What did Jesus Really Say About ‘Women Priests?’
by Michael Hewitt-Gleeson
While there must have always been pedophiles in and out of the church, the current crisis in the Catholic Church has grown to catastrophic proportions all during the papacy of one single man – John Paul II.
This is a man who has canonised more saints than any pope in history. This is a man who has created more bìshops and cardinals than any other pope. This is a leader who has travelled to more countries and has been seen by more people than any other man in history. He is a truly remarkable man and pope. Tragically, he has also presided over the loss of more priests than any other pope with a growing number of his flock having no parish priest at all.
Of course, this current crisis is a complex matter but I only want to focus on one important factor – women priests. Why cannot women be priests? ” I declare that the church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women”. Thus wrote His Holiness Pope John Paul II in his Apostolic Letter entitled Ordinatio Sacerdotalis: On Reserving Priestly Ordination To Men Alone which he sent out from the Vatican on 22 May 1994 to all the bishops of the Roman Catholic church (see Vatican archives: hftp://www.vatcan.va/holy_father/john _paul_ii/apost_letters/documents/hf_jp -ii_apl_22051994_ordinatio-sacerdotalis_en.aspl).
In his letter he quoted what he had written in his previous Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem that “in calling only men as his Apostles, Christ acted in a completely free and sovereign manner.” The pope then writes, “in fact, the Gospels attest that this call was made in accordance with God’s eternal plan: Christ chose whom he willed, and he did so in union with the Father, “through the Holy Spirit”, after having spent the night in prayer”. End of story.
Interestingly, the pope at no time gives his own point-of-view on ordaining women but simply says that the church cannot do it – has no authority to do it – because this is what Jesus wanted. One can only assume that women priests would be OK by the pope if only it was OK by Jesus, if only Jesus had not specifically prevented the church from ordaining women as priests. I remember how awkward it was for the pope when he was in Australia to make a women a saint a few years ago yet he felt that he could not make a woman a priest.
Now, with the current crisis facing the priesthood, the issue is in the news again so let’s go right to the crux of the pope’s Apostolic policy on women priests as stated in his letter.
In his six-page Apostolic Letter Pope John Paul, using chapter and verse, quotes four specific sayings attributed to Jesus to support his conclusion. I list these four sayings in the order that the pope refers to them in his letter:
“Isn’t this why I chose you twelve? Even so, one of you is a devil?” (Jn 6:70)
“Go and announce: ‘Heaven’s Imperial rule is closing in’. Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, drive out demons. You have received freely, so freely give.” (Mt 10: 7-8)
“All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth. You are to go and make followers of all peoples. You are to baptise them in the name of the Father and the son and the holy spirit. Teach them to observe everything I commanded. I’ll be with you day in and day out, as you’ll see, so long as this world continues its course.” (Mt 28: 18-20)
“But I have prayed for you that your trust may not give out. And once you have recovered, you are to shore up these companions of yours.” (Lk 22:32)
Presumably the pope chose these sayings of Jesus in his letter because these are the strongest words that Jesus has to say on the subject of the ordination of women, yet to my own way of looking at things, there seems nothing in these sayings of Jesus that specifically suggests ‘the church has no authority’ to ordain women as priests. However, the Vatican has chosen to interpret this as being the case. But perhaps there is another way out for the pope and for women. How authentic are these sayings of Jesus anyway? In other words, did Jesus even say these things at all? Or does it matter what Jesus really said or didn’t say?
So many words have been put in Jesus’ mouth by so many people, does anyone care what he really said? When we look at the vast multi-billion dollar global Jesus industry we can see so many vested financial and power-based interests that we can be forgiven for wondering if anyone should bother to take the trouble to discover the real point-of-view of the historical Jesus. Who cares what the real Jesus really said?
Here the big problem has always been this: Yeshua (Jesus), who eventually became known by his followers as ‘The Lord’, left no account of his life or his teachings in his own hand. His sayings, which he spoke in Aramaic, had to wait for many years after his death to be written down in Greek and Latin. What we have to go on was recorded by his disciples and his disciples’ disciples so we can only make educated guesses about the accuracy of his sayings after their subsequent translation and editing. Few of us have ever had such specialised education. There are, however, those who do.
