A Woman too can act in persona Christi because women and men are equal in Christ
Rome contends that women cannot be ordained priests because, as females, they cannot signify Christ who was a male.
‘”Sacramental signs,” says St Thomas, “represent what they signify by natural resemblance.” The same natural resemblance is required for persons as for things; when Christ’s role in the Eucharist is to be expressed sacramentally, there would not be this natural resemblance which must exist between Christ and his minister if the role of Christ were not taken by a man: in such a case it would be difficult to see in the minister the image of Christ. For Christ himself was and remains a man’. Inter Insigniores § 27.
The first reason why the argument is wrong is that the philosophy it presupposes is wrong. The scholastics, to whom the document refers as the source of the argument, propounded a philosophy of the sexes that can no longer be defended by any christian. For Thomas Aquinas woman is only an ‘incomplete man’ and thus ‘cannot signify eminence of degree.’ St Thomas concluded that therefore she could not ‘resemble’ Christ or be his ‘image’. But surely such reasoning contradicts Scripture itself, let alone a better philosophy of human dignity.
Read Thomas himself.
The female sex cannot signify eminence of degree.
Women’s inability to be ordained is based on a presumed, threefold inferiority of women.
a. Women are biologically inferior. Following Aristotle’s view of procreation, Aquinas believed that a woman is born by some defect in the generative process. A woman is a ‘defective male’. The biologically secondary status is also clear from the belief that the male seed contains the generative power. The mother only provides a womb that gives nourishment to the seed/foetus. This view was common among the Fathers.
b. Women are socially inferior. A woman is subject to man by nature, because human reason, though common to both men and women to some extent, predominates in the male.
c. Women are created as dependent on men. Man was created first. Though both men and women are the image of God as to our intellectual nature, man is the image of God in a special sense.
Aquinas argues that, on account of these inherent defects, woman cannnot signify eminence of degree and can, therefore, not represent Christ as an ordained minister.
Conclusion: Since we know women to be absolutely equal to men, both biologically, socially and in the order of creation, the argument is invalid. In fact, the argument rests on the social and cultural prejudices of the time.
Here is the judgment of a contemporary theologian:
“Thomas Aquinas was wise in many things, but even he was a product of his times. In the Summa Theologiae we read that “since it is not possible in the female sex to signify eminence of degree, for a woman is in the state of subjection, it follows that she cannot receive the sacrament of Order.” What is more, woman’s subjection is not due to social conditions. Addressing the question of whether slavery is an impediment to ordination, Thomas wrote in the Summa that “sacramental signs signify by reason of their natural likeness. Now a woman is a subject by her nature, whereas a slave is not.” Aquinas also believed that “in women there is not sufficient strength of mind to resist concupiscence.” One would certainly have doubts about ordaining a creature of such limited endowment.”
“We cannot judge Thomas Aquinas. But we know better. We know that women are not by nature inferior to men (see John Paul II’s 1988 apostolic letter, Mulieris dignitatem). We know that a woman is no more in a state of subjection by her nature than is a man. Aquinas’s objections can no longer be cited as reasons to refuse ordination to women. Nor can any other reasons that imply inferiority. To do so would stand in contradiction to what we now understand of the good news of Christ.”
Rose Hoover, ‘Consider tradition. The case for women’s ordination’, Commonweal 126 no 2 (Jan. 29, 1999), p. 17-20. Hoover is on the retreat staff of the Cenacle in Metairie, Louisiana.
The second flaw in Thomas’s reasoning is that he equates ‘natural likeness’ [=exact similarity] with symbol [=a sign with meaning]. Jesus’ sex may matter when we portray him in a painting, it does not matter when he is represented by a sacramental sign which is a symbol.
- The confusion is already apparent when Aquinas speaks of the Eucharist being an sign of Christ’s Passion. This is fine, but he compares it to a portrait! The Eucharist, however, is not a portrait of the Passion. It signifies the Passion in a truly symbolic way.
- Aquinas indicates another symbol: the altar. This, he says, represents the cross. Here he indicates a true symbol. For by natural similarity the crucifix over the altar shows a better likeness to the cross. The altar does not look like a cross but symbolises the cross because, as the consecrated Bread and Wine stand on the altar, Christ hung on the wood of the cross.
- Aquinas says about the priest: ‘the priest also bears Christ’s image, in whose person and by whose power he pronounces the words of consecration’.
Conclusion: Aquinas should have realised that in the priest too it is not natural likeness that matters, but the sacrificial act of Christ. The priest too is a ‘symbol’, not a natural likeness.
This is what Eric Doyle said about it:
“Compare these two texts:
Summa Theologiae III, q. 83, art: I, ad 2: ‘As the celebration of this sacrament is an image representing (imago repraesentiva) Christ’s Passion, so does the altar represent the cross on which Christ was crucified in his own proper form und fig:ure. St Thomas plainly distinguishes on the one hand between imago repraesentativus and the altar as repraesentativam of the cross and, on the other, Christ’s sacrifice in propria specie.
Secondly, the same question and article, ad 3: ‘And for the same reason the priest also bears Christ’s image (gerit imaginem Christi), in whose person and by whose power he pronounces the words of consecration as we have shown. And so in a measure the priest and the victim are the same’. The Deciaration wishes to conclude from the comparison of ad 3 and ad 2 that the priest must be male. But this, in fact, is the one conclusion which cannot be drawn from the comparison. Indeed, if ad 3: gerit imaginem Christi does not refer to Christ’s mediatorship in a symbolic way, the parallel with ad 2 is rendered ridiculous.
“The celebration of the eucharist is the imago repraesentativa of Christ’s passion and the altar represents the cross. Neither the double consecration nor the altar is a physical likeness or a photographic reproduction of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. However, as true symbols they have a natural [internal] resemblance to what is represented. In the eucharist the sacrifice of Christ is sacramental, it is in genere signi, it is symbolic. If, then, the priest enacts the image of Christ (gerit imaginem Christi) ‘just as the celebration of this sacrament is the representative image of Christ’s cross’ [St Thomas says ‘passion’] as the Declaration has it, then it cannot be a matter of physical likeness but of natural resemblance, that is of symbolic representalion of Christ the Mediator. St Thomas has not changed his notion of ‘imago’ in.the text of ad 3 and given it a different meaning, as the Declaration seems io be saying; St Thomas says: ‘As the celebration of this sacrament is an image representing Christ’s Passion . . . And for the same reason the priest also bears Christ’s image’ . . .”
“ The celebration of the Mass is not a mimeograph of the Last Supper or of Calvary. If the natural resemblance between the minister of the eucharist and Christ formally concerned the maleness of Christ, then strictly speaking everything would have to be done to make the priest today resemble as closely as possible what we gather a Jew of the first century looked like. This is not being flippant; it is the logical corollary of the Declaration’s argument. If natural resemblance means physical likeness, then for the sake of making the image more perfect the priest ought to dress at Mass as a first century Jew dressed. As it is the priest at Mass dons vestments which serve to hide his very maleness and to highlight his ministry as representative image or symbol in his humanity of Christ the Mediator. Hence what the Declaration says about the eucharist may be said of all the sacraments: ‘the priest . . . acts . . . in persona Christi, taking the role of Christ, to the point of being his very image, when he pronounces the words of consecration’. One can also say of a woman minister of baptism: she acts in persona Christi, taking the role of Christ, to the point of being his very image, when she pronounces thc words of baptism.”
Eric Doyle, ‘The Question of Women Priests and the Argument In Persona Christi’, Irish Theological Quarterly 37 (1984) 212 – 221, here pp. 217 – 218.
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