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Women Priests?

Women Priests?

by Jean-Marie Aubert

from La femme: antiféminisme et christianisme, Cerf - Desclée, Paris 1975.

Translated for www.womenpriests.org from the French by Joanna Waller (see credits).

Should it be said that Christian participation in the true liberation of women is to be confined to secular society? This would be to forget that the same problem arises more and more within the heart of the Church itself, as the radical refusal to allow women to receive the sacrament of orders, that is, to exercise the sacred ministries strictly reserved for those of the male sex. The question that many are asking in fact is whether this refusal is linked to the very structure of the Church, that is to the will of Christ, or else is only the last but the most important after-glow of anti-feminism in traditional Christian society. It goes without saying that this question and the expected reply are still matters of theoretical discussion only, since the Church's authority remains the final arbiter of such issues, at the level of ecclesial reality.

The visible portion of the iceberg

The problem is serious; it is the classic symbol-problem that underlies the idea that the Church has of women. In fact, historically, it is this issue that illustrates and reveals the general mentality of society regarding the inequality of the sexes. This inequality seems to be so obvious that no one would have dreamt of justifying it by so many arguments (the chief of which were analysed in chapter IV) if it had not be concretised by the separation of women from the sacred functions. As the visible part of the iceberg is so much smaller than the hidden part, the exclusion of women from the priesthood hid a misogyny that extended to all sectors of society (as has been amply demonstrated in chapter III). This explains how it is in historical studies relating to the exclusion of women from the priesthood that more information is given on the feminine problem itself, as it appears in the Christian west. These works thus provide more information than their titles might suggest. This is also why we have chosen the areas to be addressed by this book, we shall focus on the problem of the priesthood of women, from a Christian point of view, as a symbol-problem rather than a problem of women's liberation. As we have tried to show throughout this book, the masculinisation of Christian society has brought in its wake many consequences; it is a problem of civilisation, as well as of faithfulness to the Gospel. Therefore, so far we have hardly talked about the priesthood of women, the tip of the iceberg and the consequence (or at least the main problem in the past, and almost the last remaining one at the moment in the Church) of the hidden part.

This explains why in the following pages, we will not need to discuss at any length the problem of the exclusion of women from all consecrated ministries; since in fact, it is part and parcel of the traditional image of women we have been discussing up to now: the same causes and the same ideological justifications arise in both cases.

An out-dated problem?

First of all, it should be firmly stated that present applicants for the female priesthood (or the diaconate alone) are not operating from the perspective of the feminist agenda, suffragist style, as some of their opponents would have it. They see it primarily as a call and a vocation that involves them as human persons, and members of the People of God. Ideas have progressed sufficiently within the Church to ensure that nowadays discrimination based on the difference in sex seems to be nonsense, and even unjust (see text in Gaudium et Spes, n° 29, noted above p. 152). Moreover, doing away with this discrimination as regards admission to the consecrated ministries seems to be a Gospel requirement, a prophetic decision that would bring the Gospel up to date by responding to the advancement of women as a sign of the times. Consequently it should be understood that women who aspire to fulfil these roles are not motivated by circumstances, as their accusers often claim: when the seminaries are emptying, and recruitment to the priesthood is drying up, the supply of women candidates may be a temporary solution. This argument certainly has some appeal, but it is not the core of the issue: even if the number of male vocations was not falling, the problem of the female priesthood would remain intact; it is not circumstantial but fundamental: should sex discrimination continue to be practised in the ordained ministries, yes or no?

Finally, there is often another objection, especially from certain churchmen who like to think of themselves as open to current problems: the problem of women priests is an outmoded problem, they say, since at a time when the traditional idea of the priest and the clergy is being questioned, and there is talk of "declergifying" the priest, we should not be refloating the idea of women's ordination. Without getting into a discussion of unconscious male motivation (the fear of losing some kind of power, perhaps), this objection is completely false; there would be no question, in ordaining women, of doing it in the traditional context of the clergy. The development in Church institutions since Vatican II has demonstrated the possibility of a richly versatile or multi-disciplined priestly ministry: the traditional figure of the parish priest, the worker priest, the priest involved in scientific research, the priest living in a more or less informal base community, etc. During the present time of intense discovery and the crisis in the clergy, we need to rediscover an image of the priest that retains the essential values, while being more flexible and more adaptable to the needs of a modern apostolate. In this context of renewal and study the problem of the female priesthood must be confronted, in a new form still to be discovered. Over the centuries, the Church has shown astonishing inventiveness in its ministries, so the idea of a ministry open to women, of itself, cannot be rejected simply on the grounds of a stereotypical view of the priesthood and the clergy.

