Will new pope open door for women priests?

As Pope Benedict XVI prepares to retire this week, and the College of Cardinals readies to elect a new Roman Catholic Church leader, many wonder if Benedict's successor will take a more liberal position on women joining the priesthood, a sacrament currently forbidden to women.

International Catholic community may not be ready for women priests, says theologian

Pope's final appearance

9 years ago
About 150,000 people gathered in St. Peter's Square to witness Pope Benedict XVI's final public appearance before he retires to a life of prayer and seclusion 3:14

As Pope Benedict XVI prepares to retire this week, and the College of Cardinals readies to elect a new Roman Catholic Church leader, many wonder if Benedict's successor will take a more liberal position on women joining the priesthood, a sacrament currently forbidden to women.

"Respecting women and giving them a larger role in the church is very important," Terence Fay, a Jesuit priest who teaches at the University of Toronto's school of theology, told CBC News. "But, that takes time to move in that direction."

He said the pope is the CEO of the largest corporation in the world and, like any administrator moving into a new leadership position, can only move so much on the political spectrum during a term. Making radical changes — such as starting to ordain women — would destroy the pope's constituency, he said.

"Whereas the Western world may be ready for women clergy and so forth, a lot of the world is just not ready for that yet," said Fay.

Male priesthood's historical roots

Therese Koturbash is the international ambassador for Women Priests, an organization working towards achieving equality for women in the church by using theological and academic arguments. She said there are three historical reasons why women are not allowed to be priests in the Catholic Church. Women were considered:

  • Unclean during menstruation.
  • Inferior in every way.
  • The source of original sin because of the Book of Genesis' Adam and Eve story where a snake tricks Eve into eating from the tree of knowledge, which God had forbidden the pair from doing.
Pope Benedict during his final general audience on Wednesday in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, before his retirement Thursday. (Gregorio Borgia/Associated Press)

"We have not managed in our faith community to overcome those hurdles of belief," said Koturbash.

Still, the 50-year-old said she believes women will be behind the pulpit in her lifetime. Koturbash disagrees with Fay that the international Catholic community is not ready to embrace female priests.

Catholic women worldwide are actively pressing for inclusion, she said. One group, Roman Catholic Womenpriests, has been subverting Vatican authority for more than a decade. Since 2002, more than 145 women in the group have been ordained by male priests, whose identities are kept hidden to avoid retribution from the Vatican.

Not 'a big step to start including women'

It's not such a big leap for the Vatican to take, said Koturbash.

"Already there have been so many changes that have happened in the church, that it wouldn't be a big step to start including women," she said.

During Benedict's papacy, she said, the Pope showed some support for ordaining women as deacons. Deacons are the first rung on the ladder to priesthood. As a priest's understudy, deacons are allowed to perform baptisms, marriages, wakes and funerals — among other responsibilities.

"They're already talking the talk," said Koturbash. "But, they're not walking the walk."

Benedict also took severe steps against priests preaching and campaigning in support of women clergy.

Former father Roy Bourgeois with some of the American delegation from Women Priests at a march in Rome in 2011. (Therese Koturbash)

In 2012, the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers excommunicated Roy Bourgeois, who had served as a priest there for about 40 years. Vatican officials said Bourgeois was stripped of his priesthood for preaching against church teachings on ordaining women. In a statement, the Vatican said Bourgeois ordained a woman in 2008.

Koturbash, who has been fighting for the ordination of women for more than a decade and marched with Bourgeois in a 2011 protest in Rome, is not dismayed.

"This conversation has become so mainstream that there’s no way that the new Vatican leadership can avoid it," she said.

Not all Catholics keen on change

Even if female ordinance is a hot topic, it doesn't mean most Catholics favour the idea.

Fay said his graduate students say they would like to see a conservative pope lead the church. It is important to his students that the spirit of the faith is not changed, he said, and the scripture is "preserved and not confused."

A February survey by the Pew Research Centre, which questioned more than 300 American Catholics, echoed the students' thoughts. More than half said the next pope should maintain traditional positions, while 46 per cent said he should move in new directions. When those who said the church should shift from its conservative stance were asked what changes the church should make, only nine people said women should be allowed to become priests.

Kyle Ferguson is the national co-ordinator for Canadian Catholic Campus Ministry, which supports postsecondary educational institutions' ministries.

"In my experience, the issue of women’s ordination is not at the forefront of questions being asked by students," said Ferguson, a 33-year-old recent university graduate. Students are more concerned with finances, academics and post-graduate employment, he said.