USCC Watch: Explaining It Away

“Catch up with the Pope,” Sister Mary urged in a talk on roles for women in the liturgy. She was not, however, suggesting that her audience accept the Church’s teaching on ordination; still less to consider the issue settled.

Instead Sister Mary interprets recent papal writings as actually contradicting this teaching—as well as the essence of everything Pope John Paul II has written. What the pope actually says on the matter is not what he really means, even if it is what he says he means. He means what Sister says he means.

This hermeneutical exercise was performed by Benedictine Sister Mary Collins of the Catholic University of America’s religious studies department and long-time member of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL). “Catholic Liturgy Today: Do Women Have a Place?” was one of the two addresses she gave at the annual liturgy conference of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles last October.

“The pope is way ahead of a lot of the rest of us,” says Sister Mary.

He’s listened to the criticism that says the Church has been unjust to women; the Church has not promoted the cause of women; the Church has, in fact, contributed to women’s being impeded in society. And he has said if the Church has been doing that, the Church has got to stop. . . . Perhaps the reason the ordination discussion cannot go any further is because the life of the Church has to catch up with the pope.

She cites as evidence the “Statement of Apology” to women in 1994, the ruling permitting girl altar servers (April 1994), and statements on women in connection with the 1995 UN Conference on Women in Beijing. Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (May 1994), which reaffirmed Church teaching on ordination of men only, she contends, represents only the opinion of Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar that a nuptial metaphor best expresses the relationship between God and the world.

To make her peculiar hermeneutic of papal statements work, Sister Mary must ignore everything the pope has written on a subject that has been a principal theme of his pontificate.

She mentions that Erie Bishop Donald Trautman (chairman of the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy), who addressed the conference earlier, had said the U.S. bishops are committed to an “appropriate use of horizontal inclusive language.”

But the bishops’ concession to “moderate” manipulation of language does not satisfy this professor at a pontifical university run by the bishops. In her introduction to the ICEL Psalter, of which she was an editor, Sr. Mary is exasperated that ICEL’s new text is only “three-quarters full of new wine,” because the bishops demanded a few masculine pronouns for God. Women’s ordination is linked to “God-language,” Sister says, since male images for God reinforce the idea of male dominance.

But if the bishops who employ her won’t go far enough to suit Sister Mary, the pope is her hope:

As far as I can see from what has been done in the past fifteen years, the Vatican in the person of the pope—and I think this pope we perhaps have tended to underestimate—has systematically pulled back from any position which put barriers to women’s participation in any place but ordination. But that every other place, he has systematically attempted to move it forward. Which means that’s exposed very clearly as the fault line now.

The pope’s reaffirmation of the male priesthood was only a concession to a Church unable to keep up with him, according to Sister Mary. “The train has pulled out of the station, and the pope is on board. And I would suggest if you’re not, you start running to catch up,” she says.

“This is not to say that the pope has said everything that everybody wants him to say,” cautions Sister,

but I’m simply arguing that if we’re looking for the voice of the magisterium and the conversation that’s going on, the conversation has been moving forward.

So, Sister Mary explains it all for you. Despite her admitted problems with the language, and some difficulty using it, her mastery of the art of deconstruction is impressive: the pope means the opposite of what he says.

If anything remains clear, in the murky babble of words about words, it is that filtering them through layers of politics evacuates their meaning.


Helen Hull Hitchcock is founding director of Women for Faith & Family and editor of its quarterly journal, Voices. She is also editor of the Adoremus Bulletin, a monthly publication of Adoremus - Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy, of which she is a co-founder. She is married to James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University. The Hitchcocks have four daughters and six grandchildren, and live in St. Louis.

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