The traditional doctrine of the incapacity of women to receive the sacrament of Orders

This traditional doctrine is encapsulated in canon 968, paragraph 1 of the 1917 Code of Canon Law: "Only a baptised male can validly receive sacred ordination" (sacred ordination meaning from minor orders up to the episcopate).

This short clause provides no more than a summary of a whole tradition, going back to the apostolic age. It should however be noted that until the Middle Ages, this tradition rarely gave rise to any systematic theological justification on the part of the Church Fathers. In the ancient Christian Roman world, the exclusion of women from all public life, that was one of the features of the society (see p. 57 above), was simply transposed into the structures of the Church (apart from deaconesses, of which more later). In this world, where women were kept private, even though there was more freedom than in former times, the existence of a female priesthood, albeit limited, not to mention sacred prostitution, could hardly be a role model. The existence of priestesses in ancient times, far from having influenced Christianity in terms of an imitation, could only strengthen its rejection of the pattern. If paganism did indeed influence Christianity, it was mainly at a cultural, juridical, institutional level, in terms of general ideas and not of the pagan cult accused of being idolatrous. From a religious and cultural point of view, it was Judaism (in its rabbinical interpretation) that had a natural influence (the Church saw itself as the new Israel, continuing the worship of the one, true God in the new Alliance by Christ). We saw in chapter II that while Christian expansion into the pagan world took place during the lifetime of St. Paul, through the significant contribution made by the female ministry, the situation became much less favourable to women from the end of the 1st century.

Once canon law and theology became systematised, in the Middle Ages, the first attempts were made at scientific formulation of this tradition, which has lasted to the present day. The expression of this tradition came only from the Fathers of the Church and their interpretation of biblical texts. There is therefore a consistency between the two eras, at a deep level. It is the same tradition that, spontaneous and customary in the ancient Christian world, became explicit and thought-out from the Middle Ages to the present day. What is the formulation that summarises and states this tradition? The simplest form is given by Gratian, the prince of canonists, and by the undisputed master of theology, St. Thomas Aquinas. They express it in the same way: woman cannot receive holy orders, since by her nature she is in a condition of servitude, says Gratian, because she is in a state of submission, says St. Thomas. Since these sources and these reasons are the only foundation for the current exclusion of women, according to canon law, from any holy orders, this has to be seen as the essential argument: women cannot be ordained because they are beings that are incapable of autonomy; woman is made to live in subservience, to obey a man. Why? The reasons are those that have already been analysed in chapter IV (expressed either in a masculine biblical exegesis or in anti-feminist ideologies, all reflecting the cultural conditioning of a deeply patriarchal society): women has been drawn from man, and therefore she depends on him, and is only made in the image of God through his mediation; the first woman lost the human race, making herself the intermediary between the devil and humanity: she is a temptation for man, being easy to seduce (quite apart from her innate impurities). She is the body of man, of which man himself is the head; she should therefore submit to him in all things. Finally, she is a "deficient male", lacking the qualities of intelligence and will necessary to live as an independent human being (cf. the "imbecility of woman" from canonical texts, above p. 105), and to fulfil a public function, both in secular society and in the Church.

These are the only reasons, taken up again by the Church Fathers, and incorporated by the canonists and the theologians, that have been proposed throughout the centuries to exclude women from all sacred ministries. Their weak and feeble female nature forces them to obey and submit to man. Their condition is thus even lower than that of a slave or a serf, who are only prohibited from ordination; if they receive it despite the ban, it is valid, although sinful, since there is no obstacle because of their sex. It can therefore be said that the only argument on which the current prohibition in canon law is based is the subjection of women to men. We should note in passing that the first person to speak of this was Saint Paul, but he was only referring to married women (Eph 5:22 "wives should submit to their husbands in everything"). Tradition was quick to expand on this subjection, and to see in it a congenital deficiency affecting all women, making them unfit for ministry.

