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The theological debate goes on. From 'Did Christ Rule Out Women Priests?'> by John Wijngaards

9. The theological debate goes on

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

The Roman Declaration against the ordination of women was published on 27th January, 1977. What has happened since then? Has there been any change of attitude on the part of the Holy Father or his Vatican advisers? What have been the reactions of theologians and other people in the Church? Has there been a shift in the argument? Has any progress been made or should we rather speak of a regression?

(written in 1986) Almost ten years have elapsed since the publication of the declaration, but Rome does not show any sign of changing its mind. On a number of occasions John Paul II has made it quite clear that he agrees with his predecessor in seeing unsurmountable doctrinal obstacles to admitting women to the priesthood. His attitude is well characterised by advice contained in a letter addressed to bishops regarding the Eucharist. A bishop's pastoral zeal should manifest itself in vigorously propounding the dignity of woman. At the same time he should take care to explain that the doctrine of the Church on the exclusion of women from priestly ordination may not be blamed on discrimination. 'Rather it arises from Christ's own intention regarding the priesthood. The bishop should prove his pastoral ability and leadership qualities by resolutely refusing any support to those people - whether individuals or groups - who defend the priestly ordination of women, whether they do so in the name of progress, of human rights, compassion or for whatever reason it may be.'80

The decision of many Churches in the Anglican Communion to go ahead with the ordination of women must have been an unwelcome development for the Vatican. The concurrence of the Orthodox Church on the other hand strengthened their position. At a high-level ecumenical meeting the Orthodox delegation declared that admitting women to the priesthood lacks any basis whatever in Holy Tradition. 'From the time of Christ and the Apostles onwards, the Church has ordained only men to the priesthood. Christians today are bound to remain faithful to the example of Our Lord, to the testimony of Scripture, and to the constant and unvarying practice of the Church for two thousand years.'81 The Vatican's unmodified stand is further illustrated by a publication containing the views of Cardinal Ratzinger, the head of the doctrinal congregation. He repeats the traditional arguments for excluding women.82

Rome's declared position has had an effect on the Church. Many bishops who openly favoured women's ordination before 1977 now feel constrained to be diplomatic in their public utterances. Polarisation between traditional and liberal groups has intensified. Disenchanted women in the United States are more and more driven into the arms of militant feminism, whereas in Europe many women are tiptoeing out. 'Those leaving the Church today are often young women who think it is useless to try to change things'.83 In countries where the laity are more actively involved in the Church, support for women priests is on the increase. In 1968 only 25% of French Catholics favoured the ordination of women; in 1982 they had risen to 45%.84 In the United States the percentage rose from 29 to 44% between 1974 and 1982. Even more significant is the age difference. Of Catholics over fifty, only four in ten would welcome the ordination of women; under thirty the figure is six out of ten.85 The trend to greater openness is unmistakable.

Such growing awareness shows that the Roman Declaration has not succeeded in stemming theological thinking. And since this booklet is mainly concerned with the theology behind the whole question, it is this that we should now concentrate on. Do the theological positions outlined in previous chapters still reflect the present state of the debate or has the battle moved to a different front?

The answer to such a question is not easy to give. It is always difficult to assess contemporary events accurately. My impression is that various developments are taking place at one and the same time. The traditional arguments championed by Rome in its 1977 declaration are still being defended or challenged. At the same time much more fundamental issues have been raised. To do justice to them all I will treat them in this order:

  1. Human sexuality
  2. Male 'headship' and feminism
  3. The masculine image of Christ
  4. The nature of the priesthood
  5. The question of equal rights

I will not try to tackle these topics exhaustively. My purpose will be to give an idea of what present-day discussion is about.

Human sexuality

The first edition of this booklet, which was also published in Holland, received a curious review in a conservative Dutch magazine. The author, who insisted on remaining anonymous (!), expressed complete agreement with the rational, theological arguments I had advanced. But, he said, I had missed what was really behind it all: women should not be ordained because of sex.

'Let me state openly what no one seemingly dares to say. In human society woman is much more vulnerable than man in the realm of sexuality. She is constantly the existential victim of man's lust. A priestly vestment cannot save her from it. Her appearance on sacred premises inevitably involves risks for herself and her surroundings on account of her desirability. One cannot rationalise about a factor of this kind because it escapes reason. And this has nothing to do with prejudice or backwardness. Only intuition is of avail here, an immediate and spontaneous insight. Because of this, women will never be ordained in the Church.'86

Traditional writers usually deny any sexual motivations in the exclusion of women from the ministry. There can be no doubt, however, regarding their reality. Underneath theological argumentation one's attitude to sex and to the sexes plays an uncannily strong part. In society sexual roles have been stereotyped to such an extent that the concept of 'women priests' is linked to deep associations. 'With many people theological reasons given for not ordaining women are connected with emotional reasons: that is, with an individual's feelings and attitudes towards men and women... The priority one gives to theological arguments has a lot to do with one's psychological make-up.'87

