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The Male Priesthood: A Violation of Women's Rights? by Joseph Ratzinger

The Male Priesthood: A Violation of Women's Rights?

Joseph Ratzinger
published in L'Osservatore Romano ( May 12, 1977):6-7.

The restriction of the priestly and episcopal ministry to men was clearly reaffirmed by the declaration Inter Insigniores, as the expression of the whole tradition of the Church. Faced with this fact the objection particularly raised today is that this is a violation of the fundamental equality of rights and dignity of men and women. This equality of fundamental rights of all human beings, which was first expressed in the early documents of the North American nation in formation, and was founded on the Christian belief in creation,(1) was expressly confirmed by the Second Vatican Council: "Forms of social or cultural discrimination in basic personal rights on the grounds of sex, race, color, social conditions, language or religion, must be curbed and eradicated as incompatible with God's design."(2) The declaration mentions this text, but does it not, at the same time, tacitly contradict it?

In order to be able to give an answer, we must clarify the conceptions in question. We must explain what a fundamental right is and what the priesthood is. Only then can we establish whether the priesthood can be numbered among the fundamental rights in which a differentiation of the sexes is "incompatible with God's design."

Without having to lose ourselves in the difficult discussion of the problem of fundamental rights, we can note that, from the historical point of view, there are two principal forms in which the concept of fundamental right emerges.

We have already referred to the Anglo-Saxon type with its Christian foundation. Its essential idea can be described as follows: the concept of fundamental right is inseparably bound up with the idea of creation. For creation alone can be the basis of rights which underlie all historical institutions and are binding on them in advance. Fundamental rights are, therefore, in the first place those claims of the human being which are the consequence of his origin in creation. Fundamental rights are rights bestowed by creation and that is the reason for their unconditional equality and their strictly necessary character for everything that has a human face.

With the declaration of the rights of man of the French Revolution, there appears, on the other hand, a new form of "human rights" the full significance of which became evident only in the course of time and which is taking over from the Christian form more and more today. According to this form right appears as a merely human institution. From man's understanding of a suitable organization of human society, he lays down what is to be valid as right. The premise here is that man, behind whom there is no creative will, has reality completely at his disposal and, in proportion as his reason grows, sets himself the task of seeking the most rational and therefore optimal organization of reality. The institution of right is therefore a means of rational mastery of the world. Human rationality is the source of right, which is formed by the will of the majority and is progressively improved. Here rationality is opposed to authority and since in this case everything is continually decided by the majority, it is just and necessary that everyone should take part in the same way in the process of the formation of opinion and the formation of the majority.

Summing up we can say: the concept of fundamental right is derived either from belief in creation or from the conception of the "constructability" of the world and its functionality in the context of human reasoning. It is not necessary to say here that the council accepted only the first form of the concept of fundamental right and confirmed it as the doctrine of the Church; nor do the different consequences of the two principles concern us here.

What happens if we apply this model to the question of the priesthood? Well, first and foremost it should be clear that the Christian priesthood is not something that is immediately derived from the order of creation or that is the right of the human being as a human being. If we wish to speak in a broad sense of a priesthood emerging from creation, then it certainly belongs to man and to woman, each in his and her own way: in the unity of the couple they are called to be bridges to the Creator for each other. As human beings they are called to carry on the testimony of creation and to join in that message which invests the whole of creation: "The heavens are telling the glory of God . . ." (Ps 19[18]:2). Expressed in other words: the vocation of the human being—man and woman—is to complete the silent worship of creation and thus bring back creation to its origin. But all this does not concern us here, although it is certainly not out of place to mention this original vocation of man, which the Christian faith has not eliminated, but deepened and made concrete.

Let us establish, therefore, that the Christian priesthood is not a consequence of creation. Neither has it anything to do with any kind of equality of supernatural destiny. As is known, St. Augustine was even of the opinion that the priesthood, with its immense responsibility, made salvation more difficult to attain rather than easier.(3) Therefore this first examination of the context must give rise to the suspicion that the bringing up of human rights in matters of the priesthood betrays a dulling of the sense of the "supernatural," of the new, non-deducible, and specific aspect of Christianity.

But, it will be objected, in this way the sense of the argumentation is completely misunderstood. "We do not think at all of claiming the priesthood as part of the order of creation: the principle of equality refers not simply to realities that belong to every human being. The principle under discussion refers then to the exclusion of disadvantages on account of sex, no more no less. In fact the conferring of the priesthood on both men and women is defended in Protestant circles, which are certainly far from the concept of deriving the priestly ministry from creation. In their argumentation it is understood that the priesthood appears as an institution of the Church, which she must regulate according to the points of view of opportuneness and observing the principle of equal opportunities. In this way the Church herself is seen as a functioning apparatus and her relationship to right is conceived in the perspective of the concept of right of Enlightenment. If this were so, if the priesthood were a possibility to be conferred and freely regulated by the Church, then there would really be a corresponding right to this possibility and the prohibition of the priestly office for women would be a clear case of prejudice "on account of sex," something which Vatican II expressly opposed.

