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A Call to Dialog within the Church by Carroll Stuhlmueller from 'Women and Priesthood: Future Directions'

A Call to Dialog within the Church

by Carroll Stuhlmueller, C.P.

from Women and Priesthood: Future Directions, pp. 5-21.
edited by Carroll Stuhlmueller, C.P. The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota.
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions

CARROLL STUHLMUELLER, C.P., Professor of Old Testament Studies, completed doctoral work at the Pontifical Biblical Institute, Rome. Besides publications, he has lectured in the U.S. and abroad, including l'Ecole Biblique, Jerusalem. In 1957 he was teaching in the first graduate school of theology for women in U.S. (St. Mary's College, Notre Dame, Ind.) and since then has been researching the topics of religious leadership and the role of women in the Church.

Under a mandate of Pope Paul VI, the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith squarely faced the issue of ordination of women.(l) They did so, moreover, in a style that called for further dialog with theologians and pastoral leaders. In the first section of this chapter we listen more closely to that call. We then discuss the authority or force of the Declaration and indicate how theological faculties and the local church can interact with it and thus seriously aid the unity and growth of the Church. A final section points out how a strong, integrated church is able to champion liberation movements like that for women and grant them a place within the priesthood.

This overview locates the chapters of this book within the pastoral ministry and religious leadership of the Church today. By means of vigorous, honest and loyal dialog, such as this book achieves, the ministry of the Church will reach out to areas most in need of support. The Church will then manifest an ever stronger credibility. Ministry and leadership together will both communicate a message of hope that is believable and attractive; this word will go out particularly to church members, responsive to injustice and pain, gifted with vision and articulate speech, impatient to do something.

Jesus agonized with these people, potential leaders straining at the leash to run with the message:

I have come to light a fire on the earth. How I wish the blaze were ignited! I have a baptism to receive. What anguish I feel till it is over! Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? (Luke 12:49-5la)

Fire is the prophet Jeremiah’s word for the divine summons within his conscience.

I say to myself, I will not mention him,
I will speak in his name no more.
But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart,
imprisoned in my bones;
I grow weary holding it in,
I cannot endure it. (Jer 20:9)

Fire inspires the prophets, Jeremiah and Jesus. As they run across the mountains, their footprints are beautiful to behold and the sound of their voice resounds across the earth:

How beautiful. . . !
Announcing peace, bearing good news,
announcing salvation, and saying to Zion,
‘Your God is King!" (Isaiah 52:7)

Fire also becomes a warning and a message of doom. The transition from hope to doom cannot be determined ahead of time. Such at least was the conviction of the prophet Malachi. We must listen to him, the last of the “twelve” whose voice speaks again in John the Baptist, the last of all the prophets before Jesus:

And suddenly there will come to the temple
the Lord whom you seek, . . .
But who will endure the day of his coming?
And who can stand when he appears?
For he is like the refiner’s fire, or like the fuller’s lye. (Mal 3:1-2)

This messenger of fire, according to Matthew’s gospel, is John the Baptist, from whose “time until now the kingdom of God has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force” (Matt 11:12). In Luke’s gospel John the Baptist passes the torch to Jesus, who (John declares) “will baptize you in the Holy Spirit and in fire. His winnowing-fan is in his hand to clear the threshing floor and gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn in unquenchable fire” (Luke 3:16-17).

Lest the fiery hopes within many pure hearts erupt with anger and doom, we write this book.


The Declaration on the Question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood—such is the full title of the Roman document— not only calls for theological and pastoral dialog, but it was also prepared by scholars who had read widely on the subject and seriously interacted with this mass of material. Earlier publications, therefore, usually undertaken on the private initiative of theologians, contributed significantly to the document, directly or indirectly, positively or negatively. The Declaration states in its introductory section that “the various arguments capable of clarifying this important problem have been submitted to a critical examination.” Furthermore, in its own Commentary the Sacred Congregation refers to “doctoral theses, articles in reviews, even pamphlets, propounding or refuting in turn the biblical, historical and canonical data and appealing to the human sciences of sociology, psychology and the history of institutions and customs.”(2) Without this unofficial and at times undesired inquiry by biblical or systematic theologians, by Church historians and canon lawyers, this official document could not have been written. What was issued from Rome, furthermore, seems to reach out for further dialog.

By means of an unofficial Commentary, which was released in the United States along with the official Declaration, the Sacred Congregation has carried the discussion forward into the theological arena.(3) Rome, furthermore, extended the conversation to popular circles by printing responses to the Declaration in L’Osservatore Romano (English edition) .(4)

Admittedly the popular articles in L’Osservatore Romano as well as the more scholarly discussion in the Commentary support the Declaration and respond only in a laudatory way. Nonetheless, they did enlarge the discussion beyond the Roman Declaration and therefore invite further response on both the scholarly and the popular, pastoral levels. This book continues the dialog, not just with the Declaration, but with the vast and complicated topic of priesthood in its evolving forms through the ages and in its new directions into the future.

As Alcuin Coyle points out in the concluding chapter, the question of ordaining women involves the relationship of lay ministers with others in liturgical and sacramental offices. It evokes problems and seeks clarification across all the sacred sciences: Bible and the early Fathers of the Church, History, Systematic and Pastoral Theology, Church Law and Liturgy It looks for help in later Jewish tradition and psychodynamic research Because the question of women priests has generated the strongest interest in the United States, we are faced with the whole range of interactions between local cultures and secular forms of leadership on the one hand and Church life and its sacred orders on the other. Ordination of women, then, forces a reassessment of priesthood across the whole drawing board.

