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The Significance for Us Today of Christ's Attitude and of the Practice of the Apostles by Albert Descamps

The Significance for Us Today of Christ's Attitude and of the Practice of the Apostles

Albert Descamps
Published in L'Osservatore Romano ( February 17, 1977) : 6-7

The recent declaration of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith dedicates a large part to recalling the attitude of Christ (no. 2) and apostolic practice (no. 3), going on to show its permanent value (no. 4). In this article we recall in the first place this attitude and this practice, which are first of all historical facts; then we shall illustrate their valid significance for the Church today.

Attitude of Christ and Apostolic Practice

Jesus did not call any woman to join the group of the Twelve. This is a "material" fact, which does not need to be proved and which, as such, will not be questioned by anyone.

Of course, it is never enough to limit oneself to noting a material fact: it is also necessary to interpret it and understand it in depth. Today less than ever is the historical method content—the same applies also to the other human sciences—to record mere facts; it wishes above all to investigate their meaning. At present, what we wish to discover is the meaning given by Christ himself to the fact in question: this is first and foremost a problem that concerns the Christian historian and exegete. We will say further on what is the meaning of this fact for us today; this will be, if you like, a typical hermeneutical method in the sense that will be indicated.

To try to understand in depth the attitude of a personality of the past—in this case the fact that Jesus chose men as collaborators—means, in short, trying to discover what he wanted and to what extent he wanted it; it means studying his intentions.

In an investigation of this kind, the historical, let us admit, meets with new difficulties today. In general, traditional historiography was often in agreement with an anthropology of common sense, judged too simple today. This human person being defined by reason and will— actus humani, in opposition to mere actus hominis—it was tacitly supposed that he was fully responsible and free, and this all the more clearly when it was a question of remarkable personalities.

Contemporary anthropology dedicates more ample space to the concept of conditioning. Let us leave aside alleged determinisms of the unconscious type (studied by depth psychology) since some people propose in this case a sociological interpretation of the Gospel: choosing men as disciples, they tell us, Jesus was subject to the influence of cultural domination.

"We grant that the traditional points of view generally tended to schematize too much the relations between individual and environment. According to these views, the human person is completely compact in himself—in se compacta tota—he can be isolated, he stands out clearly against the backdrop which is his environment. The latter, being only a "circumstance," refers to something exterior (circumstare). Certainly, it has always been admitted that the individual can undergo the influences of his environment, but it was considered that they did not go beyond a certain level and that they could not jeopardize the full autonomy of the person. Today, on the contrary, this full autonomy is questioned, even in the case of Jesus. It is materially correct, some will say, that Jesus chose only men to make up the college of the Twelve. But, rather than a deeply reflective act, could not this be an attitude inspired by the environment? Did not the Master just conform to the customs of the time, and would he have acted in the same way in an environment that granted a more favorable position to women?

Such questions cannot be rejected a priori, even when it is a question of Jesus. Our faith in the divinity of the Savior does not prevent us from recognizing that, in his human psychology, Jesus may have been influenced, at least partly, by the environment in which he lived. This is one of the reasons why the life of Jesus can be studied by the historian first of all. The "truth" of the incarnation entails this tribute, as Charles Péguy put it: "Jesus Christ put himself in the hands of the exegete, the historian, the critic, as he put himself in the hands of other judges, other multitudes. ... If he had evaded criticism and controversy ... if his memory had not entered the general conditions, the organic conditions of the memory of man, he would not have been a man like others at all. And the incarnation would not have been complete and true" (Oeuvres en prose, Gallimard, 1961, p. 1477).

We must not take up an a priori attitude against the influence of the environment, but it would be an even more regrettable prejudice to claim to dissolve the human person in the environment. Both before and after the recent developments of sociology, the historian generally finds himself in the presence of two great factors for the explanation of reality: the influence of the environment and the creative impact of personalities. The historian must continue to accept these two factors jointly and not as a dilemma: it is not a question "of environment or genius," but rather "of environment and genius." The essential thing is to examine each case objectively m the light of the historical documents. Today as in the past, it is necessary to emphasize, whenever the sources invite us to do so, the creative virtualities of the personalities of the past: their capacity of mastering the cultural environment, of really breaking with it and opening new ways; genius and creative freedom have not become empty words.

