“Who May Dwell Within your Tent?”
from: Wie Mag Toeven Binnen Uw Tent?, by the commission on Woman and the Church of the Belgian Bishops’ Conference, eds. Ann Bedeleem and Ilse van Halst, Louvain 1998, pp. 55 – 67.
Translated from the Flemish by John Wijngaards and here re-published with permission of the Commission.
Voices of disagreement
Not everyone agrees with the official position of the Church expressed in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis. Many people have misgivings about the arguments the Pope employs when excluding women from priestly ministry. They object to the way in which the “special nature of woman” is understood, as well as to the interpretation of the data from Scripture and Tradition. They point to the heavy cultural load resting on the ideal of the priestly ministry on account of the past clerical image of the Church and the stress on essentialism. They ask that more attention be given to women who feel called to the priesthood and to the fact that women are also excluded from other leadership functions simply because these are tied to the priesthood.
Christ is God made human
The opinion that only men can represent Christ because of their natural resemblance in gender is heavily criticised. A sacramental relationship does not arise, according to these theologians, by a natural resemblance in sex between the sign (the priest) and the object signified (Jesus Christ). A sacramental relationship is established through liturgical actions and words by which the sign is created to be a sign in the spirit Jesus intended. Essential to the priesthood is not that a person is a man, but that the person is ordained to be a priest and is commissioned by the Church. If the Church were to ordain women and could entrust the priestly ministry to them they would, just as much as their male colleagues, be able to act in the person of Christ.
“Considering the symbolic nature of the roles and functions linked to sex, it is easily understood, from a psychological point of view, that the ministry could be taken on by a woman. Just as the mother, in spite of her feminine identity and experience, can all the same fulfil the functions of the father, so can “mutatis mutandis” the woman, from a psychological point of view, perfectly fulfil the relational and representational task that the Church’s ministry is. Of course, in all this, one needs to take into account the great differences that exist between cultures with regard to what is possible and acceptable” (J.Corveleyn, AV June1996).
The theologians who follow this line of thinking find it strange that Church authority attaches so much importance to Jesus being a man. John Paul II rightly points out in “Mulieris Dignitatem” that God’s procreation is totally divine in nature and that his fatherhood really does not possess any male or female qualities. If one takes this seriously and at the same time remembers that both the woman and the man have been created in God’s image and likeness, one cannot really make the manhood of Jesus Christ a necessary factor of God’s Word in his incarnation in this world.
The same theologians ask themselves ‘May one really maintain that Jesus had to be a man because he was supposed to become the bridegroom of the Church?’ Yet, in harmony with the marital terminology of the covenant, the relationship between Jesus Christ and the Church is being strikingly expressed through the term’s ‘bridegroom’ and ‘bride’, but these are, and remain, metaphors. Just as the marital relationship between Yahweh and Israel does not mean that Yahweh is truly male and Israel female, in the same way ‘bridegroom’ and ‘bride’ do not proclaim anything about a real femininity of the Church or a necessary maleness of Christ.
“The whole group was not happy with the fact that one image (Christ as bridegroom, the Church as bride) is pushed forward so much, even absolutised, among the many images. The priest presides over a community, which makes Jesus present. The priest points to Christ. At present ,however, he is being sacralised too much. Would a woman, just because she is not a man, not point to Christ much better in a less ambiguous manner?” (Discussion group, VA June 1996)
The fact that Jesus was a man no doubt determined his personality. It was not accidental. But the same applies also – although in a different way – for his being a Jew. Jesus’ having been a man is exaggerated beyond reason in the discussion about the priesthood of women, according to the criticism of those who defend a possible ordination of women. They point out that Jesus is in the first place the salvation of the world as Word of God who has become human, as the human-God who in his concrete humanness remained one in being with the Father and gave himself up, by listening to the Father’s will, to the greatest gift of love. The priest represents this human being ,Jesus Christ, in person. This is a role, so the theologians argue, which those men and those women, who know themselves called and who are appointed to this ministry in the name of the risen Lord by the Church, can take on.
If one – as the pope does in “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis” – looks at ministry from the higher aim of “striving after love”, the minister does not stand above but between all other faithful. One task or function is not better or higher than another one. This affirmation of the principle of equal worth of all the faithful does not tell the whole story. Questions arise when we flesh out this equal worth, questions that come both from the clerical Church image and the previous unequal status of men and women.
