Women In the Sacramental Priesthood
by Bernard Cooke and Pauline Turner
from Women Priests, Arlene Swidler & Leonard Swidler (eds.), Paulist Press 1977, pp. 249-250.
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions
Bernard Cooke’s educational career included St. Louis University (A.B. and M.A.), St. Mary’s College in Kansas (S.T. Lic.), and the Institut Catholique de Paris (S.T.D.). For more than a decade he was chairman of the theology department at Marquette University; at the time he taught at the University of Calgary. His most recent publication were Ministry to Word and Sacraments. He was married to Pauline Turner.
Pauline Turner received her undergraduate education at Mercyhurst College in Pennsylvania and received M.A.s in English and Theology at Marquette University. She has taught at Marquette and the University of Windsor, and was at the time teaching part-time at the University of Calgary.
While it is true that the liturgical celebrant’s role is essentially a sacramental role, that he does function as sign, the presumption in this text needs to be appraised: namely, that the reality of Christian priesthood is legitimately appropriated by the liturgical celebrant, and therefore that it is the celebrant alone who sacramentalizes Jesus’ priesthood during the eucharistic action.
Early Christianity avoids applying to any individual in the Church the term “priest.” Only Jesus himself is designated this way, and the term is extended to the community (1Pet 2:4-6) because it is the body of the risen Christ. Christian priesthood is, therefore, a power and a function that Christians bear corporately, which they exercise corporately in the sacramental liturgies, and to which they give expression in the intrinsic sacramentality of their entire life as a community of faith (Vatican II, “Church,” 31, 34).
In the context of such usage of “priest” (a usage that prevails throughout the New Testament literature), it is clear that both men and women symbolize and “translate” the priesthood of Christ, since men and women are equally members of the body of Christ which is the Church. To deny to women the ability to symbolize Christ as priest would be to deny them entry into the Christian community. It would be to deny to them a Christian spirituality that consists essentially in the imitatio Christi, since all Jesus’ activity was an expression of his priesthood.
Historically, there was a shift away from early Christianity’s communal understanding of “priest,” an increasing application of the term to Church officials — by the third century “priest” is commonly used of bishops—and the emergence of a group of professional “priests” who acted upon rather than with the rest of the community. In many ways this was a return to Hebrew Bible views of priesthood, to the “cultic isolation” of the Jerusalem Temple liturgies, and an abandonment of the familial and egalitarian approach to Christian life and worship that marked the earliest generations of the Church. It is in this context that the pattern of all-masculine liturgical ministry was established, a pattern grounded in the inheritance of Jewish patriarchal culture rather than in the faith tradition of first-century Christianity.
Given the fact that the entire Christian community does the eucharistic action, that the entire community professes its faith prophetically in the eucharistic proclamation, that the entire community shares the eucharistic sacrifcial meal, there is a special role played by the celebrant (Vatican II, “Liturgy,” 7, 10, 14). Obviously, this is a complex role, a highly specialized instance of leadership; but the heart of this role—as the Declaration accurately indicates—consists in the celebrant’s being a sacrament within a sacrament,The celebrant symbolizes the community that is celebrating Eucharist; the celebrant, as a publicly designated (i.e., ordained) member of the collegial group of bishops/presbyters, signifies the link of a particular celebration of Eucharist with the universal Church’s celebration of the Christ-mystery; the celebrant, because ordained, points to the centuries-long history of eucharistic celebration that stretches back to Jesus’ own Passover meal with his disciples. This the celebrant does by profession of a personal faith that is shared with and reflects the faith of the present community, of the worldwide Church, and of the Church throughout history.
There seems to be no intrinsic impossibility of women acting in this “sacrament within sacrament” role. Since both men and women share a common faith, a woman’s public profession of faith inevitably sacramentalizes the faith of the entire community. For the moment, the faith profession of Catholic women does not point directly to the faith witness of the presbyterial/episcopal collegium; but this is because they have been denied membership in this group. Since such specialized witness flows directly from membership in this group, admission to “Ordination” will automatically provide women with the ability to sacramentalize the historic apostolic witness.
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