When it is a question of the origins of Christianity, the mere historian is already ready to recognize the originality of the person and action of Jesus, while the believer cannot but agree entirely with this. With Jean Guitton, it is permissible here to have recourse to the distinction between "spirit" and "mentality" (Le problème de Jésus, pp. 191-197). The spirit is the new, original contribution of a really original, creative individual; poured out right into the mentality, it questions, and it obliges it to change. And in the precise problem with which we are dealing, the evangelical documentation itself rightly shows us that Jesus established deep innovations with his attitude towards women.

To illustrate the attitudes of esteem and understanding that Jesus had towards women, the declaration recalls several passages from the Gospel, known to every Christian. They are, for example, the texts that recall Jesus' attitude towards the Samaritan woman, the sinful woman, and the adulteress, and chose that mention the women who accompany the Master in his itinerant ministry or who bring the paschal message to the Twelve. We have here at least "a set of converging indications." The Savior does not share, therefore, the prejudices of his contemporaries against women. Jesus' stand "contrasts exceptionally with that of his environment and marks a deliberate and courageous break."

Yet Jesus did not call any woman to take part directly in his Messianic mission; even Mary, "whose unequaled role is emphasized by the Gospels of Luke and John, was not invested with the apostolic ministry."

The conclusion is clear and inevitable: if Jesus did not take women as his direct collaborators, while in other ways he shows such benevolence towards then, it was not because of a concession, conscious or not, to a certain prevailing anti-feminism, or out of a kind of absent-minded conformism with the customs of his time.

The document of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith keeps to this essential consideration: on associating only men closely in his work, Jesus did not act in this way to accommodate himself to the "male" mentality of his age. We think, however, that we are remaining faithful to the spirit of the declaration if we add here two reflections: one on the specificity of the concept of apostle, the other on its importance.

Jesus surrounds himself with apostles; however familiar it is to us, this image is seen, however, to be completely original as soon as we try to find models of it in the surrounding world or in biblical tradition. Some distant analogies can be found in the "disciples" of the prophets or of John the Baptist, or in the "pupils" of the doctors of the law; reference has also been made to the Jewish institution of "sending on a mission." But everything considered—it would take too long to show it here in detail—the institution of the Twelve appears as exceptionally original.

Another reflection is that it is a question here of a fundamental initiative in Jesus' thought. However far back we go in his public life, it does not seem that the Master ever exercised the ministry alone: in fact he chose his first disciples immediately after his baptism; the term "disciple" is to be taken here in a precise "ministerial" sense (Mk l:16ff and parallel passages, Jn 1:35ff), Jesus alone in front of the multitudes: this is an image that is hardly used in the Gospels. Jesus apparently considers the help of his apostles necessary even during his mortal life to carry out God's plan. How much more does he feel the necessity of this assistance after his death, when the apostles, from being companions in work, will become his heirs, charged with continuing in the Church the construction of the kingdom of God.

The argumentation can be developed as follows: if Jesus is seen to be so highly original in organizing the group of the Messianic community in this way, and if the apostolic ministry takes on such great importance in his eyes, how is it possible to suppose that the Savior did not choose his apostles in a particularly deliberate way? How is it possible to suppose that he chose men only out of mere conformism? One Gospel text is particularly significant in this connection: Jesus chose "those whom he desired" (Mk 3:13).

In conclusion, instead of being what some people would be tempted to call an obiter factum, the fact that Jesus chose only men as direct associates reveals a sufficiently precise plan. The Master had remained free enough with regard to accepted ideas to entrust the preaching of the kingdom to women, if this had been his will and if he had considered this initiative to be part of God's plan.