What can we make of such an argument? In the current climate of ideas, regarding promotion of a woman who has shown herself equal with men, this argument is no longer of any value; it is empty. Moreover, those who would defend an exclusively male ministry should take care when proposing such an argument, with the pointlessness of its associated ideological developments that we have already considered in chapter IV. It is only laughable nowadays. We will see that the few arguments put forward to overcome the emptiness of the earlier ones are hardly better. In short, we have to acknowledge that all the reasons invoked to refuse women access to orders arose and still arise (albeit unconsciously) from a human, cultural image of women, inherited from Judaism and paganism. No one dreamt of invoking any kind of divine right (not even the Code of Canon Law). It seems that this exclusion is by nature more anthropological and cultural than theological.

We have already said, at some length, that this image, drawn from a patriarchal society, has given us a partial, unilateral interpretation of Scripture on the issue, and has produced all kinds of pseudo-scientific ideological explanations in order to marginalise women no matter what the area of concern. Excluding women from ordination of any kind is only the most enduring form of this secular marginalisation and segregation.

Thus, the serious nature of the question raised may be understood: if all the explanations used throughout the centuries to legitimise the principle for refusing access to orders to women have now collapsed, this refusal no longer has any basis. We must be logical about this; how can the Church justify taking such a serious decision, of the same type as that used formerly to prevent women having access to posts in public life? The same cause can only produce the same effects, and the Church's recent recognition that full promotion of women's rights within a civil sphere is legitimate, equal to that of men (a sign of the times, no less) raises the question: how can such recognition not be also applied within the Church? Otherwise, there is a double standard applied here; barring the appearance of some new explanations of which the Ancients never dreamed. This is actually what happened, and what we must now consider.

The new arguments

First of all, from these new arguments we must exclude those which are only reworkings of those dreamed up by certain men in the Church to achieve the social marginalisation of women (described in chapter IV, page 107): reduction of human nature to biological nature, abuse of the ecclesiological type of the couple, unilateral exploitation of the Marian model, theological trials of women, etc. We go back to what has been said above. Let us observe that most of these arguments are put forward today with the sole aim of legitimising the exclusion of women from all consecrated ministry (since the Church has now accepted women's access to civil public office). Some details may, however, be helpful.

Thus, for example, a churchman, who was nonetheless open to these issues, was recently heard to raise the old "naturalistic" argument: man and woman are of course equal in grace, but they would not be equal at the level of nature, which would legitimise exclusion of women from the priesthood, conceived of as a male specialism. We know what to think about this strange reduction of the idea of "nature", typical of particular ecclesiastical attitudes that believe themselves to be faithful to tradition (see above, p. 107); the unspoken aim of reducing woman to her bodily sexual being gives undue importance (as with racial prejudice) to the differences, sexual in this case, at a bodily, psychological and cultural level, so that they take precedence over the requirements of a universal human nature, also present in both sexes. This argument, whose purpose is to invest one sex, the male sex, with the fullness of humanity (cf. p. 104), denies the declarations of Vatican II rejecting all discrimination based on sex (text p. 152). Moreover, it reveals a dangerous theological "extrincisim", that sees in grace a reality that remains foreign to human nature and would not aim to incarnate its demands, particularly that of the equal dignity of the children of God, no matter what their sex, in all aspects of existence. Thus, how can the ministerial function within the Church be seen as being the object of discrimination, remaining the prerogative of one sex? Is this attitude not opposed both to the basic equality of human nature (body and soul) created by God in his own image, and contrary to the dignity of grace, which considerably heightens this equality? The ancient writers were more logical in clearly explaining this exclusion by the deficiency they saw affecting the body and soul of the woman (her idiocy) and the social condition of "servitude" of the woman (see above, p. 160). Unfortunately for them and for their modern successors, women have since shown that they are as capable as men of exercising public responsibility, and that their supposed deficiencies were above all the result of cultural conditioning. In them, human nature shines as brightly as it does in men.

