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Introduction to 'Women Priests in the Catholic Church?' by Haye van der Meer


Women Priests in the Catholic Church?
by Haye van der Meer, Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 1973, pp. 5-9.
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions

Writers of manuals on dogmatic theology do not spend much time on the thesis "Subjectum ordinationis est solus mas" —only a male is a subject for ordination. The reader gets the impression that they really think that the matter is not only quite clear but has long since been conclusively and neatly proved by theologians. It is noteworthy that not only the manuals written many years ago now being reissued but even the newly written works proceed as though no real new investigations on this point were necessary. In reading, for example, Joseph A. Wahl's dissertation The Exclusion of Woman from Holy Orders,(1) or the article by H. Rondet, "Éléments pour une théologie de la femme," (2) or a few excerpts from G. Philips's article, "La femme dans 1'Église," (3) one notices that these authors at bottom do nothing but (1) quote a few Scriptural passages —1 Cor. 11, 3-16; 1 Cor. 14, 33-36; 1 Tim. 2, 11-15, and what the Haustafeln, or household rules, say about the subjection of woman; (2) quote a few passages from the Fathers and several ancient synods and other documents like the Didascalia, the Constitutiones Apostolorum, and the Statuta Ecclesiae Antiquae; (3) quote the ratio theologica from Thomas Aquinas.(4)

There are of course several attempts at a more profound analysis, as for example E. Krebs's article "Vom Priestertum der Frau,"(5) or the article by A. M. Henry, "Le mystère de 1'homme et de la femme," (6) or R. Laurentin's investigations in the second part of his book Marie, l'Église et le Sacerdoce,(7) or F. X. Arnold's treatment in his book Woman and Man;(8) but these authors too, it seems to me, treat the matter too facilely.

Other contributions on this theme are limited to the purely historical area, relating, for example, to the question of whether the deaconesses of the first eleven centuries received a truly sacramental ordination; or they may refer merely to various ecclesiastical statements pertaining to woman.(9)

But it seems to be really necessary that the question of priestly ordination for women be reconsidered completely afresh. The first reason for this is clearly the dialogue with our fellow Christians of the Reformation. The Catholic side can no longer ignore the fact that various major Protestant groups such as the Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish Lutheran churches have admitted women to the ordained ministry.(10) And the largest of the Dutch Calvinist denominations, the Nederlandse Hervormde Kerk, has recognized female pastors as complete equals since 1958 (even if only as exceptions and with the dispensation of the synod in each case).

We are thus no longer concerned merely with a step taken by the smaller churches or by the distinctly spiritualizing sects, but with movements that are almost high church in nature. In general it is in the high church movements (Anglican,(11) Orthodox,(120 Old Catholic(13)) that there is the least inclination to admit woman to orders.(14) But it is wrong to accept this too easily as a reason for not having to engage in the question oneself. It is, of course, possible to take the view that the high church groups have preserved a better sense of the sacraments than have our other separated brethren. But one should really ask oneself whether in this case the high church groups have not mistaken two different problems —the idea that the community is the final source of ecclesiastical authority, and the question of the possibility of the admission of women into the apostolic succession. To accept the second is not to affirm the first. In any case it has still never been demonstrated that the priesthood of women is the same thing as the rejection of apostolic succession or that it even implies this. Many advocates of priesthood for women have of course thought along these lines,(15) but the two ideas are nevertheless distinct.

There are now, at least in the Scandinavian churches, women on whom the bishops have imposed hands and upon whom the Mass vestments have been conferred.(16) That means that now, even among Christians who make the same efforts as we do to deal with the full traditions of their churches —and not merely among groups like the Quakers, the Salvation Army, the Congregationalists, and other such churches and groups in which the community is considered the unrestricted bearer of all authority (17) —the opinion prevails that the female priestly office does not contradict the essence of Christianity. The Catholic dogmatic theologian, then, should not pass over the problem but must come to terms with it afresh. Otherwise there will arise a breach in the dialogue with his Christian brethren.

From the Catholic viewpoint too, we can no longer hold that the usual thesis presents no problem. Even independent of these developments within Protestantism the simple fact that women can now enter many professions and, what is more important, assume offices which until a short time ago were closed to them can have consequences in the religious area. The question of whether they can now also be priests follows naturally, as —to mention only one example —it actually did for Edith Stein.(18)

And a contemporary dogmatic theologian can no longer be satisfied with the methods of theological demonstration which are still employed by very many writing on this problem. The mere citation of a few passages, even if they are chosen from among many, brings us, I feel, nowhere. The texts must be analyzed with care, and the conditions of the times which gave rise to these statements or formed their background should be borne in mind. When, for example, an Epiphanius of Salamis reacts vigorously against the women priests who officiate in a number of heretical communities, these texts cannot simply be accepted without further attention as a valid "argument from the Fathers," for a further reading makes clear that Epiphanius feels there is a necessary close connection between the female priesthood and the adoration (cultus latriae) of Mary. The authors citing him make no mention of this! But this circumstance makes his repudiation a time-conditioned factor.

The task which this book takes upon itself is to scrutinize carefully all the proofs which dogmatic theologians offer on this thesis. It will not be asserted that these usual proofs have no value. But question marks will be placed alongside the various points, and from time to time I shall point out arguments which are defective in their demonstration, ambiguities, unexplained leaps in the development of an idea, places where a writer has jumped to the desired conclusion too quickly.