“In the world of women religious the predominance of men often weighs heavy. Women religious are usually under the power of the Bishop. They feel hemmed in by episcopal rules. They do not get space. In celebrations a priest sometimes just starts from the assumption that he determines what has to happen. He does not take into account agreements that were made about the way of singing and praying; he takes for granted that he can do everything himself. Women religious usually get a chaplain who is no longer of any use elsewhere and who has been dismissed from parish work. This promotes the idea that sisters are nobodies” (discussion group AV February 1995).
“Pastoral workers and women experience a lot of problems in exercising their tasks. Sometimes priests push them to the background as having been “inadequately trained”. The female chaplain in a hospital is sometimes less easily accepted by people. In a parish team that is predominantly female, people often prefer to talk to the male members. People accept much less from women who are often away from home and leave the family to cope (for instance on the occasion of meetings in the evenings, and on formation days). All this is not the necessarily intentional, but is determined through culture and traditional role patterns. Women have to involve themselves in more quality pastoral work so that a new mentality can grow from below” (Discussion Group, AV June 1996).
The influence of a clerical Church image, which formerly was taken for granted, makes it difficult for a true priesthood of service to be accepted. However true and valuable the ecclesiastical position about the equal worth of the faithful may be, the past has definitely left its imprint. Formerly the priestly ministry was very much elevated both in society and the church, especially above all the tasks that could be fulfilled by women. It was also given the halo of being a path of life that brought more salvation than the life of a married couple. We therefore have to reckon very much with the fact that, on account of its past history, a heavy load rests on the presumed principle of the equal worth of all the faithful and of the priesthood as a true service of the community.
“In our ecclesiastical manner of speaking, we are again running the risk of branding what is feminine in an essentialist sense. Woman is in the first place considered mother and in the second place virgin. About woman as partner there is silence. In this way the essential difference between man and woman is strongly emphasised and the nature and the task of the woman is perceived as being attention of and care for others. A professional life is not permitted to her in this perspective, for to aim at a profession would mean that she would think of herself instead of others, as her primary role demands. The role of mother is therefore deemed to be the role in which we think of others. Perhaps the same could be said of the father – but it is not. In this way one handles again the sexual difference between men and women as an absolute fact” (R.Burggraeve, AV June 1996).
“Feminist discussion has clearly shown that there are real differences between women. Some women tend more towards assertiveness and power and other women more towards caring. But one cannot really say that one is true women and the other is not, or visa versa. But from a traditional point of view, and without claiming that this does or does not come from a biological tendency, women have been more inclined to caring, communication and social interactions than men, who are more inclined towards instrumental thinking” (A.Snick, AV June 1996).
In “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis” the various vocations of men and women are placed within the fundamental equal worth of all the faithful. The fleshing-out of the proper vocation of woman, however, remains too vague and many different interpretations are possible. As the analysis of debates within the feminist movement have shown, it remains quite difficult to determine the specific-ness of women. Women can, both from within their own history and from within the Church, provide many worthwhile experiences and insights, but terms like “specifically feminine” run the risk of suggesting a norm or an ideal with which women have to comply and in which no account is taken of the many ways and variations in which they can give expression to their being woman. Moreover, the vague description of the truly feminine nature (and also the truly male nature) opens wide the door for interpretations of the difference between men and women – which remind us strongly of the old pattern according to which women’s nature was considered inferior. The fact that church authorities – which until now are only men – are defending a distinct vocation for women reflects, in the eyes of many, the discriminatory thinking of the past. Because then, too, it was men who determined what the true female nature was. And this “femininity” was consciously or unconsciously handled by men in such a way that they did not need to share the leadership, and the power over society, with women.
“In Christian circles we find at present a kind of cheap speaking, as if emancipation has already been completed, so that we could devote ourselves to the sexual difference, to what is specific in man and woman. But this offers precisely the risk of being a new source of domination, because in the past the difference has always worked out that way. Of course, this result is neither certain nor unavoidable, but we should not be naïve and forget the weight of previous history which, as in the history of the Church, has left deep and painful scars ” (A.Burggraeve, AV June 1996).
