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The Ordination of Women: A Question of Authority of Theology by Joan Chittister, O.S.B. From 'Winds of Change: Women Challenge Church'

The Ordination of Women: A Question of Authority of Theology

Joan Chittister, O.S.B.

From Winds of Change: Women Challenge Church, Sheed & Ward 1986, pp.84-88; reprinted on www.womenpriests.org with the necessary permissions.

Perhaps the most insightful statement on the question of ordination of women in the Roman Catholic Church which emerged in stark terms in the church in the United States comes from a dialogue between an American woman and a local bishop. “I have a grave theological problem with the question the ordination of women,” the bishop said to the woman. “I want you to realize that you and I have a fundamental difference on that issue,” he went on, “but I also want you to know that if the Church gave permission for the ordination of women, I would ordain a woman immediately.” And the woman said, “In other words, Bishop, you don’t really have a theological problem with the question at all. You have an authority problem that is masking as a theological one.”

The conversation may well be a microcosm of the ordination problem. In the United States women continue to prepare for the ordained ministry, if not in Catholic seminaries then in ecumenical consortiums or in Protestant seminaries. Those who are not in formal theological training press for insertion into the pastoral system of the parishes. Some have left the Church altogether to participate in women’s liturgies and faith development. What is the basis for all of this? What kind of women are these? What are the implications of this for the Church? Where is this movement going?

Basis of the Problem

The Woman’s Ordination Conference, founded in 1975 with a national convention of over 1000 women, lay and religious, made the question of the ordination of women a public and institutionalized question. One year later, the Vatican document, “The Declaration on the Question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood,” purported to put an end to the movement but, in fact, only heightened the question. The document made two major claims for the exclusion of women from priesthood in the Catholic Church: first, that Jesus was male and so men are clearer images of Christ, and secondly, that the tradition of the Church prohibited the admission of women to ordained ministry.

Advocates of women’s ordination, on the other hand - theologians, scripture scholars, and Christians concerned that both the nature and the future of the Church are bound up in the question of the role of women - responded with arguments, questions, and analyses which are sure to keep the question alive. Maleness and tradition, they argued, were inadequate foundations for the sacrament of Orders in the light of other weightier considerations.

Proponents or students of the question of the ordination of women cite four basic issues which they say reduces ordination to a matter of church discipline and authority rather than to revealed truth.

In the first place, proponents argue, the exclusion of women from priesthood undermines the credibility and effectiveness of other sacraments or doctrines of the Church. The efficacy of baptism, grace, and the Incarnation are all brought into question, they propose, if somehow the meaning of these differs between men and women. Either baptism does erase differences - “Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female” (Gal. 3:18) - or it does not. Either all grace is given freely to both males and females, or women are lesser creatures capable of less blessing and gift, in which case the nature of creation and the nature of the human race are both diminished. Either Christ came so that all would have fullness of life and have it more abundantly or the Incarnation is more the salvation of males than it is of the human race.

That Jesus is male, this group reasons, is incidental to the fact that Jesus became flesh, and so identical to the human race and like us all.

In the final analysis, it is the model of Jesus to which both groups point to rest their case. Opponents of the ordination of women point to the fact that Jesus did not “ordain” a woman, that no women were at the Last Supper during the institution of the Eucharist and do not therefore qualify for priestly ordination.

Proponents, on the other hand, draw from Jesus’ associations with women to make the case that Jesus did accept women, contrary to the cultural norms of the time, and involved them in the priestly ministry of proclamation with Him: a woman bore Jesus; a woman announced Jesus to the Samaritans and a woman announced Jesus’ Resurrection to “Peter, John and the others;” the rabbi Jesus taught women; Jesus recognized women in public contrary to his contemporaries and raised them from the dead as of equal value to men. That women were not at the Last Supper, this group maintains, is no argument against the ordination of women, unless you are also willing to argue that women should not receive the Eucharist on the same basis. Here apparently someone made a decision to include women despite the Last Supper model; why not for ordination also?

Centuries of tradition itself, however, are to many minds an imposing argument in itself. Others, on the other hand, take the position that the tradition prohibiting the ordination of women is less a matter of sacrament and more a matter of the cultural norms and social structures long common to other facets of society as well but now changing. The fact that slavery existed for almost 2000 years and was defended theologically, they point out, is no justification for its continuance.

Obviously, the historical-theological differences in viewpoint are likely to persist for a considerable amount of time. There is, at the same time, a distinct but related question. What kind of women are these who seek ordination? Are they mentally well-balanced? What are their motives? Are both their personalities and their aims compatible with priesthood?

An in-depth psychological investigation of a random sampling of women who feel called to priesthood in the Catholic Church, Called to Break Bread? concerned itself with psychological adaptation and comparative analyses of similar data from the 1972 National Opinion Research Center study of “The Catholic Priest in the United States: Sociological Investigations.” The findings revealed that a large proportion of women seeking ordination (77-96 percent) had well-integrated personalities and were potentially effective ministers. In terms of personality development, in fact, the women showed considerably more development than the ordained priests studied, particularly in the area of interpersonal relations. Most (72 percent) were women religious whose pastoral involvements and experience were already tried. Over half of the women were of Irish and German descent. Most were highly educated, many in theology, scripture studies, and religious education. Almost three-quarters of the group held master’s degrees; another ten percent held either bachelor degrees or earned doctorates. Over half were already working in positions of church administration or staffing church facilities. Of most interest, perhaps, is the fact that neither a desire for power nor a singular commitment to feminism as a distinct philosophy marked either their expressed motives or psychological profiles. The women spoke of the need to respond to the call of God within them, to service, and to the full development of the Church.

Whatever the theological debate, another reality impinges as well. According to statistics released by the Vatican and confirmed by public sources, the majority of the Catholics of the world are routinely deprived of the sacraments. Women as a class, in religious orders for instance, are denied the sacraments unless men can be found to provide the service. Sixty percent of the Catholics of the world live in Third World countries, but more than seventy percent of the priests serve the churches of the West where their numbers are declining. In some places, the ratio of priests to lay Catholics has dropped as low as 5 to 10,000.

The sacramentality of the Church and the style of Christian ministry is obviously in flux, and the whole question of whether the Church is to prefer maleness to Eucharist may well become the central Church issue of the century. In the meantime, in a 1978 national study of Benedictine Sisters in the United States, two-thirds of whom were over 60 years of age, almost nine out of ten completely rejected the thesis that men are clearer images of God than women are. Over half thought that women should be included on all decision-making bodies in the Church -national, diocesan, and curial. Almost two-thirds felt that they have an obligation to support the ordination of women.

The ordination of women is far more than an academic debate, however justified, and for that reason alone is bound not to go away. Whether the bishop or the woman, authority or theology, prevails remains to be seen. What is clear is that every day both the theological and the social context of the discussion is changing.

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