Fidelity to Jesus and the ordination of women
Joseph A. Fitzmyer SJ
America 1996, vol. 175, pp. 9-12
Abstract: A distinguished Scripture scholar takes issue with some of the emphases and conclusions of an October 26, 1996, article by the Reverend Hermann Josef Pottmeyer on the apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, which concerned the authority of the church to confer priestly ordination on women. Observing that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith states that the doctrine about women’s ordination belongs to the deposit of faith and has always been held in the church’s tradition and set forth by the universal and ordinary magisterium, he discusses the biblical aspects of the issue and the negative aspect of Scripture linked to tradition.
Since the Rev. Hermann Josef Pottmeyer has discussed the ordination of women to the priesthood in the pages of America(October 26, 1996), I too wish to comment on some aspects of the question that he raises. Before I address myself to aspects that he seems to have overlooked, a few preliminary points have to be made clear.
First, it may be, as Professor Pottmeyer has put it, that the apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (Acta Apostolicae Sedis 86  545-48; Origins 24/4 [6/9/94] 49-52) is not an “infallible ex cathedra papal dogma.” If Pope John Paul II had intended it to be that, he would have had to make that clear in the letter itself. The Code of Canon Law of 1983 states explicitly, “No doctrine is understood to be infallibly defined unless it is clearly established as such” (Canon 749, No. 3). This Pope John Paul II did not do. No subsequent interpretation of the letter by a lesser authority in the church can make the teaching of that letter infallible. According to Pottmeyer, “O.S. is an instance of ordinary (i.e., non-infallible) magisterium, declaring that the church’s unbroken tradition with regard to ordination is irreformable.” In saying this, he may be right, even though the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith subsequently explained that the doctrine about women’s ordination belongs to the deposit of faith and has been constantly held in the church’s tradition and infallibly set forth by the ordinary and universal magisterium (A.A.S. 87  1114; Origins 25/24 [11/30/95] 401, 403).
Second, Pottmeyer says that “there was no desire [on Rome’s part] to forbid responsible theological discussion.” With this, in principle, I agree, but I am surprised that he did not decide to engage in such responsible theological discussion in a technical journal, where proper documentation and citation of sources would be possible, before expressing his views in a journal destined for widespread readership, such as America. Given his decision, one has to comment on his views of the question also on this level.
Third, Pottmeyer maintains that the tradition about ordination as “irreformable because it is based on the unbroken, universal teaching of the episcopal college” is a “contention” that “is doubtful.” As will appear below, this is the crucial issue. Whether that contention is doubtful or not I have to leave to others, either to canon lawyers or historical theologians, since I can claim no competence in such a matter (for a summary of the matter, see Avery Dulles, S.J., “Gender and Priesthood: Examining the Teaching,” Origins 25/45 [5/2/96] 778-84).
Fourth, I agree that the ordination of women “is not merely a question of church discipline,” but I am not sure that, as Pottmeyer claims, “many of the past arguments against women’s ordination reflected the social and cultural conditions of their day” or were “merely arguments of convenience.” It seems to me that much more has been at stake, and some of it I should like to reconsider.
With such preliminary points established, I may pass on to more important aspects of the question of women’s ordination. Most of these aspects are derived from biblical data that Pottmeyer has treated too summarily.
Biblical Aspects of the Question
In Pottmeyer’s article the first major division of the discussion is entitled, “The Question: Fidelity to Jesus.” Later in that part he queries whether “the church in past centuries really ask[ed] whether faithfulness to Jesus required that only men be ordained.” He repeats that comment several times in his article. His answer is that, given the social and cultural situation in which the church has lived, it did not ask it; but the time has now come to do so.
What does “faithfulness to Jesus” mean in such a query? Is it faithfulness to something Jesus did or said? Before one could possibly answer the question of fidelity, one has to ask, “Fidelity to which Jesus?” Pottmeyer never considers this, and his whole argument is consequently skewed.
The question of fidelity to Jesus can be asked in three ways. First, it could mean fidelity to the Jesus of history–to the Jesus who walked the roads of Nazareth over 1,900 years ago. That Jesus, however, is largely inaccessible to us, since there were no television cameras, audio-or video-cassettes then. If there were any stenographers around to record his words, their records are lost to us. So fidelity to the Jesus of history cannot be invoked to counter other aspects of the tradition . We simply do not know whether the Jesus of history ever even thought of the question of women’s ordination.
Second, it could mean fidelity to the so-called historical Jesus–the Jesus as reconstructed by historians on the meager basis of biblical and extrabiblical data available. Even if that reconstructed Jesus (even of responsible writers like the Rev. John P. Meier) were meant, one would have to ask whether the church has ever recognized such a reconstruction of historians as normative for Christian faith, teaching or practice. So one cannot invoke fidelity to the historian’s reconstruction of Jesus to counter other aspects of the tradition.
