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The implications of Christ's priesthood. From 'Did Christ Rule Out Women Priests?' by John Wijngaards

7. The implications of Christ's priesthood

From Did Christ Rule Out Women Priests? by John Wijngaards (McCrimmons 1977, 1986).

It is all very well to defend women and all that, but would a woman priest be really compatible with Christ's priesthood? After all, Christ was a man. When the priest says Mass, he is, so to say, the image of Christ within the community. Could you imagine a woman standing at the altar would remind you of Christ in the way a man can do so?

Certainly, some women may like to think of themselves as priests. Ordaining women might give a great uplift to them and might make the Church more popular in contemporary society. But are we allowed to sacrifice the sign value of the priesthood to such human considerations? I feel that the Church should not compromise Christ's priesthood, even if it may hurt some people.

The above sentiments are also expressed in the Roman document though phrased in less colloquial terms. They force us to consider Christ's priesthood itself. Would it suffer from representation by a woman? Is a man, because he is a man, by nature more suited to exercise a priestly function 'in the person of Christ'? Is the male character an intrinsic element in Christ's priesthood? In the words of the Roman document: '... In human beings the difference of sex exercises an important influence, much deeper than, for example, ethnic differences; the latter do not affect the human person as intimately as the difference of sex - We can never ignore the fact that Christ is a man. And therefore, unless one is to disregard the importance of this symbolism for the economy of Revelation... his role (this is the original meaning of the word persona) must be taken by a man.'

It is my considered view that Scripture does not allow us to infer that the difference of sex plays a part in Christ's priesthood. Christ replaced a priesthood based on sacrality by a priesthood based on grace. It would be illogical to imply that discriminations wiped out by baptism should be revived in the sacramental priesthood. If every christian radiates Christ through his life, there seems to be no reason why every christian could not be commissioned to represent him at the Eucharist. The sacramental sign of the priesthood is the human personality of the ordained priest, whether man or woman. Sacred Scripture itself does not explicitly teach that women can be ordained. But it does seem a logical inference from the nature of Christ's priesthood, that women could and should partake in the sacramental priesthood.

A priesthood without 'sacred' realities

Jesus was not a social reformer. He did not want to take part in the social revolution. The same cannot be said about his involvement in religion. Though he was tolerant and accommodating regarding the social structures of his time, he was intolerant regarding antiquated and inadequate religious structures. In this field his action could hardly have been more ruthless. He utterly abolished the priesthood as understood in Old Testament terms.

To understand the full implications of Jesus' attitude in this matter, we should recall that the Old Testament priesthood rested on a philosophy that distinguished between the sacred and the profane. Some everyday realities, such as houses, cattle, eating and sleeping, doing business, and so on, were ordinary or 'profane.' God was not really directly present in these realities. Other realities of our world however were considered to have been penetrated with God's presence and to have become 'sacred' on that account. This is the origin of 'sacred' times (the sabbath and feastdays), 'sacred' places (mainly the Temple), 'sacred' objects (e.g. vessels used for worship) and 'sacred' persons (priests) consecrated to God. The Old Testament priest was separated from other men on the same basis as the sabbath was considered holier than the Monday, or the Temple was a more sacred place than the Pool of Bethzatha. The priest was the embodiment of a divine presence in a profane world.

Instead of substituting new holy realities for the old ones, Christ went further. He radically abrogated the distinction itself between the sacred and the profane. This may seem startling to some christians who unconsciously continue to think along Old Testament lines. They may imagine the New Testament to be an updated version of the Old. They think our churches have taken the place of the Temple at Jerusalem, that our Sunday replaces the sabbath, that our sacred vessels continue the Temple furniture and that the New Testament priest is a polished version of the Old Testament one. The cause of this misunderstanding is partly due to developments within the Church in the course of her history, partly in deference towards the human necessity of having quasi-sacred realities like churches as part of an established religion. But basically the clinging to 'sacred' realities is a regression and contrary to the teaching of the New Testament.

Take the example of sacred place. The Jews were allowed to sacrifice only in the Temple (Dt 12, 1-14) and, even within the Temple, place became holier the nearer one approached its centre. The inner chamber of the sanctuary, called 'Holy of Holies,' could be entered only by the high priest and then only once a year (Heb 9, 71). Christ no longer acknowledges such holy places. He sanctified all place. In his kingdom, worship can be given not only in Jerusalem or on a holy mountain, but anywhere so long as it is done 'in spirit and in truth' (Jn 4, 20-24). In fact, his own body was the new temple that could substitute for the old in any part of the world (Jn 2, 21). When Christ celebrated Mass for the first time at the Last Supper, he did so in the upper room of an ordinary house (Mk 14, 12-16). To crown it all, the place he chose for bringing his unique sacrifice for the whole world was not the Temple court but an ugly hill of execution (Heb 14, 12). When Christ died, the distinction between sacred and profane places was wiped out once and for all. The Gospels record that the curtain of the Temple, which screened off the 'Holy of Holies', 'was torn in two, from top to bottom' (Mk 15,37). The early Church realised this. They had no temples, churches or chapels. They celebrated common prayer and the Eucharist wherever they gathered as a community. The same has basically remained true of the Church today, even though the custom of setting aside places for prayer has crept in again from the fourth century.

