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Translators' Foreword from 'Women Priests in the Catholic Church?' by Haye van der Meer

Translators’ Foreword

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

At this point almost every major Christian church has made or commissioned an official study on the question of the ordination of women. The two outstanding exceptions are, of course, the Eastern Orthodox churches and the Roman Catholic Church. But within the latter, at least, there has been much talk over the past decade, beginning with the petition of the Swiss lawyer Gertrud Heinzelmann to the Preparatory Commission of the Second Vatican Council.(1) Most recently the 1971 International Synod of Catholic Bishops recommended that an international commission be established to study the situation of women in the Church, including the possibility of ordination.

But until the Catholic Church accepts an official report on the question, the work of Catholic scholars must assume the primacy, and there is general agreement that the work of Father van der Meer is the preeminent study. Dr. van der Meer's credentials are impressive. The research for the doctoral thesis which preceded the present book was done in the early sixties, before Dr. Heinzelmann's appeal to the council; the thesis was written under Professor Karl Rahner in Innsbruck. Since receiving his degree in 1962, Father van der Meer wrote a paper on the position of women in the Church for the Documentation Center of the Second Vatican Council(2) and has been serving as Rector of the coordinated training of all Jesuits in Holland.

This book, then, stands as the major Catholic contribution to the dialogue.

Within the past several years two other traditions have been reconsidering their positions on the question of women in orders: the various American Lutheran churches and the worldwide Episcopalian churches.

The Lutheran or Evangelical churches of all but one of the Länder in West Germany have ordained women for a good many years. Despite the objections of a small, conservative minority, the experience has been that both women pastors and their congregations are satisfied with the situation.(3) The whole question arose during the period of upheaval during and following World War II when the churches were forced to grapple with the essential problems of faith and church life. As in so many other fields, women took over positions and tasks when there were no men available.

Another problem facing the churches in Germany today may have similar results, according to Margaret Sittler Ermarth. At this time both the Lutheran (Evangelical) and Catholic churches are supported by the Kirchensteuer, or church tax. Germans may be exempted from the tax, but this requires a formal declaration of withdrawal, and as marriages, funerals, and such are still customarily performed within the churches, people are reluctant to dissociate themselves. But if the membership begins to decrease as a newer generation comes to adulthood, the churches will be faced with a greatly reduced income. And if the assumption —prevalent in so many other areas —that women can, or simply will, work for less money prevails in the churches, women may find themselves more welcome in the future.

Ordained Lutheran women in Germany find themselves operating under some limitations. In some cases women pastors are forced to resign upon marriage, this despite the fact that neither male pastors nor professionally-trained nonordained women are subject to a clause of this type in their employment contracts. Such stipulations are illegal as well. Ermarth sees this inconsistency explained by the inheritance of the Roman Catholic concept of the priesthood as having an "indelible character," but as the "character" would equally mark the male priest, it seems more likely that a version of the old idea of ritual uncleanness is operating.

Some German women ministers find themselves relegated to serving only women, children, the hospitalized, and the imprisoned, and only a few are involved in general parish work. On the other hand, in East Germany, where it is against church law for women to lead a congregation, there are more women pastors than anywhere else.

The authorized report, The Ordination of Women, issued by the combined Lutheran churches in the United States in 1970 states that by 1968 Lutheran women had been ordained in Norway, Denmark (including Greenland), Czechoslovakia, Sweden, and France as well as Germany.(4) The situation in the Church of Sweden seems to be best known in America, partly because the Scandinavian churches have served as parent bodies to some of the American Lutheran churches and partly because the tension between the Church of Sweden and the Church of England received international attention.

Dr. Lukas Vischer of the World Council of Churches summarized the situation in his Initial Statement in the WCC's booklet Concerning Ordination of Women:(5) "The Church of England has intercommunion with the Church of Sweden. The fact that the Church of Sweden has retained the Apostolic Succession made this intercommunion possible. When the ordination of women was considered in Sweden, the Church of England asked itself whether the same close relations could be maintained in the future, and many Anglican theologians expressed their misgivings. Actually, however, the relations between the two Churches do not seem to have deteriorated." (6)

In this connection the work of Krister Stendahl is especially important. Now dean of Harvard Divinity School here in the United States, Stendahl wrote a study for the 1958 Church Assembly of the Church of Sweden; it was at this assembly that the proposal for the ordination of women was voted through. His study, with a preface by the author and an introduction by the editor, Professor John Reumann, has been published in this country in pamphlet form and is read and quoted widely.(7)

Stendahl's approach is basically hermeneutic; he admits that the whole question in the Church of Sweden was concerned with biblical evidence and not with tradition. As a biblical scholar, Stendahl presents his case that the problem is not to discover exactly what Paul meant in his strictures on women, but to decide what elements of the message are binding for all time. There is a difference, he says, between something "truly biblical" and "an attempt to play ‘First-Century Bible Land.’"

The final chapter of Stendahl's study is called "Emancipation and Ordination." Here he points out that the question of any cultic role for women in the New Testament is never separated from the role of women in ordinary life, and this role —subordinate, of course —is seen as founded in the order of creation. It becomes extremely difficult then to assent to women's emancipation in civil life and to hold to subordination in the ecclesiastical area unless one makes the church the last bastion of the biblical view. Yet this too contains a contradiction, because it is in Christ, not in the world, that there is to be neither male nor female.

Stendahl writes, "If emancipation is right, then there is no valid 'biblical' reason not to ordain women. Ordination cannot be treated as a 'special' problem, since there is no indication that the New Testament sees it as such."