No doubt, the question has stirred extraordinary interest. When the Declaration was first released in early 1977, an impromptu meeting was called at The Divinity School of the University of Chicago, and spontaneously there gathered—to everyone’s surprise—a group of prominent professors and graduate students. In volunteering to cooperate on this book, faculty members of the Catholic Theological Union at Chicago realized that top priority was due to this topic. Here would be one, certain way to establish priesthood on a sound and credible base for the apostolate of this century. Training for priesthood would interact vigorously with theology, culture and prophetic issues today.

The faculty of the Catholic Theological Union closely examine the Declaration from the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. At times they challenge its reasons or its conclusions. They do so loyally and zealously within the Roman Catholic Church. They take the Declaration and the authority of the Church that seriously. They seek to keep open a hot-line between the hierarchical magisterium on the one hand and the theological-pastoral magisterium on the other. Then on all levels of the Church everyone can find a fair hearing, a careful assessment and a solid base for their community of faith. Whether there be cries against injustice or a longing for effective leadership, these godly expectations will be heard with a full and credible response. The fire within the heart will send forth messengers of hope, not doom.

By replying in the negative, the Sacred Congregation certainly slowed down the movement for the admission of women to the ministerial priesthood. As Dismas Bonner explains in chapter five of this book, this Declaration stops short the evolution of any custom contrary to law. Yet, in one of the most tightly reasoned presentations of the book, Gilbert Ostdiek concludes that “change and adaptation are a normative part of a normative tradition.” Only then can “the Church . . . remain faithful to the will of the Lord and his Spirit in a major new socio-cultural situation.” With three important examples Ostdiek shows that “such a course of action is not without precedent in the history of the Church.” Such change can generate tension and even conflict. Yet, these troublesome or at least non-harmonious encounters, according to Sebastian MacDonald in chapter nine, are normally the occasion to purify and enrich, to slough off and to advance, and thus to mediate a new revelation of the Lord’s will in our contemporary age.

Even if the Declaration has put the brakes upon the movement for women priests—at least, canonical breaks—it has focused the discussion very clearly. It should also be noted that by employing a somewhat low profile in the range of Roman authority and by immediately calling for further theological debate through the issuance of a Commentary, the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has encouraged and strengthened the discussion. We will now look more closely at the authority of this document, so as to determine the proper attitude expected of Catholics. By seeing this issue more clearly, non-Catholics will also be aided in the ecumenical dialog.


The Holy See issues statements according to a scale of authority and decisiveness, all the way up to that extremely rare infallible pronouncement, made personally by the Pope or collegially by an ecumenical council. The Vatican’s reply on the ordination of women was invested with a rather low degree of authority. From the careful canonical study of Dismas Bonner in chapter five of this book, we learn that technically a “declaration’’ is defined as “ ‘an interpretation of existing law or facts, or a reply to a contested point of law.’ . . . There is no question of a new law.... [nor] should it be seen as the final word which ... closes off all further discussion.” In chapter six Gilbert Ostdiek investigates the authority of the Declaration in relation to the development of Church tradition. He establishes the need of tradition to adapt in order to survive.

Right now, however, we turn attention to another side of this document’s authority, that gleaned from what I consider its internal indecisiveness as well as from a comparison with the earlier decrees of the Pontifical Biblical Commission.

The internal indecisiveness is manifested, first of all, by the honest admission that “we are dealing with a debate which classical theology scarcely touched upon.” In its Commentary the Congregation openly concedes that “the question has been complicated by the fact that . . . arguments adduced in the past in favour of the traditional teaching are scarcely defensible today.” Again, according to the Declaration, “Scholastic doctors . . . often present arguments on this point that modern thought would have difficulty in admitting or would even rightly reject” (section I). The Sacred Congregation acknowledges that its own reasons “will become apparent in the long run,” thereby implying that the advocates of the opposite position (that women can be ordained priests) even with intellectual sincerity will not see at once the cogency and clinching value of the Declaration’s position.

The Declaration concludes that the biblical argument requires more study. It admits that “a purely historical exegesis of the texts cannot suffice.” Bible texts, taken individually are inconclusive. Again in the words of the Declaration we arrive through Scripture only at “a number of convergent indications’’ (section III). Yet, the Sacred Congregation bases its case primarily upon the “Permanent Value of the Attitude of Jesus and the Apostles” (the title to section IV),(5) an attitude which can be known only through Scripture.

Perhaps, the Sacred Congregation realized the weakness of the biblical argument. It ends the investigation of Tradition (6) and Bible by stating:

In the final analysis it is the Church, through the voice of her Magisterium, that, in these various domains, decides what can change and what remain immutable. When she judges that she cannot accept certain changes, it is because she knows that she is bound by Christ’s manner of action. (section IV)

Because the Scriptures are not clear on this point, the document is dealing with an elusive intuition of the Church. Even though “Christ’s manner of acting” is not all that clear, still the Church “knows that she is bound by” it. Intuitions such as this produce saints and mystics; they induce exceptionally fine, courageous perceptions. Geniuses are born of such conditions. Intuitions can also be confused with prejudice and lead to irrational and destructive postures. In chapter four Carolyn Osiek analyzes some of the untested intuitions of the Fathers; in chapter six Gilbert Ostdiek investigates Church traditions across a larger sweep of history. In each case there were definite instances where the sensus ecclesiae had to be challenged, purified, adapted and even at times radically changed. As we saw a few paragraphs earlier in this chapter, the Sacred Congregation itself stated “that modern thought would have difficulty in admitting or would even rightly reject” arguments from the Church Fathers and Scholastic doctors “on this point.”