For example, there are 200 academics who do care what Jesus really said and who have gone to a lot of trouble to find out. These 200 biblical scientists, scholars and professors are the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar (http://westarinsftute.org/Fellows/fellows.aspl), a rather top-heavy group from the world’s most respected and best-recognised biblical authorities.
These scholars, collectively, have done over 2000 years of actual research and exploration of religious and biblical studies at the world’s most prestigious universities including Harvard, Jerusalem, Oxford, Notre Dame, Emory, UCLA, Paris, Rutgers, Loyola, Toronto, Vassar, Pretoria, Rome, Vanderbilt etc. and have recently published a report of their findings in a large book entitled The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? (Robert Funk, Roy Hoover and The Jesus Seminar. 1993. Macmillan Publishing Company. NY).
In the book’s preface the work is introduced as follows: “The Five Gospels is the collective report of gospel scholars working closely together for six years on a common question: What did Jesus really say? Together and singly, they first of all inventoried all the surviving ancient texts for words attributed to Jesus. They then examined those words in the several ancient languages in which they have been preserved. They produced a translation of all the gospels, known as the Scholars Version. And, finally, they studied, debated, and voted on each of the 1500 sayings of Jesus in the inventory.”
In the book all the 1500 sayings attributed to Jesus have been colour-coded according to the results of the voting. The coding is red for those words most probably spoken by the historical Jesus. Pink, a weaker form of red, was used for those words the scholars felt less certain could be traced back to Jesus or which they are certain were modified in transmission. The scholars left in bold black those words that were put in Jesus’ mouth by his later followers or enemies and are unauthentic. They used grey, as an intermediate level between pink and black, to categorise those words that Jesus did not say but which may reflect his ideas. Thus, for those who do care what Jesus really did say, they can tell at a glance which words are likely to have been spoken by Jesus and which were not: RED: Jesus really said it; PINK: Jesus might have said something like it; GREY: Jesus didn’t say it but it’s the sort of thing he would have said; BLACK: Jesus didn’t say it nor would he ever say such a thing.
This report by the scholars of the Jesus Seminar is a very useful and liberating breakthrough in biblical research. Perhaps it is important what Jesus really said. Since so many of us are bullied by individuals and groups who claim their authority from his words, it’s quite handy to have an independent credible authority to refer to when these people tell us what we must or must not do in the name of Jesus.
Since I am a lateral thinker not a theologian, it occurred to me that it may be useful to analyse the pope’s Apostolic Letter by cross referencing it with the findings of the scholars of the Jesus Seminar. There has been so much growing controversy over the pope’s authority in recent years that it might be useful to see how his own words stack up against those of the world’s experts. When you compare the two, this is what you will find.
The four quotes we are studying, attributed to Jesus by the pope, are those that the pope has personally claimed prevents the church from having women as priests. Now we are in a position to check each of these quotes with the report of the Jesus scholars to see what their verdict is on the authenticity of each quote, that is, whether Jesus really said it or not. Remember the colour codes: RED: Jesus really said it; PINK: Jesus might have said something like it; GREY: Jesus didn’t say it but it’s the sort of thing he would have said; BLACK: Jesus didn’t say it nor would he ever say such a thing.
“Isn’t this why I chose you twelve? Even so, one of you is a devil?” (Jn 6:70) Scholars’ verdict: BLACK!
“Go and announce: ‘Heaven’s Imperial rule is closing in’. Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, drive out demons. You have received freely, so freely give.” (Mt 10: 7-8) Scholars’ verdict: BLACK!
“All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth. You are to go and make followers of all peoples. You are to baptise them in the name of the Father and the son and the holy spirit. Teach them to observe everything I commanded. I’ll be with you day in and day out, as you’ll see, so long as this world continues its course.” (Mt 28: 18-20) Scholars’ verdict: BLACK!
“But I have prayed for you that your trust may not give out. And once you have recovered, you are to shore up these companions of yours.” (Lk 22:32) Scholars’ verdict: BLACK!
It would appear the experts’ verdict may have offered the pope a solution to his problem of women priests. State-of-the-art gospel research seems to tell us that the word of Jesus is no longer an obstacle to the church’s authority on the matter. So the point is, can the pope change his mind?
Theologically, God is the only being who cannot change His/Her mind. God is the only being with such perfect knowledge that He/She cannot ever make a mistake and, therefore, need never have a change of mind. New information, new insights, new discoveries, new points-of-view and new evidence are not needed by an omniscient God. God doesn’t think, God knows!