The same holds good for sacred days. For the Jews, the sabbath was a day consecrated to God on which man was not allowed to work for his own profit. Jesus frequently clashed with the Pharisees because he refused to suspend his apostolate on the sabbath. Conflicts arose when his disciples plucked ears of corn (Mt 12, 1-8), when Jesus cured a man with a withered hand in the synagogue (Mk 13, 6), when he healed a man who had dropsy (Lk 14, 1-6), and when he gave sight to the blind man at Siloam (Jn 9, 1-16). Jesus' most revolutionary statement in the discussion was: 'The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath' (Mk 2, 27). In other words, the sabbath does not derive its value from itself, from being 'sacred' time of some kind or other, but from serving a human need.

Whereas the Old Testament priests had to offer frequently at specified sacral times, Christ sanctified the totality of time by his all-sufficient sacrifice (Heb 9, 25-28). With Jesus' death the sabbath and all these sacral times had become meaningless (Gal 4, 8-11). From now on, any day and any hour of the day could be the appropriate time for prayer and celebration. The christian practice of celebrating the Eucharist on 'the first day of the week' because Christ rose on that day Jn 20, 1) led to the practice of weekly Mass on Sundays. However, the Sunday was not a new 'sabbath' for them. It is again by an unfortunate return to the Old Testament that christians of later centuries, and particularly in Protestant churches, reverted to a Sunday observance patterned on a pharisaic model.

Having seen Christ's attitude towards sacred time and place, we will not be surprised to see his same attitude towards sacred priesthood. He abolished the priesthood as a sacral institution. He himself did not belong to the priesthood of Aaron. As representative of all men, he abolished that priestly dignity which was linked to bodily descent. He established a new priesthood built on 'the power of indestructible life' (Heb 7, 16). The Old Testament notions of the priesthood were so alien to Christ that we never find him applying the term priest to himself or his followers. In fact, it is only in the letter to the Hebrews that the 'priesthood' of Christ is discussed in explicit terms and compared with the priesthood of the Old Testament (see especially Heb 5, 1-4; 7, 26-28). Christ entrusted a special task to his apostles and their successors, but he would not have agreed to this ministry being understood as setting apart a new sacred group as had been the case in Old Testament times. The later developments in the Church which favoured such a separation (with 'sacred' vestments, clerical dignities and status prerogatives) would certainly have alarmed and saddened him.

A priesthood in which all share

Christ exercised his priesthood by offering himself on Calvary and by preaching. To continue these two ministries, every disciple has to carry His cross (Mt 6, 24); each of his followers has to bear witness to him even unto persecution and death (Mt 10, 16-22). All christians therefore participate in the royal priesthood of Christ (1 Pet 2, 5-9). All can be called 'priests to his God and Father' (Rev 1, 6), 'priests of God and of Christ' (Rev 20, 6). All together they constitute 'a kingdom and priesthood to our God' (Rev 5, 10).

This common priesthood is given through the sacrament of baptism. We should note that this baptism is exactly the same for every single person. There is absolutely no difference in the baptism conferred on women. St Paul affirms that the baptism of Christ transcends and obliterates whatever social differences exist among mankind. 'It is through faith that all of you are God's children in union with Christ Jesus. For all who are baptised into the union of Christ have taken upon themselves the qualities of Christ himself. So there is no difference between Jews and Gentiles, between slaves and free men, between men and women... You are all one in union with Christ Jesus' (Gal 3, 26-28).

The ordination to the sacramental priesthood is an extension of the basic sacrificial and prophetic sharing that has already been given in baptism. Although the ministerial priesthood adds a new function to the powers received in baptism, and is thus substantially more than baptism, it is at the same time intrinsically related to it.

'Though they differ essentially and not only in degree, the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood are none the less ordered one to the other; each in its own way shares in the one priesthood of Christ.'71

When the Council says that the sharing in Christ's priesthood through the sacrament of Holy Orders is essentially different, it means that baptism by itself does not confer the commission to teach, rule and offer sacrifice in the name of Christ. It does not mean to say that for Holy Orders a different set of discriminating values would hold good.

Whatever may be required for ordination to the ministry, it cannot be a 'sacred' reality that would make one person intrinsically superior to another. Vatican II is explicit on this.