The same can be said of all other arguments, in particular those drawn from the conjugal pattern (above, p. 95). To say that only a human being of the male sex can be representative of the priesthood of Christ, because Saint Paul located that within the male function of the spouse of the Church, is to give to the "top-down" typology a significance opposed to the limits of this allegorical process (page 100). The same applies to all the mystical speculations that transfer the categories of human sexuality into the divine sphere to a greater or lesser extent (such as the femaleness of the Holy Spirit), with the risk of absolutising sexual discrimination and specificity, reinforced by their pseudo-refraction in the divine (page 111 and note 144). So we come to the last remaining arguments, the last defences of the masculine monopoly in its search for justification of its position. We call these the "new arguments", since the ancient writers developed them very little: they saw their weaknesses and ambiguities and preferred to rely on the solid ground of rationality, of whose contingent and culturally conditioned nature they were unaware.

These new arguments, overall, boil down to a single idea, the fruit of last resort, since the old arguments have been shown to be empty, and even opposed to the Gospel (since they are based on a radical discrimination between the sexes). Women should not be admitted to orders since Christ himself did not do it: his will to reserve these ministries to the male sex is therefore the expression of divine law, the famous "ius divinum", which human beings may not avoid. This would be to contravene the oldest tradition of the Church whose source is this initial will of Christ's.

Looking at these two forms of the same so-called tradition argument, we can see that they are not very weighty. Moreover, the fact that the Ancients saw the value of using so many other arguments, drawn from the image their own times had of women, is in itself important: if, while being aware of the tradition argument, they looked elsewhere, it was because they considered it inadequate.

Let's look first at the argument about the attitude of Christ: can any serious conclusion be drawn from this for our problem? It is hardly likely. The first chapter of this book describes what must be repeated in its close, the miserable, entirely marginalised position of women in the Jewish world at the time of Christ, totally subordinate to the will of the man, with almost no rights in society, largely excluded from religious life. We also know of Christ's explicit wish to limit the proclamation of the Kingdom of God to the Jewish people. Thus, if he called women to be apostles in this misogynist environment, he would have crossed what we called the threshold of intolerability; no one would even have listened to him. We also saw all the dramatic moves he did make towards women, speaking to them, understanding them, to the astonishment of his apostles and the scandal of the Pharisees. Several women did follow him, as disciples, with the courage that took. But just as he did not include in the apostolic college any pagan or in particular any Samaritan (even though they were close to the Jews and faithful to the law of Moses), he could not welcome women either: his work with the Jews would have stopped before it started.

Restricting the apostolic college to Jews was thus dictated by historical and cultural circumstances: these had to be traversed in order to be heard (since the Gospel is above all a proclamation by the spoken word: "fides ex auditu"); this circumstances disappeared as Christianity spread outside Palestine. Paul and his successors opened the ministries up to pagans. Certainly by doing this, they opposed Christ's historical attitude, but not his fundamental stance, which was to proclaim the Gospel to all nations. How could such a proclamation be made, without the converted pagans doing it themselves? Does the same not apply today to women? Until the advent of modern industrial, urbanised society, woman remained socially marginalised by a culture based on patriarchy and male domination. It was hardly conceivable that women could be accepted to the consecrated priesthood, as pagans or Samaritans had been previously. Canon lawyers and theologians had the honesty to recognise this: propter servitutem, since woman was not free… Now that she is, however, why can she not be treated in the same way as the pagans, who were ordained as soon as cultural obstacles were overcome?

It will perhaps be said that the sexual difference is another matter. Apart from the fact that this is contrary to the Gospel, which proclaims the equal dignity of man and women, it flies in the face of everything we have learnt from the most serious modern psychology and anthropology. This teaches us that human sex, which marks personality (as distinct from simple biological sex), is a strictly cultural phenomenon, whose image and attributes vary among civilisations and peoples. More especially, it would be really strange if the great gospel demand for the equality of the sexes before God, traditionally stated throughout the ages, is based only on an inconclusive principle, inconclusive particularly within the Church itself, that is responsible for announcing the universality of salvation within Jesus Christ; a universality that can only be expressed if both sexes can participate fully in proclaiming the Gospel in its most religious form, that of the consecrated ministry. Otherwise, what witness is being given to this universality if in an area so closely linked to the Church, sexual discrimination opposed to the message of the Gospel itself and condemned by the Church in Vatican II is perpetuated in this way? In short, the Church loses something of its credibility in a world which has recognised, at least in law, the equal capacity of both sexes to exercise the highest responsibilities.

Is the male sex a matter for divine law?