A number of psychological reasons are given for men's opposition to ordained women. 'Men show a deep jealousy about women's ability to give birth to children.' 'Men are caught in a love/hate power struggle with their mothers from the day of their birth.' 'Priesthood is essentially a female role. The priest gives "birth" to Christ in the symbolic action of the Mass. He acquires a self-authenticating self-fulfilling role. It is a role which men have been able to feel comfortable with because they could act as women while remaining men.'88 Clinging to an all-male priesthood has also been ascribed to 'a soft romanticism seeking to protect the importance of mystery, transcendence and symbols with inadequate but very old tactics'.89

Professional psychology is outside my field of competence and as a theologian I am reluctant to impute psychological motivations to those who do not agree with my views. Yet the weight of evidence does seem to point to unresolved problems in the area of sexuality. Rome's branding of artificial contraceptives as intrinsically evil and its holding on to obligatory celibacy for priests reveal a dubious conception of Christian sexuality and marriage. A Vatican instruction tries to keep women out of the sanctuary,90 and Pope John Paul II disapproves of girls serving at the altar.91 The conclusion is inescapable: the opposition to women priests does lie on a deeper level. A revolutionary reappraisal of sex and marriage in the spirit of the Gospel would clear the air for a more open approach to women functioning as fully human partners in the ministry.

Male 'headship' and feminism

In chapter two I pointed out that the Vatican declaration does not repeat the age-old theological prejudice that women were submitted to men at creation. The prejudice, however, is not dead. It still ranks as an important reason for rejecting the idea of women presiding over men at the Eucharist or dispensing sacramental power in the name of Christ.

For fundamentalists a few phrases in Genesis Chapter 2 and 3 and select passages in Paul's letters suffice to prove man's 'superior authority.' As in the family so in the congregation the man is the head of the woman, who should be subordinate. 'This certainly means she will not undertake offices of authority over men.' Moreover, man was directly created in the image of God, whereas woman was only created so indirectly, through man. Christ has not abrogated woman's state of subordination.92

Since woman was created in this state of dependence, we need not be surprised at finding it confirmed in human psychology. 'There are many who dislike the ordination of women though they are not really concerned that it conflicts with Scripture or tradition. Instinctively they know that men lead women and not vice versa... It is at meals that in ordinary households the husband's headship comes to expression. Therefore it would be wrong to have a woman administering a sacrament which takes the form of a meal'.93

With more sophistication and considerably more scholarship, Stephen Clark, a leader of the charismatic movement, marshals arguments in favour of inborn leadership qualities in man. 'The crosscultural evidence shows that men have held the overall governing position in every society. The data from the other sources show that men have characteristics which suit them for this role... Thus it can be seen that the data clusters in a coherent pattern around the male governing role. The data clusters in a parallel way around the female domestic role'.94 The claims of feminism can thus be exposed as a subversion of the natural order and as a doctrinal attack on the Church which will inflict 'irreversible and damaging changes'.95

Some feminists, to be sure, press their point too hard in my view; as when they refuse to admit any real physical, psychological or social differences between men and women. Such differences as exist, however, can in no way be interpreted as causing inferiority or subordination of one sex to the other. Among present-day Roman Catholic writers two feminist theologians are clearly leading the field: Rosemary Ruether96 and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza.97 With scholarly competence no less than prophetic involvement they analyse the causes of male domination in the biblical communities, in the Early Church, in the Christian Middle Ages and modern Western cultures. They also seek to recover the religious and cultural heritage of women. Their studies actually confirm, with more refined nuances than I could muster, what I outlined in Chapter 3: that man's predominance in society and religion arises from a carefully fostered 'social myth'.

The masculine image of Christ

The argument that only a man can represent Christ adequately has been restated especially by Orthodox theologians. With their sensitivity to the symbolic meaning of icons and images, they exploit the idea of representation. 'The ministerial priest, as priest, possesses no identity of his own: his priesthood exists solely in order to make Christ present... The bishop or priest therefore is an imitator, image or sign of Christ, the one mediator and high priest. In short, the ministerial priest is an icon...'98

The next step is then to recognise that 'maleness' is essential to make the representation a faithful one. The one God of both creation and revelation revealed himself primarily and essentially in a 'masculine' way. 'This is the biblical and liturgical mode of expression which cannot be altered or abandoned without changing and ultimately destroying revelation itself'. After all, the Son of God (masculine!), became flesh as Jesus Christ (masculine again!). The sacramental priest is not the image of God or divinity in general, not of the Trinity or the Holy Spirit, but of the Word Incarnate in his specifically 'masculine' being and activity. 'This image can only be actualised and effected by certain male members of the Church, who are called and equipped for this ministry'.99

What should very much be questioned, of course, is the contention that Christ's 'maleness' is an essential part of his incarnation or priestly role. I have given my own reasons for rejecting such a position in chapter 7. Other authors develop the notion of representation in parallel ways. The priest represents Christ because he represents the Church. There is no moment when the priest represents Christ apart from the Church... 'Since on the level of sign the representation of Christ is grounded in representation of the Church it would seem that a woman could perform the priestly role of representing Christ as well as a man'.100 The ordained person represents Christ of the baptismal mystery ' in whom male and female, Jew and Greek, slave and free, share a single identity'.101 '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'.102

