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Discrimination or Equality? The Old Order or the New? by Margaret A. Farley from 'Women Priests'

Discrimination or Equality? The Old Order or the New?

by Margaret A. Farley

from Women Priests, Arlene Swidler & Leonard Swidler (eds.), Paulist Press 1977, pp. 310 -315.
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions

(Margaret A. Farley, RSM, was at the time Associate Professor of Ethics at Yale Divinity School. She received her Ph. D. in Religious Ethics from Yale University. She is the co-author of A Metaphysics of Being and God and has published articles in such periodicals as Journal of Religion and Theological Studies.)

The Declaration returns in its closing section to the principle of equality which it affirmed in its opening paragraphs. Its concern here, however, is to make clear how it is that the principle of equality among persons is not violated in the Church by the continued exclusion of women from ordained ministry. The basic argument put forth in this regard is that the Church is of “another order” than other societies.(1) While role-differentiation on the basis of sex may constitute unjust discrimination in other spheres of human life, it does not do so in the Church precisely because of the nature of the Church as a special kind of society.

The Declaration gives three characteristics of the “order” of the Church which explain why the principle of equality is not violated even though women are excluded on the basis of their sex from certain roles. First, authority in the Church, unlike other societies, is never a matter of human choice, never a human right, never something “due” a person as a person. Even Baptism “does not confer any personal title to public ministry in the Church.”(2) Priesthood is always a wholly gratuitous vocation, given by the Holy Spirit, authenticated by the Church. No persons, then, let alone women, have any claim on the roles or offices of ordained ministry.

Secondly, equality itself, according to the Declaration, does not mean identity or similarity when it is used to describe the relation among persons in the Church. While women and men are equal as persons before God, their roles and functions are not identical. “Equality is in no way identity, for the Church is a differentiated body, in which each individual has his or her role. The roles are distinct and must not be confused; they do not favor the superiority of some vis-à-vis the others, nor do they provide an excuse for jealousy.”(3)

The reason why differentiation of roles is compatible with the principle of equality, according to the Declaration, is that women and men are essentially complementary. Given this premise, equality can in fact be realized only through differentiated functions based on sex. Men as men are suited for ordained ministry and women as women for non-ordained ministry. Each, then, is equally affirmed by a separation of roles. The Declaration thus opts implicitly for “similar treatment for similar cases” as its formulation of the principle of equality, justifying the Church’s differentiation in treatment of women and men on what it concludes are the differences between them by reason of their sex.

The third characteristic of Church “order” which the Declaration asserts as important for understanding the application of the principle of equality is the recognition of merit based only on love. “The only better gift, which can and must be desired, is love. The greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven are not the ministers but the saints.”(4) Any seeming hierarchy among roles, it suggests, is irrelevant because love alone constitutes grounds for superiority, and no one is excluded from such a gift on the basis of sex.

In the Declaration’s own terms, then, it is an interpretation of the “new order” of the Christian community which must be assessed if we are to determine the justice or injustice entailed by non-ordination of women. Each of the characteristics of Church “order” described by the Declaration must be examined to see if any of them do indeed provide grounds for gender role-differentiation in the ministries of the Church.

1. There can be no argument with the Declaration’s description of ordained ministry as a wholly gratuitous vocation, of which authentication by the Church is a constitutive part. No one disputes the fact that a specific call to the office of priesthood is given by the Holy Spirit and mediated through the Church, nor that the Church has the responsibility to discern the legitimacy of any individual’s vocation to ministry according to norms which it must formulate and apply. In arguing only this, however, the Declaration misses the point of those who invoke the “right” of persons in relation to ministry. Those who assert such a right in relation to ordination do not argue simply that any person has a right to be ordained. Rather, they maintain that all persons by reason of being persons and being baptized have a right to have their experience of vocation to pastoral office tested. Women and men have a right to be judged for acceptance or non-acceptance by the same norms.

The Declaration’s exclusion of women from the possibility of an authenticated vocation to ordained ministry must rest on the presupposition that since the law of the Church (based presumably on sound reasons) excludes women as a class from ordination, it is not necessary to test individual cases of women’s possible vocation. This is to say that since a call to pastoral office is mediated through the Church in a way that gives no one an a priori claim to be admitted to pastoral offce, the existence of overriding reasons and Church law excluding women renders it impossible a priori that any woman receive an authentic call from the Holy Spirit to such ministry. But to say this is to beg the question of the validity of the reasons and the justice of the laws which exclude women as women from ordination. Only if the reasons can be validated and the laws justified can it be maintained that women as a class have no right to have their experience of a call to ordained ministry tested by the Church community.