Along with the unsettled or inconclusive state of the biblical and patristic arguments—what the Declaration identifies as “the Church’s norm and the basis thereof” (section V)—the Roman document manifests its internal weakness in still another way. It seems to echo, shall we say, the voice of a strong minority position within its own ranks. At key places in its presentation, the document inserts weak or qualifying phrases, not normally found in papal documents. We quote a few of these with italics added:

The Sacred Congregation . . . does not consider herself authorized to admit women to priestly ordination.’’ (introduction)(7) The Sacred Congregation deems it opportune at the present juncture to explain the position . . . (Introduction)(8)
The Catholic Church has never felt . . . (section I)(9)
The Magisterium has not felt . . . (section I)(10)
It is true that these facts do not make the matter immediately obvious .... (section II) (11)
attitude of Jesus and of the Apostles, which has been considered as normative . . . (section IV)(12)
This norm . . . is considered to conform to God’ plan for his Church. (end of section IV) (13)
It is not a question here of bringing forward a demonstrative argument, but of clarifying this teaching by the analogy of faith. (section v)(14)

Someone secure in their position normally employs a direct demonstrative style, not these qualifying, and in my judgment diluting modifications. The door is left a bit open so that in the future it can swing in the other direction. For instance: “In 1977 the Church did not consider herself authorized, but now she does!” Moreover, in any language, words like “feel” and “opportune” and “not immediately obvious” do not cut as clean a message as the unequivocal statement of fact. The phrases occur too often to be accidental or insignificant. They are found, moreover, almost exclusively in the Introduction plus sections one to four, where “the Church’s norm and the basis thereof” are established. I conclude to an obvious hesitancy on the part of the Sacred Congregation to put itself definitively on the line.

We are reminded of an important qualification introduced into a statement of Pope Pius XII on polygenism (more than one set of parents at the origin of the human race). In the encyclical letter, Humani Generis (12 August 1950), he concluded that “in no way is it apparent how this position can be harmonized with what is proposed in the fonts of revealed truth and with the positions of the Church’s magisterium.” (16) It has been pointed out that Pius XII left open the possibility that it could later become apparent how polygenism could be compatible with revelation.(17)

We can be further assisted in forming our response to the Declaration of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith about women ordination by turning our attention to the earlier decrees of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, particularly to those issued under Pope St. Pius X. These decrees possessed the same authority as that of a motu proprio, i.e., a change of legislation introduced by the Pope’s own initiative.(18)

The decrees about the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch are a good example. Although one decree allows the use of sources, it was Moses who selected what was to be incorporated into the written work. If secretaries took dictation, still “the work thus produced [was] approved by Moses as the principal and inspired author, [and] was made public under his name.” Furthermore, the Mosaic authenticity must be maintained because of

the very many evidences . . . contained in both Testaments, taken collectively, the persistent agreement of the Jewish people, the constant tradition of the Church, and internal arguments derived from the text itself . . .

For these reasons the Biblical Commission would not permit that “these books . . . have been composed from sources for the part posterior to the time of Moses.”(19)

These decrees are no longer enforced, but it was a long difficult path from the stringent demands of Pius X to the recognition of calm scholarly pursuits under Pius XII (20) and Paul VI (21) Because of the repressive measures between 1907 and 1943, Catholic biblical studies produced very little solid work, except for the achievements of the more distant Ecole Biblique et Archéologique Française de Jérusalem. This writer still remembers a remark of Cardinal Augustin Bea, spoken while he was still a professor at the Pontifical Biblical Institute, Rome (1951-52). He regretted the excessively stern and at times arbitrary measures taken against biblical scholars in the preceding decades, at that very time when scriptural studies were advancing by leaps and bounds outside the Catholic Church, due among other reasons to extraordinary archeological discoveries in the ancient Near East.

Pope Pius XII released the Divino Afflante Spiritu on October 30, 1943. Almost at once Catholic biblical studies began to roll across the world like a stunning avalanche. Another twenty to thirty years were required to absorb and integrate these scholarly conclusions within the pastoral ministry of the Church. Within these years, however, the catechetical work was frequently in disarray and other people with their priests and teachers were shocked, dismayed, disillusioned and even neutralized in their faith.

This book seeks to keep the lines of dialog open between Church authorities, the scholarly world and the pastoral ministry on the question of women ordination and on the reform of seminary training. Otherwise, all sides will withdraw to separate, fortified quarters, attack one another because neither side adequately understands the other and at best remains suspicious of the other group. We must not repeat the tragedy of 1907 to 1943 in biblical studies. For this reason we must applaud the courageous statement of Bishop Joseph H. Hogan of Rochester, New York.(220


The dialog is not simply one between the hierarchical magisterium and that of the theologians. The pastoral scene must be kept ever in mind, particularly on the question of priesthood. This dimension involves the local church and its contribution to the Church universal. The Declaration on the ordination of women and its accompanying Commentary seem to have the American pastoral scene particularly in mind, if one is to judge from the allusions and footnotes. Undoubtedly, the issue of women ordination has evolved most rapidly in the USA. That fact, however, should not reduce it to a local issue, as the entire world is awakening to the minority plight of women and to the injustice inflicted upon them.

