AIDS and the (Non?)-Issue of Catholic Women’s Ordination

September 18, 2009 at 11:29 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments
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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.



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  1. This is a dazzling shaft of light on an African problem–provided by an African who sees an African solution. It made me realize how impatient I’ve become with the notions of externs concerning the dark continent.

    I admire, too, the blogger’s evolving thoughts about women’s ordination.


  2. Over the last decade, I engaged in the fantasy that Catholic women’s ordination would happen after the protestant churches began to ordain women and the Catholic Church literally began paying for the sins of its all-male pedophile scandal. I thought it was a simple matter of waiting for many old men to die. I was genuinely surprised by the view of some women that it was frivolous or somehow disrespectful of our sisters living in poverty stricken countries that ascribed to orthodox religious views to press the Vatican for change. I am still at a loss to understand what we were supposedly respecting by inaction- their plight or their clinging to orthodoxy? Who, if not the citizens of wealthy, stable nations have the responsibility to raise the tide that lifts all boats? Now we see that shirking our responsibility has caused great suffering to those who are overwhelmed by physical and spiritual needs. Are there any more excuses? I would welcome input on strategies to end the ban on women’s ordination.


    • Judy:

      Thanks, Judy. Your comment is right on the mark in many respects.

      It’s also important to note, though, that many American Catholic women have framed the ordination debate in terms of women’s rights. White US Catholic women with degrees from Ivy League seminaries who are having their right to ordination denied. Not all women’s ordination activists talk this way, of course, but enough do to give others of us pause.

      What Orobator is talking about is more like the Son of Humanity in Matt. 25 speaking to the people of all nations and saying “Come O blessed of my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world…for I was sick and you visited me…” but then also warning, “Truly, I say unto you, as you did not do it to the least of these, you did not do it to me.” By not ordaining women for AIDS ministry, the church risks falling into this latter categoroy. But this is different from rights discourse.

      By the way, as you may know, our community, the Grail is doing really heroic AIDS ministry in Uganda. Maybe we should both make a donation in support of them!


  3. As I read my response to Judy in the cool light of a Brooklyn morning it occurs to me that I may not have bridged the binary between US women’s ordination and the global South as thoroughly as my blog post suggests!!


  4. Dear Marian, I appreciate hearing Orbator’s voice on pastoral care for AIDS victims. Mary


  5. I am a 27 year old convert to the catholic church. Our priests our supposed to represent Jesus,who was male.A cristian woman is supposed to raise children, as our faith does not allow contraception and God gave us the commandment to be fruitful and multiply. We are supposed to strive to be like Mary. We are fortunate enough to be the only Christian religion that has Mary at the frontlines and we should be grateful for that. Futhermore in Geneses God commanded our husband is to be our master.


  6. Thought you might like to see Fr. Orabator in the flesh. I know him as a student 20 years ago and was very impressed. Recently I heard him talk about his new job of Provincial of the Jesuits of East Africa (Ethiopia, Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania).
    Thank you your thoughtful reflections on women’s ordination and African context.


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