This book will therefore not make a judgment on the correctness of the thesis itself, and still less on the correctness of the Church's practice, but merely on the finality of theological speculation up until the present, or rather on its integrity and adequacy. I shall not go into the question of whether ecclesiastical practice has been correct, for in an earlier age it possibly was. On the other hand I shall also not go into the question of whether the practice of the Church could perhaps be altered, to say nothing of whether it must be. Likewise I shall not investigate whether in this reference a genuine intuition illuminates the Church, stating something about its essence or about the essence of its hierarchical office, which is quite possible in and of itself, even if the theological basis is incomplete. I shall suspend the question of whether the contemporary closing of office to woman is a de facto practical measure (as, for example, the contemporary stipulation on communion sub una specie or the earlier stipulations that one could not be reconciled with the Church more than once), or whether it belongs to the essence of office by "divine law." I shall thus not consider whether a better theological understanding might be possible and shall myself make no attempt at this.

I am not attempting to prove either that a woman can be consecrated as a priest now or that she never can be, for a theological response to this question would exceed the limits of this book. Such a study would have to include (1) a penetrating investigation of the essence of the sacrament of orders and of the episcopal office; (2) the same for the Church and for Mary; (3) the same for the correct use of Scripture and the Fathers in theology; (4) the entire metaphysics, psychology, and sociology of man and of woman.

In reference to these four points, I cannot go along with Karl Barth when he says (speaking of the tasks of man and of woman in general) that he is determined to avoid all phenomenology and typology of the sexes because he believes we have no right to attribute specific differences to the sexes as such if we are asking about God's commandment. Specific differences, even if we think we have some knowledge concerning them, cannot be presumed, says Barth; otherwise we would be asserting that we already know the content of the divine commandment, about which ethics can hope only to raise rather limited questions.(19) As this subject would lead us much too far from our task, however, we must leave it unsettled.

These four points will come up for discussion again and again, but not all —or, in fact, any one of them —will be elaborated exhaustively. Our method will be this: as individual arguments presented by dogmatic theologians are considered, material from these four points will occasionally be presented in order to show that the arguments need at least expansion and sometimes even serious correction. The real purpose of this work will thereby be achieved: proof will be furnished that the problem is still far from settled, that it needs more investigation—in other words, that Catholic dogmatic theologians may not hold that according to the present position of theology it is already (or still) established on a scholarly basis that "office" should, by divine law, remain closed to women. Perhaps it is indeed forbidden to women by divine law; but up until now there still has not been a satisfactory scholarly presentation of the thesis. Writers have comfortably referred to passages from Scripture and the Fathers without feeling any obligation to think the question through for themselves and to examine the passages critically; and even where rethinking has been attempted, the work has not been sufficiently deep and critical. I shall merely present these errors.

This work will thus be more a synopsis of all that would have to be investigated and taken into consideration for the proof of the thesis than a proper demonstration pro or con.

The customary proofs from Scripture, the Fathers, the rnagisterium, and speculative theology will be discussed.


1. Joseph A. Wahl, The Exclusion of Woman from Holy Orders, Studies in Sacred Theology, 2d series, no. 110 (Washington: Catholic University of America, 1959).

2. H. Rondet, “Éléments pour une théologie de la femme,” Nouvelle revue théologique 79 (1957): 915-40.

3. G. Philips, “La femme dans 1’Église,” Ephemerides theologicae lovanienses 37 (1961): 597-603.

4. Summa Theologiae suppl., q. 39, a. 1 (taken from 4 Sent, d. 25, q. 2, a.l).

5. E. Krebs, “Vom Priestertum der Frau,” Hochland 19 (1922): 196-215.

6. A. M. Henry, “Le mystere de l’homme et de la femme,” Vie spirituelle 80 (1949): 463-90; cf. also, “Pour une théologie de la féminité” Lumière et vie 8 (1959): 100-128.

7. Rene Laurentin, Marie, l’église et le sacerdoce, Etude théologique (Paris, 1953), vol. 2, esp. pp. 69-83.

8. Franz Xaver Arnold, Woman and Man, Their Nature and Mission, trans. Rosaleen Brennan (New York: Herder and Herder, 1963).

9. Cf. the literature in chapters III and IV, esp. de Labriolle, Daniélou, Gillmann, Giner Sempere, Lafontaine.

10. Cf. J. E. Havel, “La question du pastorat féminin en Suède,” Archives de sociologie des religions 4 (1959): 116-30; interesting factual material is also found in D. Zähringer, “Die Frau am Altar und auf der Kanzel?” Erbe und Auftrag 36 (1960): 304-15.

11. M. E. Thrall, The Ordination of Woman to the Priesthood (London, 1958); L. Magistra, “The Ministry of Woman,” Theology 63 (1960): 281-85; cf. also ibid., pp. 377 f., 387 f., 472 f.; E. L. Mascall, Woman and the Priesthood of the Church (London, 1960).

12. P. Evdokimov, La femme et le salut du monde (Paris, 1958).

13. P. J. Jans, “Mann und Frau in ihrem Verhältnis zum kirchlichen Amt,” Internationale kirchliche Zeitschrift, 52 (1962): 145-56.

14. Cf. J. Daniélou, “L’ordination des femmes en Suède,” Etudes 305 (1960): 398 f.

15. E. Hertzsch, “Das Problem der Ordination der Frau in der evan-gelischen Kirche,” Theologische Literaturzettung 81 (1956): 379 f.; cf. also Zähringer (n. 10 above).

16. Zähringer, p. 304.

17. Charlotte von Kirschbaum, Der Dienst der Frau in der Wortver-kündigung, Theologische Studien 31 (Zurich, 1951), p. 3.

18. Edith Stein, Die Frau, Ihre Aufgabe nach Natur und Gnade, Edith Steins Werke 5 (Freiburg-Louvain, 1959), pp. 42 f.; cf. pp. 105 f.

19. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics (hereafter cited as CD) III/4 (Edinburgh, 1961), pp. 151 f.

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