It is worth noting that the decision was an especially hot one in Sweden because the issue of church-state relations entered into it so strongly.(8) The Church of Sweden, being a state church, was subject to pressures from large numbers of people who were not regular and active members of the worshiping community. Secular feeling, as is usually the case in matters such as these, was far ahead of ecclesiastical attitudes on female equality. The question of the ordination of women had first been officially studied in 1919, and in 1950 the government's commission reported itself in favor of the change. There remained then passage by the Church Assembly in order for the legislation to be completed. The 1957 assembly reported it needed still more time, but the government, feeling there had been sufficient time already, called the next Church Assembly for the following year. This time the majority voted in favor of the ordination of women.

The extent to which the civil government might enter, even indirectly, into the United States situation is unclear. In March of 1970 the U.S. District Court in Georgia refused to hear a suit challenging the Salvation Army on grounds of sexual discrimination, although the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission supported the plaintiff's contention, on grounds that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not apply to religious organizations.(9) On the other hand, universities, denominational as well as state or private, are being forced to prove lack of discrimination in employment, and Jewish Orthodox rabbis have expressed great fears that the Equal Rights Amendment might mean the end of tax exemptions for sexually segregated synagogues and religious schools.

The contemporary Lutheran thinking on the subject is best summarized in the booklet The Ordination of Women, prepared by Raymond Tiemeyer. The problem was researched by a committee working through the Lutheran Council in the U.S.A.—a group including the American Lutheran Church, the Lutheran Church in America, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, and the Synod of Evangelical Lutheran Churches. The resultant study papers were then presented to an Inter-Lutheran Consultation on the Ordination of Women meeting in Dubuque, Iowa, in September of 1969. At this consultation, consisting of fifteen males and one female participant named by the various church presidents, the studies were reviewed. This report was then presented to the annual meeting of the Lutheran Council in February 1970, and findings were then distributed to the congregations by the presidents in the abridged and popularized form of this fifty-eight-page booklet.

The complete papers by the scholarly committee have never been published, and the brief summaries of course do not suggest any new insights. But other interesting facts emerge. Tiemeyer states, for example, that although there was strong difference of opinion on the ordination question, all the committee agreed that certain arguments could not be taken seriously: the incapability of woman, the masculinity of God, the fact that all the apostles were male.

The understanding of ministry became important. Tiemeyer notes that "at the inter-Lutheran consultation in Dubuque, . . . those who said headship was basically a divinely given rulership power thought it would be violated if a woman were ordained. Those who said headship was basically leadership service (di-akonia), thought a woman in the ranks would not destroy the order." (10)

Statistical results of a survey included showed that the clergy were considerably more resistant to the idea of a female clergy than were the laity. In the Wisconsin Synod, for example, 39 percent of the laity approved ordaining, but 0 percent of the clergy did. Statistics also indicated that lay men are more open to equality than lay women: 79 percent of lay men and 71 percent of lay women favored an equal voice for women; 65 percent of lay men and 51 percent of lay women favored the ordination of women.(11)

A three-page "Statement of Findings" is attached as an appendix to the booklet. The overall tone and discussion stresses that an examination of the biblical material and theological arguments has shown "the case both against and for the ordination of women inconclusive." Nor are sociological and psychological considerations or the "ecumenical argument" found decisively on one side of the question. This coincides with the findings of Dr. van der Meer in this volume. The Lutheran statement, reflecting as it does the meeting of four different constituencies, continues: "It follows that a variety of practices at any given time remains possible amid common confession."

Since the time of this report the Lutheran Church in America and the American Lutheran Church have both ordained women; one LCA woman is serving as a pastor in a New Jersey congregation. In 1972 the convention of the nongeographic "English" district of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, traditionally less conservative than the rest of that church, called for ordaining women by a vote of 168 to 104. The whole Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, however, is in the midst of a conservative-moderate struggle, and the question of the ordination of women will doubtless hinge on the outcome of that battle.

To some extent there has been less recent scholarly material on our subject coming from the Episcopal point of view than from the Lutheran and the Roman Catholic. Part of the reason is that the subject has been treated seriously by a number of scholars and a number of committees over a good many years; although this has also been true of the Lutheran churches in Europe, the American Lutheran groups act independently of their European counterparts, whereas the Episcopal churches work more in concert, and British scholarship has been considered valid for the American scene as well.

Already in 1862 the ordination of women became a live issue when the Bishop of London revived the ancient Order of Deaconesses. Other bishops did or did not follow suit as they were inclined, until the procedure was recommended to the worldwide Anglican communion at the 1920 Lambeth Conference. The 1930 Lambeth Conference again took up the issue and stated that deaconesses are ordained, but in a special way; they are sui generis. But all was still not satisfactorily clarified, and thus another commission was appointed by the archbishop of Canterbury and York to investigate women in the ministry, The commission made its report in 1935; it could not agree on whether or not women were capable of receiving priestly orders and hence rested on the ancient tradition that restricted the priesthood to males. In the years 1942-43 still another committee established by the archbishops to study the question of women in the church failed to provide a final decision. During the Second World War the bishop of Hong Kong ordained a deaconess to the priesthood because of the sudden critical shortage of priests; his action, however, was repudiated by the rest of the church, and the woman priest was returned to the status of deaconess. After the war the standing committee of the Hong Kong diocese asked the general synod of the Chinese Anglican Church to establish for twenty years the experiment of ordaining some deaconesses to the priesthood; the matter was referred to the Lambeth Conference, which returned a negative response in 1948. The Lambeth Conference of 1958, also under pressure to deal with the issue, concluded: "The Committee has considered, in the light of present circumstances, the Resolutions on the Order of Deaconesses (numbered 67-70) of Lambeth Conference, 1930. The Committee has nothing to add by way of further recommendation," (12)

In the same period a number of Anglicans published personal studies of varying depth and breadth concerning the problem of the ordination of women. An early work by Canon C. C. Raven, Women and Holy Orders (London, 1928), favored ordination. Two later favorable though brief books are Canon R. W. Howard's Should Women Be Priests? (Oxford, 1949) and Edith Picton-Turberville's Should Women Be Priests and Ministers? (London: Society for the Equal Ministry of Men and Women in the Church, 1953). Kathleen Bliss's The Service and Status of Women in the Churches (London, 1952) provides massive documentation of the involvement of women in the Christian churches throughout the world in recent times, including the practices of the various churches concerning ordaining women.

