Ordination of Women Priests
Jonathan Schumann (Ecclesia Speramus, South Africa), 1999.
The controversy surrounding the issue of women priests does not want to die a dignified death. As a group of young, orthodox, Catholics we felt that it was our responsibility to be as informed as possible on this issue in order to coherently defend the Church’s position. The controversy that has arisen has its genesis, I believe, in a Catholicism sadly out of touch with Catholic reality. Many Catholics, as I see it, do not seem to care why the Church does certain things. Why does the Church condemn abortion, why does She not allow divorce, and why does She not allow women priests. This essay, I hope, will be able to shed light on the latter question and show that an appreciation of the Church’s position depends on the health of our relationship with Christ’s Spouse.
The Holy Father summed up a healthy relationship with the Church most succinctly in Agenda For The Third Millennium: “loving Christ means loving the Church. The Church exists for Christ, so as to continue his presence and witness in the world. Christ is the Spouse and Saviour of the Church. The more we come to know and love the Church, the nearer we shall be to Christ” (1996: 29). Later in the same chapter he writes: “Genuine Christians are always in tune with the magisterium of the Church; they accept it and, with God’s help, put it into practice in the manifold circumstances of daily life (1996: 33). The Church’s teaching on the issue of female clergy, while unpalatable to many, can only be understood and appreciated by recognition of this fact. We can come closer to God by immersing ourselves in this most fundamental aspect of Catholic reality, that the Church and Christ are one.
Now the strict letter of the Church’s pronouncement on the issue of women priests is well documented and has been formally ratified – I refer specifically to the Declaration of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Inter Insigniores, dated 27 January 1977, the Apostolic Letter, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, dated 22nd May 1994, and the Responsum ad Dubium, dated October 28, 1995. All these documents state explicitly the teaching of the Church in this regard. The last constitutes a formal declaration by the Magisterium that the Church has “no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women”. This is the crux of the matter and the point where, I maintain, much of the confusion over the Church’s position arises. Nowhere in any of these documents does the Church/magisterium assert that women can never be admitted to the ministerial priesthood, but they all state quite categorically that, at the present time, and for the foreseeable future, women are barred from receiving this Sacrament.
Every Catholic, not just those who feel compelled to voice an opinion on an issue, should know exactly where the Church stands on that issue, and why, in light of Sacred Tradition, revealed truth, and rigorous theological enquiry, she feels compelled to assume certain dogmatic positions. The issue of women priests should be no different.
Now the above documents sum up the Church’s argument most succinctly. The gist of it is as follows:
Jesus entrusted the task of ministerial priesthood to the members of the male sex alone.
His will was made plain by the sum of his behaviour, as also by significant actions:
Jesus never sent woman on preaching missions.
Only to the Twelve does Jesus give authority over the Kingdom
Only to the Twelve does Jesus confer the power and mission of repeating the Eucharist on his behalf.
Only to the Apostle does he give the power to remit sins and to undertake the work of universal evangelisation.
Catholic tradition, for the last 1900 years, has retained constant fidelity to Christ’s pastoral directives. As his Holiness says: “faithfulness to the pastoral ministry as instituted by Christ is at stake”(Agenda for the Third Millennium). His Holiness, however, has drawn back from making this position an infallible declaration. Most theologians agree that what is referred to is the infallibility of the ordinary magisterium, and that the Pope is not making an infallible pronouncement himself. Certainly he is making the most powerful assertion of Sacred Tradition in this instance.
Having considered the Church’s primary position in briefest outline, let us consider several arguments for woman priests, though all of these arguments, while perhaps having a certain cogency, do not reflect the difficulties that prevent the Church from coming out positively in favour of woman priests.
1. The Changing situation of women in society
While women may not have had access to certain positions or professions in the past, this was only due to their inferior positions in society. Christ was not immune from this sociological reality, and His choosing twelve male apostles can be sufficiently accounted for by the sociological conditions of the time.