Other theological issues as religious liberty evolved most vigorously in the USA. The theology and pastoral stance of the Church has benefited immensely throughout the world from the American debate on conscience and liberty. That point is scored very effectively by Gilbert Ostdiek in chapter six, section IV, of this book.

The relation of women to local cultures and politics varies greatly from country to country, even at times in the USA from state to state. The question of women ordination is integrally affected by these variations. The pastoral implementation, therefore, will vary greatly from place to place. Even were the theological question settled, the degree of woman’s participation in ministry and ordination will range across the dial from full and intense as far down as minimal and preparatory.

The authors of this book are privileged to share in the rich resources of the mission program of the Catholic Theological Union. Almost one-fourth of the students are slated for apostolic work outside of U.S.A. and fourteen different nationalities are studying or teaching at the school. We single out particularly the important contribution made to the faculty and to this book by Rev. Dr. Claude Marie Barbour, Assistant Professor of World Mission, an ordained minister in the United Presbyterian Church, U.S.A., and formerly a missionary in Africa. We can thus appreciate better how diversified and multi-faceted is this question across the world and among all Christian Churches.

This book carefully scans biblical and church history and shows how religious leadership from century to century manifested an exceptional sensitivity to local culture. In chapter two the close interaction between secular and sacred forms of government is traced in the Old Testament period.(23) Throughout chapter three Robert J. Karris brings to light the fluctuating and highly developmental stages of religious office in New Testament times.(24) Carolyn Osiek, in chapter four, points out the serious regression of women from sacred office and religious ministries during the patristic period. Other chapters by Dismas Bonner and Gilbert Ostdiek disentangle the confusing threads of tradition within Church law and tradition. This same delicate interaction with history is clearly proposed by Rabbi Hayim Goren Perelmuter who describes the religious leadership by women in the three principal forms of Judaism—Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. As a result of these historical studies, we detect a continuous line of tradition, but this line becomes sharper or more dull. It collapses and it rises at different moments and in various places. It follows the geography and chronology of human life, as it extends today across our world.

“Our present age," as the Declaration states in its opening sentence, is characterized by “the part that women are now taking in public life.” These words are a direct quotation from good Pope John XXIII in his encyclical letter, Pacem in Terris, of April 11, 1963. What impact this Contemporary development will have upon the theology of priesthood is the task to which this book is dedicated. This investigation answers the call to dialog from the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and engages theological disciplines and pastoral works.

The task reaches into our seminaries and theological schools as well as into the apostolic teams of parishes, hospitals, schools and all church activities. Alcuin Coyle clarifies these lines of work and competence in the final chapter of this book. He points out how the role of lay leaders needs to be sharpened and intensified, their theological education pursued, their status more clearly defined. In this way many secular activities, absorbed within priesthood, will be reclaimed by lay people. We will then be able to distinguish where women and men most properly belong in Church responsibility and ordained priesthood.

All the while women are following graduate courses in theology, which lead to the degrees of Master of Divinity (M.Div.) or Master of Theological Studies (M.T.S.). Both programs are pastoral in scope and in training. How these women feel and where they want to go—into apostolic work or also into ordained priesthood—these are some of the questions put to them by Dennis J. Geaney in preparing chapter eleven of this book.

All this educational and pastoral activity, by men and women, ordained and non-ordained, singly and in teams, is going on within the Church, particularly in USA and Canada. The situation hums with high voltage potential. It can explode in frustration, it can move quickly in false directions, it can blossom into a new Pentecost of apostolic zeal and vocational enthusiasm. It could be the second spring for religious communities of women. Only by respecting it, championing it, dialoging with it, theologizing about it, taking the risk of new forms of education and ministry in serious academic settings as well as in lively and creative pastoral centers—only thus will the prophetic fire announce hope and salvation rather than explode under pressure with doom! The call to dialog, heard within prophetic times like our own, summons us to excitement within our Church.


Priesthood means nothing if it does not call us to serve within the Church. Roman Catholic priesthood makes the most stringent demands of working and dialoging with close, loyal ties to Church structure, tradition and ministry, because of the primary role given to Eucharistic piety and the sacrament of reconciliation. Eucharist symbolizes unity and charity. Reconciliation, in the new Sacramentary, offers “the forgiveness of sins through the ministry of the Church.” Frankly, therefore, it makes no sense to extend the priesthood at the cost of Church unity. We must now pursue this question of Church unity, lest the call to dialog degenerate violently into schism or passively into a menial bond of yespeople, unworthy of Jesus’ disciples.

Eucharistic churches have always borne the mark of unity. Mainline Christian denominations like Roman Catholicism, the Orthodox Church the Anglican or Episcopal Church, the Lutheran Church, the Calvinist Church particularly of Switzerland and France, to the extent that they give a high priory to eucharistic piety, also manifest a rather conspicuous unity. In fact, this mark is notably evident in Roman Catholicism where the Blessed Sacrament commanded a central place on the main altar and by reason of this fact had to be integrated into all forms of liturgical and popular piety.(25) It is interesting to note that the dislocation of the Blessed Sacrament from the main altar is also accompanied with increased disunity in the Church.

Bible churches, on the contrary, which manifest little or no Eucharistic devotion and structure their services around the prayerful study of the Bible, tend to divide and sub-divide and to begin anew all over again. At first, it would seem that the centrifugal tendency to flee from the center and break apart would not characterize Bible churches. It should be so obvious what the Bible means and how everyone can agree. Yet once a body like the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod, moved attention away from its liturgical or eucharistic assembly and sought its center of unity in biblical interpretation, it was racked with divisive agony.