2. Other articles in this volume consider various reasons offered by the Declaration as justification of the continued exclusion of women from ordination. The argument which must be addressed in particular here, however, is the argument by which the Declaration tries explicitly to maintain the principle of equality in the face of the unequal opportunity of women to have their vocations tested. As we have seen, the Declaration attempts to do this by introducing the principle of “complementarity.” What we must determine, then, is whether or not complementarity can qualify the meaning of equality in such a way that equality is nonetheless preserved.

First it must be said that the mere assertion of"difference" between women and men cannot justify differential treatment—certainly not in a way that guarantees equality in any ordinary sense of the term. The Declaration itself, for all of its insistence that priesthood does not imply “any personal superiority . . . in the order of values, but only . . . a difference of fact on the level of functions and service,”(5) nonetheless goes on to talk about the “real and pre-eminent place of the priest in the community of the baptized.”(6) Even if there are good reasons for opening the office of priesthood to one class of persons and not another on the basis of sex, it is difficult to see how this fulfills the principle of equality in any way beyond a Platonic and Aristotelian notion of “equitable inequalities,”—equal opportunity for equals (men), and proportionately unequal opportunities for unequals (women in relation to men).(7) The Declaration’s “similar treatment for similar cases” yields the very weakest form of a principle of equality.

It cannot be assumed, moreover, that there are in fact good reasons for restricting roles in the Church to persons of one sex. If there are not good reasons then such a restriction constitutes discrimination—an unjust violation of the principle of equality. But how can it be determined whether sexual differentiation of roles does indeed constitute discrimination? As in any issue like this one, we must ask whether the facts of sexual identity are morally relevant when they are brought to bear against claims to equality of treatment. One way to evaluate the moral relevance of sexual differences in relation to equality of opportunity vis-à-vis ordination in the Church is to examine those characteristics which are said to be sex-related and then to determine whether they do indeed justify significant role distinctions.

Though the Declaration affirms that “in human beings the difference of sex exercises an important iníluence, much deeper than, for example, ethnic differences,”(8) it does not delineate the sex-related characteristics which are relevant to ministry. It builds implicitly, however, on the detailed descriptions provided by other recent Vatican statements such as Paul VI’s “Women/Disciples and Co-workers” and the Pastoral Commission of the Sacred Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples’ “The Role of Women in Evangelization.”(9) Characteristics such as hopefulness, sensitivity, intuition, fidelity, patience, sympathy, contemplativeness are said to make women suitable for all ministries which are not properly sacerdotal.(10) At first glance, it is difficult to see how this assertion is not discriminatory. The roles open to women on the basis of their “feminine qualities” are limited to the private sphere, and are clearly subordinate to those open to men. Claims to the contrary (that, for example, the roles are not inferior, are of equal importance though different, etc.), as we have seen, have little credibility in a context here, for example, decision-making at all levels is reserved to those in pastoral office.

It must, nevertheless, still be asked whether the characteristics identified as distinctive to women are in fact morally relevant to the circumscription of roles. One way to probe this question is to ask whether a man who has a hopeful, sensitive, contemplative, sympathetic, patient nature should be excluded from ordination. The almost obvious answer to this question points to the conclusion that these characteristics are unsuitable for the ordained ministry only when they appear in women.

In addition, the fundamental question of whether or not distinctive characteristics can in fact be delineated at all for men and women must be raised. Evidence from the behavioral and social sciences, as well as from personal experience, points overwhelmingly in the direction of our inability to characterize masculine and feminine traits with any accuracy or adequacy.(11) Traditional efforts to do so have proved distortive to our understanding of persons and injurious to human relations. They inevitably end in lists of traits such as those given in the document on Evangelization.(12) Their deficiencies become apparent as soon as they are made exclusively applicable to one sex. Even as general sketches of dominant sex-related features they prove vague, subject to exceptions sufficient to disprove the rule, and importantly culture-conditioned. Short of such listings, there can only be an appeal to biological differences between men and women. The irrelevance of such differences to role differentiation leads to the sure conclusion that there are no morally significant reasons for excluding persons from major roles in Church ministry on the basis of sex.

3. Finally, we must assess the significance of the Declaration’s proposal that it is only the gift of love which determines the superiority or inferiority of persons in relation to one another (and equality in every other respect either is unimportant or can be maintained despite apparent differences in roles). Once again, few would dispute the argument that love, as gift and response, is what ultimately gives meaning and worth to human persons and their lives. To say this, however, neither resolves nor neutralizes the problems raised by the violation of the principle of equality regarding access to ordained ministry. There are, in fact, at least two ways in which the primacy of love gives urgency to the need for structures in the Church which reflect and realize the principle of equality among human persons.