2. Justice and equality
The Church having taken significant strides in combatting all racial and national exploitation and in renouncing all anti-Semitic theology, must abandon all forms of sexism by rejecting a theological and institutional framework which perpetuates discrimination and prejudice against women. This liberation can only be fully realised when women are granted not only full spiritual, but full ecclesial, equality. In other words, when they can be ordained as priests.
3. Political correctness
Women priests will be an appropriate symbol of the Church’s embodiment of equality, freedom, and love. The Church must have complete equality in its own structures, and it would be a fuller sacrament if it allowed both men and women to participate in all its ministries. Female ordination will stand as a symbol of the Church’s commitment to woman as full citizens and to the liberation of women in all spheres of life.
There are no intrinsic spiritual differences between men and women. Christ’s institution of the sacrament of Holy Orders has nothing to do with His maleness; it is a spiritual ministry, one that transcends biological differences.
The ordination of women would smooth the way for unity with separated brethren who already condone such a practice.
I would like to respond to each of these arguments in turn and see whether any of them stand up to critical scrutiny, and, as every informed Catholic should realise, the criteria we should use in this endeavour are the Church’s and not society’s.
1.) As I have mentioned the Church’s crucial argument is from Tradition. We also have clear evidence of what some critics refer to as our Lord’s feminism. His teaching on divorce, for example, is a radical departure from Judaic law, which stipulated that husbands could dispose of their wives by a simple writ of dismissal. Christ’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage was a major boost for the rights of women in biblical times. Furthermore Christ – let us never forget that this is the Incarnate God we refer to – was quite revolutionary in his relation with and treatment of women. Who can forget his dialogue with the Samaritan woman at the well and the breaking of the social taboos that involved, his acceptance and forgiveness of the woman caught in adultery, and his treatment of Mary Magdalene. All these acts were in direct contrast with the spirit of the times and highlighted Christ’s determination to treat women with compassion and understanding. Then there is Christ’s relationship with his Mother. Her avowal, “Be it done unto me according to thy word”, marks a definitive moment in the history of salvation. In the words of an old Catholic hymn “her sweet submission built the bridge God walked across to man”. Yet in spite of her perfect witness she is never called to the priestly ministry, she remains the humble handmaid of the Lord. She shows us the way to Christ, “do whatever he tells you”, just as Christ shows us the way to the Father.
There are then, I would argue, enough instances in the Bible to convince even the most hardened sceptic that Jesus was not a “slave to those times”.
2.) In not allowing women to become priests the Church has often been accused of sexism. Is the Church sexist? Does it need to change and offer women greater leadership opportunities in order that they may play a more meaningful role in the life of the Church? Perhaps the answer to both these questions is yes. The ordination of women, however, has nothing at all to do with this debate. Over the last few years this issue has become the main feature of a misguided feminist agenda, proponents of which honestly believe that the ordination of women is the culmination of a process of women’s liberation. In terms of Catholic reality, nothing could be further from the truth. This drive to secure priestesses for the Catholic Church ignores the fundamental reality mentioned above, that the Church and Christ are one. Given the prominent position of Sacred Tradition as a guide to faith, to accuse the Church of sexism is to accuse Christ. Christ has elevated the ministerial priesthood to the status of a sacrament. In doing so he has taken the responsibility for its intrinsic nature and it particular charisms out of the hands of human beings and given it to the Holy Spirit. The matter of the priesthood, I would argue, in light of the overwhelming evidence of Tradition, lies outside of the scope of any debate on the equality of women. I believe the Church recognises that women have not been treated equally in the past and will take the appropriate steps, as it has in many places already, to ensure that women play a more dynamic role in day to day parochial life, as well as giving women leadership responsibilities in the Church as a whole. The truth of the matter, however, has been articulated; man has no authority whatsoever to ordain women priests. To use the notions of justice and equality to justify the lifting of the prohibition is to deny the foundation on which the Church is built.
