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The Question of Women Priests and the argument <I>in Persona Christi

The Question of Women Priests and the argument in Persona Christi

by Eric Doyle OFM

from The Catholic Citizen, Winter 1985-1986, no 40.

with acknowledgements to the Irish Theological Quarterly, 50 (1983 - 84) pp. 212-221.

Having returned recently to the history of the Celtic Church in these lands, I came again upon a reference I had pushed untidily into the dusty cupboards of memory, that provides some grounds for the claim that the great St. Brigid of Kildare was a bishop.(1) I mention this, not because I want to examine the grounds for that altogether fascinating claim - and the more one reads about the Celtic Church. the greater one laments its disappearance - but because it goaded me to take another look at the Declaration ‘Inter insigniores’: On the Question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood published by tile Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in October 1976. 1

Prior to the document's publication I had taken part in the Anglican/Roman Catholic Working Group on the ordination of women which met in Assisi in November 1975. Representatives of the Old Catholic Church were also present. The papas delivered at the meeting were subsequently published by Peter Staples as The Assisi Report, Utrecht, 1975. During the sessions of the working group many theological points were raised and some hotly debated. Among the latter was the pharse in persona Christi which I had tout-bez on in my paper.3 Because of the decisive significance of this phrase in the argument of the Declaration. I would like to investigate it here at somewhat greater length. Before that, however, I want to stress that this cannot be construed as impertinence to the Congregation. or be considered as ignoring the authority of the Declaration. I confess I was disappointed at the position adopted by the Declaration. But there it was, the practice of not ordaining women was upheld. Thus, no bishop in the Catholic Church may ordain a woman. While religious assent is given to the Declaration, the assent cannot, according to the common opinion of theologians, be absolute. Nor is further reflection on the question excluded, or is it forbidden by the Declaration.

The document comes from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of which the pope himself is head. However, not even this circumstance forbids further discussion. As Fr Wijngaards points out in his balanced and splendidly argued case for the ordination of women: `According to generally accepted ecclesiastical interpretation such doctrinal declarations by the Congregation do not impede further discussion. In at least two official interpretations given, it was authoritatively stated that such documents "have not in the least the aim to forbid that Catholic writers should study the question further and, after carefully weighing the arguments on both sides, adhere to the contrary opinion..." (2 June 1927)'.5 Though Wijngaards does not quote it, the text goes on to say: `provided that they own themselves ready to stand by the Church's decision, which has received from Jesus Christ the authority not only to interpret Scripture but also to safeguard it faithfully'.6 The reference is to a declaration from the Holy Office in regard to a reply given by the same Holy Office on 13 January 1897 concerning the `Johannine Comma'.? Wijngaards continues with a quotation from the letter to Cardinal Suhard from the secretary of the Biblical Commission 16 January 1948: `such decisions do in no way oppose the further and really scientific study of such questions'. g Both these official interpretations refer to Scripture. However, Wijngaards makes the point: `It was generally agreed, even before Vatican II, that this interpretation should be extended to all documents of the same kind and that by their very nature, these documents do not exclude further discussion.'(9) He cites Fr Francis Sullivan, S.J., in support of this view, who equiparates decrees of the Holy Office and replies from the Biblical Commission, which seems a reasonable procedure.10

Therefore, though the Vatican has stated officially that a woman may not be ordained a priest, because of the nature of the document in which this position is presented, further theological investigation of the question is not excluded. The latter is also the case because the Declaration gives reasons for the position it presents. When reasons are given for a decision, the possibility of further dialogue arises at once. In a spirit of dialogue, then, I want to examine the argument against the ordination of women to the ministerial priesthood, which the Declaration derives from a particular interpretation of the phrase in persona Christi.

The Argument of the Declaration

The relevant passages containing the argument that the priest acts in persona Christi are found in the fifth section of the Declaration:

The Church's constant teaching, repeated and clarified by the Second Vatican Council and again recalled by the 1971 Synod of Bishops and by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in its Declaration of 24 June 1973, declares that the bishop or the priest, in the exercise of his ministry, does not act in his own name, in persona 1, ropria: he represents Christ, who acts through him: "the priest truly acts in the place of Christ", as Saint Cyprian already wrote in the third century ...The supreme expression of this representation is found in the altogether special form it assumes in the celebration of the Eucharist, which is the source and centre of the Church's unity, the sacrificial meal in which the People of God are associated in the sacrifice of Christ: the priest, who alone has the power to perform it, then acts not only through the effective power conferred on him by Christ, but in persona Christi, takingthe role of Christ, to the point of being his very image, when he pronounces the words of consecration.