The same argument appears in a more technical form in the theory of divine law. What does this mean? In the traditional theological notion, one of the essential aspects of the relationship between God and humanity is defined by the codes of law or of rights (which is perhaps not the happiest way of doing it, given the difficulty many of our contemporaries have in reconciling law with love and freedom of the Christian). God reveals his will to humanity in a law, which is thus called divine, in a dual form, through creation of human nature (= natural law) and through Revelation (= the Decalogue and the law of Christ).

The juridical mentality that has dominated our culture for several centuries is always greatly tempted to absolutise a law or a right, or in other words, to give purely customary human actions or attitudes belonging to a particular culture the status of divine law. One example was quoted above, from Saint Paul, who attributed a normative value, relating to the nature of things, to the length of hair (p. 39). The history of moral ideas provides many examples of such absolutisms, attributing to God what is only human, in order to give it more conviction and venerability: one famous example was the invention at the end of the Middle Ages of the "divine right of kings", dreamed up by civil legislators to protect royal absolutism.

The question posed here is obvious: is there a form of divine and thus inalienable law, in the fact that Christ chose only men to be Apostles? The answer to this must make use of a few commonsense truths. First, any law, any right, is by nature (at least in the traditional Christian conception) rational and understandable since it is intended to enlighten and direct people in the conduct of their lives. A right should not be confused with the revelation of divine mystery, since the two are at different levels. A right, even a divine one, is not intended to reveal a demonstrable truth, going beyond the limits of our reason (such as the dogma of the Trinity). That would be to dogmatise the right. On the contrary, it is meant to direct the action of people (leges propter homines). Thus in order to say that something is really a divine right, and therefore invariable and universal, it has to be understandable for everyone, that is, expressive of a fundamental element of human nature. These days we know that sexual discrimination cannot be based on human nature, which is identical in men and women, despite biological and cultural differences (such as those which exist between different races, for example). Segregation based on sex, even in religious issues, can thus only appear as a culture-bound or circumstantial decision, thus not classifiable as a divine right. Speaking in this context of divine right is to have a fairly "voluntarist" concept of such a right (that is it would only be so as the will of the legislator); a right is defined essentially by its rational and comprehensible content, intended to protect life and help people. If the masculinisation of the priesthood, since the time of Christ, was dictated by the need to proclaim the Gospel within a cultural milieu that would not have tolerated a message preached by women, this would indeed be classed as a contingent circumstance, but subsequently in our own times, cultural development has ensured it is no longer an obstacle. Tradition has never accepted the idea of such a logically inexplicable right; thus there have been a multitude of explanations for this, all invoking the inferiority of women.

What is more, what does the divine right quoted here cover? Essentially it applies to sacramental validity. One thing that has been well established throughout history is that the structure and understanding of many sacraments has changed significantly over the centuries. Moreover, the Church is scarcely ever disturbed by acknowledging its own right to modify or determine the conditions of validity. The seven sacraments did not exist at the time of Christ in the form in which they exist today, far from it! Why should an attitude be enshrined as a divine law (non-admission of women into the Apostolic college), which was only imposed on Christ by the cultural constraints of his own time?

The final objection is phrased as follows: can we be certain that the link between consecrated ministry and the male sex is not something fundamental to the spirit of Christ? Does his silence on this subject allow us to carry on in the same way? In this respect, the same may apply to many other exclusions (for example, as regards non-Jews) which have not been continued in tradition, as has been noted already. Answering this objection, the principle for judging such matters is simply thus: when a law is unclear, where there is doubt as to the intention of the legislator and the universal nature of the law concerned, the clearest, most understandable parts of the law should be invoked. One may safely assume, particularly when the legislator is God, that there is no contradiction in his thinking. There is one outstanding fact here: the fundamental law of Christ, truly undisputed divine law: which is? Basically, the law of love, of course: the love of God for human beings, and vice versa, and brotherly, sisterly love. The great novelty of this law of love is that all human beings are called to the same destiny: they must love each other as brother and sister, that is without distinction; no more segregation, irrevocable isolation, which can only harm the equal dignity of every human person, made in the image of God and called to participate in the divine life. We have seen throughout this book that it is the incessant reminder of this egalitarian principle which, countering the subordination of women in Western society, causes a discernible tension and an ambiguity in the historical solutions to the feminine problem and in the multitude of pseudo-justifications for the existing situation.