First, the Declaration uses the concept of the gift of love to suggest that anyone seeking access to pastoral office on the grounds of equality of persons can only be motivated by a desire for “social advancement.” It admits that “women who express a desire for the ministerial priesthood are doubtless motivated by the desire to serve Christ and the Church,” but reminds them that such a desire has no connection with principles of equality.(13)

What the Declaration misses, however, is the relevance of an ethical principle which might be formulated thus: whenever a person has a fundamental duty, he or she has a right to whatever is necessary in order to fulfill that duty. The point is not, of course, that a fundamental duty can never be qualified by lack of capability, etc. It is, rather, that precisely because of a call to service and love, women may argue that they must not be barred from what would allow them to respond faithfully. What demands the elimination of sexual discrimination is not women’s own desire or even claim to honor or authority or participation in decision-making, but the claim of those who have a right to be served in and by the Church, those whose needs constitute for women as well as men an urgent call to the duty of ordained ministry, to a love which pours itself out in the “service of God and the Church.”(14)

More than this, the Declaration fails to take seriously the relation between justice and love which is deeply embedded in the tradition of the Church. What is required of all Christian persons and of the Church is a just love, a love which corresponds to the reality of those loved and which affirms for individuals and for the community what is needed in order to grow into the fullness of the life of faith. Now it is here that the Declaration’s overall interpretation of the “new order” in the Church must be examined. If the Declaration is mistaken in its understanding of this “order,” then any affirmation in love of the individuals within that order and of the order as a whole will entail distortions or at least inadequacies in the lives of persons and the community.

On the one hand, the Declaration perpetuates false notions regarding the reality of women. It accepts uncritically a description of the nature of woman which relegates her on the basis of “feminine qualities” to the private sphere (at least in the life of the Church) and to subordinate roles. On this understanding of woman, patterns for relations between persons continue to mirror what must be called not the “new order” of grace but the “old order” of sin.

On the other hand, then, the order in the Church that is presented by the Declaration is an order in which, despite disclaimers, essential human equality remains hidden and distorted by sin. The Declaration argues that New Testament announcements of the equality of all persons in Jesus Christ refer only to the universal call of persons to “divine filiation, which is the same for all,”(15) and not to “specific and totally gratuitous” calls to ministry in the Church. Yet the call to a shared life in Jesus Christ is surely also wholly gratuitous, and it is by God’s choice that it is offered to all, without discrimination on the basis even of sex. The reversion, then, within the community of believers to an “old order” marked by domination and exclusion, by male headship and female subordination, can only be just in a sense that takes no account of the new order of grace. Men and women are still given their “due” by affirming them in hierarchically ordered relations based on sexual identity. Here there is no recognition of what is due the children of God, chosen and graced, restored to equality in Christ Jesus. The Declaration builds on an inadequate doctrine of creation an inadequate doctrine of redemption, and it can point, thereby, only to an inadequate doctrine of love.

The Declaration’s efforts to hold together the principle of equality and sexual role-differentiation in Church ministries finally fails. We are left with clear inequality of opportunity, an inequality that is not justified by morally relevant factors. This is to say that we are left with sexual discrimination, the violation of rights, and an overall unjust order in the Church (with the further consequence that the prophetic voice of the Church is silenced in relation to society). New perceptions of the nature of women, of the needs of human persons, and of the reciprocal character of interpersonal and social relations are missing. We have here no recognition of the growing moral imperative regarding fundamental values of equality and mutuality. We have here so very little understanding of the “new order” which the Declaration wants to embrace. The Declaration. then. must be critiqued and corrected, in the name of justice and love.


1. Declaration, pars. 35 and 38.

2. Declaration, par. 36.

3. Declaration, par. 39.

4. Ibid.

5. Declaration par. 30.

6. Declaration par. 33.

7. See, for example, Plato, Gorgias 508a; Republic 558c Laws 744 and 757a; Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics 1131a. For a general discussion of various formulations of the principle of equality, see Gregory Vlastos, “Justice and Equality,” in Richard B. Brandt, ea., Social Justice (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1962), pp. 31-72.

8. Declaration, par. 31.

9. Paul Vl, “Women/Disciples and Co-workers,” Origins, Vol. IV (May 1, 1975), pp. 718-719; Pastoral Commission of the Sacred Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, “The Role of Women in Evangelization,” Origins, Vol. V (April 22, 1976), pp. 702-707.

10. “The Role of Women in Evangelization,” p. 703.

I I. See, for example, Margaret Mead, Male and Female (New York William Morrow, 1949), pp. 345-360.

12. See above, note 10.

13. Declaration, par. 38.

14. Declaration, par. 36.

15. Ibid.

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