'Equal but other' and the ordination of women

‘Equal but other’ and the ordination of women

by Ida Raming (bibliography)

from Theology Digest vol. 29:1 (Spring 1981). Earlier published as “‘Gleichwertig—aber andersartig.’ Zu einem üblichen Argumentationsschema gegen das Priestertum der Frau.” Orientierung 43:20 (Oct 31, 1979) pp. 218-21; here published with permission of the author and the editor of Orientierung.

Dr. Ida Raming here summarizes the results of a research published (1973) in a 200-page book. ‘Since woman’s "otherness” is currently one of the main arguments for excluding women from the priesthood, Dr.Raming examines its historical consequences for woman’s ecclesial status.

A frequent argument against admitting women to the priesthood is its “ inappropriateness ”—the unsuitability of woman’s nature for this calling. The argument is given considerable weight in the literature dealing with the various reasons for excluding women from priestly office. And since this assertion that woman’s “different” or “other" nature is the real reason for her exclusion from the priesthood, it seems good to embark on a detailed discussion of the historical connections and developments associated therewith.

This essay will seek to answer three questions: What is understood here by “woman’s essence”? Was the exclusion of women from the priesthood in early and medieval church tradition also based on woman’s “otherness”? Against the backdrop of these historical associations, how should we evaluate the formula “equal in worth/different in nature” and its consequences for woman’s place in the church?

A few examples illustrate how this essence of woman is described when her exclusion from the priesthood is discussed. L.Lercher (1950): The male is more suitable for teaching than the female, for he is by nature more capable of handling the exertions of mental labor. He is more suited to lead because he is more intellectual and woman more emotional. M.Premm (1955): Woman is excluded from the priesthood not because she is of less worth. but because she is different. Service as a mother is an unofficial priesthood. O.Casel (1927): The idea of woman is to be a receiver; man is the procreator. Only the male nature can be incorporated in ordination as mediator of divine life.

Post-Vatican II statements are little different. G. Concetti (1965): Opposing priesthood for woman, he uses the argument of the order of creation: the man came first. This order enjoys Christ’s support in his not giving woman the priesthood. Both (creation and salvation) require man’s role as leader: old Adam, new Christ. Placing man first does not compromise the equality and dignity of the sexes. Recent utterances (e.g., the Vatican’s “Declaration on Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood”) use the same argumentation, i.e.. factual differences in nature or function or symbolism of woman

Aristotelian biology

What it all finally amounts to is the assertion of polar differences: man’s activity and rationality, woman’s passivity and receptivity; public life for the man, a hidden and quiet role for the woman.

This continues the Aristotelian-Thomistic idea of the reproduction process, assigning to the man the role of procreative, life-bestowing head, and to the woman the role of receiver, submitter, bearer. Although the errors inherent in this understanding of reproduction have long been established in the scientific literature, the theologians in question fail to take them into account.

The current emphasis thus falls not on woman’s inferiority but on her “otherness.” And canon law (CIC #968) asserts baldly that only a baptized male can be validly ordained.

CIC #968, 1 is based on the mid12th-century collection of sources known as the Decretum Gratiani. Its ban on women assuming any liturgical function within the sanctuary is substantiated by various conciliar directives and by texts like the so-called Statuta Ecclesiae Antiqua, going as far back as Lev 12:1 ff.: 15: 19ff. The thrust is: a low concept of women because of their sex, no access to the sanctuary, no touching of sacred vessels or the eucharistic elements, no teaching, no preaching—even baptizing is forbidden. Man’s God created superiority has to be protected from the pagan inroads of a female priesthood.

There are also sociologically conditioned (rabbinic and apostolic) assertions of woman’s inferiority (e.g., 1Tim 2). Even etymology is drawn into the controversy: vir is derived from virtus (authority, virtue), mulier from mollities mentis (softness of mind). Woman’s ethical, biological, and sociological inferiority grounds the demand for slavish submission.

Gratian, as well as his successors, feels at home in arguing against woman’s equality by using Gen 2 and 3 and (pseudo)patristic exegesis of that and other passages to demonstrate woman’s second-class and second rate nature. Medieval canonists continue Gratian’s derogation of women by giving further exegetical support to refusing holy orders to women. Huguccio, e.g., actually maintains that the dignity of imago Dei, the glory and honor of God (in the strict sense of the word) is embodied only in the man. Man comes from God— primal; woman comes from man— derivative and so not “ordainable.”

About 100 years after Gratian, there appeared the Decretals of Pope Gregory IX (1234). The context of some regulations shows that apart from the reasons already given, there is a further motive—the protection of priestly celibacy.

The commentators on Gregory’s Decretals (the ‘’Decretalists’’) are no less definite regarding ordination of women than were Gratian and his successors. Bernhard de Botone, for example, states that woman may not approach the power of the keys because she is not God’s image and must serve man in total subordination. Hostiensis defends woman’s inferior status in both Roman and church law. Since woman must be under man and is not God’s image, she may not legitimately aspire to teaching and preaching and so is automatically excluded from orders. Woman’s ignorance of law and justice is allowed on the grounds that hers is the weaker sex. the cause and root of her ignorance, foolishness, and (mental) limitations.

Thus, as time goes by, there is the increasing tendency for supporters of the “masculine argument” to insist that their anti-feminist position is not discriminatory but natural, i.e., based on the created difference in nature between men and women.

A clear contradiction

We are faced here with a contradiction: on the one hand (esp. in view of scientific insights into human reproduction) the concept of woman’s inferiority has been deprived of its ground; on the other, woman’s current legal position in the church is basically identical with her status in medieval canon law—resulting, undeniably, from a low evaluation of women. That is why, despite the acknowledged equality of the sexes, one has recourse to such threadbare proofs to defend or justify woman’s detrimental status.

Since the “otherness” of woman has the same legal result (exclusion from the priesthood) as the earlier assertion of woman’s lesser value, one can only assume that this insistence on otherness serves either as an instrument of repression or—consciously or unconsciously—as a cover-up for regarding woman as inferior. Indeed, what theologians say about the nature of woman, despite protestations to the contrary, is still clearly influenced in part by the acceptance of woman’s inferiority which formerly prevailed. The history of feminism shows that an outmoded concept of woman’s nature has been a hindrance to her professional development. We forget that the professions of teacher, doctor, lawyer, engineer were also closed to women by referring to their “otherness.”

An open question

We know today, from sociological and ethnological research, that the differentiation of the sexes is historically conditioned. Though anchored in the psychic and metaphysical structure of woman’s nature, the traditional picture of woman was derived from her past very limited field of operation (home and family). Hence a description of woman’s nature that integrates all the individual expressions of her sex is currently impossible, for “when one sex assumes a dominating position, the enduring difference between the sexes is not ascertainable’’ (S. Hunke).

How greatly the church still represses women is seen in the recent decree from the highest authority (John Paul II in America) that women will not be admitted to the priestly office, and this because it goes counter to Jesus’ intention. Without asking or listening to those concerned (not to say, letting them decide!), their fate is thus settled. And one feels no shame in enlisting the intention of Jesus to support this “procedure.” Despite protestations to the contrary, precisely therein lies the blatant offense against the human rights and dignity of woman: the man in the church defines the essence, nature of woman; he determines what her tasks in the church are or are not; he arrogates to himself knowing and interpreting God’s will for woman.



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