Such a universal truth would have been contradicted by Christ if he had wanted to give an absolute and universal value to the exclusion of women from the ordained ministry; the two things are not on the same level: the first is the direct expression of the "Lex Christi", truly divine law, the second can only be a necessary concession to an established situation which could not have universal value; and as we have seen, Jesus did everything to temper this unavoidable concession by his attitude towards women. Continuing such discrimination in the area of ministry would be to hide the Gospel under a bushel, while the Church has condemned the very same thing in the social domain, once the original state of affairs had disappeared. The points raised in the early part of this chapter are entirely applicable here, as regards the application of the Gospel to the present day: there is no reason for the Church herself to be an exception to the rule.

Tradition and traditions

This leads us to a better understanding of tradition in the Church, here seen at an institutional level (and not as truths of faith, which is an entirely different problem). The fact itself is also a response to the argument frequently invoked against female ministry, the argument of tradition: it has never been done, and therefore an age-old tradition can not be destroyed.

We must state at once that in two institutional cases, far removed from each other in space and time, there have been real female ministers. The first was in the Eastern Church: with deaconesses; and the other was in the Latin Church in the Middle Ages: with abbesses. These two cases do not, it must be said, involve the same ministries. Apart from the ministerial functions involved in proclaiming the Word of God, there are two other ministries: the first assumes the reception of a process of consecration, and is intended for the sanctification of the People of God; this is the power of orders (deacons, priests, bishops); the second, which has not always been linked to the first, involves governance, the rule of the People of God; this is the power of jurisdiction. In our day, however, these two powers are enshrined in the same person.

In the early Church, Eastern Christianity had the institution of deaconesses, who were fairly important in some places (at one point there were forty at Sainte-Sophie in Byzantium). Mainly recruited from among virgins and widows, they were particularly entrusted with helping the bishop with the baptism of women (which was carried out by immersion, naked in the baptismal pool), in the care of the sick, etc. Placed between the higher and lower orders of clergy, they were initiated into this function by means of episcopal consecration. Historians have discussed the question of whether or not this was a true form of holy orders. It should be recognised that those who deny this (the majority) hold the preconceived notion that a woman cannot receive the sacrament of orders. In fact, however, although their functions were different from those of male deacons, they were consecrated by means of the same ritual (the laying-on of hands).

Unlike the early deaconesses, the abbesses of medieval times were not part of the clerical order; despite not having the power of orders, however, they did have broad powers of jurisdiction and governance, almost episcopal in nature. They could appoint priests to parish responsibilities, as chaplains, as canons: "They could withdraw the same privileges, attended councils, called synods. Some were professed religious, responsible for monasteries attached to their own houses; in some joint monasteries, control was in the hands of a woman. These women, and abbesses in general, actually exercised real episcopal powers."

The existence of these two female institutions is a good indicator that there is no absolute principle against women's valid exercise of a ministry of orders or a ministry of governance.

In the light of this, we can now approach the argument from tradition, often invoked to maintain sexual discrimination in the Church. This invoking of tradition to counter any innovation is in fact difficult to sustain as an argument. In all other religious areas, it has always been considered as destructive. It was actually the argument used by many heretics to deny the Church the right to innovate in institutional matters. Since Saint Paul's rejection of the obligation to comply with Jewish rituals, against St. Peter (despite Christ's faithful observance of these rituals), the Church, like the seed growing into a tree, has throughout its history put out new branches, invented solutions, created functions that formerly did not exist. It is well-known, in this regard, that the number and type of ministers have not been fixed: there have been many different functions exercised by ministers carrying the same titles, in different communities. Further on, the Church in the course of its development, has shown its very vitality through the continual institutional innovations, growing from the tiny primitive core. Certainly there has been a great temptation to plagiarise civil institutions, whether those of the Roman Empire or of the absolute monarchies of modern times (even if only in terms of the concept of authority); and the reaction of some Christians is understandable, in their fear that the spirit of the Gospel can scarcely any longer be the driving force behind such a process. Condemnation would however be an archaeological regression that ignored the true nature of the Church. As the identity of a living being during the phases of its growth undergoes innovation, so too does the true Tradition of the Church. Otherwise, it would be betraying its own mission, that of transmitting the living reality of the divine Word, for people in different historical situations. Invoking tradition to cut short any question raised by giving women access to ministry is a miserable argument, contrary to true Tradition; it is in fact nothing more than a reiteration of the argument used throughout the centuries by all enlightened sectarians, in answer to institutional innovations in the Church, in the name of the primitive Gospel; it is to seek refuge in archaeology under the pretext of returning to the Gospel. The latter depicts the Kingdom of God using biological images (the mustard seed becoming a tree, the vine and its shoots, etc.), invoking a dialectic of growth and thus of innovation.