Witness: Susan, who was fatally ill, said to me: “I am so sorry that I cannot ask you for one last favour”. She stopped. “Ask me all the same”, I said. Crying she told me: “I would have liked you to give me the anointing of the sick”. But smiling about her sadness she toned it down by saying: “Men maintain that women may not do so”. (Witness of a Pastoral Worker, AV February 1995)
Tradition is not Holy
The Pope says: “The tradition of the Church has been, in imitation of Jesus who only chose men to be apostles, to ordain only men as priests. The Church is bound to follow the example of Jesus”. But this is only the case if one could prove that Jesus acted consciously and freely. The proofs which “Inter Insigniores” and “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis” offer for this are not convincing. The tradition of only ordaining men to be priests has a long history, but does that make her holy and beyond challenge? In pleas for opening the priestly ministry to women it is often pointed out that quite early in the history of Christianity unfortunate developments took place concerning ministry. According to critics, the purpose of the ministry was originally to proclaim the good news and the leadership of the community according to the gospel – functions which were also exercised in the liturgy. Later however, all the emphasis was on liturgical leadership at the celebration of the Eucharist and the administration of the sacraments. In this way the priesthood was given a rather cultic content – in a departure from its original intention – and, as a sacred ministry, was separate from the community. In this development, often with the best of intentions, people pointed to what Jesus himself would have had in mind about t ministry. In fact however, the result was rather the consequence of an adaptation of religious models of the cultic priesthood in Judaism and paganism, and influences from a wider social context.
“Whoever tries to fix the forms of the ministry that have actually developed by linking them to the historical arguments of Jesus ends up in quicksand. We have to make a distinction between the legitimacy of a development and its ‘unchangeableness’. A legitimate development is a development that, taking account of time and place, incarnates the best way of being faithful to Jesus’ Gospel. Every ecclesiastical ministry which really serves the building up of Christ’s community is founded in the Gospel. This does not, however, mean the same as it having been expressly willed so by the historical Jesus. An ecclesiastical development to a ministry in three layers, such as we know it from many centuries, may therefore be quite legitimate and can be called founded in the Gospel. But this legitimacy in no way implies that it is unchangeable”. (V.Schmidt, AV February 1995).
The same can be said about the tradition that, from the beginning of the Church, excluded women from the leadership of the Church. The tradition is not a Gospel norm but a human tradition, a giving in to the obvious impossibilities of those days. The evangelical norm, according to these theologians, can only be found in the liberating impulses which come from Jesus’ own actions, and which continued in the earliest Christian communities, so that believing women were recognised there with their own gifts and potential. Since we have now finally identified the old cultural and social prejudices against women, the Church needs to take up the thread again with full conviction and to work for a truly equal treatment of women and men, including with regard to ministry.
We have to be honest enough to dare to acknowledge that our culture is no dogma. Our culture’s sensitivity has its value, but also its limitations. The Gospel enculturates within a culture and yet also criticises cultures. And therefore I can quite well understand that a lot of people now say: “From a cultural sensitivity which is different – this is the only way I can feel – I cannot agree to it”. Yes, I can understand it, but should we also not criticise our own culture? This too is not universal, neither in time nor in space. (Cardinal Danneels, AV June 1994). June 1994).
What has always been done in the church need not always stay like that – even though people thought that was how it was. The tradition which restricts the priestly ministry to men cannot derive legitimacy from unbroken practice. And to what extent could this practice base normative value on the fact that the magisterium of the church keeps characterising it as an essential and unchangeable element of the sacrament of the priesthood?
In this connection the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith points to the normative competence of the magisterium. According to the classical teaching about the church, the magisterium has the task of deciding which elements in the sacramental tradition belong to the substance and which are temporary. However – so the campaigners for the ordination for women point out – this applies only if it can be shown that the actual tradition of the ministry really derives from Jesus’ own intention. Only in that case can a deviation on the part of the ecclesiastical magisterium be ruled out.
