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The Churches Stance Continues the Practice of Christ and the Apostles by Inos Biffi

The Churches Stance Continues the Practice of Christ and the Apostles

Inos Biffi
published in L'Osservatore Romano 11:17(March 1993):8.

1. Although several years have gone by since the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published its declaration,. Inter Insigniores on the admission of women to the ministerial priesthood (October 1976) it still retains its value regarding both the formulation of the terms of the question in their concrete context and the dogmatic references involved in its "authoritative and official," although not infallible solution: in addition to this, later interventions by the magisterium, for example, Mulieris Dignitatem, confirmed it.

Two contexts are recognized as the motivation behind the question of admitting women to the ministerial priesthood: the more general one of the demand for women's advancement with their assumption of increasingly visible and significant roles in public life; the other, more specific one of the emphasis on the presence of women in the Church's life and activity.

Having accepted the necessity and value of this advancement as such, Inter Insigniores shows the new "theological" relevance of a conclusion which would signify and consequently entail the admission of women to priestly ordination. In fact, the only valid perspective for correctly determining the problem is the "theological" one which, on the one hand, has no prejudice for or against the issue and, on the other, does not allow itself to be based on cultural or anthropological reasons that are extraneous to the criteria by which a topic involving the Christian mystery and praxis should be judged and solved.

2. The critically assumed theological reason or the dogmatic place of considered discernment is the one fundamental for Christian hermeneutics: tradition, where in various forms, including calm conviction, the Church's authentic consciousness is at work and is revealed. In our case, with a unanimity that resisted other divergences and with a stability that was in no need of explicit intervention, the Church "has never felt that priestly or episcopal ordination can be validly conferred on women" (Inter Insigniores, no. 1), with the conviction that in this she remains "faithful to the type of ordained ministry willed by the Lord Jesus Christ and carefully maintained by the apostles" (no. 1).

Now in this same stability and unanimity the Church does not reveal a decision of her own, but her obedience to and dependence on Christ and the apostles, who did not give her the competence to "manage" the sacraments beyond the substance assigned to them by the one who instituted them.

Apostles Remained Faithful to Jesus' Attitude

3. As for Jesus Christ, it can be clearly seen that his new and original behavior in regard to women was profoundly liberated from Jewish cultural conditioning: "His attitude towards women was quite different from that of his milieu, and he deliberately and courageously broke with it" (no. 2). Despite this, Inter Insigniores observes, he "did not call any women to become part of the Twelve" (no. 2), and even his mother was not invested with the apostolic ministry.

Nor is any difference to be seen in the practice of the apostles, who "remained faithful to the attitude of Jesus" (no. 3). They also distanced themselves from anti-feminist attitudes, displaying a noteworthy evolution in this regard. Nevertheless, we never find them asking if ordination should be conferred on women; in spite of the important role played by women and their substantial cooperation, in apostolic times they did not perform a public, official function which always belonged "exclusively to the apostolic mission" (no. 3).

4. Indeed, it is a question of seeing what significance should be attributed to the behavior of Jesus and the apostles.

Some people have held, and still do, that it is merely the result and an indication of non-binding cultural and "historical circumstances," in much the same way as some New Testament prescriptions about women are not considered normative. Even further, according to some a change in this regard would be legitimate, and would be in the Church's power to foster, as she has done with other aspects of the sacraments down through the centuries.

Similar objections, the most frequently recurring ones, refer us back to the essential questions: what binding force should be attributed to the attitude of Jesus and the apostles? "Would it be within the Church's authority to change the subject upon whom sacred orders is conferred)

5. The response cannot come from any voice other than that of the Church's magisterium, whose task it is to discern what is unchangeable in regard to the sacraments or what represents their substance, and what can change; in other words between what corresponds to Christ's intention and what belongs to a variable discipline, obviously distinguishing between essential "fidelity" and archaism.

According to Inter Insigniores, the Church's tradition in this regard, with its characteristics of stability and unanimity, shows an objective magisterium, according to which the conferral of priestly ordination on men alone is normative in nature rather than disciplinary. In this case the practice or the fact has the weight of dogma; Jesus and the apostles expressed a norm that they "considered to conform to God's plan for his Church" (no. 4). Introducing a different usage would amount to the Church's superiority to and independence from Jesus Christ, whose "potestas" is at all times decisive and determining for the Church herself, which is called to be faithful to him.

6. Since a sacrament is involved, this is the basis, and the only possible basis, of the reason why women cannot be ordained. Our document clearly and pointedly recalls "that problems of sacrament theology . . . cannot be solved except in the light of revelation" (no. 6). The human sciences or historical plausibility cannot be decisive: "One cannot see," the document states, "how it is possible to propose the admission of women to the priesthood in virtue of the equality of rights of the human person, an equality which holds good also for Christians" (no. 6).

This would mean failing to recognize that the Church herself cannot be compared to other groups, because she is "a society different from other societies, original in her nature and in her structures" (no. 6).

Nor can people appeal to the fact that in Christ there is no distinction between men and women: this means that all are called in the same way to divine filiation, and "does not concern ministries" (no.6.)

Symbolism of Priesthood Refers Immediately to Christ

By improperly including sociological or anthropological reasons, one would fail to recognize that priestly ordination cannot be equated with a right that men and women alike could claim. In such a perspective priestly ministry would be totally misunderstood: It is "not conferred for the honor or advantage of the recipient, but for the service of God and the Church. . . . (It) does not form part of the rights of the individual, but stems from the economy of the mystery of Christ and the Church. The priestly office cannot become the goal of social advancement; no merely human progress of society or of the individual can of itself give access to it: it is of another order" (no. 6); more precisely, it is of a "theological order" or profile, which is all too often missing from reflections on the topic and which has not lost any of its validity.

7. The intervention by which the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith presented the doctrinal references for the question of the ministerial priesthood of women also offers us a reflection on the "profound fittingness" between the mystery of Christ and the fact that only men are called to receive the sacrament of orders: it is an example of intellectus fidei, which does not create but rather seek to "justify" and illustrate the theological principles and the solution derived from them. As is known, it is intrinsic to "sacred doctrine" to try to find the rationes for the content of the faith. According to Inter Insigniores, against the background of the relationship between Christ, the head and bridegroom of the Church, his body and bride, one can "understand" how it is a man who, through ordination, is constituted to represent Christ, that it is a man and not a woman who is to act in his name—in persona Christi; to be his image; and even more so, one can see the "plausibility" that the incarnation of the "Word took place according to the male sex, with a choice that is "in harmony with the entirety of God's plan as God himself has revealed it, and of which the mystery of the covenant (or the nuptial mystery) is the nucleus" (no. 5). In this view a priesthood of women would obscure at the symbolic level its immediate and perceivable christological reference and signification.

All in all, we can say that what matters theologically is the will of Christ as it has been interpreted by tradition; it is his to know the reasons why he has reserved the ministerial priesthood to men. This is not meant to imply an inferiority or humiliation of women, whose presence and work in the Church are absolutely necessary, although not ministerially.

8. The value of Inter Insigniores is that of having presented the method and theologically correct principles for removing the question of the ministerial priesthood from misleading approaches and references.


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