Finally, the problem of a female priesthood reveals links with the status of women in society as a whole: the refusal to ordain women seems to be the final, symbolic vestige of a pessimistic view of woman, related to overturned, cultural representations. It can fairly be said "that the unequal status of which women have been victims, in favour of men, is not based on serious theological premises. In any case, the theological motives are not very convincing and do not stand up to a healthy critique founded on the fundamental elements of Christian doctrine. Inequality and discrimination against women cannot be justified in any serious analysis of the evangelical gift; in fact, they stand in contradiction to this gift."

"Conversely, the historical context provides a plausible explanation for the unequal status of women in the domain of the public cult. The circumstances of the times and the situation were such that at the birth of Christianity, no other situation could reasonably be imagined from that which was chosen…For this reason, it did not seem reasonable to sacrifice the fundamental principles of Christianity, however firmly stated, according to which all human creatures are equal before God, to these variable historical circumstances, which at certain times involved a fundamental inequality among human creatures…The conclusion does not therefore appear ambiguous in any way. From a doctrinal point of view, woman is equal to man. In these conditions, in the name of what theological principle can women be subject to legal incapacity, and in particular, excluded from the priesthood."

Recently, Karl Rahner wrote on the same subject, with all the weight of his theological understanding: "The practice of the Catholic church not ordaining women to the priesthood has no restrictive theological character"; admitting that he did not expect any change in current practice, he added: the latter "is not a dogma, it is based purely and simply on a human, historical reflection which was valid in the past under cultural and social conditions that are rapidly going out of date."

Crisis of power in the Church

Why is there such resistance to a change of ideas in this direction? In civil society, this resistance appears in particular situations (since the principle of full equality of the sexes is accepted); in the Church, although the equality of the sexes is proclaimed in general terms, it is rejected within the Church itself although without any anthropological and theological basis. The slight flexibility shown in the last few years towards exclusion of women from functions formerly reserved to priests should not deceive. If a woman acts as reader at Mass, if a religious sister takes charge of a parish where there is no priest, they are doing it only as a layperson; the granting to the laity of certain non-sacramental functions formerly reserved to priests has obviously benefited women and could therefore give the impression that tremendous progress has been made (so used are we to the religious marginalisation of women). But the basis of the problem has not changed and resistance on principle is as strong as ever. The reasons for this resistance can be found within the general motives, described in detailed in the previous chapter (p. 119) which explain male resistance to acceptance and recognition of women as being wholly human, equal but different. Without the sociological causes of former times which could explain the anti-feminism of our type of culture, there is now only the fear of the other, of woman, with among the celibate clergy also probably the fear of female seduction or of her traditional impurity…

There is also probably the fear of loss of power and authority in the Church, from a concept of authority (and thus of the ministry) which was fairly widespread prior to Vatican II and is still firmly fixed in some ecclesiastical sub-consciousnesses. The Council actually returned to a more evangelical, more communitarian idea of authority in the Church, and thus of the ministers who will exercise it. This authority assumes a spirit of service, following the example of the Good Shepherd ("Lumen Gentium", n. 27, 32, etc.). This renewal was needed. For many centuries, under the likely influence of the authoritarian structures of the absolute monarchies of the Ancien Régime, the "monarchical" Church was only too keen to exercise its top-down, pyramidal authority, giving priority to the legal rather than the pastoral, domination to be exercised over the subject people: the letter of the Gospel was protected, for their greater good, without asking their opinion. The considerable changes in perspective that have taken place within the Church may be measured by the fact that no-one dares to talk of power, or authority in the Church any more, but rather of ministries, since these terms of power and authority evoke the idea of domination now.