But is it really so? With this question we have arrived at the second problem mentioned above: what is the priesthood in its essence? This question could be answered at once very simply: according to the tradition of the Catholic faith (which on this point may perhaps partly contradict Protestant conceptions) the priesthood is a sacrament. This means: it is not a mere profession at the disposal of the Church as an "institution" but is an independent, pre-existing datum. The sacrament has, with regard to the Church, a position similar to natural law with regard to the civil legislator. It reveals immediately what is specific and different in the ecclesial institution as compared with secular institutions of every kind and level. On the one hand the sacrament constructs the Church as an "institution," a constituted reality sui generis, only because of the sacrament. On the other hand the sacrament does not belong to the sector of her institution that the Church can change at will. Rather it sets a limit on her free disposal of herself, a limit in which her fundamental task must be faithfulness to her mandate.

The conflict about the question of a new formulation of the conditions of access to the priestly ministry is seen here, in the last analysis, as a dispute between the functionalist conception of law and the sacramental conception of the Church. In this connection we can first ask the question whether the complete victory of functionalism, which assigns all rights to the institution and regards planning rationality as the only determinant yardstick, can in the long run lead to a victory of woman and her rights; we will come back to this later. For the moment we must keep in mind that the Church cannot just act regarding herself as she likes and that the priesthood is not an opportunity that she can assign on her own authority. It is not to be considered in the sense of an opportunity or a right, but is to be seen as a vocation which no one can claim as a right and which cannot be simply bestowed by the Church either (even though a vocation is not complete without the consent of the Church), In the course of the vocation the call through the Church is certainly part of the process, but this call of the Church can construct only on the call of God and it finds as one of the measures of this the aforesaid fundamental structures of sacramental tradition.

It could be objected now: very well, the Church does not invent the sacraments but finds them already there. Nevertheless, a considerable area of action is left to the Church and it is just this area of action that should be exploited here, for nothing proves that being male belongs to the inalienable substance of the priesthood. There is every likelihood, on the contrary, that it is a question of a concession to times bygone which are now obsolete. Now, it is correct that no one can bring forward compelling metaphysical proofs to show that the priesthood can only be as it is and not otherwise. Anyone who says so is taking too much upon himself. The declaration Inter Insigniores rightly points this out too (no. 5): it does not wish to give a proof from which it follows that things must be so, but tries to understand the admittedly contingent fact from the inner structure of faith. But this contingency belongs to the way of constructing of Christian faith in general, which is based on the history of salvation and therefore on accidental elements which would be quite conceivable in other forms. No one can prove that the Word of God could become man only precisely in Palestine and precisely in the times of the emperor Augustus. On principle, of course, it would be conceivable and "possible" in another way. No one can prove that Christianity then had to spread first to Europe, and so on. The Protestant theologian J. J. Von Allmen has developed this thought very well in connection with the species of the eucharist: why should the Church celebrate the Lord's Supper everywhere and in all times with the typical food of the Mediterranean? The answer lies in the fact that "the initiative of the Supper does not come from the Church," "because it is Christ himself who lays the table, and when he invites us to table, then it is he, too, who should choose the food. . . . The eternal Son of God came as Jesus of Nazareth, to bring salvation to all men. "When he 'converted' men to this being-a-Jew . . . , he called upon them to accept the fact that he cannot be recognized unless in this period far away in the past.... Because in a certain sense one cannot but become a Jew when one becomes a Christian, these elements . . . , i.e., the bread and wine, must be respected. . . ."(4)

The direct connection with this history, the connection with God's concrete will for salvation, as it took form in this history, belongs fundamentally to the essence of the sacrament. In faithfulness to what is "accidental," the connection is established with what is indispensable in God's action for us. In this, too, lies clearly the limit of the action of the Church in the sphere of the sacraments, of which the declaration Inter Insigniores speaks very effectively in no. 4. The Church acts, but she acts upon preexisting elements. In the last resort only she herself can distinguish between substance and what is changeable, but it is precisely in this distinction that she experiences that she is bound. Moreover the declaration in question has shown in a convincing way that the argument that Israel, Christ, and the apostles had yielded here to contemporary necessities just does not hold water (nos. 2 and 3). L. Bouyer has set out this problematic even more thoroughly and with regard to the affirmation of a choice motivated by historical reasons, he said in his drastic way: "One feels one is dreaming when one hears men, "who consider themselves enlightened and free of all prejudice, come out with such impossible things."(5) "An argumentation of this kind is sheer nonsense."(6)

Let us establish, therefore, that the priesthood is no opportunity on the professional plane and so there is no corresponding right. It is from the theological standpoint not a bestowing of a privilege on anyone, but a sacrament, the expression of the historical faithfulness of the Church to her origin, which precisely in its "accidental" historical form is the concrete expression of God's action for men.

At the same time, however, something else must be said. If these affirmations, incontestable on the theological plane, are to convince people in actual fact, the priesthood in its empirical form must correspond to the theological idea and must continually be purified of any appearance of being a privilege. Indeed, any appearance of privilege has been renounced when, historically, the priesthood was lived purely: in missionaries, in all the messengers of divine love, ever wearing themselves out and consuming themselves for the word.

