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Recognizing Christ in Women Priests by Robert W. Hovda from 'Women Priests'

Recognizing Christ in Women Priests

by Robert W. Hovda

from Women Priests, Arlene Swidler & Leonard Swidler (eds.), Paulist Press 1977, pp. 251-252.
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions

Robert W. Hovda was a priest of the diocese of Fargo, North Dakota, and had worked since 1965 on the staff of The Liturgical Conference, Washington, D.C. Its editorial director at the time, he is the author of Strong, Loving and Wise—Presiding in Liturgy, Dry Bones, and other works.

If one uses the verb “recognize” to indicate a larger than merely rational process (symbolic communication is of a more fully human order), then one must agree that symbolic functions or actions must be “perceptible” and that the faithful must be able to recognize them “with ease.” One of the major problems in liturgical renewal is the fact that in medieval and modern times church practice has failed to observe that principle—e.g., in the eucharistic sacrament of eating and drinking. That not unusual disparity between church theory and practice, although it may introduce a note of humor, does not diminish the force of the argument.

Prescinding from what might be a legitimate discussion of the contemporary use of the word “sign” in this connection, our purposes here are better served by attending to the quite appropriate notions of perceptibility and recognition. Since we are dealing with the church, the community of faith, and its sacramental actions, the reality which must be perceptible and recognizable in the ministry of presbyter or bishop must be a reality of faith.

Christian faith is concerned with Jesus as the Christ, as the Word of God incarnate, God-with-us. The “us” of God-with-us refers, according to scripture and the entire tradition of the church, to the whole of humanity. There is no need of repeating here the carefully reasoned and documented work of R. A. Norris, Jr., in an article entitled “The Ordination of Women and the ‘Maleness’ of Christ."(1) Norris shows why any argument which pretends to find or invoke a Christological or faith dimension in the human fact of Jesus’ maleness is not only a novelty in terms of Catholic tradition but also extremely damaging to traditional Christology.

One must say, therefore, that even if it were possible to separate the head from the body and seek to make perceptible and recognizable in the ministry of bishop or presbyter only the head, the Incarnate Word, the male person is inadequate to the full reality which faith contemplates. The sacraments of initiation, Baptism-Confirmation-Eucharist (far more fundamental and decisive in our transformation in Christ, in our becoming “signs” of Christ, than ordination to the presbyterate or episcopate), are the most obvious indication of where faith stands on the issue of identification with Christ.

Even with such a truncated view of the meaning and role of these ministries, then, the argument for perceptibility and recognizability in sacramental functions and actions must concede that until both male and female persons are represented in these personal symbolic functions the universality of Christ and redemption is made less perceptible and less recognizable.

But one must go further, recognizing also that the relocation of all specific ministries within the ministering community is a major challenge if current reform and renewal of Church is not to be frustrated. It is not enough to consider merely the head of the body, for the body, too, is Christ.

Since the call to conversion and to thc initiation process which culminates in Baptism-Confirmation-Eucharist is addressed to all humans without sexual discrimination, the community of faith is female as well as male in its identification with Christ. Only such a Christ and church can dare to make the gospel’s claim on the hearts of people. And such a church must be free to call to any specific ministry or function within the community those whose membership has already been established and who possess relevant training and qualifications for the job to be done.

Although the ministries of presbyter and bishop are minor compared to the dignity of Baptism, they, too, at their best and fullest, must make perceptible and recognizable not merely a human characteristic of Jesus but the aching aspiration to universality of Christ and Church. When the ordination of presbyter and bishop again becomes a fully perceptible and recognizable sacrament of the Church, coming out of the bowels and the needs of the Church, then our cultural and current restriction of such ordination to the male of the species will be perceived and recognized as intolerable.


1. Anglican Theological Review, Supplementary Series, No. 6, June, 1976, pp. 69-80. (Abridged version, “The Ordination of Women and the ‘Maleness’ of Christ,” Living Worship, Vol. 13, No. 3, March, 1977.)

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