But a pope should think. A pope falls somewhat short of divine status and should be able to change his mind. In practice, however, it has become very difficult for a pope to change his mind ever since Pius IX declared himself to be infallible in 1870 after he lost his Papal States to Garibaldi. At the time, this bizarre idea of ‘papal infallibility’ was seen as a surprise political move by a desperate old man to reposition his lost temporal power to a more ethereal realm.
Incredibly, since then, this notion of infallibility has still not been revoked by any pope (although John XXIII did once say, “I am not infallible”).
Why? There are differing views amongst church hierarchy. The Roman Imperialists like Cardinal Ratzinger look to the past. They want the church to regain its temporal empire and they consider the Dogma of Infallibility to be one of Rome’s cleverest inventions – right on up there with the forgery of Constantine’s Gift. Others like Archbishop Hunthausen and the late Pope John Paul I, try to look more to the church’s long term future. They fret about the loss of it’s moral leadership, the haemorrhaging of the church’s membership, the collapse in young people’s willingness to pursue vocations and the attack on the church’s intellectual credibility.
Before 1870, infallibility could only ever have been a divine faculty. Only a perfect God was considered to be infallible and it would have been a fatal blasphemy for any human to dare to make such a claim. Today, the Vatican’s claim of infallibility has raised the papacy to the status of virtual divinity and accounts for the super-star treatment of the pope by the media and by the faithful who adore him in their millions. Today, there are even those who may feel that to write an article like this, that questions the pope’s infallibility, is as much a blasphemy as it once was to assert it.
The dangerous perception that one is infallible is a very serious cognitive disease. Much damage has been done in the world by those myopic individuals who are unable to see the consequences of their decisions. The women of the church are not the only ones to suffer from the neurosis of infallibility. There has been another more tragic consequence of the church’s morbid fear of admitting its mistakes.
The unwillingness of many church leaders to admit the mistakes of its policies and its clergy has led many of them to cover-up the large scale abuse of the children entrusted to its care. This has led to the culpable protection of the largest organised pedophile network in history. It has been called ‘organised’ in the legal sense because of the protection provided by bishops to the pedophiles rather than surrendering them to the law. In the US, the bishops already had paid over $1 billion dollars in legal fines and compensation to the victims by the 2000th anniversary of the birth of Jesus. It has been estimated they will have to pay out a further $1 billon.
Many pedophiles have been protected for as long as thirty years by their bishops who have moved them around from parish to parish to parish to parish. Suffer the children. If it had ever been possible for the bishops to admit their mistakes this persecution of both women and children could never have grown to such medieval proportions. Will the bishops learn from this? Will future children be safe? Will future women be priests? Will the imperial church win out or can a pope change his mind?
Once, in a private meeting with the Dalai Lama, I asked him point blank if he believed he was a divinity as many of his followers so believed. His Holiness’ answer to such a tactless question was, quite understandably, equivocal. So, even if the pope himself does not believe in his own divine infallibility, he now faces an extremely difficult dilemma: 1. does he explore new evidence about what Jesus really said, change his mind and disappoint those fans who want him to stay infallible? Or, 2. does he reject the evidence, enforce his will, remain divine and disappoint the women who also want to be priests, bishops and popes?
Some say the women have even less hope than the children.
It will be interesting to see what happens. This long-reigning pope is something of a paradox. He is compassionate and warmhearted yet he has been traditional and ultra-conservative in many of his views, He, himself, is a very courageous man who found it in his heart to forgive his would-be assassin, yet he has punished severely the courage shown by leading theologians who have stood up to him and he has left them without forgiveness. But even he has shown that he can change.
In 1993, after a twelve-year pontifical commission, Pope John Paul II finally forgave Galileo for saying the earth revolved around the sun. The length of time this has taken illustrates the enormous difficulty the papacy has in admitting it has erred, but it shows that it can happen.
There seems no doubt to anyone that this Polish pope is a most devout, sincere, charismatic and unusually courageous priest of his church who continues to risk his own life, time and time again, in his worldly travels to spread the word of his Lord, Jesus.
Is it conceivable to Karol Wojtyla at all, that he could be spreading the wrong word?
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