Eucharistic churches maintain their unity in ways less obvious than the evident sense of a biblical passage. For their part they remain in close accord with a religion of faith, where

We do not fix our gaze on what is seen but on what is unseen. What is seen is transitory; what is unseen lasts forever. (2 Cor 4:18)

“What is unseen” must be approached and communicated symbolically. As will be explained in chapter two, section III of this book, symbols are more important for what they conceal than for what they manifest. Like the tip of an iceberg, symbols announce a hidden depth of strength, far more mammoth and meaningful than what appears on the surface. Subrnerged beneath the visible form of eucharistic symbol is the whole, multiple, yet finely honed complex of the Body of the Lord (cf., Eph 4:16, 1Cor 12). This is the Christ, symbolized and actualized by the priest who offers the Eucharist according to the explanation of Ralph Keifer in chapter seven of this call to dialog. The eucharistic symbol summons us to contemplate at once, in unity, Christ the Church and Christ the Priest the full reality of the baptized community of Gal 3:18. Robert J. Karris in chapter two, correctly orientates this text of St. Paul within the baptism ritual of the very early church.

This one body of Christ, symbolized by the one food and one cup of the Eucharist, is “all of you, . . . baptized into Christ, . . . clothed . . . with him . . . [no longer] male or female" (Gal 3:18). This combined presence of the masculine and feminine in Jesus, in each of us individually as well as in all of us together, the mystical Christ, is explored in its psychodynamic dimensions by Thomas More Newbold, chapter ten. The nature of masculine and feminine forces in individual personalities as well as in society as a whole has evolved slowly, delicately yet surely and dramatically over the centuries. Sometimes it seems that each day has packed into itself the developments of a century, so surprising can be the series of changes in certain ages like our own. Thomas More Newbold has unraveled some of these complex developments in his study of masculine and feminine symbolism. All of this life, mysterious in its natural, not to say its supernatural dynamism, is absorbed into Christ, in whom and through whom all stand created and continue in existence (Col 1: 15-20).

Such is the risen Christ in the outreach of his personal love and attention, his sympathy and support, his understanding and inspiring direction. Such too is the Christ, the Church. As “the whole body grows, and with the proper functioning of the members joined firmly together by each supporting ligament, [it] builds itself up in love” (Eph 4:16). The form of the Greek verb here projects the action into the living “body,” the Church which continues to “build up” and mature through the centuries.(26)

Such too ought to be Christ the priest, symbolizing this continuous life of the Church, his body as it dies and rises, as it develops and grows, as it faces conflict and masters it by charity. This priestly life of the entire body of Christ reaches its supreme moment symbolically in the Eucharist, realistically in the death and martyrdom of its members. All of these details drawn from the mystery of Christ call for a symbol of union in Eucharist and in priesthood which transcends physical sexuality and combines the masculine and feminine forces in each of us. Just as the symbol of bread and wine is free of sexual connotations and so is able to embrace the wide family of men and women around one table, so should the symbolic representation of Christ the priest reach out to include men and women.

Under the guidance of the Spirit, the Church in solemn assembly arrived at a decision, seemingly simple and direct yet complex and overwhelming in its consequences. Vatican II decided to unite closely priest and congregation in liturgical celebration by permitting the vernacular language and by turning the altar around. At once the human qualities of the priest were accentuated more than ever before, not as someone of the male sex, but as a person capable of leading prayer, preaching the gospel and centering devotion through ritual acts. In this setting it became clear almost at once that what the priest says or does can be accomplished as well, sometimes much better, by a lay person, a married person, whether male or female. In order to unite the congregation, the priest must have refined the human qualities necessary for prayer and sacrament. It would be highly improper if the sexual differentiation of the priest became a focal point of concern.

The movement of the congregation towards the sanctuary and sometimes into it as rectors, singers and distributors of Holy Communion is not an attempt to dislodge the parish priest. The ordination of women need not follow the simplistic path of taking over the position of the priest, donning his vestments and following the rubrics of his sacramentary. To demand or request entrance in this way implies that women can perform as well as men or better, and that they have as much a right to it as men. The validity of these reasons is not.our concern. Rather, we ask if there is not a better way to see women in the future directions of priesthood.

In accord with the accepted Catholic position that one must be called to priesthood by the Church through its leaders,(27) women should be considered for priesthood: 1) when they have proven themselves successful and acceptable in the pastoral ministry; and 2) when the power of anointing, absolving and celebrating the Eucharist would evidently make their ministry all the more effective. These two conditions would prevent schism or outrage, for it would restrict the priestly role of women to places and ministries where they have already been affirmed and appreciated. This suggestion is not removing other offices, even that of bishop and pope, theologically out of bounds for women, rather, it is offered on the solid principle that people be called to priesthood to further the unity and holiness of the Church.

There is another serious reason for going this route, again in the name of Roman Catholic tradition. All pastoral offices should be closely associated with the Eucharist. If not, then a style of piety less Eucharistic and even more Protestant in tone and emphasis, will become prominent in the Catholic Church. In no way denigrating Protestant spirituality, still the entire Christian community of churches will suffer if Eucharistic piety and its concomitant charism of unity are eclipsed.

