AIDS and the (Non?)-Issue of Catholic Women’s OrdinationSeptember 18, 2009 at 11:29 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments
Tags: Agbonkhianmeghe E. Orobator SJ, AIDS in Africa, Catholic ecclesiology, Catholic sacramental ministry, Catholic women's ordination, Society of Jesus (Jesuits), Sub-Saharan Africa, Sub-Saharan Catholicism
I’ve been advocating for the ordination of women in the Catholic church for almost thirty-five years. I have gone to conferences, served on boards, picketed cathedrals, raised money, collected signatures, and ground my teeth over this issue for more than half my life.
I must confess, however, that in recent years, as I learned more about the situation of women–including Catholic women–in other parts of the world, I began to doubt that the ordination of Catholic women ought to be my primary concern. As I said in a talk I gave to a Voice of the Faithful group up in Connecticut last week, most of the Catholic women in sub-Saharan Africa aren’t excluded from ordination by the Vatican. They’re excluded by the fact that they spend so much time hauling water over long distances that they don’t have time to go to school and learn to read, which pretty much eliminates seminary. Catholic women’s ordination risks being an elite, primarily Euro-American issue.
In his book, From Crisis to Kairos: The Mission of the Church in the Time of HIV/AIDS, Refugees and Poverty (Paulines Africa 2005), the Nigerian Jesuit theologian Agbonkhianmeghe E. Orobator calls seriously into question the happy binary that I use to underpin this argument, however–the polarization of Catholic women in the US who are preoccupied with ordination from those in Africa who are preoccupied with poverty, lack of education, and disease.
Orobator’s book is a critique of theological understandings of the church (ecclesiologies) that fail to take contemporary social contexts into account. In particular, any acceptable African Catholic ecclesiology must be written in relation to the three issues designated in the book’s subtitle: AIDS/HIV, poverty, and widespread refugee crises. Orobator’s book examines, in particular, the reality of the church in East Africa–Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda–in light of these issues
Orobator’s chapter on the AIDS crisis is where I began to see the weakness in my north/south binary. Sub-Saharan Africa, as you may know, is afflicted by AIDS to a greater extent than any other region of the world. In 2003, “3.2 million new infections were recorded there, bringing the total number of PWA (People with AIDS) and orphans in sub-Saharan Africa to almost 30 million and 11 million respectively,” with 2.3 million lives lost from AIDS in 2003 alone (86-88). And though the situation has improved slightly since then, sub-Saharan Africa is still the most AIDS-afflicted region in the world.
Orobator makes clear that ministry to PWAs in East Africa is carried out almost exclusively by women. This is the case not only because of the shortage of priests there but also because of the stigma associated with AIDS that contributes to the neglect of AIDS victims.
Further, we are told, Catholic PWAs long for the sacraments, especially the sacrament of reconciliation, which, of course, the Catholic women who minister to them cannot provide. Orobator argues that women in AIDS ministry “need…to be empowered to function as extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist and to preside over liturgies of reconciliation and anointing of the sick,” but “ecclesiastical stumbling blocks ..deprive them of the ability to carry out basic pastoral care of the sick and dying.” This is all the more ironic and unjust, Orobator notes, because “not many priests are prepared to travel the same material, emotional, spiriutal and pastoral distance as women do in the name of the church to find, tend and console PWA” (137).
Interestingly enough, Orobator attempts to avoid “reducing” this problem to the issue of Catholic women’s ordination. “In the Catholic church, orthodox opposition to the ordination of women appears radically uncompromising. This debate falls outside the scope of this book” (137).
Given the hsitory of Vatican retaliation against Jesuit theologians who think outside the box–Rahner before Vatican II, Roger Haight today, to name only two– Orobator is probably wise to limit himself to arguing for “extraordinary” sacramental powers for women in AIDS ministry. He would surely not have become the head of the Jesuit seminary in Nairobi and more recently a Jesuit provincial if he had stuck his neck out here. But he also knows that African Catholic bishops even before Vatican II were begging the Vatican to allow the ordination of married men to plug the massive ministry gap in sub-Saharan Africa. The need is enormous.
And just because the question of women’s ordination “falls outside the scope of (Orobator’s) book” doesn’t mean that his readers can’t see the connections for themselves.