3.) The phrase ‘politically correct’ is often bandied about in the political rhetoric of the day. It basically means the avoidance of words or actions that marginalise or alienate certain sectors of the population. As I have mentioned the argument goes that women priests will be an appropriate symbol of the Church’s commitment to equality in all its structures, a commitment to the reversal of this process of alienation. Barring, the intrinsic theological difficulties already discussed, this could be a valid argument. Given the emotive rhetoric that has been voiced in this debate I could well imagine that priestesses could facilitate the liberation of women in all spheres of life. As wholeheartedly as I agree to this proposition in theory, however, it fills me with Catholic dread. It assumes that the Church is a democracy and as such naturally tends to equality in all its structures. This is manifestly untrue, and is contrary to the system of Church government laid down by Christ. He did not set up a government “by the people and for the people” but a system of enlightened dictatorship, and let’s face it there is no greater enlightenment than that which comes from the Paraclete. The words of Mark 8:33 have a particular relevance: Vade retro me, Satana, Get behind me, Satan, your ways are man’s ways not God’s. Jesus’ rebuke of Peter highlights the thinking that holds sway over many people who are clamouring for the ordination of women priests. The anti-prohibition lobby seem, for the most part, to rely on facile, utilitarian philosophies in articulating their position. This, unfortunately, is the mark of the secular age where there is a tendency to do away with the distinction between the sacred and the profane, where there is in fact a tendency to desacralize everything. In our approach to this important and emotive issue it is vitally important that we do not fall into this secular humanistic trap and restrict our assessment to purely socio-political criteria; it is important we remember Christ’s words to Peter.
4.)I have heard many people making the unequivocal statement that there are no intrinsic spiritual differences between men and women. Personally I am inclined to agree with them. Many of the greatest saints of the Church have been women, none whom I might add ever insisted on being priests, and who have exhibited degrees of spirituality and piety the equal of their male counterparts. This fact is, however, that men and women are different in many significant ways. They are not equal by any stretch of the imagination. They are physically different. They have different psychological and emotional impulses. The point being is that before we generalise about a woman’s emotional, biological, and spiritual capacity to be a priest, we should at least research the possibility that such differences may impinge directly on that capacity. The Church has to be absolutely sure that when She ordains women to the ministry the sacrament is valid. In other words, when a priestess speaks the words of institution over the bread and wine they actually do become the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. If the Church cannot be sure of that or indeed of the efficacy of any of the other Sacraments administered by a female cleric then She has the responsibility to ensure the integrity and sacredness of the Sacraments. I concede as before that sex may not be a factor in the sacramental equation, but what if it is? What if in persona Christi, in the person of Christ, means exactly that, in the person of God made Man not Woman? Human beings, as conceived by Aquinas, are psycho-physical unities. In other words we are fully integrated beings, a harmonious union of spirit and flesh. Within that flesh there is a sexual component, and that component is as much a part of the whole person as his or her soul. Christ is not a hermaphrodite, his sexuality is very well articulated in the Gospels. As such we could cogently argue that Christ’s priesthood is manifestly grounded in his sexual persona, that indeed the priestly ministry does not transcend biological differences Furthermore “Man and woman both, he created them.” (Genesis 1:27, Knox Version). There is a purpose to everything under the sun. Is the purpose for this differentiation purely procreative? Mother Theresa was once asked why she did not champion the cause of women’s ordination given her admirable track record as a defender of the poor and the marginalised. She replied that being priest would prevent her from being a woman. In some quarters praise of her contributions have been met with the retort that she was nothing more than a mouthpiece for a fundamentalist Pope. You be the judge.
The fifth argument relates to the growing impetus of the ecumenical movement. Unfortunately, it is in this area that a large proportion of the misunderstanding and ignorance inherent in the anti-prohibition argument surfaces.