Stated as bluntly as possible, the Catholic Church may have to choose between the tradition of an exclusively male priesthood or the tradition of a strong Eucharistic-centered piety. As the pastoral ministry is being undertaken ever more fully by women, then to refuse priesthood will necessarily induce non-Eucharistic styles of prayer service, non-priestly forms of reconciliation and anointing.


The prominence which women have acquired in pastoral ministry—in the hospital and rest home, on the university and college campus, in the prison and detention center, in adult education and in the office of peace and justice, to name a few—shows a transition frequently enough found in the Bible and for that reason in life generally. This development carries an inner rhythm towards liturgical celebration and for us in the Catholic Church towards Eucharist and priesthood.

The stages can be marked: first, from neglect or destitution to a form of liberation; second, from new experimental styles to proven ways of performing; and third, from the set and acceptable styles to their “ordination” or fixed role within the community or church. The first of these stages is almost always characterized by conflict and pain; the second, by celebration and experimentation; the third, by peace and security. The first stage can be compared with youth and adolescence; the second, with early adult life; the third, with middle age. When we answer the call to dialog about women in the future directions of priesthood, we seek to know if the pastoral work of women has been proven in many experimental areas and has been received with genuine celebration by the community, so that it can proceed to the third stage of “ordination” into a peaceful, secure ministry.

Many biblical examples come forward to exemplify this three-prong development from liberation, to celebration, to canonical status.

Israel’s exodus out of Egypt began as a desperate and courageous act to free Hebrew slaves from Egyptian oppression. Faith pulsed at the heart of this liberation and signaled its success. Liturgy kept the wonder alive and summoned later generations to faith.

As the rabbis tell the story, Moses had led the people to the bank of the Red Sea and ordered them to proceed into it! The waters, Moses assured them, would open up before them. The people froze on the spot, trapped, they thought, between the churning sea and Pharaoh’s chariots roaring down on them from the distant hills. Then one person broke rank, plunged into the sea and immediately the waters divided, as Moses promised. All the people followed and marched to freedom. Stage One of Liberation was completed. Once they arrived on the east bank and the Red Sea closed the path between them and Pharaoh’s chariots, the people forgot the wonder and began to complain about the heat, the brackish water and all their problems. At that moment, Moses’ sister Miriam stood up and intoned a hymn of praise (Exod 15:20-21). All the people joined to celebrate, and Stage Two was underway. Soon not only the song of Miriam but the entire episode became a standard part of Hebrew liturgy and the Bible, to finalize Stage Three.

Another example from the New Testament evokes the memory of this first exodus. In fact, the passion and death of Jesus is called his “ exodus” in Luke 9:31, “Moses and Elijah . . . appeared in glory and spoke of his passage [in Greek, exodus], which he was about to fulfill in Jerusalem.” This tragic destruction of Jesus’ life turned into a passage to glory through his resurrection. Stage Two begins at once as the disciples of Jesus explain what happened, justify it from the Scriptures, celebrate it with song and ceremony, and compose oral and written accounts. In the Third Stage the four evangelists draw from all these experiences and narratives, liturgies and instructions to compose their gospels.(28) The Passion of Jesus now becomes a canonical source of faith and inspiration, of liturgy and prayer.

Before applying this model of liberation-celebration-canonical status to the ordination of women priests, we want to associate it with the Eucharist. The New Testament offers three major symbols or settings for the Eucharist, each in some way associated with Jesus’ death and resurrection. The first series of texts place the Eucharist in the wilderness where Jesus multiplies bread and fish, liberating the people from hunger so that they can continue on their way “home” (John 6; Luke 9:10-17). Particularly in John’s gospel, the episode includes a rejection of Jesus by the people and a harbinger of his death. Another set of passages situates the Eucharist in private homes where a small group of poor, isolated and even persecuted Christians gather to break bread (Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-37). What they celebrate had not yet been fully standardized. Finally, a third cycle of texts associates the Eucharist with a large community of believers (1Cor 11:17-24), in a church or purified temple (John 2:13-25), separated from Judaism (Epistle to the Hebrews), with extended sermons (John ch 13-17).

These Eucharistic models can be further enriched if each is contemplated in its Old Testament background: exodus, Jerusalem temple and prophetic purification; of Jerusalem destroyed, rebuilt and seen in glorious vision; of each major tradition of law, prophets and wisdom, converging in the mystical banquet (Exod ch 24; Is 25:6; Ps 22; Prov ch 9)

The call for women to participate in the future directions of Roman Catholic priesthood is heard within these transitional steps of biblical people. Women, in the conscience of this writer, have not yet been fully liberated in society at large or in the church; too many of them, in some circumstances all of them, are still in Egypt! At the same time women have passed into the second stage of experimentation and celebration. Like Moses’ sister Miriam they are summoning the community to sing and praise God, through the many effective forms of the apostolate enumerated at the beginning of this fifth section.

Many hospitals, universities, adult groups, prisons and now more and more parishes would either be inadequately staffed or be without any Catholic minister, were women to withdraw from the service. In these and other instances women are no longer experimenting and learning; they are teaching priests and seminarians! The time has come, according to many biblical examples, for the Church to “ordain” this ministry fully and equally with priesthood. Otherwise, the woman’s voice and experience can go only so far and no further, and from then on it is subject to an independent judgment of the male Magisterium. At this latter point woman’s voice remains only consultative and outside the decision making process. Furthermore, to refuse ordination can result in a growing form of Protestant, non-Eucharistic piety within Catholicism.

