Women in Combat and the Priesthood: A Response to Mary Hunt

On January 24, feminist theologian and activist Mary E. Hunt wrote here at RD about the relationships between the possible ordination of women in the Catholic Church and the recent Defense Department decision to allow women in combat.

Hunt begins by expressing her ambivalence about the inclusion of women in combat and the priesthood: “I reject combat as much as I oppose sexism,” Hunt tells us, “and the hierarchical, clerical priestly model of the Church as much as I reject exclusion of women from its leadership caste.” She goes on to discuss in an even-handed way the reasons for allowing women into combat, and for welcoming women into the Catholic priesthood, arguing that the latter probably favor more fundamental change in the Church than the former do in the military.


Ultimately, however, Hunt calls both changes “incrementalist,” arguing that women entering into combat “will reinforce the importance of the warrior…who kills…” and that women in the priesthood “will reinforce the status and role of the clergy.” Instead, Hunt is looking for people who want to ask “hard questions about how we humans deal with our differences without war… and how we Catholics organize ourselves for worship and service.” 

I have in the past agreed with Mary Hunt and Elisabeth Schuessler Fiorenza in their argument that “ordination is subordination.” I am no more eager to be treated like a second-class citizen by female priests and bishops than by male ones. Yet I found myself agreeing with the inclusion of women in combat. If women are already in combat, why should they not be paid for it, and win the promotions that require combat experience? Logic suggests that I should hold the same position about women in Catholic ministry.

In his recent, magisterial work, Latino Catholicism: Transformation in America’s Largest Church, Timothy Matovina makes this argument more specific: studies show that paid ministers conduct the most effective ministries to Spanish-speaking Catholics, but the vast majority of Latino ministers are unpaid male deacons and unpaid female lay ministers. Surely the ordination of women and married men to the priesthood would improve this situation.

Ultimately, then, I really am ambivalent, while Hunt is ambivalent at the beginning of her article but in the end, rejects woman in combat as well as in the Catholic priesthood. Luckily, fifteen years ago the feminist political scientist Mary Fainsod Katzenstein wrote Faithful and Fearless: Moving Feminist Protest inside the Church and the Military, a book that offers a complex analysis of women and change in and outside both institutions. I summarized Katzenstein’s perspective in a review that appeared in New Women New Church, the newsletter of the national Women’s Ordination Conference in spring 1999:

Katzenstein’s analysis will be of special benefit to Catholic feminists perplexed over whether women’s ordination necessarily constitutes co-optation into a patriarchal institution. In her presentation, feminists in the military seem initially to comprise pure types of moderate ‘interest group’ activism while women in the church engage in radical ‘discursive’ activism. Yet Katzenstein is clear that one kind of activism is not superior to another. Rather, degrees of each are necessary if women’s equality is to be advanced in mainstream institutions; feminists in church and military, she believes, will be forced, eventually, to incorporate strategies employed by the other. Along these same lines, Faithful and Fearless reveals that the success attained by each group thus far has depended on collaboration between women inside and outside their respective institutions—religious communities of women, base communities, the theological professions and even parishes in the Catholic case.

I strongly suspect that fifteen years later, regarding actual women in combat as well as potential women priests, Katzenstein would make the same argument. Or to put it another way, in order to change the Church, we need women in as many paid positions as possible within the institution and articulate Catholic feminists like Mary Hunt taking radical positions on the outside.