There is an immediate parallel to be drawn here. There have been many examples in the previous pages of how the male-female relationship in domestic society was a dominant-dominated model, according to the Christian conception; from Saint Paul to Gratian or Saint Thomas (and up to our Civil Code), the same basic idea applies: women must be subject to her husband in all things; she is in a state of "servitude", using a favoured expression. Since this subordination of women is linked to the inferiority of her female nature, it is to be found in every woman. Thus, since ministries in the Church were conceived as an exercise of power, of domination, it was inconceivable that a women could fill such positions, since by definition she must be dominated. As we mentioned earlier, exclusion of women from all ministries is the expression of a more general cultural context, that has now been overturned: the concept of woman as an inferior being (defined above all by her sex: cf. the "propter sexum"), subject to man, and with a very slightly weakened concept of authority in the Church, that can only be exercised in a dominant fashion (such as that of the husband over his wire). In this context, it would have been absolutely unthinkable to confer ordination on a woman; not because of divine right or theology, but because of a pessimistic concept of woman, opposed to the Gospel, and because of a juridical view that sees ministry as only a privilege of a superior nature. Whether or not we like it, this is the only real reason: if man is conceived in principle as the complete human being, and thus as a perfect member of the Church, he only may be granted public privileges and functions, as soon as these are envisaged in a context of superiority.

The present resistance of many men in the Church even to consider the question of female priesthood is thus explained by the fairly rapid disappearance of the traditional context in which the male monopoly of consecrated ministry was conceived and explained. On the one hand, the abandonment of the image of woman as subject to man because of a natural inferiority, and on the other the effect of conciliar renewal on an authority which no longer wants to dominate, but to serve, all render pointless the only remaining reasons for the male monopoly in the Church. What will happen now? Despite the stated principles, there has been something of a contraction of power on itself, the refusal to taken into account the development of social mores and the gospel demands released from sociological constraints. There is perhaps also the fear of the unknown among clerics accustomed to prudence, to the gradual, muffled implementation of officially decided reforms. In addition, knowing that women are often the first obstacle to their own promotion, account must also be taken of the resistance and inertia of some female groupings, and of Christian public opinion, which is still deeply sensitive to masculine prestige.

But whatever resistance there may be, the Gospel will inevitably be brought into line with the modern world, driven by the Spirit of God which animates the Church. Woman has already recovered her full human, Christian vocation; more and more women, especially the young, no longer understand why their vocation to be full members of the Church is not being recognised. Many of them have personal experience and can witness to their ability to equal a man, even in the Church, and thus have shown how futile and pointless is the sole motive invoked by tradition as a whole to exclude them from the consecrated ministries.

In particular, by giving them a broad range of activities, Catholic Action has shown that women can take on the highest responsibility in directing movements of the Church or spiritual animation. Moreover many women, especially religious, are also taking on the roles of directors and animators in communities, and even parishes, particularly in mission countries; they do it as well as men, and are extremely well received, even in the most traditional populations. Finally more and more women are studying theology and are gaining access to the sacred "knowledge", which up till now has been reserved for priests as the source of their power (the one who knows, the one who can resolve a matter of conscience, etc.). The growing number of women theologians is certainly one of the most dynamic factors in the liberation of women in the Church. Most of these women, who have had these experiences, or have felt the demands of the Gospel for their full ecclesial integration, are to be found in the various specialist movements, a list of which is given in note 237 of this chapter.

In short, all these young girls and women no longer want to be segregated within the lay world; since laymen can expect to be entrusted with all the sacred ministries. Why are they too not worthy, since it is now perfectly well understood, through science, that their former exclusion had no basis. While the Church has had to bemoan the loss of the working class in the last century, it should not have to repeat the experience one day because of apostasy by women, tired of seeing themselves always marginalised. If on the contrary, the Church should decide to go to the limit with the renewal initiated by Vatican II, it would certainly be one of the most evangelical ways of achieving the fullness of this renewal. "The Church, like the human race, must be both masculine and feminine. We do not know what a Church in which women were able to have their own style would be like; we only have male models: even prayers for women or the rules of life for women religious are written by men…This could be a real enriching process for the Church."


Wijngaards Institute for Catholic ResearchThis website is maintained by the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research.

The Institute is known for issuing academic reports and statements on relevant issues in the Church. These have included scholars' declarations on the need of collegiality in the exercise of church authority, on the ethics of using contraceptives in marriage and the urgency of re-instating the sacramental diaconate of women.

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