Another danger, too serious to leave unmentioned, lurks around the corner. When liturgy directly or indirectly sanctions injustice against women and the privileged status of men, the temple will be cleansed by the prophetic anger of Jesus, by the tongue-lash of Micah and Jeremiah. God twice destroyed the sacred temple to save the people.

God, through women, may be calling us back to the wilderness celebration of the Eucharist, where the homeless and hungry gather for strength to continue living. Women, in their inconspicuous and unadorned forms of the apostolate, in the simplicity and directness of their approach to the poor, the sick and the imprisoned, may be God’s instrument, showing us the footprints of Jesus, “beautiful on the mountains”!

Is now the moment to grant “canonical status” and to ordain what has proven itself and been celebrated gratefully within the Church? Is tomorrow too late to save Jerusalem?


The question of the ordination of women calls us to dialog about the future directions of priesthood.

The Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith requests dialog, not only by presenting its reply with a rather low profile of papal authority, but also by the internal indecisiveness of its language. Any statement from a Vatican congregation deserves serious, loyal attention, which this book certainly manifests. For this reason the Declaration is printed towards the end of the book along with the unofficial report of the Pontifical Biblical commission.

If the writers within this interdisciplinary study interact vigorously and even negatively at times with the Declaration, they seek to preserve a hot-line of communication between Church authority, theologians and pastoral workers. Only thus will the hierarchical Magisterium retain credibility on the world scene.

We hope to have learned a lesson from the regrettable effects of the decrees of the Pontifical Biblical Commission between 1905 and 1943. Not only are they embarrassing, but their stern implementation erased almost all Catholic biblical research for some forty, crucial years. Only with the magna carte of the Divino Afflante Spiritu (October 30, 1943) did Catholic scholarship surface again and then it shook the pastoral scene with surprise, pain and amazement. Too quickly was it necessary to catch up with too much in Bible research.

The ordination of women opens up a dialog across the whole spectrum of lay and sacramental leadership, of theological training and pastoral response. This book, in fact, is organized in such a way that its text is easily readable by anyone seriously interested in the question of women priests. The footnotes are relegated to the end, so as not to overtax and discourage the general reader. These notes are intended to foster dialog with scholars.

Most of all, we must ponder the effects upon the Catholic Church if women continue to advance and expand their ministry, without access to the priestly power of reconciling sinners, anointing the sick and celebrating the Eucharist. The Catholic Church runs the grave risk of becoming more Protestant in its piety. While such non-Eucharistic forms of devotion produce saintliness within Protestantism, it will still be a serious loss to a rich ecumenical reunion and a critical blow to Catholic fervor, were this tendency to continue.

Women, already accepted in the Church’s pastoral ministry, are asking the Church to consider whether or not their apostolate will be even more effective through priestly service from their hands.

The ordination of women enlarges a dialog across the entire Church, male and female, and forces us to re-examine the nature and force of symbol within the sacramental system of the Catholic Church.

Dialog such as this unites rather than divides. It enriches and so makes the bond within the Church more worthy of Jesus’ death and resurrection This book presents no final answers; these are the prerogatives of the Pope and bishops. The authors, however, call all of us to dialog with honesty and dignity, with openness in the pastoral and scholarly forum, that the future directions of priesthood reflect the guidance of the Holy Spirit in our midst.


1. Commentary, p.21, “It was difficult to leave unanswered any longer a precise question that is being posed nearly everywhere and which is polarizing attention to the detriment of more urgent endeavors that should be fostered.”

2. Commentary, p.20.

3. It is interesting to note that the English translation of the Declaration, plus Commentary, was released before the Latin text was circulated in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis LXIX (28 Feb 1977) 98-116. The latter, official publication did not include the Commentary. This fact seems to admit that English-speaking countries, particularly the United States, constitute the eye of the hurricane.

4. Cf., L'Osservatore Romano, English edition, January 20, 1977; February 3, 10, 17, 24, 1977; March 3, & 17, 1977; May 12, 1977.

5. The Latin phrase makes this part of the case all the more crucial; it states: “Quae Christus et Apostoli fecerunt, norma sunt perpetua.”

6. It is strange that the Declaration treated “Tradition” before the “Bible.” Because the reasoning from tradition is plagued by serious difficulties (“the undeniable influence of prejudice unfavourable to women” in the writings of the Fathers), the Sacred Congregation may have decided to introduce it first and then to proceed with its stronger reasons.

7. In Latin: ''non agnoscere admittendi"

8. In Latin: “aestimat oportere, pro praesentibus adiunctis”

9. In Latin: “Numquam sensit”

10. In Latin: ''magisterium numquam necesse habuerit"

11. In Latin: “Haec vero omnia— id fatendum est—non quidem talem evidentiam affereunt, ut cuique proxime perspicua sint”

12 In Latin: “ut norma habitus est”

13. In Latin: “quia putatur conformis esse”

14. In Latin: “Tunc vero non intenditur, ut argumentum demonstrativum afferatur . . . ”

15. This indecisive style of the Declaration becomes all the more evident if it is compared with that normally employed by papal documents. See fn. 18 below for a quotation from Pope .St. Pius X .

16. “ cum nequaquam appareat quomodo huiusmodi sententia componi queat cum iis quae fontes revelatae veritatis et acta Magisterii Ecclesiae proponunt . . .” Enchiridion Biblicum, ed 3 (Romae: 1956) n. 617.

