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?
How can a church such as this call convincingly to the world in the name of justice to practice a justice it does not practice itself? How is it that the church can call other institutions to deal with women as full human beings made in the image of God when their humanity is precisely what the church itself holds against them in the name of God?
It is the question that, like slavery, brings the church to the test. For the church to be present to the woman's question, to minister to it, to be disciple to it, the church must itself become converted by the issue. Men who do not take the woman's issue seriously may be priests but they cannot possibly be disciples. They cannot possibly be "Other Christs." Not the Christ born of a woman. Not the Christ who commissioned women to preach him. Not the Christ who took faculties from a woman at Cana. Not the Christ who sent women to preach resurrection and redemption of the flesh to apostles who would not believe it then and do not believe it now. Not the Christ who sent the Holy Spirit on Mary the woman as well as on Peter the man. Not the Christ who announced his messiahship as clearly to the Samaritan woman as to the rock that shattered.
No, the task of the present in a time such as this is to use every organization to which we belong to develop the theology of the church to a point of critical mass. The task now is to practice a dangerous discipleship. We need a group free of mandatums that will organize seminars, hold public debates in the style of the great medievil disputations that argued for and against the full humanity of indigenous peoples, hold teach-ins, sponsor publications, write books, post educational Web sites, and hold more and more gatherings where women speak freely. It is time to bring into the light of day the discussions that lurk behind every church door, in every seeking heart. If, as Vatican II says, priesthood requires preaching, sacrifice, and community building, then proclaiming the coming of a new church, sacrificing ourselves to bring it, and shaping a community new with the notion of a new kind of priest and permanent woman deacons may be the greatest priestly service of them all right now.
As John XXIII says in "Pacem in Terris," "Whenever people discover that they have rights, they have the responsibility to claim them." And Proverbs teaches clearly, "If the people will lead, the leaders will eventually follow." Therefore, what must we do now as priestly people? We must take responsibility. We must take back the church. We must lead leaders to the fullness of Christian life!