The year 1958 saw the appearance of a more extensive study of the issue by an Anglican. The Ordination of Women to the Priesthood (London, 1958) by New Testament scholar Margaret E. Thrall is a careful study of the biblical evidence, but also of the theological issues involved in the question of the ordination of women. It is a sober, scholarly work which very precisely analyzes each of the pertinent portions of the Old and New Testaments, the theological issues flowing from them, and the credal and liturgical heritage of the Anglican church; in no case does she find a sustained objection to the ordination of women. Yet the author casts her earlier, straightforward conclusions in favor of the ordination of women into a subjunctive mood at the end when she states: "No doubt a great deal more theological discussion would be necessary before the question could be regarded as conclusively settled one way or the other,"

In 1962 the Central Advisory Council for the Ministry prepared a report entitled Gender and Ministry for the Church Assembly; it asked that the theological basis of the Anglican tradition on the ordination of women be reexamined, and called for still another commission. That commission met and issued another inconclusive report in 1966, to be followed by the Report of the Lambeth Conference on Women in Orders (1968), which advised the Anglican churches to refer the matter to the about-to-be-formed Anglican Consultative Council.(13) That council met in Kenya in March of 1971 and recommended that each member church deal with the issue itself, allowing the ordination of women by an individual bishop "with the approval of his province." (14)

In the meantime a Joint Commission of Ordained and Licensed Ministries of the American Protestant Episcopal Church made its affirmative recommendation to the General Convention in October 1970. The House of Clerical and Lay Deputies gave the recommendation a majority approval (87 to 61), but the measure was defeated by the clergy in a call that the vote be taken by orders. However, at the same convention a resolution was passed to ordain women deacons in the same manner as men deacons, thereby making them regular clergy (no longer sui generis). Then at the fall 1971 meeting of the House of Bishops, upon the initiative of Bishop C. Kilmer Meyers, still another committee was called for to make "an in-depth study of the ordination of women as priests and bishops."

The reaction to this move was immediate and strong: an Episcopal Women's Caucus was formed on a national basis in October; "their first action was to urge the Presiding Bishop not to form yet another committee to study the ordination of women to the priesthood, but to act. . . . Further, the EWC informed the Presiding Bishop that its members would not serve on any committee and would urge other women not to serve. Hence, there is now no new committee, but rather a small group of bishops is to compile previous findings and report to the 1972 meeting of the House of Bishops." (15)

However, there is still a good deal of very strong feeling against the ordination of women in the Protestant Episcopal Church, and as the possibility of a move in this direction becomes less remote the opposition has become more vocal. An article which is considered by involved Episcopalians to be a good summary of the arguments against priesting women appeared in the July 1972 issue of The Episcopalian. "Why I Am Against the Ordination of Women," by Canon Albert J. duBois, is especially interesting from an ecumenical perspective because all of the author's reasons are discussed —some at great length —in Dr. van der Meer's book. DuBois's essay makes it very clear that a number of churches are approaching the same problem from the same direction, each being somewhat fearful of making significant changes lest it outpace the others, and each failing to profit by the theological and scriptural thought of the others.

Ecumenism is, as a matter of fact, one of duBois's chief concerns. As a participant in the COCU (Consultation on Church Union) discussions, the Episcopalians have felt a certain pressure to reconsider their position on the ordination of women to bring it into line with that of the majority of the other COCU participants. Canon duBois argues against making a change for the sake of a comparatively small federation and thus destroying the possibility of a later and larger union of the Episcopal, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic churches, among others.

The ecumenical argument for ordination is particularly inappropriate, according to duBois, because the Protestant concept of the ministry and the Catholic concept of the priesthood are quite different: the ministry is basically lay and pastorally oriented; the priesthood eucharistically oriented and sacramental. (That the distinction tends to be blurred today is borne out by duBois's own statement later on that "we find our Lord and the primitive Church restricting the ministry to males," when of course he is referring to the priesthood.)

The Tiemeyer study mentioned earlier noted that there was a clear relationship between the concept of ministry and the openness to the ordination of women, and the Lutheran study had concluded its Statement of Findings: "We urge, therefore, that appropriate commissions of the participating churches share in further joint study of broader topics of the 'ministry,' 'laity,' and 'church' as a context in which such specific questions must be addressed, and invite representatives of the churches to join with us in exploring fully these areas." Stendahl, too, had noted that the Church of Sweden used the term women priests, and wondered how much of the hostility had been generated simply by that term,(16) and van der Meer states that the case of the Church of Sweden needs to be considered more seriously by Roman Catholics than must the practice of some of the free churches.

All of duBois's other points as well are considered relevant to the discussion and analyzed —and disputed —by the present book. They include, briefly, the argument from the usage of the primitive church; the protective function of the male which is "symbolized in the office of the priest as the one who guards the temple and offers sacrifice"; the male priest reflecting the creative activity of God the Father; the argument from the dependence of the married woman upon her husband; the supposition that women cannot speak to us for God (though van der Meer finds that the argument that women cannot speak for us to God is more usual); the priest as Alter Christus; the relationship between the priest and his flock as analogous to the relationship of the Father and the Son; the testimony of the Fathers; the fact that Mary was not a priest (though van der Meer would take issue with the statement that nothing resembling a sacerdotal office was attributed to her even in "notoriously extravagant" popular piety, and presumably would dispute the view that she was not present at the Descent of the Spirit on Pentecost); and the fact that Jesus chose only males as apostles.