What we have just said can be completed briefly by recalling the practice of the apostles (Declaration, no. 3). Right from the beginning of apostolic history, two men are the candidates for the election that must complete the college of the Twelve, in spite of the fact that Mary occupied a privileged place in a group that met in the Upper Room (Acts 1:14). In the writings of the New Testament as a whole, we can speak of a kind of contrast: on the one hand, complete silence regarding the official and public proclamation of the message by women, on the other hand allusions to help given in various ways by Christians to the preachers of the Gospel: Acts 18:26; Rom 16:1, 3-12; Phil 4:2-3,etc.

The silence in question is not fortuitous, but significant. And the "freedom" with which the apostles ask women to help them proves that they feel freed, following the example of Jesus, from the rigid prescriptions of Mosaicism; it is also possible that Christian missionaries were open to what some historians call a certain movement in favor of the advancement of women in the Greco-Roman world. If, however, the question did not arise of conferring the priesthood on women, this was not because of attachment to cultural "influences," but certainly out of faithfulness to Jesus of Nazareth.

Significance of These Facts for the Present Day

To seek the overall meaning of the behavior and intentions of Jesus or of the apostles, we must first find these attitudes or intentions, since they belong to the past; and this is what we have just done. But another step has also to be taken: we must ask ourselves what is the significance of these facts of other times for us, today. Moreover, it is this very meaning that the term "hermeneutics" tends to assume in our days: not only interpretation of the Scripture by the believer interested in a certain past, but also the search for the permanent value of the result of historical and Christian exegesis. The question is therefore the following: are the actions and the choices of Jesus and the apostles still normative quoad nos? In the declaration, this is a question that forms the object of a separate exposition (no. 4).

Among those who put forward the possibility of innovations in this matter, some affirm or suggest, as we have said, that the Master and his disciples simply could not "dream" of associating women in their work as ministers of the word, for the reason that the environment was not favorable. Choosing men as collaborators, Jesus and the apostles did not therefore display their firmest intentions.

If this had really been the case with regard to their intentions, it would certainly be unlikely that they should continue to be imposed today. Rather, the idea of their permanent value would be undermined at the foundations, and it is for this reason that the declaration (no. 4) begins by refuting this objection. It does so by summing up what it had proved before: "examination of the Gospels . . . shows . . . that Jesus broke with the prejudices of his time, ignoring to a large extent the discriminations practiced with regard to women. It cannot be sustained, therefore, that, in not calling any woman to enter the apostolic group, Jesus was guided only by reasons of expediency. With all the more reason, this socio-cultural conditioning would not have held back the apostles in the Greek environment, where the same discriminations did not exist."

Others formulate the following objection: is it not quite clear that Paul, in connection with woman, issued prescriptions deeply marked by the customs of the times, such as the obligation for a woman to wear a veil on her head (1 Cor 11:2-16)? Do we not lay our finger here on the socio-cultural, and therefore outdated, conditioning of some apostolic precepts? Could not this consideration be extended to other injunctions of the apostles, or even to some stands taken by Jesus himself?

The answer of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is inspired by the following principle: in this matter, the best thing is to examine each case presented separately, while it would be dangerous to express a uniform "value judgment." The requirement of the veil for women is not of great importance and, in any hypothesis, it has merely a disciplinary character. On the contrary, the prohibition for women to "speak" in Church (1 Cor 14:34-35; 1 Tm 2:12) is of another nature. For the apostle, woman has the right to prophesy at Christian meetings (1 Cor 11:5, etc.), but not to give official teaching. In his eyes, it is a question of a prescription connected with the divine plan of creation (1 Cor 11:7; Gn 2:18-24). But, once more, there is no point in accusing Paul of hostile preconceptions with regard to women: it is to him, on the contrary, that we owe "one of the most forceful texts in the New Testament on the fundamental equality of man and woman, as children of God in Christ" (cf. Gal 3:28). Furthermore, the apostle's confidence in women is well known, since he calls upon them to collaborate in many forms of his apostolate.