The Christian priesthood is therefore of a sacremental nature: the priest is a sign, the supernatural effectiveness of which comes from the ordination received, but a sign that must be perceptible and which the faithful must be able to recognize with ease. The whole sacramental economy is in fact based upon natural signs, on symbols imprinted upon the human psychology: "Sacramental signs", says Saint 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."1I

At a first reading the argument of these paragraphs seems straightforward and convincing enough. The bishop or priest acts not in his own name, but in persona Christi. Because Christ was of the male sex and remains so, the priest must be of the male sex in order to express the `natural resemblance' between Christ and his minister.

On reflection, however, a crucial question arises. Does the minister of the sacraments represent Christ the Male or Christ the Mediator of saving grace? The question concerns the formal element in the representation, not what may be described as the material image in the representation. Is a woman barred from being a priest because the ministry of the eucharist in persona Christi concerns more the maleness of Christ than the ministry of baptising and anointing the sick in persona Christi? Does the priest represent more Christ the Male when he says Mass than when he baptizes? In broaching these questions we have to consider the unity of the sacramental system.

The Unity of the Seven Sacraments

The seven sacraments of the Church represent the paschal and pentecostal mystery of salvation. 'they all take us into the saving death of Christ and give us a share in the power and glory of his resurrection.

There is a fundamental unity among the seven sacraments, which derives from Christ and the Church. Christ is the Mediator of God's efficacious grace. In celebrating the sacraments the Church realizes her inmost nature and fulfils her God-willed, mission as the ever present instrument of grace in the world. Christ himself is `the sacrament of encounter with God',12 and the `reality and sign, sacrament and res sacraments of the redemptive grace of God'.13 He is the source of the Church's sacramental life, for it was from the side of Christ that there came forth "the wondrous sacraments of the whole Church..." By his power he is present in the sacraments so that when anybody baptizes it is really Christ himself who baptizes'.14

The Church, then, has its sacramental nature from Christ himself. He founded his Church as the sacrament of salvation,15 and thus it is `the universal sacrament of salvation', 16 `the visible sacrament of the saving unity' which God has shered with US. 17 `The Church in Christ, is in the nature of sacrament - a sign and instrument, that is, of communion with God and of unity among all men'. 18

Christ as Mediator is the sacrament of God, and the Church, as a unity by God's grace, is the sacrament of salvation. The essential element in Christ's mediatorship is that he shares divine nature and human nature. He is the GodHuman without confusion or separation. His, maleness is not formally relevant to his mediatorship. The Church is a unity of human beings, `a people brought into unity from the unity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit'. 19 It is not formally relevant to this unity that human beings are infants, boys and girls, men and women.

Nowhere, I would submit, in the formal structure of the Church's sacramental system, with the exception of matrimony, does the circumstance of maleness or femaleness have an essential role to play. Matrimony is the exception, because both maleness and femaleness are essential to is formal structure.

The Ministers of Baptism and Matrimony

It is common sacramental doctrine that the minister of the sacraments acts as vicar of Christ. With regard to the validity of baptism, it is the explicit teaching of the Church that anyone with the use of reason, having the right intention and employing due matter and form, may be the minister of this sacrament and the minister, male or female, acts in persona Christi. It is of some interest here that certain ancient sources forbade women to baptize. In theConstitutiones Apostolicae it is argued that it is not fitting that a woman baptize; it is considered wrong and foreign to the teaching of Christ.20 The Fourth Council of Carthage, held in 398, excluded women from baptizing: `Mulier baptizare non praesumat'.21 The stipulations against women in regard to administering baptism are explained varoiusly by manualists. Some say it was no more than a question of lawfulness,22 others that the injunction referred to the solemn administration of the sacrament. 23 In any case, the significance of these ancient views is the testimony they bear that the Church's grasp of the revelation of God is subject to the vicissitudes of history. Lastly, the distinctions made by canon law between ordinary and extraordinary ministers of baptism (cc.738; 740-741) and between baptism in normal circumstances and in case of necessity (c. 742, par 1) or extraordinary circumstances, have no direct relevance to the present argument, because necessity could not change the nature of things.

