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Pondering the Issue of Women’s Ordination in the Roman Catholic Church

Pondering the Issue of Women’s Ordination in the Roman Catholic Church


by Janette Cranshaw

written specifically for www.womenpriests.org, January 2000

The Incarnation of Christ involved the Woman Mary being chosen to bring forth the Word of God/ the Real Presence of Christ. This partnership of Mary with the Trinity, (her being responsive to the FATHER’s plan of salvation, and empowered by the HOLY SPIRIT to beget the SON,) is the protypical event upon which the Catholic liturgy and Sacraments are founded and considered feasible. Humans can be graced and gifted to preach the Word and be agents of producing the Presence of God in our midst.

The Revelation of Emmanuel, God-with us, both in the flesh and in other specially blessed physical substances and sacred encounters, (Eucharist, healings,etc.) is all part of the Good News of Divine action and availability. Is there not a significant message of intention by God in not only God’s direct relationship and collaboration with Mary as the means to inaugurate the next phase in covenantal links between God and humanity, but also the inclusion of women as witnesses to Christ’s salvific self-offering for us on the Cross, to the angelic news of Christ’s Resurrection, and their sharing in the direct experience of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and manifesting subsequent discernable charisma from prophetic utterance to courageous martyrdom? That is, are these not indications that God chooses women to be co-beneficiaries of grace and co-mediators of the message and Spiritually-"energized" holy work of the Church in their own right along with men? That this parity-of-soul-potential is not only what allows females to receive and benefit from the full entrance rites of Baptism and Confirmation for acknowledged membership in the Body of Christ but would establish their co-eligibility for a vocation to priestly service?

After all, such Ordained roles within and for the community of believers involves the mediative, spiritually blessed, and collaborative responsibilities and opportunities of making present and active in our ever-current midst the Word/Presence/Spirit of the Lord, in ways that extend throughout time the powerful events of the Incarnational/Post-Resurrection era in which women were partners of the process.

Mistakes by the Early Church?

Could it be a sin against the Holy Spirit, (one of the refusals to recognize through whom God was willing and able to channel blessings and to encounter on terms of equal opportunity,) that the Church Fathers apparently presumed only males could be eligible for priestly roles among the household-of-faith? Could it be that arguments that focus selectively upon either Jesus-as-male or the initial Twelve Apostles-as-male as the basis for having priestly “re-enactors” of Christ’s ministry likewise be male, are unnecessarily evasive of the larger story of how God chose to lay the foundation for bearing witness to the Way, the Truth, and the Life?

The rapid inclusion of pagan-heritage ethnic Gentiles into presbyteral roles certainly reveals the Early Church capacity for not imitating all the “descriptive attributes” of Jesus or of his selection process of trainees for future roles of carrying on his empowered ministry, since as has often been pointed out, the original band were Jews. Nor is there any record of Jesus stating that the long-term process of presiding at the Breaking of Bread or of forgiving sins in his name (two “priestly roles”) could be done only by males, (which would be analogous to Hebrew priestly/liturgical custom,) and of course we know that the Christians soon dropped several Jewish regulations and customs, or made them optional, even when Jesus had observed them, (if one wishes to consider that his own pattern should be determinitive as regards how many “liberties” the Church can take, or how much one can “theologize” as St.Paul did, regarding other factors in the salvation story being able to take priority over a too-literal adherence to certain details of lesser significance.

In other words it is fair to note that as early as the Council of Jerusalem, the liturgical/administrative/evangelistic leaders found it necessary and wise to evaluate which “criteria” for inclusion in membership, ministries, and doctrinally-sanctioned practices were of greater importance. In various kinds of cases, the spiritual and moral criteria began to supercede certain physical factors (ethnic,racial,or gender-based) as of more significance in who would constitute the new “People of God/Body of Christ/Royal Priesthood” and be among the “pool of candidates” for differing kinds of service. Obviously the Church leaders were more quickly adaptive and flexible on the “racial”question than the gender factor when it was determining “appropriateness” for priesthood in particular.

Who can be ‘another Christ’?