“I am closely involved in the socio-cultural sector of society. My concern is that, possibly because of the image of the Church today, there are more and more people who do not bother about the conflict anymore. They just leave it for what it is. We are gradually experiencing a new coldness in the Church. There are people who do not bother about that any more. I also see that gradually many volunteers, who have little theological or exegetical formation, find it more and more difficult to discern between the truly religious expression of power and the factual power which they experience in the Church, and who therefore begin to question their involvement with the Church or with their own parish” (General Enquiry, AV June 1995)
“Tradition has always presented Christ in the dress of its own time. She has done this precisely to keep the Gospel living and dynamic. Actually this is quite a liberating insight, for it makes clear how much freedom the Church enjoys in its concretely fleshing-out of essential structures. Also in this particular respect she enjoys the complete freedom of the children of God. This is a very reassuring message when we think of the many centuries, and perhaps millennia, which humanity still has to face.” (P.Schmidt, AV February 1995).
In our society discrimination is closely connected with either having or not having some say on matters of government. All ministries of government have to be open to men and women. In the discussion about the priestly ministry of women the role of women in the power of government is also at stake, for leadership in the Church is tied to ordination. Women want to be acknowledged as equal members of the Church, as they are supposed to be by Church law. According to our modern understanding this also implies equality in government and therefore an openness to priestly ministry for women.
The objection that the Church is not a democracy is out of order here. For why could a woman not exercise an equal ministry of government in a non-democratic system? What matters here is not a particular form of government, but whether everyone has a place as a truly equal member in the community.
“People do not challenge authority because they deny the Church, Jesus or the resurrection, but because there is something wrong with the cultural form of that authority. As soon as someone claims: ‘I will tell you what God prescribes’, something is not right.” (Discussion Group, AV June 1995)
“It is not just a matter of bringing more women into the political and pedagogical decision making, but also and especially to make the decision-making itself a less discriminating practice. The greater involvement of women can therefore be the outcome of a non-discriminating policy, but participation by women can also contribute to bringing about a more democratic form of decision-making, since women traditionally incorporate values and perspectives which are different from men’s.” (A.Snick, AV June 1996)
“I believe that awareness of the equal rights and equal value of men and women – and of the need no longer to discriminate in their participation in forms of decision making and policy making – is now assuming such authority in our world, and in the awareness of humanity, that the Church can no longer continue to deny or ignore this reality in its own structure” (E.Van Waelderen, AV 1995)
Since the power of ordination and the power of government are tied to each other, a reference to Mary does not really help, because the central question is not who can represent which ‘persona’, but why the whole power of government has to hang on the representative who acts ‘in persona Christi’. Criticism is not only levelled at the fact that men are allowed to lead in the Church because they are physically men, but also at the fact that they are allowed to dominate because they are allowed to lead.
“Today, in our work for ‘peace and justice’, we are committed to equal rights for men and women wherever this applies in society. Our credibility depends on a consistent application of these principles to our own Church as well as to society. Different roles need to be fulfilled. People have differing responsibilities: that is indisputable. What we cannot accept is that half the population in our Church is deprived of their fundamental rights. We believe that this is where the hub of the matter lies – deprivation of rights, not so much because of losing ordination, but more on the level of losing the ability to decide. The discussion about this matter has been going on for more than twenty years – and very little progress has been made.” (AV June 1994)
The question as to why women cannot be entrusted with functions of government is also not being satisfactorily dealt with by the contention that the task of governing is not a position of power but a position of service. Because then we may ask: Why exclude women from this task of service?
“There is indeed a problem … in the fact that the power of decision-making in the Church is tied to the sacrament of ordination. This connection can, indeed, be called into question. It is possible to separate the power of jurisdiction from the power of ordination, although I think that this should be considered carefully. It is not clear. However, I am not saying that they should be separated without further ado, because there is an affinity between the two ideas of power” (Cardinal Daneels, AV June 1994)
The practice and the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church seem to be clear. But what should we make of the women who are convinced that they are called to the priestly ministry? In Inter Insigniores the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith speaks about the desire of these women to serve Jesus Christ and the Church through priestly ministry. The desire can be honourable, it says, but may still not on that account be considered as a true vocation to the priestly ministry. For a genuine vocation is only present when the Church, in Christ’s name through ordination, acknowledges and affirms this personal desire – and this is something that is not possible in the case of women.
What is being said in this document about the essence of the priestly vocation and the priestly ministry will be denied by few. But does the Church at this moment really do justice to what moves some believing women in the depth of their hearts? Is it really honest to characterise the vocation to the priestly ministry in women as a purely subjective desire, if there is not even the possibility of letting this personal vocation grow out into a truly ecclesial vocation as happens in the case of men? Is it fair if women, moreover, are not even allowed to make a judgement about the acknowledgement and affirmation of this subjective desire? Is this not, in actual fact, a form of discrimination?