5.) In order to understand any denomination’s position on, for example, female clergy, one should understand the theological justification behind it. While I don’t have an in-depth knowledge of different Protestant faiths, I assume that each has a cogent argument for why they allow women clerics. I would further concede that each denomination’s theology may well imply, nay, demand that women be ordained as ministers and that this would be evident to any intelligent observer. Catholic theology, however, does not imply anything of the sort. I have mentioned the difficulties of the Catholic position and the dangers of political expediency. The ecumenical gesture of allowing women priests in the Catholic Church to smooth the way for unity with, for example, the Anglican Church would be an example of this dangerous political expediency. It would not serve the cause of unity one iota. Why? It would be a distortion of Catholic teaching, a distortion of the very nature of true ecumenism, and an end to all dialogue with the Orthodox Churches. When detractors of the Church raise the ideals of ecumenism as a reason for the introduction of female clergy they display a very limited understanding of that word. It’s almost as if people believe that if the Catholic Church ordains women all the theological and cultural obstacles will miraculously disappear. Compromising one’s faith is hardly a panacea for the scandal of Christian disunity; in fact it creates more problems that it solves. A homogeneous Christian faith is no longer possible and, dare I say it, no longer desirable. Homogeneity or uniformity is not the kind of unity that we should be looking for. The cultural practices of the different Western Christian traditions have evolved to such an extent that they bear only the most superficial resemblance to one another, and are unlikely ever to see eye to eye on certain theological issues. While Protestants may feel they have valid reasons to justify female clerics, this hardly opens up a useful avenue of ecumenical dialogue. Indeed, to place the ordination of women on an ecumenical agenda is as shortsighted and misguided as placing it one a feminist one. What our separated brethren must realise is that that particular ship has sailed and is unlikely, at least in the foreseeable future, to be back in port.
Now our dialogue with east is as important, if not more so, than our dialogue with Protestantism. The faith and sacramental practices of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches are almost identical. Here is a vast body of Christians, far greater in number than all the Protestants faiths in the world combined, who share a similar history and sacramental vision of life to Catholicism. They are far closer to the Catholic Church than Protestants will ever be, and yet many Catholics seek to alienate adherents to this great Christian tradition by calling for the ordination of women. Whatever chance their is of the Catholic Church changing its mind on the question of women’s ordination there is next to none of this happening among the Orthodox. In the words of one orthodox theologian the ordination of women is tantamount for the Orthodox Community to a radical and irreparable mutilation of the entire faith, the rejection of the whole of scripture, and, needless to say, the end of all dialogues. People who think that the ordination of female clergy will somehow increase ecumenical momentum are sadly out of touch with reality.
Other questions could undoubtedly be raised. I am sure many of us have come across this one: What if women feel called to the priesthood? The Catechism of the Catholic Church answers this question emphatically:
No one has the right to receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders. Indeed no-one claims this office for himself; he is called to it by God. Anyone who thinks he recognizes the signs of God’s call to the ordained ministry must humbly submit his desire to the authority of the Church, who has the responsibility and the right to call someone to Holy Orders. Like every grace this sacrament can only be received as an unmerited gift. (CCC 1578)
Feminist critics may well agree, though they might well argue that while nobody is questioning that the vocation of the priesthood is a grace, an unmerited gift, women should at least have the right to test that vocation. At the end of the day, however, humility is the key. Are we humble enough to submit subjective human desire to the authority of the Church, to the wisdom of the Paraclete, or, in our vanity, do we deliberately divorce Christ from his Church? Frank Sheed believed that the surest test of sanctity is to do what the Church says. This test stems from the fundamental truth that the Church and Christ are one.
Finally, can we say there is no theological objection to the possibility of women priests? The argument cannot stand in Catholic theology. The unanimity of scripture, fathers, councils and church practice should be a major theological difficulty for any Catholic, given the special place of tradition as a guide to faith. While it is not an absolute rule, the constant tradition of the Church should at least leave a doubt about the validity of female ordination. In other words, in the Church’s eyes there is serious doubt, now as in the past, whether it can ordain priestesses to a valid Eucharist, or indeed to any of the sacraments.
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