The ministers of the sacrament of matrimony are the partners themselves. As Pius XII succinctly expressed it in Mystici Corporis: `The spouses are ministers of grace to each other, 24 The sacrament of matrimony is a permanent sacrament. Consequently, as long as the marriage lasts the spouses remains ministers of Christ's love and grace to each other.

The sacraments are the acts of Christ. Therefore in respect of baptism, given the conditions mentioned, a pagan woman can be the minister and in such a case she acts in persona Christi, it is Christ who baptizes. In regard to matrimony, the woman who becomes wife and the man who becomes husband remain permanent ministers of sacramental grace and, to accommodate the words of St. Augustine: `When a man marries, is is Christ who marries; when a woman marries, it is Christ who marries.' 15

The Minister of the Eucharist

The minister of a sacrament acts, not in persona propria, but in persona Christi. As I have argued, on the basis of the fundamental unity of the sacraments, the minister formally represents Christ the Mediator. For two of the sac -aments, we have seen, a woman acts in persona Christi. Now the question arises whether the maleness of Christ, and therefore of the priest, enters the formal structure of the sacrament of the eucharist.

The Declaration states: `The whole sacramental economy is in fact based upon natural signs, on symbols imprinted upon the human psychology: "Sacramental signs", says Saint 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.'26

If we apply the Declaration's argument about natural signs to baptism, we find that the matter of this sacrament is water which both guarantees life and cleanses away dirt and grime. The sacramental grace of baptism communicates the divine life and destroys sin. There is indeed a natural resemblance here, as is always the case in a true symbol. But we need to be careful not to confuse physical likeness or photographic reproduction with natural resemblance. If therefore the same natural resemblance is required for persons as for things in the sacrament of baptism, and since women can be ministers of this sacrament, then the natural resemblance here must be between the woman as human being and Christ the Mediator whose very humanity is the instrument of our salvation.

In a footnote to the text from the Declaration just quoted there is a reference to St Thomas, Summa Theologiae III, q. 83, art. 1, ad 3: `It is to be said that [just as the celebration of this sacrament is the representative image of Christ's cross: ibid. ad 2], for the same reason the priest also enacts the image of Christ in whose person and by whose power he pronounces the words of consecration.'27 The comparison which the Declaration makes here calls for comment because it seems clear that the notion of `image' is being understood in two quite different senses, the one symbolic and the other physical or material.

Let us then take the texts of St. Thomas separately. First, Summa Theologiae III, q. 83, art: 1, ad 2: `As the celebration of this sacrament is an image representing (imago repraesentiva) Christ's Passion, so does the altar represent the cross ( altare est repraesentativum crucis ipsius) on which Christ was sacrificed in his own proper form and figure (in propria specie)' 28 The celebration of the eucharist and the altar are both symbols. St. Thomas plainly distinguishes on the one hand between imago repraesentativa and the altar as repraesentativum of the cross and, on the other, Christ's sacrifice in propria specie. Secondly, the same question and article, ad 3: `And for 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'.29 The Declaration 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, the parallel with ad 2 is rendered ridiculous.

Symbol and Physical Likeness

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 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 representation 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 to 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 .:`. ;it Mass dons vestments which serve to hide his very in 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 the words of baptism.

There is also a second argument in this connection taken from St Thomas, In IV Sent., dist. 25, q. 2, art. 1, quaestiuncula la, corp.: `For since a sacrament is a sign, there is required in the things that are done in the sacraments not only the `res' but the signification of the "res". The Declaration emphasizes that St Thomas recalls this precisely in order to reject the ordination of women.30