Often these women who know themselves called to the priestly ministry are extremely competent and capable of leading their colleagues and others in Christ’s name. Perhaps they have already been prepared for this and trained in an excellent manner. Often they have already taken on important and responsible tasks in pastoral work, at the request of the Church itself. Often they themselves and many others have been allowed to experience how beneficial that was . . . and how much the Church would gain if these women would, through the priestly ministry, be allowed to give full expression to their own gifts and pastoral concerns.
“Women want to be priests but not like the priests of today – a priest who just says Mass. ‘To be a priest’ will have to be something different. It will have to be fleshed out in a new way” (Discussion Group February 1995).
“People’s experiences of women doing pastoral work are quite positive on the whole. These women are not standing on a pedestal as their priestly colleagues do; they are clearly lay persons with the laity and therefore there is a lower threshold. These women contribute a lot through their own approach to the building up of community around Christ. Their ability to ‘listen’ therefore holds special relevance” (Discussion Group, AV June 1996).
Keeping the Discussion Open
The contents and the arguments in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis are not new. They have already been presented and commented on in the declaration Inter Insigniores. What is new is the conclusion of the letter – “all the faithful of the Church have to accept this position as being definitive” – in which the pope with his full authority subscribes to the opinion that women cannot be priests. This argument of authority came as a hard blow for many believers who had questions about the previous argumentation. Moving the discussion from the level of content to the level of authority has given many people the impression that they have been reduced to silence.
“Some people raise the question: ‘If the pope says that restricting the sacrament of holy orders to men alone belongs to the essential constitution of the Church, how do we need to understand this?’ Is it a point of faith? But we do not find it in the Creed. Neither can it be found explicitly in the Gospel – although indications in that direction are claimed it is certainly not explicit. There are, of course, some things in the Church, in the fundamental structure of the Church, which because of the historical data of the Church are such that they cannot be changed” Cardinal Daneels, AV June 1994)
“To what extent are statements of the magisterium binding? How do we need to place them? Lumen Gentium gives us a clear distinction in paragraph 25. We have to distinguish what is dogmatically fixed, that is, what belongs to the domain of infallibility. This area is strictly limited by conditions: it happens only when the pope speaks ex cathedra or if the pope and bishops together in council or spread all over the world define a doctrine regarding faith and morals as a strict point of faith. This domain is strictly tied to revealed truths. Christians are required to give obedience in faith to such points of doctrine. The ordinary authentic magisterium also gives guidelines but does not belong to the domain of infallibility. It does not pretend to be always in complete agreement with the Gospel. These points demand a ‘religious agreement of mind and will’, though in this matter we are not talking about strict obedience in faith. These latter declarations have also their own authoritative weight. That does not mean slavish subjection but it demands an attitude of ‘respectful acknowledgement and honest reception’. One is obliged in conscience to conform one’s thinking and actions with this doctrine” (E.Van Wilderen, AV June 1995).
In their statement regarding Ordinatio Sacerdotalis the bishops of Belgium remark that one can give further thought, in spite of it being a ‘definitive opinion’. But is it still possible to be involved in real thinking, in all openness and according to the rules proper to theological research? Moreover, it is not sufficient that the discussion about the arguments be continued on theological level – the dialogue must also remain open and be stimulated at a pastoral level and in the policymaking of the Church community, especially with regard to the realisation of the true equality of men and women. The credibility of the Church’s attitude depends on a commitment to a true partnership of men and women.
“Some people are shocked by the abrupt affirmations in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis. But one must not forget that previous declarations of the doctrine presented a deep and wide argumentation (Inter Insignores; Mulieris Dignitatem). It is also possible that the tone and the language of the declaration , however justified from a legal, church law point of view, evoke different and emotional connotations in a present day audience, which may give rise to a totally different meaning. While the term ‘definitive’ in church language means that something belongs to the accepted doctrine of the church as the pope and bishops always present it, the same word may sound, to modern ears as, a prohibition to speak or to think, or an attempt to silence people altogether (Declaration by the Bishops of Belgium regarding Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, 7 June 1994).
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