Another crucial consideration, however, alongside the ways God bonded with women’s spirit in inaugurating the drama of salvation-in-Christ or the ways from the Apostolic era the Church realized there would always be much to ponder as regards in which ways to apply and adapt Christ’s pattern and message and deeds to new situations, is the issue of what should be meant by priests “re-presenting” Christ. In Catholic theology, we trust that in certain ways all who role-model His Gospel and are among the Baptized are “alter-Christs”/Body of Christ in and for the world, given the seriousness with which we believe in the “indwelling/continually ”incarnational" presence of Trinity/God within the redeemed/forgiven/incorporated believers in the Lord, (i.e.whatever one’s physiological characteristics.) Yet the perception of priests as “representing” Christ" began to take on quite different connotations, not only and obviously as presenting for us again Christ’s presence in Sacraments, as their particular charism/empowerment through Holy Orders, (acting on His behalf,as it were,) but more specifically through “being” an “alterChristus” who therefore (??) must be male -as-Jesus-was.

There is something disturbing to think of ANY human as so specifically “identified” with the unique and divine person of Christ, and that this “identity” is tied in with having his sexual characteristics. No one “stands in the place of Christ” so literally, and no one’s “similarity” should be focused upon physiological traits when it comes to criteria for roles in the Church. (And perhaps not incidentally, since it is the “risen Lord” we invoke for Presence and Action in our Sacraments, one wonders how “crucial” His “gender” is in heaven anyway in relation to what roles He has, even though of course we acknowledge a continuity of his full personhood in His transformative state as Resurrected Lord.) Regardless, those who seek or are selected to serve the Church and the world as clergy (or by other means,) are qualified hopefully by faith and character traits suitable to the responsibilities and privilege. These are the factors which JESUS described as the spiritual and ethical endowments exemplifying his vision of discipleship, necessary to lead humanity into a deeper experience of the reign of God in their midst!

A female-inclusive spiritual scenario

Granting women the opportunity to rise through the ranks of general membership in the Catholic Church for potential candidacy as liturgical leaders receiving Holy Orders should not be perceived as a concession to or analogy of the secular counterpart regarding “wider opportunities for women” resulting from feminist movements, even if the latter developments have precipitated greater attention to the Church-related issue. Since our discussion and decision-making should focus on what God-the-Trinity would want or allow, independent of any “customs of the world” that might or might not be compatible with Gospel values, our prayerful, evangelical, and theological approach should dwell on the full range of the Christian message which could provide us with legitimate clues as our basis for pondering the acceptible applications.

Significant portions of that “full range” should include how the “Persons”of the Holy Trinity chose to single out or include women for God-ilnfused blessings and collaborative roles in the ushering-in process of this plan of salvation that would then be perpetuated and re-presented through the ages.

This female-inclusive spiritual scenario is, in turn, part of the larger “drama”of all persons, regardless of gender, ethnicity, former religious allegiances, or ethnicity, having equal opportunity for salvation-in-Christ, joining the Church, and assuming roles within the “Body of Christ” that seem compatible with their natural and charismatic talents.

If we are willing to concede the point that the inauguration of the Christian era demonstrates God’s intention to show direct influence upon and collaboration with women, i.e.that their sources for spiritual knowledge or roles of service and lifestyle are not solely derivative (second-hand) from authoritative males (religious, familial, sociopolitical,) then we have grounds for re-examining the Women’s Ordination Question with fewer qualms that such a process would either anger the Lord or be a waste of time.In other words, the question before us becomes “Where is the Spirit of Truth leading us as we are able to bear it?” (which should [motivate any deliberations, as at Ecumenical Councils,) so that we do not risk maintaining attitudes or interpretations that may have been influenced too heavily by mind-sets of human habit and cultures rather than by the necessary mandates of Christian Revelation.

Following the right approach

If we are more open-minded about the possible usefulness of underutilized factors in the Gospel regarding God’s view of womankind’s spiritual potential as it might impact upon their roles in the Church, then the “material” for the two sides of the issue regarding access to Holy Orders in particular can change in its orientation. It is worth noting that in any debate, not only the framing of the question but also the theoretical arguments brought to bear by either side can greatly open up a discussion and influence the problem-resolving process. St.Paul well knew this when he provided theological grounds for side-stepping universalized adherence to Jewish rites and regulations which Jesus had observed. At that first Council of Jerusalem when the issue began as to whether or not pagan Gentiles had to be “made into Jews” (via circumcision,etc., which potential male converts would balk at,) in order to join the Church, (still perceived as the messianic offshoot of Judaism,) Paul “trumped” the arguments that emphasized Jesus’ ostensible practice or participation thereof, that might be considered “normative”, by changing the question to “How is it that any of us are saved through Christ?” and then outlined that criteria which in the process made the former custom-expectations (of Jewish origin) seem rather irrelevant to the process of both salvation and ministry-selection.