Nevertheless, as the flood of responses to Canon duBois's article indicates, granting women equal leadership possibilities in the church is being taken seriously by a growing number of concerned Episcopalians. The question of the ordination of women priests will come up again for a decision in England in 1973, and already the Anglican churches in Wales, West Africa, and Burma have voted to ordain women priests. Perhaps more unexpected was the 1 November 1972 vote of the American House of Bishops, 74 to 61 in favor of women priests, particularly in view of the contrary efforts led by Bishop C. Kilmer Meyers in the House of Bishops just a year before. The General Assembly of the American Episcopal Church, of course, still must decide on the question in its triennial meeting in the fall of 1973, but with the House of Bishops already on record in favor of women priests, the theological buttresses opposing women priests have been weakened. In the meantime, however, two women have already been ordained to the priesthood. The breakthrough came in the same place it occurred once before, during World War II, though in abortive fashion —namely, in Hong Kong.

Since the movement for the emancipation of women is a Western phenomenon of the past 150 years, there has been relatively little reflection on the question of the ordination of women priests within Eastern Christianity. However, the essays of the two Orthodox contributors to the booklet Concerning the Ordination of Women published by the World Council of Churches in 1964, which can be taken as rather typical of Orthodox Christianity's traditionalist stance on the subject, are worth a brief review. Professor Nicolae Chitescu of the Theological Institute of Bucharest stated clearly: "Women cannot receive the sacrament of ordination in the Orthodox Church. The ordination of women is prohibited both by Scripture (1 Cor. 14: 34) and by the subsequent rulings of the Church." One of the sources of the prohibition is the blood taboo:

Then there is the period when women are "impure," stressed in the Old Testament (see Leviticus 12 and 15: 19 sq.), during which according to certain canons women were not permitted to receive baptism. During this period women could not carry out priestly duties. There is a special canon prohibiting women-priests, based on this point of view. It is the second canon of Denis of Alexandria (cf. Synt. At., IV, 7). The sixth and seventh canons of Timothy of Alexandria express the same point of view (Synt. At., vol. IV, pp. 333-36). The forty-fourth canon of the local Synod of Laodicea forbade women to approach the altar in churches. ... In the Orthodox Church of Roumania old women are also employed especially to prepare the "artos" bread needed for Holy Communion, and to keep the church clean —excepting the altar.

The second essay, by the Reverend Georges Khodre (now Bishop of Beirut, Lebanon), lists the inferiority and subordination of women as reasons for not ordaining women:

Is not the submission of the wife to her husband "as to the Lord" an acceptance of that hierarchical order as a divine order, in which the wife regards her husband as the mediator of God's splendour? The idea is somewhat similar to monastic obedience. As the superior is the representative of God, by obeying him one obeys God. So that if women are not called to be mediators in the natural order, they should not assume the role of mediator in the supernatural order either through the priesthood. . . . Woman is the sign of the religious life, because womanhood means sacrifice and self-surrender.

All of the arguments presented by both these churchmen are considered in detail in the present volume.

In its form as a dissertation in 1962, the present work by Father van der Meer was the first serious favorable discussion of the ordination of women in the Catholic Church. But it was soon followed in the activist field by the 1963 resolutions of the Conference of St. Joan's International Alliance, which included:

St. Joan's International Alliance welcomes the setting up by His Holiness Pope John XXIII of a commission for the revision of Canon Law. Encouraged by the words of His Holiness in Pacem in Terris,(17) the Alliance expresses the hope that special consideration will be given those Canons which refer to women.

St. Joan's International Alliance re-affirms its loyalty and filial devotion and expresses its conviction that should the Church in her wisdom and in her good time decide to extend to women the dignity of the priesthood, women would be willing and eager to respond.(18)

The request for the ordination of Catholic women priests has subsequently been ever more pressingly urged by the Alliance. During the Second Vatican Council, Archbishop Paul Hallinan of Atlanta, Georgia, made what was considered a strong statement on the role of women:

In proclaiming the equality of man and woman the Church must act as well as speak by fraternal testimony not only in abstract doctrine. . . . We must not continue to perpetuate the secondary place accorded to women in the Church of the 20th century. We must not continue to be late-comers in the social, political and economic development that has today reached climactic conditions. . . . But the Church has been slow in denouncing the degradation of women in slavery, and in claiming for them the right of suffrage and economic equality. (Fourth Session)

There were, however, no women participants in the council, though at the final session four "auditors" were allowed in the gallery; the world-famous Catholic economist Barbara Ward was not allowed to address the council but had to have her paper read by a man. Nevertheless, in the course of the council several significant statements emerged:

There is, therefore, in Christ and in the Church no inequality on the basis of race or nationality, social condition or sex because "there is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor freeman; there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (De Ecclesiam No. 32).

With respect to the fundamental rights of the person, every type of discrimination, whether social or cultural, whether based on sex, race, color, social condition, language or religion, is to be overcome as contrary to God's intent (Gaudium et Spes No. 29).

Two recent studies authorized and presented to the American Catholic hierarchy (the National Conference of Catholic Bishops) deal briefly with the ordination of women. These are at the moment the nearest approach to an official study.