We might perhaps content ourselves with what has been said, but the concept of the sacrament is not yet exhausted. The sacrament is, in its essence, symbolical representation, the making present in symbols of a concealed reality. Only in this way does its contrast with a rationalistic, functionalistic outlook emerge clearly. For rationalism, everything that exists is fundamentally "material," which man causes to "function" and sets him up as a function in his activity. The equality of the whole of reality is based on its total functionality, that is, on the fact that "function" becomes the only category of thought and action. The sacrament, on the other hand, knows pre-existing symbolic structures of creation, which contain an immutable testimony. The symbolic place of man and of woman also falls within this interpretation of reality; they both have equal rights and equal dignity, but each has a different testimony. It is just this that functionalism cannot admit, for its complete activism implies also complete equality, in which everything receives its definition only from the activity of man himself.

L. Bouyer has rightly pointed out that this type of equality through uniformity actually contains the sole dominion of the male form and produces equality through the negation of woman.(7)

It is significant that the two qualifications in which the particular way and dignity of femininity is expressed in an unchangeable way—virginity and motherhood—should be slandered and ridiculized in an unprecedented way today. In other words: the two fundamental ways of being in which woman, in a way granted to her alone, expresses the high point of being human, have become forbidden concepts and anyone who brings them positively into action is suspected a, priori of obscurantism. In other words, in this form of the concept of equality what is specifically feminine is, in the last analysis, forbidden. One can find in it a masculinzation of unprecedented proportions, within which a Manichean feature can easily be discerned: the human being is ashamed of the sexual, of his masculinity or femininity, because here is something which eludes complete planning and modeling and binds him to his created origin. The sexual is therefore deliberately relegated to the purely biological and the latter is then treated as not belonging specifically to humanity (which means "rationality"). Licentiousness is fundamentally a Manichean contempt for man's biological roots, which must be pulled out of the human. This Manichean spiritual slant is paid for by woman in the first place: the incarnation of the spirit, which constitutes what is specific in the human being, the peculiar characteristic of this creature of God called man—this incarnation of the spirit is manifested in her in a more radical and essential way than in man. It is easier for him to limit fatherhood to a biological parenthesis than is possible in the case of motherhood; it is easier for him to escape from the preconstituted structure of created life to the fictitious emancipation of operating rationality than it is for woman. The Manichean slant contained in all this is tantamount to the destruction of the human, the denial of the creature, man, and above all the denial of the femininity of woman. Behind the mask of emancipation, of the attainment, at last, of equal rights, is concealed complete assimilation and contestation of the right of being a woman and just in this way being supremely a human being.(8) Of course to say so does not mean to deny that prejudice really exists and that the struggle for equality of opportunity is justified. The danger lies in the fact that what is justified may so easily serve as a vehicle for what is destructive and untrue.

But what has all this to do with our subject? It would be too simple to want to tack these dangers onto the question of the priesthood for woman. This is not the question. What is important, on the other hand, is the confrontation between functionality and symbolic representation as the limit of functionality. And from what has just been said the following should be clear: the defense of the symbolic representation, on which the decision of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is based, is the defense of woman offered for today. Indeed the defense of the person as a person before the overall claims of technology and its contempt of creation. Though it may not seem so at first sight, it is a question here of woman's right to be herself, not in an equivocal equality which considers the sacrament as a career and so changes it into a dish of lentils which is not worth buying.

In conclusion, we must add once more that the finest ideas remain incredible, and are even falsified, if the facts of the Church's life do not correspond to them—if the priesthood really becomes a career and if woman's service does not find in the Church its proper scope, its own greatness and dignity. Herein lies the important task which the declaration Inter Insigniores sets the Church today.

1 Cf. W Wertenbruch, Menschenreckte, in RGG II (3) 869f.

2 Gaudium et Spes, nos. 2, 29.

3 See in Lumen Gentium, no. 32 the well-known passage (St. Augustine, Serm. 340,1: PL 38, 1483): "When I am frightened by what I am to you, then I am consoled by what I am with you. To you I am the bishop, with you I am a Christian. The first is an office, the second is a grace; the first a danger, the second salvation."

4 J. J. van Allmen, Okumene im Herrenmahl (Kassel, 1968), 48f. Actually, van Allmen wastes the fruit of his consideration in the end when he tries again to justify in one way or another the thesis that the Church is free to do as she likes.

5 L. Bouyer, Mystère et ministère de la femme (Paris 1976), 12.

6 Ibid., p. 21. See also p. 23: Mais, dans le cas présent, aussi bien, le massif consensus fidelium (de plus de vingt siècles) est appuyé sur une surabondance, en réalité, d'enseignement biblique et d'expérience spirituelle chrétienne qui ne peut échapper qu'a une vue myope des textes et des faits.

7 Ibid., 23-27.

8 Cf. Bouyer, op. cit. See also the important article of the Viennese pediatrician H. Asperger, Kind und Familie. Moderne Modelle, in: Communio 2 (1973) (German edition).


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