Third, it could mean fidelity to the Jesus of the New Testament–the different portraits of Jesus painted for us by the four inspired Evangelists and the interpretations of him and the tradition associated with him in the rest of New Testament writings. This is the only Jesus to which the Christian church in the 20th century can be faithful. If that is what Pottmeyer means, and presumably he does mean that, then there are problems that he has glossed over.
The early testimony and tradition about Jesus enshrined in the New Testament tells us indeed that he “himself chose freely and independently to call only men as apostles.” Pottmeyer rightly stresses such New Testament data about the “limitation of the Twelve to men,” which seems indeed to have had symbolic value, representing the 12 tribes of Israel (Mt. 19:28).
Pottmeyer passes over in silence one problematic text that may have had some bearing on his views about ordination. For it is well known that, apart from the Lucan Jesus, who “called his disciples and chose twelve of them, whom he named apostles” (Lk. 6:13), there are other New Testament passages where the title “apostle” is used of others than the Twelve: Barnabas and Paul in Acts 14:4, 14; Paul referring to Titus and unnamed collaborators with the title apostoloi in 2 Cor. 8:23. Moreover, Paul possibly refers to a female apostle in Rom. 16:7, when he sends greeting to “Andronicus and Junia, my fellow compatriots, who were imprisoned with me and who are outstanding among the apostles.” The meaning of the verse is controverted. It has often been translated “Andronicus and Junias,” despite the fact that the postulated masculine name Iounias is found nowhere else in ancient Greek writings. A number of ancient commentators up to the 12th century understood the accusative Iounian to be the name of the wife of Andronicus. Giles of Rome (1247-1316) is said to have been the first to break with such an earlier tradition and to interpret Andronicus and Julia (his reading of the name!) as two men (viri). But no less an interpreter than John Chrysostom had written earlier of Junia: “How great the wisdom of this woman that she was even deemed worthy of the apostles’ title” (In ep. ad Romanos 31.2; Patrologia Graeca 60.669-70). Chrysostom regarded her as a female apostle.
The last clause, “who are outstanding among the apostles,” however, is also problematic. It could mean that Andronicus and Junia were outstanding among those who were known to be “apostles”; but it could also denote that they were held in high esteem by those who were apostles, meaning that they were not themselves apostles. Pottmeyer may well have known about this instance in the New Testament and passed over it in silence because of the problems related to it. Yet, for all its problems, it might have to be considered, if it could be shown that “apostles” in the New Testament were regarded as ordained.
The far greater problem about fidelity to Jesus in this matter is that the New Testament tradition never tells us that Jesus ordained the Twelve or anybody else, either apostles or disciples. Pottmeyer pays no attention to this missing factor. Writing as a dogmatic theologian, he apparently takes it for granted that Jesus imposed hands on the Twelve. Yet this is recorded nowhere, and the missing detail is eloquent in its silence! If, then, there is no New Testament evidence that Jesus ever ordained the Twelve, what can one conclude from Jesus’ free and independent call of the Twelve? The Gospel tradition tells us indeed that he sent them forth to preach and heal (e.g., Lk. 9:2), but that commission is never spoken of as an ordination. Nowhere in the New Testament do we ever learn that the Twelve were regarded as priests, or even as bishops.
Dogmatic theologians sometimes appeal to the words of Jesus at the Last Supper, “Do this in remembrance of me” (Lk. 22:19d; cf. 1 Cor. 11:24c) as a commission to perform the same action that he has just performed in memory of him. This rubric-like directive has even become part of the formula itself to be recited, as it is in the present-day liturgy. Later theological tradition has understood this commission as the institution of the sacrament of orders (Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, Suppl. 37, 5 ad 2; the Council of Trent, session XXII, Denziger-Schonmetzer 1740, 1752; cf. session XXIII, D.S. 1764). What has to be noted, however, is that Jesus’ words in such a commission do not per se imply or say “ordination,” even if the dogmatic Tradition of the church has so understood them. I do not say that that Tradition has wrongly so understood those words; rather, it is the Tradition of the church, not Scripture, that has become the source of the understanding of those words of Jesus in the sense of sacramental ordination. All that one can say on the basis of the New Testament testimony is that Jesus commanded his disciples to celebrate the Lord’s Supper in memory of him. Fidelity to Jesus in this case could have been fulfilled by nonordained disciples so celebrating the Lord’s Supper. It is the church’s traditional way of interpreting those words that has understood them of ordination.