The first of these deals only with the Permanent Diaconate, a recent reintroduction in the Roman Catholic Church which is intended as an office for older, often married, men who wish to devote themselves, either professionally or in their free time, to service in the church but do not intend to study for the priesthood. Since the topic of a permanent diaconate was first mentioned there have been women who requested that it not be limited to men, arguing that there were clearly women deacons in the early church.(19)

A booklet Permanent Deacons in the United States, Guidelines on their Formation and Ministry, by the Bishops' Committee on the Permanent Diaconate, published by the United States Catholic Conference (1971), included mention of the question in its epilogue. After discussing possible changes in the present age requirement (thirty-five) and the stipulation that a man once ordained to the diaconate may not marry or remarry, the report continues:

The third critical question concerns the ordination of women as deacons. Many women, lay and religious, have offered to serve in the ordained ministry and question the justice of being excluded. Among deacon candidates themselves and leaders of training programs, there is growing conviction that women would strengthen the diaconal ministry immeasurably.

The Bishops' Committee has spent many hours of discussion on all three of these questions, listening to people who sincerely seek a change in church law in order that the gospel message and the charity of Christ might be communicated more effectively. After the widely circulated February 1971 report of the Catholic Theological Society of America had offered strong arguments in favor of the ordination of women, the Bishops' Committee discussed the question with individuals and groups who expressed reactions for or against. The committee of bishops has continued to pursue all three questions by listening to what people in the apostolate are saying and by carrying that message to churches in other countries and the Holy See.(20)

The National Conference of Catholic Bishops also commissioned a massive, many-leveled study of the priestly ministry, one portion of which was a theological study by a number of outstanding American Catholic theologians under the chairmanship of Carl Armbruster, S.J. This study has not yet been published, but in the spring of 1971 a progress report on it was made public.(21) The report stated that there were no biblical or theological grounds for opposing the priestly ordination of women.

There have been other important and scholarly works on the woman question within Catholicism, and many of them have dealt with the ordination of women. However, none of these has limited itself to this question or considered it in such depth as does Dr. van der Meer's book. The work of José Idigoras, SJ, La femme dans l'ordre sacre (Lima, Peru, 1963) is positive in its evaluation of the problem, but it is only a few score pages long in mimeographed form (summary in Informations Catholiques Internationales, November 15, 1963). The likewise positively oriented book by Sister V. E. Hannon, The Question of Women and Priesthood (London, 1967), is somewhat longer than Father Idigoras's work, but not nearly as extensive in its treatment of the matter as the Van der Meer book. Dr. Mary Daly's The Church and the Second Sex (New York, 1968), Sister Mary Lawrence (Margaret) McKenna's Women of the Church (New York, 1967), Father Charles R. Meyer's article "Ordained Women in the Early Church," Chicago Studies, vol. 4, no. 3 (Fall, 1965), pp. 285-309, Sister Albertus Magnus McGrath's What a Modern Catholic Thinks about Women (Chicago, 1972), and the work of Joan Morris dealing with the important roles achieved by women in the medieval church (The Lady Was a Bishop, New York and London, 1973) have all been important in directing the present impetus toward a reevaluation of the role of women in Catholicism. Yet none has come to grips with the ordination problem as has Dr. van der Meer.

Perhaps the most significant other Catholic work in the area is another German-language thesis. In 1970 Dr. Ida Raming successfully submitted her lengthy doctoral dissertation, "Zum Aus-schluss der Frau vom Amt in der Kirche. Eine kritische Untersuchung von Kanon 968, § 1 des Codex Iuris Canonici" ("The exclusion of woman from office in the church. A critical investigation of Canon 968 § 1 of the Codex Iuris Canonici"), to the Catholic theology faculty of the University of Munster, Germany. Dr. Raming's work is an analysis of the sources of the legal exclusion of women from Holy Orders in the Catholic Church. It traces the sources of Canon 968 § 1, "Only the baptized male (vir) can validly receive Holy Orders," back to the great codification of church law by Gratian in the twelfth century, and beyond him to his sources: the Bible, the Fathers, and earlier conciliar decisions. A number of things become clear in this analysis: a large part of Gratian's work in this area was based on earlier forged documents (the pseudo-isidorian decretals), on documents that were erroneously thought to be conciliar decrees (Statuta Ecclesiae Antiqua), and serious misreadings or misunderstandings of other documents; at the base of Gratian's work in this area was his conviction of the decided metaphysical and moral inferiority of women and their consequent "status subjectionis." Dr. Raming further analyzes the developments from Gratian's time forward.

The work of Dr. Raming is an important scholarly complement to the present work of Dr. van der Meer, for next to the theological objections to the ordination of women the arguments from tradition and canon law are most important. Pope Paul VI already began to strengthen this secondary bulwark in his Motu proprio of September 1972, in which he excluded women from Holy Orders on the grounds that it was a venerable tradition to insist that, "only the baptized male can validly receive Holy Orders."

Two other recent events concerning the question of the ordination of Catholic women priests are of significance. In the fall of 1971 the National Conference of Catholic Bishops appointed an episcopal committee, under the chairmanship of Archbishop Leo Byrne of Saint Paul, Minnesota, to investigate the rights of women in the church and society; to date the committee has been gathering information. Secondly, the International Synod of Bishops meeting in Rome in the fall of 1971 provided a broad platform for the discussion of the disabilities women suffer in the Catholic Church (the two themes for the synod were the priesthood and justice). Between October 2nd and 22nd there were seventeen speeches concerning women. Cardinal George Flahiff of Winnipeg dismissed the arguments traditionally used to bar women from the priesthood as invalid, calling them "sociological, not doctrinal or scriptural reasons." He continued;

