As executive director of the Women’s Ordination Conference, Erin Saiz Hanna is front and center in the fight for women’s ordination in the Catholic Church. It’s been an uphill battle; just last week, Church officials warned that ordaining women as priests was as serious an offense as sex abuse.
Founded in 1975, the Women’s Ordination Conference is the largest national organization working to ordain women as priests, deacons and bishops. The Conference insists that while there is wide and growing support in America for women’s ordination, that level of support is not matched by decision-makers in the Vatican.
Sisterhood contributor Elissa Strauss interviewed Saiz Hanna about the roots of the Church’s ban on women’s ordination, how recent controversies within the Church have impacted the group’s efforts, and what she sees as parallels between the Conference’s cause and that of those who would like to see Orthodox women ordained as rabbis.
Elissa Strauss: What is standing in the way, both clerically and culturally, of women’s ordination?
Erin Saiz Hanna: In 1994 the discussion on women’s ordination was officially closed by Pope John Paul II. People can be fired from their church position for just talking about women’s ordination. However, culturally, especially in the United States, people are ready and want women priests now. However, the decision to ordain women would most likely come from a Third Vatican Council.
What is the historical and religious explanation for the exclusion of women?
In 1976, experts of the Pontifical Biblical Commission determined that there were no scriptural reasons preventing women’s ordination. The Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith overturned the commission’s judgment and instead wrote its own statement stating that women do not image Jesus who was a man — therefore only male priests can adequately represent Christ. This is the most common explanation for the ban on women’s ordination.
What has been the reaction to your cause in the Catholic community, both in the U.S. and around the world?
WOC, as part of Women’s Ordination Worldwide — a coalition of worldwide women’s ordination advocates — just returned from the Year for Priest activities in Rome. I am still overwhelmed by the wonderful, supportive responses we received while there. I can’t even count how many times I passed a flyer onto a stranger and had that person respond with “Yes” or “I couldn’t agree more.” Catholics want women priests.
Have recent shake-ups in the church, including the controversies surrounding sex abuse cases, affected your case?
Yes. I think overall the people have had enough scandal and disappoint[ment] from our church leaders. It’s time for a change. For far too long, the all-male boys club has covered up decades of abuse with lies and secrets that have put our most vulnerable in severe danger, a far cry from Jesus’ commandment to live a life of love. I believe that when women are full and equal partners in every aspect of the Catholic Church, only then, will the Roman Catholic Church be associated with accountability, transparency and justice rather than hierarchy, exclusion, and scandal.
Are you familiar with the controversy surrounding the women’s ordination within Orthodox Judaism? And in what ways is the struggle for ordination in the Jewish community similar to those in the Catholic community?
I am familiar with [Rabba] Sara Hurwitz and recently saw that she made Newsweek’s 50 Most Influential Rabbis list. Excellent! Her ordination was groundbreaking. I am also very familiar with the Women of the Wall and truly admire their passion and commitment to working for the equality of Jewish women.
In the Catholic Church, we often refer to the oppression of women as the “stained-glass ceiling.” That “ceiling” is in fact made of a hierarchy of men who clasp onto power in the name of tradition. We hear it over and over, “It has never been that way, so it cannot be that way.” Unfortunately, that fear of change and that hunger for power is found in all of the patriarchal world religions. However, the more women challenge and speak out, the more cracks we put into the ceilings. … Eventually, they will have to break.
What do you think the role of women in the world’s major religions will be going forward?
I hear of the many stories of prophetic women like Sara Hurwitz or Asra Nomani. I am convinced that this world will be better for our daughters because of women are challenging the systems now. I am convinced that the priesthood will be a viable option for my granddaughter, if that is her calling.