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Priesthood for Women

Priesthood for Women

by Johanna Schiessl

Published in Stimmen der Zeit 118 (1993) no 2; translated by Mary Dittrich

In February 1992, during an event held by the Münnerstädter Kreis to discuss “Mother Church - cleaned by the daughters, run by the sons”, some 200 women and men voted for the notion that the coming millennium would see the first Catholic woman bishop. Hardly anyone among those present felt that development towards the ordination of women in the Catholic Church is out of the question. Again in February 1992 the Federal chairperson and the Bavarian Land Association of the “Katholischer Deutscher Franenbund” (Association of German Catholic Women) requested that women be admitted to the diaconate and priesthood. As “creatures of God”, it was felt women should participate in all functions and bodies in the Church. These two flashes certainly reflect the opinion of many women and men at the “base” of the people of God regarding admission of women to the essential office of the Church, that of priest, which in the new CIC (Canon 1024) earns a terse: “Only a baptised male validly receives sacred ordination”.

Those believers are not alone in their opinion, for both feminist organisations such as the American “Women’s Ordination Conference” and the international “Priests for Equality” are calling for the “full and proper participation of women in the life and leadership function of the Church”. Prominent theologians of both sexes such as Elizabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza and Karl Rahner have also taken up this subject. Karl Rahner published a paper in 1977 entitled Priestertum der Frau(1), supporting examination of ecclesial tradition in this matter.

The basic positions in the essay by Rahner are still valid. It was one of the many critical reactions to the 1976 declaration by the Roman Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the question of ordaining women, Inter insigniores. Karl Rahner also tests the Roman declaration for its binding validity “for all time”. He writes: “Despite the Pope’s approval, the declaration is not a definitive decision; in principle it can be reformed; it can( which does not a priori mean: it must) be erroneous”. But that means - and only under this premise is concern with the ordination of women more than an interesting but in effect pointless discussion - that contrary to appearances, the final word on this subject has not yet been said. For even today it is “a fact that in the exercise of its functions the Church’s teaching authority may err, and that it has erred.”(2)

The core position of the ecclesial prouncement analysed by Rahner is this: "The Church, which wishes to remain faithful to the example of the Lord, feels it has no authority to admit women to priestly ordination." This concise formula summarises the tradition dating from apostolic times regarding women's ordination, a tradition continued by the Second Vatican Council and to which the German Bishops' Conference adheres(3), even though it does at least recommend reviving the discussion encouraged by the Würzburg synod on the possible diaconate for women; this was again lent weight by Pope John Paul II in his Apostolic Letter Mulieris dignitatem (1988.

The theological stance of the Church’s teaching authority is based for one thing on the position that the exclusion of women from the priesthood stems in fact from Jesus’ wish, for despite his having behaved towards women quite differently from what was usual in his patriarchal world and although - so it is thought - he might have done so, he appointed no women to the Twelve. The apostolic community, it is maintained, adhered in the following years to this attitude of Jesus, so that the Church has always, and with no opposition, excluded women from the Sacrament of Holy Orders. In what follows, this position will be called the “tradition argument”.

The second reasoning is that in his specific liturgical functions the priest is representing Christ, the Man, and that thus he must be of the male gender. This reasoning conceals inter alia symbolism frequently found in the OT for the relationship between God and his people: the union seen as a marriage in which God (the bridegroom) raises his people to be his bride. This symbolism is picked up in the NT and transferred to the relationship between Christ and his Church. Christ is the bridegroom, the Church his bride. Now, as the priest is the sign of Christ, he must be male so as to be able “properly” to represent this associative symbol. This position we can call the “Symbolism argument”.

There are three quaestones disputatae or theological points at issue relating to the two above positions.

1. Is the praxis reaching back to the early Church and based on the attitude of Jesus a human tradition or a norm of divine revelation?

2. Can the exclusion of women from the priesthood be justified in Holy Scripture? The “tradition argument” in fact embraces both these points at issue, which will from now on be handled jointly.

3. Is the “Symbolism argument” not in fact a front for anthropology placing woman as subordinate to man and not endowed with the same dignity and rights as man?

The Tradition Argument

Even if this is not expressly stated, the teaching authority assumes - though unable to prove it - that the behaviour of Jesus and then of his apostles constitute revealed doctrine, valid for all time. For had he wished - and in the unspoken view of this line of thought his sovereign position would have permitted such a course - he could have brought women into the group of Twelve. So he did not want, either, to have women ordained as priests. This position is held chiefly in opposition to that which maintains that Jesus’s actual behaviour can be explained by the cultural and religious living conditions in the patriarchal society of those days.

