What does Rome say? From ‘Did Christ Rule Out Women Priests?’

2. What does Rome say?

From Did Christ Rule Out Women Priests? by John Wijngaards (McCrimmons 1977, 1986).

“A good deal of publicity has been given to the Roman stand against the ministry of women, mostly adverse publicity I am sorry to say. Still, I don’t have a good picture of what Rome actually did say. One picks up titbits and snatches here and there, but I have no clear idea of the whole argument.

The Pope refuses to ordain women. That much is clear enough. But what are his reasons for adopting this view? Is it true that he says only a man can truly represent Christ? Is there a basis for this in Scripture?”

My analysis of the official Roman stand will be based on a twofold document, the so-called ‘Declaration on the Question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood,’ published by the S. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on Thursday 27th January 1977, and an official commentary to the text published by the Congregation on the same date.25 To convey the contents of this document in as straightforward a manner as possible, I will re-word them in my own way, quoting key passages from the text itself in their identical words whenever possible. Here, then, is an outline of what the document contains.

All over the world women are gradually assuming their rightful place in society. In the Church, too, women are taking a more active role in various forms of the apostolate. The Church is happy about this. In the Vatican documents great stress is laid on the need of taking away all forms of discrimination against women.

Side by side with this good development, however, there is one trend that gives cause for alarm. This is the expectation now found with many that one day women too will be admitted to the ministerial priesthood. The ordination of women in Protestant Churches, and especially in Churches belonging to the Anglican communion, has helped to strengthen similar hopes in Catholic circles. Before things get out of hand, one should realise that doctrinally there is no place for women priests in the Catholic Church. This should not be understood as a form of discrimination. It is simply a factual decision in the plan of salvation that priests should be chosen from among men, not from among women.

It is true there is no explicit teaching in Scripture that restricts the priesthood only to men. How then, you may ask, can we deduce that women are excluded from the ministry? Such a conclusion can be arrived at, with practical certainty, from the combination of the following facts:

  1. Jesus Christ chose only men to be his apostles. He obviously did this on purpose and so fixed a norm.
  2. The Church always followed this example of Christ. Both in apostolic times and in later centuries only men have been ordained priests.
  3. A priest is the sacramental sign of Christ’s presence at the eucharist. A man can represent Christ better because Christ too was a man.

Christ counted many women among his followers, so cannot be said to have nurtured the social prejudices to which his contemporaries were subject. He could therefore easily have co-opted some women among his apostolic twelve. Choosing only men must have been a deliberate decision.

The apostles continued the same tradition. To replace Judas, ‘not Mary, but Matthias was selected to be an apostle’. Although many women played leading roles in the foundation of the new christian communities among the gentiles, no woman was placed in charge of a community as its priest. Paul says that women should not speak in the church assembly (1 Cor 14, 34-35; l Tim 2, 12). This does not refer to a passing cultural custom such as wearing a veil on the head (Cor 11, 2-16), but seems to refer to a specific role in the Church permanently reserved to men.

Now, if it was Christ’s wish that only men should be sacramental priests, the Church cannot do anything about it. The Church cannot change the substance of any sacramental sign. Christ could have chosen various substances to play a role in his sacraments. In reality, he chose water as the instrument of baptism. He chose bread and wine as the matter for the eucharistic meal. The selection of men for the priesthood must be seen as an equally specific choice of a sacramental sign. The Church cannot depart from norms laid down by Christ.

Of necessity the Incarnation took a very specific form. Theoretically speaking, God might have become flesh and lived among us as a woman. Then the whole situation would have been different. As it is, Christ was a man and therefore it is more natural that he should be sacramentally represented in the eucharist community by a man. This is also in agreement with general scriptural symbolism according to which Christ is the bridegroom and the community his bride.

‘We can never ignore the fact that Christ is a man… In actions which demand the character of ordination and in which Christ himself, the author of the Covenant, the Bridegroom and Head of the Church, is represented, exercising his ministry of salvation – which is in the highest degree the case in the eucharist – his role must be taken by a man. This does not stem from any personal superiority of the latter in the order of values, but only from a difference of fact on the level of functions and service.’

Things Rome does not say

The Roman document is obviously inspired by argumentation found with theologians of the traditional school. Yet it does not repeat all the traditional arguments. A process of selection has been at work. It may be worthwhile to mention briefly the two main arguments omitted in the document.

The first argument of this nature concerns the observation that God the Father is always represented as a male person in Scripture (Gen 18, 1-2; Is 6, 1-3; Dan 7, 9). The male person, it is then stated, is a better image of the Divinity on account of his masculine nature. So it is natural that men, rather than women, should be called upon to speak and act on behalf of God.

Man is superior to woman and is head of the family (Sir 25, 13-24; Eph 5, 21-23; Col 3, 18). It was God himself who subjected woman to man at creation (Gen 3, 16; Cor 11, 3; Eph 5, 23). If woman depends on man in everyday family life and secular business, how much more should she be subject to him in matters of religion.

The omission of such arguments is certainly significant. The document even goes so far as to admit prejudice against women in the theology of the past. ‘It is true that in the writings of the Fathers one will find the undeniable influence of prejudices unfavourable to women.’ ‘The scholastic doctors, in their desire to clarify by reason the data of faith, often present arguments on this point that modern thought would have difficulty in admitting or would even rightly reject.’

Today many scholars are convinced that the selection of men for the priesthood, either by Christ, by the apostles or the Church in former ages, has no doctrinal significance. It was solely due, they say, to the social status accorded to men in those times. The document however repeatedly denies the validity of this argument. ‘Jesus Christ did not call women to become part of the Twelve. If he acted in this way, it was not in order to conform to the customs of his time.’ Again, ‘No one however has ever proved – and it is clearly impossible to prove – that this attitude (of Christ) was inspired only by social and cultural reasons.’ Again, ‘Social and cultural conditions did not hold back the apostles working… in the Greek milieu, where the same forms of discrimination did not exist.’

It is here that we touch on the crucial issue in the debate. If we want to take the Roman document seriously – and there is no reason why we shouldn’t – the exclusion of women from the priesthood is based, not on a prejudiced attitude towards the sexes, but on an historical fact (Christ excluded women) explained as a norm (women cannot be priests). The crucial question is: Is this interpretation correct? Was Christ’s preference for men a practical expedient, dictated by the expectations of society in his times, or did it express a doctrinal preference which laid down a principle to be followed in all ages to come? Was the masculine character of ministers in the early Church an accident of social organisation, or was it a deliberate element of the sacramental sign? Rome says the choice of a male minister was deliberate, was doctrinal, was sacramental and normative for all times.

Go to chapter3?

© Copyright 1986 by J.N.M.Wijngaards
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