For example and by analogy to the Council of Jerusalem debate, the “two sides” of the Women’s Ordination debate seem to be coming across, particularly in the popular media, as “the traditional Catholic reasons for an all male clergy” vs “women’s secularly-influenced expectations for achieving Ordination Rights”, with the question appearing to be, “Should we abandon the position-statement of the Vicar of Christ who upholds our doctrines?” If instead one could propose to discuss “What is the range of Gospel information available to us that affects our views on women’s candidacy for priesthood?” and then each “side” presented whichever portions of “Revelation” (specific events, preaching by Jesus, patterns being observed, etc.) seemed to have some potential bearing on the question phrased in that manner, then the focus and perhaps the “outcome” of conclusions drawn might be a bit different. Broader still is the “foundational question” that prefaces such a particular focus for research and analysis: what did God clarify or accomplish for humanity’s image of themselves, their knowledge,capacity,and methodology for becoming in a salvific relationship with God, and the manners in which they were being invited and empowered to collaborate in establishing the groundwork for the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven?

Have the traditional arguments been undermined?

In any discussion of the roles for women of the Church, it is helpful to be aware of certain recent ironic twists of a theological and social nature tangentially of import to this specific debate.

Some twentieth century Roman Catholic theologians, (male and female, and like some liberal Protestant theologians preceding them,) joined the chorus of Scriptural miracle debunkers, for example recatagorizing the Virgin Birth stories as midrash or non-literal mythic stories, and similarly questioning the historical authenticity of other “extraordinary” events. Since several of these episodes in the Christian Scriptures involved significant roles for women, much of the potential “ammunition” for pointing out Divinely-instigated roles for women was thus undercut!

For instance, there is much in the Infancy narratives that indicate Mary being given insights and opportunities by God that was not dependent upon what she learned or was permitted from Joseph or rabbinical sources. One “message” of the virginal conception factor in particular is that the power of God could impact directly within Woman. This specific child-bearing of the Son of God/Messiah was due to her personal agreement with God and was not attributed to the result of “fulfilling wifely duties” to Joseph, to coercion by any other male, or any questionable moral behavior on her part.

By the toning-down of interest and emphasis in recent decades upon many “supernatural” facets in the Christian Scriptures, this left by default the “clues to qualifications for Holy Orders” to the more “mundane” observation that Jesus chose twelve males as his “apostles” or regular “entourage-in-training”.

Likewise downplayed was much attention to the “Communion of Saints” and to positive Church History in general, not only among theologians and religious educators but also in popular piety and seminars for laity. This was not helpful to potential “groundswell” arguments that could be supportive of women as “leaders” in the Church, (founders of Religious Orders, active service in various ministries throughout the centuries, graced as visionaries with updated insights into God’s concerns and recommendations, canonized as Saints for their innovative and holy work for God,Church, and Society, invoked as channels of grace/prayerful intercessors with the Lord, etc.,) and therefore perhaps by a modest leap of application, capable of being effectively Ordained to priesthood.

As part of the ecumenical movement, there seemed to evolve among many Catholic theologians and professors a particular embarrassment over the Catholic devotional custom of asking for the prayerful intercession of the Saints in heaven, (“Let’s show those Protestants how exclusively Christocentric we can be!”) and this has had the side effect of allowing relative ignorance among the modern laity about the many examples of fruitful leadership there has been by Catholic women in history as well as a lack of meditation upon the implications of God’s on-going “use” of women as mediators of messages and special graces, and how the hierarchical Church on earth often seemed often seemed “out of synchronization” with their attitudes towards roles for women in comparison with that of the Lord and the Holy Spirit!

Social-justice issues -- or spiritual reasons?

Instead, arguments used by many feminist theologians centered around pragmatic models for “social justice” enhancement, (a very popular focus since the 1960’s) and also the use of quite bitter invective against “oppressive male-dominated structures” (i.e. including the Roman Catholic Church, and another popular attack-method by the women’s movements.) Both of these approaches are not without merit or cause, since of course there are always-available examples of various types of oppression and inequities, and those would include situations where many males not only “presumed”any of their authoritative privileges were in the “natural or God-ordained order of things” but would also abuse these powers to the detriment of womankind’s safety, not “merely” to their woman’s economic or legal disadvantages from such lack of parity or co-empowerment.

However, those issues and approaches can be corrective campaigns with reference to those teachings of Jesus that exhort all of us to be more generous, compassionate, merciful, fair, forgiving, sharing, and less “status-conscious” in our dealings with one another and in our goals for a more humane approach to our interdependencies in society, but do not seem to address particularly or sufficiently the spiritual standing and potential of women from God’s point of view as it might pertain to acess to Holy Orders.

