Yet one of the most trenchant voices in recent years for the full inclusion of women in Catholic ministry has been a Nigerian Jesuit theologian and priest. In 2012, for example, he came to the premier annual theological conference in the U.S. with an unsparing message.
Discrimination against women within the Catholic community is so manifest, said the priest, that the church “totters on the brink of compromising its self-identity as the basic sacrament of salvation.”
Fr. Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator told that year’s annual gathering of the Catholic Theological Society of America that the state of women’s participation in the church leads to a deeply discomforting question.
“We stand before God, as Cain was, befuddled by a question that we simply cannot wish away at the wave of a magisterial wand,” he said. “The question is: ‘Church, where is your sister? Church where is your mother?’ “
In the years since, such blunt words on the situation of women in the church have become common for Orobator, who heads Kenya’s Jesuit Hekima University College. In March 2015 he addressed the matter at the Vatican itself, telling the second Voices of Faith event that girls in Africa are often treated as if they were “children of a lesser God.”
Orobator, 49, previously served as the head of the Jesuit province in eastern Africa. He was one of the delegates sent to Rome for the order’s October election of their new global superior and many Jesuit leaders openly speak of him as a possible future superior himself.
The Nigerian is also widely influential in U.S. theological circles, often making trips to speak at American Catholic colleges and universities. He has published several books that are frequently cited in others’ works, focusing on the African experience of Catholicism, the struggle to end violence across his continent, and feminist theological ethics.
In an October NCR interview in Rome shortly after the election of the new Jesuit superior, Orobator praised Pope Francis for creating a new commission to study the possibility of Catholic women deacons.
Related: “Nigerian Jesuit calls new superior general ‘someone you can relate with’ “ (Oct. 17, 2016)
Calling the idea a “real and present question,” he said he hoped the pontiff would not continue “dragging this out for centuries or decades … but [come] to some clearly defined position now because it is a question for now.”
“It involves lives of people and people who feel called to ministry in the church but at the same time feel they are not able to live out this call,” said the priest. “My hope is that we don’t drag this out for another decade.”
In an earlier, wide-ranging interview in 2015 on the sidelines of a pan-African theological conference hosted in Nairobi, Kenya, by his university college, Orobator said he is compelled to speak about the status of women in the church largely because of how he saw his mother and sisters face sex discrimination in Nigeria.
The theologian also portrayed the struggle for women’s inclusion as something personal, or even almost selfish. He said he cannot feel whole or complete until women are better represented in church structures.
“I feel almost violated because I feel that my humanity, which should be full and complete on the basis of mutuality and equality, is not being given that opportunity to have that experience of completeness,” stated the Jesuit.
“Humanity is not about one side,” he continued. “It’s about both. It’s man, it’s woman; it’s male; it’s female — it’s all together.”
“I feel that there’s something in me that will continue to be violated as long as that wholeness is not achieved, or as long as I participate, whether unconsciously or inadvertently, or by virtue of my belonging to this institution,” stated the Jesuit. “As long as I participate in that process of exclusion, I still feel violated. I feel responsible.”
“This is my deeply held conviction,” he concluded. “As long as there’s exclusion, we’re not whole. We’re not complete. We’re not an integral body. Something about our integrity is violated. And we’re responsible for that.”