Texts of Vatican II ... made categorical statements against all discrimination against women in the church. But . . . many excellent Catholic women in particular, and other persons as well, find that no notable effort has been made to implement this teaching. . . . The bishops of Canada invited highly qualified representatives of Canadian Catholic women . . . to discuss the question. . . . In a General Assembly . . . the Episcopal Conference of Canada almost unanimously adopted the recommendation which in the name of the same conference I hereby submit to this synod: That a representative of the Canadian Catholic Conference urge the forthcoming Synod of Bishops to recommend to the Holy Father the immediate establishment of a mixed commission (that is, composed of bishops, priests, laymen and laywomen, religious men and religious women) to study in depth the question of the ministries of women in the Church.(22)

Archbishop Leo Byrne, spokesman for the U.S. bishops at the same synod, applauded contemporary woman's sense of equality with man as "wholesome and Christian, liberation in the best sense," and seconded Cardinal Flahiff's request for an international commission. He further urged every episcopal conference to undertake a study of its culture, church law, and practice, to eliminate discrimination against women.(23)

During the last week of October 1971 the 210 bishops of the synod met in twelve language groups to discuss the main issues of world justice. Nine of the twelve reports demanded action with regard to women's rights. The French group, chaired by Cardinal Suenens, asked for the immediate placement of women in parish and diocesan councils, Roman congregations and commissions, and also proposed that a representative committee be formed by the synod to prepare a theme for the next synod —i.e., the role of women in the church (participation in ministry, juridical status).

In the end the synod did pass a resolution to recommend the establishment of an investigatory committee concerning the status of women in the church, which was to report to the next meeting of the synod (later determined to be held in 1974), but after the bishops left Rome and before the resolutions were put in absolutely final form to be delivered to the Pope, the text was changed to make the committee responsible to the Pope rather than the synod. To date there is no indication that Rome has begun to establish the committee.

The Pope's September 1972 Motu proprio on the restructuring of minor clerical orders (which specifically barred women from officially receiving the "ministries" of lector and acolyte) was shown not to be significant when Archbishop Anthony Jordan of Edmonton, Canada, noted that "the two documents of September 14, ... while maintaining that sacred orders are conferred only on men, have no relation at all to the recent movement in the church to have women admitted to the ministry of the church. . . . The study which produced the two documents was undertaken years ago, before the latest Synod of Bishops. " This judgment was corroborated by a later Vatican clarification; the National Catholic News Service story on it read in part:

Stung by protests from women, especially champions of women's rights, the Vatican has pleaded innocent to charges it demoted women in its recent rulings on minor orders. . . . The Vatican's clarification, however, said it would be "inopportune to anticipate or prejudice what might subsequently be established at the end of the study on women's participation in the church's community life." This was the first public indication that the Vatican had accepted the request of several participants in the 1971 World Synod of Bishops for a serious theological study of the possibility of ordaining women.(24)

In late 1972, however, the American Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Pastoral Research and Practice, chaired by Bishop John R. Quinn of Oklahoma City, issued a very brief (four page) report entitled "Theological Reflections on the Ordination of Women." It briefly rehearsed seven traditional arguments against the ordination of women, devoting a paragraph to each. It concluded: "For the present, however, we can see from theology only a continuation of the established discipline [that is, excluding women from ordination]. Considering the strength of that discipline and the numerous uncertainties detailed in this paper, the needed study on this question is now just beginning. As is evident, every one of the points listed in this report calls for a major study." Since Father van der Meer's book painstakingly analyzes —and finally rejects —all of the arguments in this short report, we are certain that the translation of his book into English will be of immense assistance in this forthcoming study.

American Catholic women, however, have already begun to enter theological seminaries. The first was Mary B. Lynch, who entered the Catholic Seminary, Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1971; since then several other Catholic seminaries have indicated that they are open to accepting women. In those Protestant churches which do ordain women there has been a pattern: the seminaries were first opened to women, and then, only after there was a group of theologically trained women, was the question of the ordination of women officially decided in the affirmative.

On the ecumenical level there has long been a keen interest in the question of the status of women in the church and particularly the ordination of women, since some churches ordain women and some do not, thereby providing at least a possible obstacle to church unity. At the Third Assembly of the World Council of Churches in New Delhi, 1961, the Department on Faith and Order was requested to establish a study in conjunction with the Department on Cooperation of Men and Women in Church, Family, and Society, on the theological, biblical, and ecclesiological issues involved in the ordination of women. This they did in the form of the booklet Concerning the Ordination of Women (Geneva, 1964), which consists of an introduction summing up the issues, a statement by a small consultation on the subject held at the WCC headquarters in Geneva, two papers on the scriptural evidence, and three personal comments from the Anglican tradition and two Orthodox traditions. All of the Protestant contributions were favorable, the Anglican was ambiguous, and the Orthodox was strongly negative toward the notion of the ordination of women.

In September 1970 the WCC sponsored a broader Consultation on the Ordination of Women, at Cartigny, Switzerland; it produced a number of mimeographed reports which included the statement that

the right ecumenical attitude is surely not for one church to refrain from change because another church has not moved, but to declare that discrimination cannot be permitted in any part, and attempt to persuade towards the truth those parts which still practise and indeed institutionalise discrimination. Within confessions, a Church may be called to lead her sister Churches into a fuller understanding of women's ministry and a greater readiness to explore and manifest this ministry.

On the American scene doubtless the most important ecumenical project is the Consultation on Church Union (COCU), an effort begun in 1962 to unite into one church nine American Protestant churches, ranging from the Protestant Episcopal Church to churches from the Calvinist tradition. The Plan of Union now before the participating churches has taken a clear stand in favor of the ordination of, and equal authority for, women. How many of the nine churches participating in the consultation, or others, will actually join together to form the "Church of Christ Uniting" remains to be seen. Nevertheless, the pertinent portions of the present Plan of Union are worth quoting since they have been agreed to by the representatives of the nine churches to the consultation:

The structures of the church shall provide for inclusiveness of all its members, and for their full participation and representation in every aspect of the church's fellowship and ministry . . . embracing the unity of all persons, regardless of race, age, sex, wealth, or culture (chapter 2, no. 17).