At various times in Church history it has been assumed or declared that women are handicapped by being second-rate in the soul, mind, or emotional and physiological departments, all of which added fuel-to-the-fire of their ineligibility for priesthood. The current Pope has written decisively that females are not inherently defective or inferior (John-Paul II has a long-standing personal history of interest in Christian humanism.) Nevertheless he still assumes that the tradition of priests being males-as-Christ was and as were the early Apostles, is somehow “crucial”. His convictions are not based on meanspirited prejudices against womanhood, as is often assumed by the general public, but from more spiritually based reasons, which shall not be detailed herein. His thought patterns might be more open to the kinds of spiritual/revelatory aspects of any counterargument to his conclusions than to the kinds of secular or hostile arguments often used in this debate, since these latter would either not be relevant to his own positions or to the Gospel concepts of showing Christian love towards fellow-believers.

Other “sociological sidebars” to add to the mix include the following. Paradoxically there is quite a difference between the Post-Vatican II model of priestly ministry that refocuses on being servants to the Church and world in ways analogous to the role-modeling by Jesus and early leaders, and with Sacramental celebrations (Baptism, Eucharist, Anointing of the Sick, etc.), being spiritual activities for the Community of Believers with similarities to family roles of natural service ( cleansing of children, meal preparation and sharing, tending to the ill, etc.), that could readily bring to mind the roles that women have traditionally done, as juxtaposed to the current secular emphasis in much of “women’s liberation” that has emphasized a downgrading of home-based supportive roles towards other family members, careers in teaching, nursing, or social work in preference to opportunities to earn more money, prestige, and political power.

Therefore it sometimes would seem that many pro-Women’s Ordination females are preoccupied with the power-sharing opportunities in the sacred halls of policy-making than with dwelling on what a good “fit” it would be for women to be enabled to do for their Church family the kinds of service (by analogy) they love doing in their daily lifestyle. It is perfectly appropriate that even the most humble and self-sacrificing of women would nevertheless wish to become eligible for the hierarchy so that they could participate formally in high level Council debates that plan reforms and regulations that not only affect women’s lives but also help to set the tone and agenda for regional dioceses. However, one can wonder how much of the agitation for Holy Orders is being generated by a desire to serve others generously and often unobtrusively and how much by a hankering for the formerly prestigious status of the clergy. Probably there is as widespread a mixture of motives for this Vocation among women as there has been among men, but this does not mean women would not be wise to emphasize their being drawn to various modern models for priesthood than for certain secular models for women’s lifestyle, values, and goals.

Could women priests be counter-productive?

Another factor that may seem neither here nor there to theological arguments but nevertheless is thought-provoking in terms of"real life dynamics" is that although the Ordination of Women might help overcome the current priest-shortage, would as many men in the long run be attracted to the Priesthood if this were perceived as “women’s work” or no longer their own “fraternity”? Some parishes already are experiencing fewer boys applying to be altar-servers, now that girls are volunteering. However annoying it may be to women or the Lord that many males seem to appreciate spheres of activity that are their particular province, this issue of gender-collaboration merits continual practical attention, including the historic emotion among males that they are often uncomfortable being under the authority or direction of females. Attention to our anthropological roots as regards gender roles and the hormonal and other physiological factors that have shaped or been shaped by millenia of different responsibilities is a worthy ancillary topic to the Ordination issue, without perjorative connotations.

As child-bearers women have been naturally geared to nurturing roles and those responsibilities which can be carried out close-to-home; as hunters and warriors men have been honed to competitive and dangerous roles, which carried over into political and religious roles in the wider society be that tribal or national. Noticeably in the early centuries of Christianity and frankly ever-afterwards in many times and places, being a leader in the Church involved hazardous and away-from-home activities; missions and military life have much in common. (This likewise ties in with some of the practical advantages of celibacy; that lifestyle for the “sake of the Kingdom” often has more of a “raison d’etre” than a particular sexual self-discipline as witness to the lifestyle one has in heaven!)