Another argument put forward by the supporters of an evolution in this matter is the idea, widely admitted by theology and the magistenum, that the Church has very vast powers with regard to the sacraments. That is true, we admit with the declaration, but it is a question of a limited power. The Council of Trent says so clearly in a well-known formula (salva eorum substantia); Pius XII repeated it, clarifying that this "substance" to be safeguarded concerns "everything that Christ the Lord, according to the testimony of the sources of Revelation, wished to be maintained in the sacramental sign."

To say that this continuity is necessary also means understanding that the sacramental signs are not conventional. Not only do they correspond to the deep symbolism of acts and things, but they also connect the man of all time with the event of the history of salvation, by means of all the riches of the pedagogy and symbolism of the Bible. "Adaptation to civilizations and historical periods cannot abolish, therefore, on essential points, the sacramental reference to the fundamental events of Christianity and to Christ himself." In the last analysis) it is the Church, by means of the voice of her magisterium, which "ensures discernment between what can change and what must remain immutable."

In a word: the example of Christ and the practice of the apostles maintain, in our case, a normative character; the Church is right to consider the fact of conferring priestly ordination only on men as in conformity with God's plan.

In addition to the objections already met, there is perhaps one of a more radical character, examination of which will make it possible to formulate an absolutely fundamental principle.

Let us admit, some people will say, that Jesus and his apostles clearly intended that their immediate collaborators should be men. Does it follow, they object, that these intentions have an imprescriptible value for Christians of all times? Is the Church bound to the Scriptures and to tradition as to an absolute, when she is, on the contrary, a pilgrim people, listening to what the Spirit says?

To answer adequately the question formulated in this way, it seems to us necessary to take seriously the fact that God's plan was realized in a quite peculiar way in biblical times. It is not sufficient to say that this plan was revealed, in the strict sense, in a given historical period; it must be added that it is marked by it forever. The divine plan is not a set of abstract ideas, but a work set in time and unfolded by a word that is deeply rooted in it. Prepared in the events and in the message of the Old Testament, this work and this word reached their climax in Jesus Christ, who is himself Event and "Word: in his incarnation, his earthly ministry, his death and resurrection. Jesus' work and word are further prolonged at a privileged level in the apostolic Church: the apostles are historically the nearest interpreters of Christ's acts, and theologically the most authoritative commentators; from the second century, the Church is aware that the New Testament is complete and that the revelation was closed with the apostles.

If this is so, the gesta Dei illustrated by the two testaments were not only a starting signal, in relation to subsequent history. Nor were they merely a set of precise events commented on by contingent words. The public revelation was not the mere starting point of a growth and of an ideology such as could be incessantly remodeled in all freedom according to the changing vicissitudes of human history. Event and "Word were founding facts, not only because they triggered off a given process, but also for the reason that they remain efficacious in that they are present and active in what the Church does: both by presenting the word in an up-to-date form without corrupting it, and by reproducing Christ's salvific act in the eucharist and, proportione servata, in the other sacraments. Certainly, the Church has the obligation to make herself understood by every generation and therefore to "translate" and update what it brings them; but she is also the bearer of realities, which must also "inform" in the etymological sense of the word, that is, model, mark with their seal the very tissue of history. To update does not mean to recreate freely: it is the same past that must become relevant today, on pain of being dissolved in time and of bringing about a crisis of identity in Christianity itself.

Therefore, when, on some important points of the economy of the kingdom of God, we perceive forms of behavior and deliberate intentions of Jesus or the apostles, interpreted in a constant way for nineteen centuries, it would be fatal not to recognize them as having a lasting value. A precise example of these important points is the choice of male collaborators by Jesus and the apostles.

Christianity is a historical religion at different levels, but above all in the sense that its origins were not only a starting point, but had a content which, in the essential points, marks it forever. The Church, therefore, must always refer to her beginnings. She does so certainly also by seeking dialogue with the present world, while her sense of the past is not precisely at the archeological level. But deep faithfulness to the origins is neither servility or sclerosis; it is rather a real guarantee of fruitfulness, since the origins themselves had a character of fullness; it was a question of an event in Christ and in the Spirit, the spiritual riches of which are inexhaustible.

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