The ministry of the laity is one ministry within the structures of the world and of the church. No differences of vocation, situation, age, or sex shall obscure this essential participation in Christ's ministry (chapter 7, no. 18).

In ordination, the united church recognizes that the call to the individual man or woman is of God, prays that the one to be ordained will continue to receive the gifts of God, believes that God gives grace appropriate to the office, accepts and authorizes this ministry in and for the church (chapter 7, no. 32).

In every area of the new structure, in both lay and ordained leadership the united church shall assure all races, various age groups and both sexes the right of full participation. To assure such wholeness, the church will: ... (2) enlist women for all offices of the ordained and lay ministry and provide for full participation by women in all policy-making groups (chapter 8, nos. 14, 16).

Each parish and each governing body beyond the parish shall elect a committee on equity that shall include a fair representation of minority groups, men, women, and young people, whose duty it shall be to assure implementation of these principles, to review the performance of the church, and to report regularly to the body which elected it with recommendations for any needed corrective action (chapter 8, no. 19).

One section of the officially established bilateral consultation between the Roman Catholic and Reformed family churches in America devoted several years study to the status of women in their churches. Their final lengthy report included the following strong recommendations:

2. That seminary education in all the Churches be opened to qualified women; that qualified women be admitted to ordination; that in those Churches where the ordination of women presents theological difficulties and no theological study of the matter has been made, a theological committee be established immediately to investigate the problem and make recommendations. . . .

3. That the North American Area Council, World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Bishops' Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs establish and fund an Ecumenical Commission on Women, inviting other Churches involved in bilateral consultations with the Roman Catholic Church to join them on an equal basis in responsibility and funding for this commission and sharing the fruits of its labors; that the members of this commission be predominantly women from all the sponsoring Churches who are actively engaged in the lives of their Churches and also positively concerned for women's dignity, freedom, and rights; that the purpose of this commission be to facilitate the fulfillment of the first two recommendations and to safeguard and extend the gains made.(25)

Save for the fact that some individual Catholic seminaries have since accepted women students, these recommendations have not been acted upon.

In the late 1960s the women's liberation movement burgeoned into a mass movement in the United States and overflowed into other countries. It very quickly began to be reflected in the churches and in religious publications, resulting in a flood of books, special issues of magazines, and individual articles on women in the church. The most comprehensive monitoring of publishing in this field is carried out by the Philadelphia Task Force on Women and Religion, in a newsletter entitled Genesis III (P.O. Box 20043, Philadelphia, Pa. 19139). Another ecumenical group active in the field is the Ecumenical Task Force on Women and Religion of the National Organization for Women (P.O. Box 836, Berkeley, Calif. 94701), which also puts out a newsletter. The Boston Theological Institute (a consortium of six theological seminaries and universities) has given birth to a Women's Institute: there are nearly two hundred women postgraduate theological students in the BTI institutions and women on all the theological faculties. The largest professional organization of religions scholars in America is the American Academy of Religion; in 1971 a section on women's studies in theology and religion was formed within it, and in 1972 it began to sponsor papers on the subject at the annual conferences.

The range of concern of these and other ecumenical groups usually extends to all aspects of the involvement of women in religion, but many of them center their focus on problems around ordination of women.

Within this ecumenical and social context the need for a scholarly investigation of the ordination of women from a Roman Catholic viewpoint is clear. We hope Dr. van der Meer's work will make a major contribution to both Catholic and ecumenical thinking.

Arlene and Leonard Swidler


1. Wir schweigen nicht länger! We Wont Keep Silence Any Longer (Zurich, 1964). This is a collection of essays in either German or English by a number of Catholic women — Swiss, German, and American — who deal with the status of women in the Catholic Church. It includes a petition by Dr. Heinzelmann addressed to the Preparatory Commission of Vatican Council II concerning the place of woman in the Roman Catholic Church, and resolutions on the same subject passed by St. Joan’s International Alliance at its 1963 and 1964 conventions. (“St. Joan’s Alliance grew from the Catholic Woman’s Suffrage Society founded in London in 1911, the only association of Catholics to work for woman’s suffrage . . . , and enjoys consultative status with the United Nations.”)

2. “De positie van de vrouw in de Rooms-Katholieke Kerk,” Do-C (Documentatie Centrum Concilie) paper no. 194 (1965).

3. Much of the following is taken from a summary of the German Lutheran situation in Margaret Sittler Ermarth, Adam’s Fractured Rib (Philadelphia, 1970), pp. 71-85.

4. Raymond Tiemayer, The Ordination of Women (Augsburg, 1970), pp. 34 f. John Reumann, in Krister Stendahl, The Bible and the Role of Women (Philadelphia, 1966), p. ix, also mentions Holland.

5. World Council of Churches, Concerning the Ordination of Women (Geneva, 1964), p. 3.

6. Van der Meer also treats this matter: “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. . . .” (see chap. I).

7. Stendahl, The Bible and the Role of Women (Philadelphia, 1966).

8. Stendahl traces the history on pp. 2-4.

9. Genesis III, vol. 1, no. 4 (Philadelphia, Nov.-Dec., 1971), p. 3.

10. Tiemeyer, Ordination of Women, p. 16.

11. Ibid., p. 41.

12. The Lambeth Conference 1958 (London, 1958), p. 2.112.

13. “34. The Conference affirms its opinion that the theological arguments as at present presented for and against the ordination of women to the priesthood are inconclusive.
“35. The Conference requests every national and regional Church or province to give careful study to the question of the ordination of women to the priesthood and to report its findings to the Anglican Consultative Council (or Lambeth Consultative Body) which will make them generally available to the Anglican Communion.” The Lambeth Conference 1968 (London, 1968), pp. 39-40.