'There is a common dignity of members deriving from their rebirth in Christ, a common grace as children, a common vocation to perfection, one salvation, one hope and undivided charity. In Christ and in the Church there is, then, no inequality arising from race or nationality, social condition or sex... Although by Christ's will some are established as teachers, dispensers of the mysteries and pastors for the others, there remains, nevertheless, a true equality between all with regard to the dignity and the activity that is common to all the faithful in the building up of the Body of Christ.'72

But if sex cannot be a limiting factor as a 'sacred' reality or as a remnant of pre-baptismal inequality, how can it play a role on the level of the sacramental sign?

A priesthood of love

The claim that Christ is represented better by a man because Christ too was a man cannot be substantiated from any scriptural text. The argument given in the Roman document is of a philosophical nature. It is what is known in theology as an argument based on convenience or, as the document puts it, 'showing the profound fittingness that theological reflection discovers'. The substance of the argument is found in these words:

'"Sacramental signs," says St Thomas, "represent what they signify by natural resemblance." The same natural resemblance is required for persons as for things; when Christ's role in the Eucharist is to be expressed sacramentally, there would not be this natural resemblance which must exist between Christ and his minister if the role of Christ were not taken by a man: in such a case it would be difficult to see in the minister the image of Christ. For Christ himself was and remains a man'.

The argument is wrong because the philosophy it presupposes is wrong. The scholastics, to whom the document refers as the source of the argument, propounded a philosophy of the sexes that can no longer be defended by any christian. St Bonaventure (also quoted in the document) maintained that only the male person presents a true image of God.73 Because woman is only an 'incomplete man'74 and thus 'cannot signify eminence of degree,'75 St Thomas concluded that she could not 'resemble' Christ or be his 'image'. But surely such reasoning contradicts Scripture itself, let alone a better philosophy of human dignity. God's Word links both sexes when speaking of divine resemblance: 'God created man in the image of himself; in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them' (Gen 2, 27). And St Paul says that all, men and women, have put on Christ (Gal 2, 27). He speaks of all christians when he says, 'We, with our unveiled faces reflecting like mirrors the brightness of the Lord, all grow brighter and brighter as we are turned into the image that we reflect; this is the work of the Lord who is Spirit' (2 Cor 3, 18).

As to the symbolism of God in the Old Testament and of Christ in the New, as Bridegroom etc, such symbolism belongs basically to the Jewish context. It cannot be shown to be essential to the priesthood of Christ. What is more, Scripture itself transcends male symbolism in more than one case. The Bible stresses that there are feminine aspects to God's compassion. God's everlasting fidelity is compared to the never-forgetting love of a mother for her children (Is 49, 15). Christ is spoken of as being tender (Heb 5, 2) and anxious as a hen wanting to protect her chickens (Mt 23, 37). Even Paul speaks of himself as a mother (I Thes 2, 7; Gal 4, 19).

By stressing the male sex as such an essential characteristic of the priesthood, are we not undervaluing the priesthood of Christ? What are the features described by Scripture itself as pre-eminent in signifying Christ's presence? If we go by the qualifications seen in Jesus, the high priest, we find the following to be of paramount importance in his priesthood:

  1. To be called by God (Heb 5, 4);
  2. Having suffered himself, to be able to help those who are tempted (Heb 5, 1-2);
  3. To be able to sympathise with people's weaknesses (Heb 4, 14-16); and
  4. To be able to deal gently with the ignorant and the wayward (Heb 5, 1-10).

This is quite different from requiring that he be a (male!) descendant of Aaron. It is indeed a new priesthood ruled by its own law (Heb 7, 11-12).76

Listening to Christ himself we hear him stress love as the sign he requires. By laying down his life for his friends Christ proved his love (Jn 15, 12-13). It is by such love that the true shepherd is distinguished from the hireling (Jn 10, 11-15). Readiness to serve, not the power to dominate, makes one to be like Christ (Mt 20, 24-28). Not by presiding at table alone but by washing people's feet is the Master recognised (Jn 13, 12-16). One should note that we are not dealing here with a mere moral requirement but with an element that has sign value. 'By this love you have for one another, everyone will know that you are my disciples' (Jn 13, 35). Although Christ is speaking of love as a commandment, he is here addressing the apostles on the very occasion he is ordaining them as his priests. His 'Do this in memory of Me' presupposes pastoral love as the special sign by which his disciples should be recognised. It is such love he demands from Peter before entrusting him with the apostolic commission (Jn 21, 15-17).

Such considerations do not directly prove that women could be ordained priests. They demonstrate, however, that Scripture itself lays stress on values such as sympathy, service and love rather than on accidentals like being a man, even on the level of the sacramental sign. Would we not be nearer to Christ's mind when we stipulate that a woman filled with the spirit of Christ's pastoral love is a more 'fitting' image of his presence than a man who were to lack such love?

Go to Chapter 8?

© Copyright 1986 by J.N.M.Wijngaards
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