The heirs of Martha and Mary

Whenever the question of married priests, women in the Church or even women priests comes up, I often think of the wife of a Church of Ireland bishop, who remarked to me: “I often wonder about the enthusiasm of some Catholics for women in the Church. It’s not much fun being married to a priest.”

She had in mind those special pressures that are placed on a pastor’s wife; she loses much of her own identity perhaps.

People often say there are no married clergy in the Catholic Church. What they really mean is that there are no married clergy in the Latin or Western church. In the Oriental rites of the Catholic Church there are, of course, married clergy (though no married priest can become bishop). There is nothing secondary about these people: they are fully Catholic.

A married clergy seems to be a matter not of theology, but of discipline that arose from particular historical circumstances. As they no longer exist it is difficult to see why there should not now be married clergy.

These books address other and larger issues, but in different ways. By ‘Church’, Julia Ogilvy means the broad Christian community.

In her book, Julia Ogilvy relates interviews with an array of exceptional women in pastoral roles in various Churches. And one has to say that meeting the women clergy of other Irish Churches is nearly always a congenial experience – they have remarkable talents in the pastoral and liturgical dimension of their jobs.

Julia Ogilvy talked to one interesting Catholic, Baroness Helena Kennedy, a leading figure of the British bar. She is a cradle Catholic and her trenchant opinions are put with great skill.

Mary T. Malone is deliberately more provocative. Hers is a deeply felt book. But one has to wonder if provocation is the way towards a settlement.

Going back to what one reads in the Gospels, one cannot but be impressed at the role of women in the life of Jesus. They seem in many ways to have been essential to his ministry. Now this was not, as in the case of Martha and Mary, a matter of practical affairs or personal support. It was also a matter of witness in dangerous times. It was the women after all who stood by the Cross, not the apostles. Where the men denied or doubted, they stayed resolute. It was to a woman that the risen Christ first showed himself.

Anyone considering the role of women in the Church has perhaps to ponder deeply on these facts, and not to allow themselves to be overawed by later developments which may well owe more to the nature of western society than the essential integrity of the Church itself.

We are a very long way off any happy conclusion to these controversies. In these two books the matter in its varied dimensions is aired in different ways. They make for interesting reading, but they are far from the last word.