Gilbert Ostdiek deals the deathblow to the 'male image' argument by deftly pointing out that all the sacraments are the saving actions of Christ. The minister of every sacrament takes the place of Christ and dispenses saving power in his name. 'If we then keep in mind the theological traditions which admit valid administration of baptism and marriage by women, we have already implicitly admitted that women do and can represent Christ'.103

The nature of the priesthood

Two distinct reviewers of this book's first edition drew attention to fundamental questions regarding the priesthood that would need to be studied first. 'The author fails to see the significant implications of his own emphasis on Jesus and "priesthood" when he writes: "On the contrary the priesthood of Jesus instituted is of such a nature that it breaks with all previously established human limits." Then, why not examine the present emphasis on "priesthood", its desirability, its meaning, its future rather than try to prove that Jesus was kind to animals - even women?'104 'What do we mean when we speak of "priests" today? In what exactly does ministerial priesthood consist? Is it just a matter of acting in the name of Christ at the eucharistic table or in the confessional? The answer of Vatican II is more complex and seems to give another focus to "priestly ministry"... The problem the Church faces presently may not be just that of women "priests". It may be rather that of a new vision of woman's role in a renewed and revitalised conception of Christian ministries'.105

These observations are certainly justified. Scripture studies and Church history make us realise more and more how much the Christian priesthood carries cultural accretions. Though apostolate and ministry do go back to Christ himself in a general sort of way, their division into a variety of tasks, the specific forms of the ministries and their content, derived from other sources. To fulfil its apostolate, the community of Christ's followers created new ministries according to the demands of time and place.106 This is a liberating discovery for theology. It means that the Church today can redesign the ministries in an imaginative new fashion - total new ministries, perhaps, that could do special justice to feminine charism without being less 'priestly' than the traditional forms. With many more women taking an active part in the apostolate at grass roots level, such new ministries may well eventually spring up from pastoral practice as they have done in the past.107

The question of equal rights

The exclusion of women from the Catholic priesthood is more and more seen as an act of discrimination notwithstanding Rome's profession to the contrary. The last ten years have seen a phenomenal increase of international sensitivity regarding women's rights and the need to redress injustices committed in the past. The United Kingdom accepted the Sex Discrimination Act in 1975. The European Economic Community passed a law in 1976 which included the principle of equal treatment for men and women. On 18th December 1979 the General Assembly of the United Nations endorsed an International Convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women. This has now been ratified and passed as law in a majority of member nations. Whatever excuses or legal loopholes traditionalists may resort to, in the world of tomorrow an exclusively male priesthood will appear a discriminatory anachronism.

This has been pointed out to Rome repeatedly. The most celebrated case was Sister Theresa Kane's intervention to John Paul II in October 1979. As president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, she addressed the Holy Father during his visit to Washington. She said:

'As women, we have heard the powerful messages of our Church professing dignity and reverence for all persons. As women, we have pondered upon these words. Our contemplation leads us to state that the Church in its struggle to be faithful to its call for reverence and dignity for all persons must respond by providing the possibility of women as persons being included in all ministries of our Church'.108

The Pope refused to enter into dialogue. Even in subsequent years various attempts by Sister Kane to obtain an interview with the Holy Father failed. The Vatican version of the incident was that she had overstepped her limits. But the enormous publicity given to the event by the world media and the wide support she received, show that she had expressed something many Catholic women feel: 'the Church treats us unjustly.'

When I wrote the first edition of this book I reflected on the question of equal rights. I decided not to bring them into the discussion. I wanted to meet Rome on its own theological ground. I also felt uneasy about associating ordination and rights. I felt and still feel that a person should be called to the ministry - called that is by the community, the Church. No one can claim the 'right' to be ordained. But I have now come to see that 'rights' do come in from another angle. It is one thing to hold that no individual has the right to be ordained, quite another to refuse ordination because he or she belongs to a particular group, class or nation. Should we not speak of discrimination if all Chinese, all Mexicans, all New Zealanders were excluded from the priestly ministry simply because they belong to those nations? Excluding women because they are women is a similar act of discrimination. Pretending there is no discrimination because it was Christ's will, does no more than shift the blame on Christ. He is then presented as one of the worst discriminators in the history of the world - one of the worst as it victimises so many people and as it deprives them of such deep spiritual values. It will be clear from all that I have stated in this book that this claim would be preposterous. It is not Christ who has kept women from ministering his saving power.

I took up the study of women and the priesthood in 1975 almost by accident. Then, when Rome issued its declaration I felt it to be my duty as a theologian to challenge it, for the sake of truth. I considered it mainly a pastoral issue, a typical instance of applied theology, an aspect of church life where theology could liberate people for creative rebuilding. I have now come to realise that the question of the ordination of women is of even greater, more central importance. It is immediately linked to that most crucial of present-day challenges: what kind of Church should we be in today's world? Will we have the courage to be true to Christ's liberating and revolutionary vision? Will we dare to become a new Church with relevant ministries? The future we will create for the Church can only be a future we build together. Women will have to create and build it no less than men.

Go to Notes?

© Copyright 1986 by J.N.M.Wijngaards
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