Five years ago I spoke in an American parish of 6,000 families-a "megachurch" that is served by three priests. There is no priest shortage there, however, the priests want you to know, because the bishop has redefined the optimum priest-to-people ratio from 1-to-every-250 families to 1-priest-to-every2,000 families.
In diocese after diocese, Catholic parishes are being merged, closed, or served by retired priests or married male deacons designed to keep the church male, whether it is ministering or not. The number of priests is declining, the number of Catholics is increasing, and the number of lay ministers being certified is rising in every academic system despite the fact that their services are being rejected.
Clearly, the Catholic Church is changing even while it reasserts its changelessness. But static resistance is a far cry from the dynamism of the early church. Prisca, Lydia, Thecla, Phoebe, and hundreds of women like them opened house churches, walked as disciples of Paul, "constrained him," the scripture says, to serve a given region, instructed people in the faith, and ministered to the fledgling Christian communities with no apology, no argument, and no tricky theological shell games about whether they were ministering in persona Christi or in nomini Christi.
So what is to be done at a time like this, when what is being sought and what is possible are two different things? To what are we to give our energy when we are told no energy is wanted?
The answer is discipleship. The fact is that we cannot possibly have a renewed priesthood unless we have a renewed discipleship around us and in us as well. The temptation is to become weary in the apparently fruitless search for office. But the call is to become recommitted to the essential, the ancient, and the authentic demands of discipleship.
But to understand the nature of discipleship is not enough. The church must not only preach the gospel; it must be what it says. It must demonstrate what it teaches. It must be judged by its own standards. The church that preaches the equality of women but does nothing to demonstrate it within its own structures is dangerously close to repeating the theological errors that upheld centuries of church-sanctioned slavery.
The pauperization of women in the name of the sanctity of motherhood flies in the face of the Jesus who overturned tables in the temple, contended with Pilate in the palace, and chastised Peter to put away his sword. Jesus, despite the teaching of that day, cured the woman with the issue of blood and refused to silence the Samaritan women on whose account, scripture tells us, "thousands believed that day." Indeed, as the life of Jesus shows us, the invisibility of women in the church threatens the very nature of the church itself.
What does the theology of discipleship demand here? What does the theology of a priestly people imply here? Are women simply half a disciple of Christ? To be half-commissioned, half-noticed, and half-valued? If discipleship is reduced to maleness, what does that do to the rest of the Christian dispensation? If only men can really live discipleship to the fullest, what is the use of a woman aspiring to the discipleship that baptism implies, demands, and demonstrates in the life of Jesus at all? What does it mean for the women themselves who are faced with rejection, devaluation, and a debatable theology based on the remnants of a bad biology theologized? What do we do when a church proclaims the equality of women but builds itself on structures that assure their inequality?