In the Lucan story of the Lord’s Supper, the only one among the Gospels that records the directive, Jesus addresses those words to “the apostles” (Lk. 22:14). So one could argue that Jesus was thus commissioning “apostles” to perform the same action. That would be a legitimate restriction of the Lucan Jesus’ words, an interpretation that I personally would prefer. Some interpreters, however, have argued that his words were aimed at a larger, non-apostolic, group of followers. Thus R. J. Karris claims that “Luke does not describe a supper with just Jesus and the Twelve apostles present. He is painting on a much larger canvas with many more subjects–women and men of his own communities who continue Jesus’ ministry of feeding people” (New Jerome Biblical Commentary, 715). I consider that interpretation to be wrong, but I do not want to fail to note it, if only in passing. Whether the audience addressed be apostles or a larger group of disciples, the important aspect is that nothing is said about the ordination of such persons.
‘Ordination’is mentioned in the New Testament, when we learn that the structure of the church involved at first the Twelve, who eventually had to modify it. Though “the whole assembly” chose the Seven to serve tables, it “set them before the apostles, who prayed and imposed their hands on them” (Acts 6:5-6). Or it is meant when Timothy is told in the Pastoral Epistles “to impose hands on no one hastily” (1 Tim. 5:22), or when he himself is counselled to “rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands” (2 Tim. 1:6) or “the gift you have, which was given you with prophetic utterance when the council of elders laid their hands upon you” (1 Tim. 4:14). Here, imposition of hands is found in the sense of what is later called “ordination,” but to what status Timothy is ordained is not clear. In the Pastoral Epistles he is clearly a delegate of the “Paul” who is said to write them, but in what capacity he functions as a delegate is not clear, whether it be the apostolate, diaconate, priesthood or bishopric. In any case, we see how imposition of hands continues the commission of Jesus in choosing followers, perhaps even apostles. The traditional Christian rite of ordination is rooted in such verses of the Pastoral Epistles, and fidelity to the Jesus of the New Testament would entail fidelity to such an extension of Jesus’ own commission in terms of ordination.
Is the ordination of any female followers of Jesus ever mentioned or implied in the New Testament? Certainly not in the Gospels or Acts. Paul writes a letter of recommendation for Phoebe, whom he calls “our sister” (i.e., fellow Christian) “and diakonon of the church at Cenchreae” (Rom. 16:1). Whereas the R.S.V. and some other versions of the New Testament translate diakonon as “deaconess,” Paul uses rather the common gender diakonos, which could mean nothing more than “minister,” but might already designate her as a “deacon” in the later sense (as in the writings of Ignatius of Antioch around A.D. 115). The feminine form diakonissa is never used in the New Testament and begins to appear only in the later patristic tradition. Even if one admits that Phoebe were a “deacon” in the later sense, there is nothing in Paul’s words to tell us whether she would have been ordained as such. Although ordination is mentioned in the Pastoral Epistles, we do not know when ordination began in the early church and have no idea when the early Christians began to distinguish ordination to diaconate, priesthood or bishopric. The New Testament knows of church leaders in 1 Thess. 5:12 (proistamenoi), “elders” (1 Tim. 5:19; Tit. 1:5; James 5:14), and “overseers” or “bishops” (Tit. 1:7), and the Pastoral Epistles imply some sort of ordination of them.
A similar comment would have to be made about 1 Tim. 3: 11, where in the paragraph on the qualifications of deacons (diakonoi) “women” are mentioned. Are the gynaikes to be understood as “women deacons,” or as the “wives” of men deacons? The answer is debated among interpreters, but if the former is the correct interpretation, nothing is said about whether such female deacons were ordained.
Pottmeyer refers to the risen Christ “sending women as the first witnesses and messengers of his resurrection” and speaks of it as if that were a parallel to the earthly Jesus’ “action in choosing and commissioning only men as members of the Twelve.” Presumably he refers to Mt. 28:7-10 or John 20:17, but apart from the question whether the two sendings can be treated on the same level of importance or meaning, not a word is said in any of the Gospels about the risen Christ sending the women on this mission of testimony with an ordination or imposition of hands.
The upshot of the biblical data is that ordination or the imposition of hands began indeed in the period of the early church in which the later books of the New Testament were written. The church, in adopting the practice of such ordination as an extension of commission, has thus been faithful to the Jesus of the New Testament, but in reality that tradition tells us nothing about the ordination of women. Beyond that generic fidelity to Jesus as he is interpreted in the later books of the New Testament, there is no “fidelity to Jesus” that Pottmeyer can invoke in the specific question of the ordination of women to the priesthood, and that skews his whole argument.
I realize that Pottmeyer, writing as a dogmatic theologian, means “fidelity to Jesus” in a broader sense than the biblical, but it is that broader sense that I am querying. What is this fidelity to Jesus apart from fidelity to Scripture and Tradition?
The Negative Aspect of Scripture Linked to Tradition
There is, however, something more to be considered in this question of women’s ordination to the priesthood, both from the New Testament and the dogmatic Tradition that has grown out of the New Testament, and that is the negative thrust of the two considered in tandem.
