church in America does not ordain women in positions of pastor or deacon. Some churches in the PCA have tried a different route, avoiding the "ordination" term in favor of "appointing" or "commissioning" women to the diaconate. Their conservative peers were not amused by their wordsmithing, and substantive change is still a long way off.

The broader and more independent evangelical world also has had mixed results. For many conservative churches, women are never to be in church leadership over men and this is considered a matter of orthodoxy. Entire organizations (e.g. The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood) exist only to peddle their brand of patriarchy called "complementarianism." Other evangelical organizations (e.g. Christians for Biblical Equality) and churches, however, call for egalitarian and feminist values. The non-centralized nature of evangelicalism, however, is likely to keep this debate alive with no end in sight.

It can be tiring, then, for those like Bourgeois to find any real hope of change in any context that is apparently dead set on refusing the conversation entirely and happy to use the heavy hand of authority to squash any dissent. (Perhaps he can look to his Protestant counterparts for inspiration and reminders of patience.)

I'm reminded of another voice for equality in the Catholic Church, the prolific Benedictine nun, Joan Chittister, who has accepted this long view of change.

"It takes a long time for ideas to seep to the top, let alone to move the bottom," Chittister tells Krista Tippet for the On Being podcast (formerly, Speaking of Faith). "So you just realize that what is going on right now is simply the seeding of the question. It comes down to how many snowflakes does it take to break a branch? I don't know, but I want to be there to do my part if I'm a snowflake."

As an outsider, I cheer them on, knowing that each religious culture and system has its own path to take for this kind of change. A few of these snowflakes, however, may be martyred in the heat of their cause along the way. Australian Bishop William M. Morris of Toowoomba, for example, was recently removed by Pope Benedict XVI years after he wrote a letter in support of the ordination of women. Bourgeois faces the same inevitable end.

There is still a long road ahead, but with time, perhaps the number of snowflakes will accumulate like the sand of the sea. Maybe then the branch will break.