17. John J. O'Rourke, “Some Considerations About Polygenism,” Theological Studies 26 (1965) 411-2, “. . . these words of Pius XII are not to be understood as declaring absolutely that polygenism is irreconcilable with the Catholic doctrine of original sin.... The Holy Father apparently wanted theologians to examine the teaching of revelation and the magisterium.” A similar interpretation of the Encyclical is given by Karl Rahner Theological Investigations Vol I (Baltimore: 1961) 236-7; Peter de Rosa, Christ and Original Sin (Milwaukee: 1967) 112-3.

18. Although the Biblical Commission was established by Pope Leo XIII, October 30, 1902, according to his apostolic letter, Vigilantiae (Rome and the Study of Scripture. p. 30-35; Latin text, Enchiridion Biblicum, n. 137-148), its authority was strengthened by Pius X, Nov 18, 1907, in his Motu Proprio, entitled Praestantia Sacrae Scripturae (Rome and the Study of Scripture, p. 40-42; Enchiridion Biblicum, n. 283-288), in which he wrote: “. . . all are bound in conscience to submit to the decisions of the Biblical Commission, which have been given in the past and which shall be given in the future, in the same way as to the Decrees which appertain to doctrine, issued by the Sacred Congregations and approved by the Sovereign Pontiff; nor can they escape the stigma both of disobedience and temerity nor be free from grave guilt as often as they impugn these decisions either in word or in writing; and this, over and above the scandal which they give and the sins of which they may be the cause before God by making other statements on these matters which are very frequently both rash and false."

19. The English translation of these decrees is found in Rome and the Study of Scripture, 6 ed (St. Meinrad, Ind.: Grail, 1958) 116-7. For the Latin text, see Enchiridion Biblicum, ed 3 (Romae: 1956) n. 181-184.

20. Not only did Pius XII release the encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu (Sept 30, 1943), but during his reign both the secretary and the sub-secretary of the Biblical Commission commented upon the earlier decrees and their continued force in Catholic exegesis. They state that the decrees will tend to remain valid, in so far as they propose matters connected directly or indirectly with the truths of faith; in so far as they take up, for instance, literary or historical details, then the interpreter has full liberty to follow scientific investigation. Cf., E. F. Siegman, “The Decrees of the Pontifical Biblical commission: A Recent Clarification,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 18 (Jan 1956) 23-29; see also J. Dupont, “A propos du nouvel Enchiridion Biblicum,” Revue Biblique 62 (1955) 414-419.

21. One of the most advanced documents on biblical studies, issued officially by any Christian denomination, is that by Pope Paul VI, ''Instruction Concerning the Historical Truth of the Gospels," Acta Apostolicae Sedis 56 (1964) 712-718; English translation in The Bible Today n 13 (Oct 1964) 821-828; text and commentary by Joseph A. Fitzmyer, ''The Biblical Commission's Instruction on the Historical Truth of the Gospels," Theological Studies 25 (Sept 1964) 386-408.

22. Bishop Joseph L. Hogan of Rochester, N.Y., writing in the diocesan newspaper, Courier-Journal (Feb 9, 1977), “noted that ordinary, non-infallible teachings of the Church have been revised by Rome in the past in light of later discussions and study. One has only to recall how the Vatican II document on Divine Revelation reversed the earlier positions opposing a critical approach to the New Testament, the way the decree on Ecumenism changed the hostility towards Protestant churches enshrined in Pius XI's Mortalium Animos, and the radical shift from previous denunciations of modern civilization to a modified optimism evident in the pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. The ensuing dialogue on Roman documents has been very important.”

23. The wider question, involving the reconciliation and mutual contribution of Bible/Church and world/secular culture, is explored more fully by Carroll Stuhlmueller, Thirsting for the Lord (Staten, N.Y.: Alba House, 1977) Part V, “The Challenge. ”

24. The report of the Pontifical Biblical commission, published in an appendix to this volume, carefully traces the development of religious leadership and eucharistic ministry in the New Testament and thereby shows that our contemporary forms of priesthood are rooted in the Bible but cannot be read back into the New Testament meaning and function of the “twelve,” disciple, apostle, prophet, presbyter, etc.

25. In my judgment it is not coincidental that the removal of the Blessed Sacrament from the main altar in the post-Vatican II period corresponds with a deterioration of unity within the Catholic church. It is beyond the scope of this book to investigate the relationship of these two phenomena.

26. The intricacies of the Greek middle voice, in the case of the verb poieo, as explained by Max Zerwick, S.J., Biblical Greek, English edition adapted from the fourth Latin edition by Joseph Smith, S.J. (Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1963) n. 172. Zerwick maintains, in many New Testament passages, the classical usage whereby “the middle voice . . . has for object a noun denoting action, with which it forms a periphrasis equivalent to a simple verb. ”

27. The Declaration, section 6, par. 38, states: “. . . the priesthood does not form part of the rights of the individual, but stems from the economy of the mystery of Christ and the Church. The priestly office cannot become the goal of social advancement; no merely human progress of society or of the individual can of itself give access to it; it is of another order.” Advocates of women ordination respond that no one has an absolute right to priesthood but that women as well as men have a right to be tested for priesthood. In chapter two, section I, of this book Carroll Stuhlmueller discusses in detail the relation of sacred offices with secular offices and their dependence upon the latter in their origin and development.

28. Robert J. Karris refers to these three stages of gospel composition in chapter three, section II and fn 12. See also fn 20 in this chapter.

29. The relation of women ordination to the Old Testament prophetic championing of the poor is developed in this book, chapter two. section I.

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