However, we need to look at the text of St Thomas in its context in order to avoid even the slightest misrepresentation of what he says. He is answering the question: Whether the female sex is impeded from receiving orders? He replies that there are certain conditions required in the recipient by the nature of some sacraments, and other conditions required by law. If the conditions required by the nature of a sacrament are lacking, then neither the sacrament nor the res (what it signifies, grace, character) is received. The male sex is a condition required by the nature of the sacrament of orders. Because a sacrament is a sign, it requires not only the res but also the signification (significatio rei) as, for example, in the sacrament of anointing it is necessary that the recipient be sick, in order to signify the need for healing. Thus, because it is not possible to signify eminence of grade in the female sex - woman is in a state of subjection - it follows that a woman cannot receive the sacrament of orders.31 According to St Thomas, therefore, the significatio rei in this case is not formally maleness (that the priest represents Christ the Male), but the eminentia gradus. The Declaration gives the impression that St Thomas' argument is about maleness as such. But that is not the case. The argument rests on the assumption of the natural superiority of male to female and it is that superiority which endows the male with the significatio rei to receive the dignity of the sacrament of orders. I would argue that St Thomas is guilty here of apetitio principii, for the question is precisely whether a man is superior to a woman. But we can let that pass. The point I wish to emphasize is that his argument is not that maleness is the significatio rei but the superiority of the male.

The quotation from St Thomas: `sacramental signs represent what they signify by natural resemblance' needs to be read in its context. The

Declaration presents it again as a natural resemblance of maleness to maleness. 32 St Thomas is dealing with the question of whether a slave can receive orders. The objection is that because the slave (servus) is in a state of subjection he cannot receive orders, just as a woman being in a state of subjection, cannot receive orders.33 St Thomas replies: `Sacramental signs represent [what they signify] by natural resemblance; a woman, however, is by nature in subjection [to men], but a slave is not [by nature in subjection]'.34 Once again the issue is not maleness but the superiority of the male. A woman does not have the required degree of eminence to receive the dignity of the sacrament of orders. Nowhere is the issue precisely about the maleness of Christ. It is rather that the male has a natural superiority and as such is capable of acting in persona Christi not, according to the mind of St Thomas, as his physical image, but as his representative by being endowed with the dignity of priesthood. All one need do to dispose of these arguments of St Thomas against ordaining women to the ministerial preisthood, is to show that women are not naturally in subjection to men and that men are not superior to women or more eminent, but simply different from women and equal to them.

Because the sacraments are symbols, ingenere signs the priest's acting in persona Christi at the eucharist is not essentially different from his acting in persona Christi at any other sacrament or a woman's acting in persona Christi at baptism. Now it may be objected that I am evading the issue by comparing the ministers of various sacraments instead of considering the necessary conditions in the recipient of orders. I would reply to that, however, with the general principle that the minister of the sacraments always acts in persona Christi. Hence it cannot be that because the priest acts in persona Christi at the eucharist that the recipient of orders must be male. We have seen that women act in persona Christi and natural resemblance does not mean physical likeness.


It is not easy to grasp what is the precise connection between the sacraments and the maleness of Christ. That the glorified humanity of Christ, as the instrument of God's gracious love, is directly related to the sacraments, is selfevident. Thus, it seems that far too much is being made of the fact that the Word became a male. The formal element, surely, in the doctrine of the incarnation is that the Son of God became human. became one of us. The Church has never been preoccupied with the sex of Christ. Now that may be regrettable from a christological point of view, in that had we stressed that the Word became a man, a male, we might have avoided some of the problems we encounter from time to time with the doctrine of Christ's humanity. However, in relation to the present question we must recognize that Christ's maleness has not been one of the Church's doctrinal or theological preoccupations. The prologue to St John's gospel proclaims that the Word became flesh: ho logos sarx egeneto (1:14). According to the creed of Nicea, Jesus Christ was made human: enanthrôpésanta; homo (not vir) factus est. 3s Chalcedon defined that Jesus Christ is complete or perfect in humanity: teleion ton auton en anthröpoteti, perfectum in humanitate. He is a true human, anthrõpon alethos, hominem vere.36 Hence Jesus Christ is our mediator because as God's Son he is also a true member of our race. This is not to ignore his maleness. That is a fact and remains so, but it tells us nothing either way about the question of who is a suitable minister of the eucharist.

If we dissociate all ideas of eminence from the priesthood and see it as it truly is, a service, a ministry in the Church, we will not begin with the sex of the person as the first requisite for ordination, but with the religious, spiritual, intellectual and emotional gifts and qualities, which are indispensable for the competent and fruitful exercise of the priestly ministry in the person and name of Christ.

(See Notes page 31)

Other Important Readings by and about Eric Doyle OFM

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