14. “In reply to the request of the Council of the Church of South East Asia, this Council advises the Bishop of Hong Kong, acting with the approval of his Synod, and any other bishop of the Anglican Communion acting with approval of his Province, that if he decides to ordain women to the priesthood, his action will be acceptable to this Council, and this Council will use its good offices to encourage all Provinces of the Anglican Communion to continue in communion with these dioceses.” Resolution of the Anglican Consultative Council meeting in Limura, Kenya, 23 February to 5 March 1971 (Ecumenical Press Service, 11 March 1971, p. 5).

15. Genesis III, vol. 2, no. 1 (Philadelphia, May/June, 1972). Since the preparation of this translation there has appeared an excellent summary of the customary arguments pro and con by two Episcopal women: Emily C. Hewitt and Suzanne R. Hiatt, Women Priests: Yes or No? (New York, 1973). The book includes a chronology and documentation of the question in the Episcopal Church.

16. Stendahl, The Bible and the Role of Women, p. 2.

17. Paragraph 41: “Secondly, it is obvious to everyone that women are now taking a part in public life. . . . Since women are becoming ever more conscious of their human dignity, they will not tolerate being treated as mere material instruments, but demand rights befitting a human person in domestic and public life.”
Paragraph 15; “Human beings have the right to choose freely the state of life which they prefer, and therefore the right to establish a family, with equal rights and duties for man and woman, and also the right to follow a vocation to the priesthood or the religious life.”

18. Heinzelmann (see n. 1 above), p. 11.

19. Already in its 1963 resolutions St. Joan’s International Alliance affirmed “its belief that the dedicated work done by so many women for the Church would be more firmly based if they had some outward sign of the official support and blessing of the Church. As a concrete suggestion St. Joan’s International Alliance submits that, if in the future, diaconal status duties are to be entrusted as an independent ministry, this ministry be open to both men and women.” Heinzelmann (see n. 1 above), p. 111. In 1970 Jeanne Barnes began a Deaconess Movement within the American Catholic Church. The movement’s newsletter, The Journey (Mary B. Lynch, ed., 4852 N. Kenwood Ave., Indianapolis, Ind. 46208), now has a circulation of over 400. Canada too has its own newsletter, Diakonos. Carrying this idea of an organization with a newsletter into the area of a movement for women priests, Sister Valentine Buisseret (Dorminicaine, 33 rue Auguste Gevaert, 1070 Brussels, Belgium) announced in 1972 the founding of an international Association of Women Aspiring to the Presbyteral Ministry.

20. Page 54.

21. National Catholic Reporter, 30 April 1971.

22. “At a meeting of the Canadian Catholic Conference in spring of 1971, sixty-five of Canada’s seventy-five bishops met with sixty women in a dialogue workshop on the status of women. A set of recommendations were submitted to the hierarchy for consideration and were accepted in principle 64 to 1. The recommendations were the following:

(1) Declare clearly and unequivocally that women are full and equal members of the church, with the same rights, privileges and responsibilities as men.

(2) Make strong immediate representations to the forthcoming synod of bishops, asking that all discriminatory barriers against women in canon law and tradition be removed.

(3) Ordain qualified women for the ministry,

(4) By whatever means deemed appropriate, encourage the presence of qualified women on all bodies dealing with matters which concern all church members.

(5) That all practical measures be taken to ensure that the attitude of the clergy toward women, sexuality and marriage respect the inherent dignity of women." Ibid.

23. “Episcopal conferences should undertake serious studies of their own national cultures and of church law and practice in order to eliminate any form of infringement on the rights of women in civil or ecclesiastical life.
“This study should investigate the entire area of implications of women’s rights in both civil and church society. It should be complemented but not replaced by a study of an international commission established by the Holy Father, as suggested by Cardinal Flahiff, These studies should investigate the possibility of advancing qualified women to the service of the church (I shall submit to the synod secretariat a separate memorandum on this point).
“Women are not to be excluded from service to the church, if the exclusion stems from questionable interpretation of scripture, male prejudice, or blind adherence to merely human traditions that may have been rooted in the social position of women in other times.” National Catholic Reporter, 5 November 1971.

24. National Catholic Reporter, 20 October 1972.

25. Journal of Ecumenical Studies, vol. 9, no. 1 (Winter, 1972): 239-41. The quoted report was issued by the Worship and Mission Section of the Roman Catholic/Presbyterian-Reformed Consultation. The Theology Section of the same Consultation issued a statement on “Ministry in the Church,” including the following pertinent passage: “Because of the growing consensus among Roman Catholic and Reformed theologians that there is no insurmountable biblical or dogmatic obstacle to the ordination of women, and because of our common insights into the present and future needs of the people of God, we conclude that ordination of women must be part of the Church’s life. , . . Since the problems and potentialities of the entry of women into the ministry of the Church, ordained as well as unordained, and indeed the full involvement of women in the whole of society, are in many ways common to all our churches, it is of the utmost importance that this issue be dealt with ecumenically as well as by each individual church.
Therefore, we recommend that an ecumenical commission composed of women and men be constituted by our churches: to study the role of women in church and society, especially the involvement of women in offices and leadership functions, both clerical and lay, to recommend corrective and innovative actions and programs in these areas, and to monitor their implementation." Journal of Ecumenical Studies, vol. 9, no. 3 (Summer, 1972): 593-95.

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