Therefore, as we ponder the suitability of women in priestly roles, we must add in the aspect that there are many situations where what they would be doing has in the past and can in the future involve what their personal talents and lifestyles are suited for, just as proven true in other careers. Awareness of the whys and wherefores of many of our emotions, traits, and traditional roles can be helpful in evaluating how we-as-Church, particularly taking into account from which gender we are speaking from, when we consider a major change in what we would all have to live with in reasonable “comfort”. We can learn from the psychological resistances and adaptations that occurred from other major changes in roles and rights among sub-groups of society in this century: racial integration, religious freedom/ecumenical tolerance for diversity, women as voters, political leaders, and in the military are a few of the re-thinking and newly-experiencing that come to mind. The Post-Vatican II Church is even more relevant.

What did Jesus want?

Finally, we must face the fact that trying to locate any rationale for women-in-priesthood as regards particularly any Scriptural record of Jesus or the Apostles making explicit that women were to share in administrative leadership/policy decision-making is the least fruitful avenue to pursue for several obvious reasons.First of all, during Jesus’ era of active prophetic/evangelical/wonder-working ministry, HE was the leader, decider, and teacher, innovator, pace-setter, interpreter; all of his entourage (male and female) were under his tutelage and direction as learners and listeners. He chose the roles others would assume, and any charisma and subsequent empowerments to act in his name or do as he did were ultimately derived from him; in other words God made the ministries possible.

In other words, initially whether the Virgin Mary became mother of the Word Incarnate, or Peter became the “Rock” as head of the apostolic group, it was not a matter of having “applied for the job” and “won out”; nevertheless and conveniently enough we can note it was a combination of God’s choice and the recipients’ qualities of faith and character that helped to determine their responsibilities. Beyond that, we cannot really draw many useful conclusions about what these choices connoted for our purposes of understanding women’s roles in ministry, since in essence he “ran the show”.

Secondly, as far as we can discern from the citations available in the New Testament, after the Resurrection and Pentecost events, indeed it seems to be males who are mentioned as the public preachers, policy debaters, or presiders at what would come to be called Sacraments. Therefore if women wish to suggest they qualify for priestly/hierarchical roles (successive to earlier terms for similar functions such as elders, presbyters, overseers,etc.,) we must acknowledge that with with the possible exceptions of apparent deaconess responsibilities or the debate over Junio/Junias? as an “apostle” of an early Gentile community, there is little evidence to be gleaned from such Biblical sources, much less from later Tradition. Some materials in those gospels (often “gnostic”) that were not accepted into the mainstream Canon provide a different “take” on female spirituality, but presumably such material would hardly be determinitive in searching for “legitimate” roots as puzzle pieces for the modern debate.

By the time we examine early Church practices we are quickly bogged down in wondering which were affected by the culture of the era including the Jewish antecedents for liturgical leadership, and which represented the clear mandate of Christ despite the absence of his words on the subject. That is why the method originally proposed, of looking at specifically God-initiated gifts, privileged encounters, participation in key spiritual events, (i.e. evidence of the kinds of direct relationship between women and a “Person of the Trinity”that would substantiate God’s interest in “gracing” females with spiritual parity to that of males for the purposes of bearing witness and being “capable” of “receiving God” in order to channel blessings,) seems more “basic” and useful an approach.

This is by no means “stretching a point”, for we should contemplate how Peter’s learning of God’s direct initiatives with certain Gentiles, (the listeners upon whom “the Spirit fell”before Baptism, the Cornelius episode,etc.,) helped to prompt Peter’s greater openness to the Gentiles as potential members in the household-of-faith, and then from general discipleship they could emerge as leaders. Thus we can imagine likewise a similar “aha!” perception regarding women could then encourage the thought that if God has favored some of them with charisma of vision, encounter, prophecy, healing, (to say nothing of virtues of faith, courage, and charity,) then why should we be wary of having them share in priestly ministry?

Let us keep in mind that the solution must be one for which there is reasonable confidence that the decision “would find favor with the Lord, irregardless of it being popular or unpopular with men or women. Over the centuries the ”chair of Peter" has often formulated or supported “policies backed by doctrinal interpretations” that are subsequently amended or rescinded because of a new understanding of “truth”, God’s intentions, what is more accurately compatible with Gospel principles, or of insights that arise from other academic disciplines, world events, or discoveries. Thus the argument of “long tradition” as proof of validity regarding a males-only priesthood/hierarchy is the least compelling reason for its perpetuation. If another good look at the relationships between God and women during the Incarnational Era and as contributive to the overall message-making concerning the potential for God-bonded persons to collaborate with God’s divine action within the world can help us to gain another perspective on not only the range of ministries that could be open to women but also on the whole miraculous dimension to the ways the Holy Spirit can work within and through persons, such a study can hardly be in vain or displeasing to the Lord.

Jane Cranshaw

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