For some reason, Pottmeyer has said nothing about two crucial texts in the New Testament, which neither he nor anyone else discussing such ordination of women can neglect. They are 1 Cor. 14:33b-36, which begins: “As in all the churches of the saints, women should keep silence in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak….” And 1 Tim. 2:11-12: “Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silence.” As unpopular as these verses are in the modern Catholic Church, they remain part of the Christian Scriptures. Even though one may ask whether they were meant to be understood in terms of the modern question of women’s ordination, they have at least as much pertinence to the question as any other New Testament passage that might be invoked. Whether they are authentically Pauline or not, they are no less inspired, canonical or authoritative than any other part of the New Testament. Moreover, they have obviously had much to do with the dogmatic Tradition that has developed in the church, at least in terms of ordination. One might ask how one would pit this passage over against the recognition of Phoebe’s function as diakonos in Rom. 16:1, mentioned above, or Paul’s recognition of women praying and prophesying in liturgical gatherings (1 Cor. 11:5). The traditional answer has been that women have always functioned in church capacities (as catechists, teachers, abbesses and ministers) that have not involved ordination: Phoebe’s ministry could have been of such a sort or perhaps of some other mode (patronage), not involving ordination. The example of Phoebe does not negate the teaching of 1 Cor. 14 or 1 Tim. 2.
The question is whether in “fidelity to Jesus,” even to Jesus of the New Testament, one can write off such explicit instruction from inspired authors by saying that it is time-conditioned. Can a reading of the “signs of the times” bring the church to adopt a mode of action that ignores such instruction?
Moreover, if I am right that the question of the ordination of women is not answered by an appeal to fidelity to Jesus of the New Testament, then the force of the long-standing church Tradition has to bear the brunt of the argument, and that Tradition has been negative. Pottmeyer mentions that the Biblical Commission “declared rightly that the question of women’s ordination cannot be decided on the basis of the historical method. Historical exegesis can uncover some important evidence for the intention of Jesus and his apostles, as well as information about the position of women in New Testament society, but it cannot do more than that.” I am not sure, however, that he has read the text of the commission correctly. It said, “The apostolic group thus established by the Lord appeared thus, by the testimony of the New Testament, as the basis of a community which has continued the work of Christ… we see in the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles that the first communities were always directed by men exercising the apostolic power.” Moreover, “the masculine character of the hierarchical order which has structured the church since its beginning thus seems attested to by Scripture in an undeniable way” (IV. 1 [Origins 6/6 (7/1/76) 92-96, esp. 95]). Toward the end the commission did admit, “It does not seem that the New Testament by itself alone will permit us to settle in a clear way and once and for all the problem of the possible accession of women to the presbyterate” (my emphasis).
A further question is this: When can a dogmatic theologian write off what has been achieved as the fruit of historical-critical interpretation of the Bible? One must also remember that the text of the Biblical Commission was never officially published; it was leaked to the press in this country, allegedly by “a source unrelated to the commission.” Moreover, that text is not a document of the church’s magisterium; it is only advisory and cannot be put on a par with O.S. That, of course, does not lessen the import of the commission’s findings, but Pottmeyer must know that this issue has to be decided on the basis of the historical-critical interpretation of the New Testament plus due respect for the long-standing Tradition that has grown out of the New Testament. Such an interpretation may reveal that the New Testament has nothing specific to say about the ordination of women to the priesthood. But the dogmatic Tradition that has developed from the whole complex of New Testament teaching about Jesus’ commission and its negative testimony about women’s place in such ordination cannot be ignored. This Tradition is not like the tradition inherited from apostolic times about abstinence from meat on Friday; it is a dogmatic Tradition (which I write with a capital T to distinguish it from non-dogmatic traditions). Hence the question is not really fidelity to Jesus, but fidelity to the Tradition of the church, which Pottmeyer says he does not question. In the immediately following sentence, however, he speaks of “the intention [that] this tradition embodies: the desire to remain faithful to Jesus’ action.” Such a desire prescinds, in effect, from the Tradition and centers everything on Jesus’ action, by which he means the action of “choosing the Twelve,” which, as we have seen, has little to do with the ordination of women to the priesthood.
Pope John Paul II stated in O.S. that “the church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women” (No. 4). He did not mean that “he could not himself change tradition in this matter.” He spoke rather of Ecclesiam facultatem nullatenus habere. If it is so, that the church has no ability to change it, then the Pope cannot invite everyone to prayer and dialogue as he would summon “a council to make a final decision.” If “the church” cannot do it, then a council cannot do it, no matter what “signs of the times” may be or what “faithfulness to Jesus” might seem to call for in Pottmeyer’s estimation.
No matter where this question of the ordination of women to the priesthood will lead us, the above concerns have to be taken into consideration.
Added material Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., is professor emeritus of biblical studies at the Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., and a former member of the Biblical Commission (though not a member in 1975, when the commission discussed the question being treated here).
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