This contrary position is also held by Karl Rahner when he writes “that Jesus and the apostles in their specific and social milieu could not consider (without doing something outrageous at the time) appointing women to be real community leaders and presiders over Eucharistic celebrations”. And he adds, to clarify his position, that they did not expressly campaign against slavery “merely because they were in fact convinced of the fundamental equal rights and dignity of all humans”.

In addition, the relevant pronouncements overlook the historical development, the specific shaping of the early Church, and also the symbolic meaning of the number twelve as expressing the eschatological assemblage of Israel, as a type of the twelve tribes of Israel which were also represented by the twelve men. Again, no notice is taken of the fact that the transition from notion of apostle to that of priest - against the background of the development of the structure and organisation of the Church - is oversimplified; and that a “special eucharistic authority” (which according to our lights is intimately bound up with the priestly office) “can in no way be directly perceived in the New Testament” (Rahner).

But what can we “perceive” in the NT? What do we know of the status of women in the New Testament communities, and how did the development of tasks and office come about as rounded off for the time being in 1 Tim?

There is no denial that in those times Jesus’s treatment of women was unusual, and that the early Christians were anxious to maintain this praxis, which could be described as putting into effect the equality of woman and man as in the image and likeness of God. And as one can hardly assume that Jesus himself already had firm ideas on the structure of the communities, which would not form till after his death and resurrection, it was the task of the Christians to implement the praxis of Jesus structurally too.

However, there are certainly concrete guidelines by Jesus regarding the conduct of those wishing to follow him. They are summarised in Mk10, 42-45 (and in Jn 13 presented as practice): “This is not to happen among you”. Characteristically, Jesus spoke to his disciples in these terms in connection with talk of ruling, of power, of importance, of rank, for they were worrying over which of them would sit on Jesus’s right or left side in his Kingdom. Here, though, it is evident - just as his own behaviour shows with increasing clarity - that Jesus expected from those coming after him another, in modern terms domination-free form of communal living. And this would also have to apply to relations between the sexes if one takes seriously Jesus’s domination-free dealing with women.

Paul formulates in Gal 3, 28 a theology of this stance of Jesus that woman and man have been created in the same manner in the image and likeness of God, and with no distinction between them are endowed with the same dignity and capabilities: In Christ there is neither status nor race nor gender, but all baptised Christians have received the same Spirit, a Spirit which empowers them all to proclaim God’s great deeds.

If the exegete Elizabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza is right in her thesis that this witness conceals an early Christian baptismal formula, this would mean that “when reciting this profession the newly baptised Christians were not only expressing their own convictions vis-a-vis the religious credo of the Graeco-Roman culture surrounding them”, but also at their baptism acknowledging “that all religious-patriarchal differences are cancelled out in Jesus Christ”. (4)

This admission of the fundamental equality of woman and man did indeed find structural expression in the early Christian communities, in a community model organised on particular lines, where women and men bore responsibility publicly and within the community for it and its members, leading religious service and also ceremonies in memory of Jesus’s death.

The New Testament shows us communities with plentiful offices, services and functions, performed by women or men according their gifts (cf 1Co 12, 3ff). Women were already disciples of Jesus, witnesses to his resurrection, entrusted by him with proclaiming it and to this extent “female apostles”; they were missionaries, deaconesses, leaders of local communities and patrons of house communities (Rm16, 1ff). They were prophetesses (Ac 21, 9) and maybe female apostles (Rm16, 7). In this connection a peculiarity of the Greek language is significant, for the Greek word for “apostle” can denote both the male and the female form, just as formerly in the German language “Bürokaufmann” (= office-based businessman) could also mean a woman. so there may well have been female apostles. Linguistically that is possible, but grammar offers no clues to historic fact.

It is very hard to determine how it came about that within just under a century a single male-exercised office coalesced out of a range of offices, services and functions all serving to build up the Body of Christ (1Co 12), assuming initially the supervisory control of the Church, and finally its sole control. But one can indicate two developments that influenced the structural forming of the early Christian communities.

One is the pressure to conform exercised by a (Graeco-Roman) culture into which Christianity had to fit its development. It was a patriarchal society, in which the hierarchical ordering of relations between men and women, freemen and slaves, citizens and outsiders was the guarantee of the stability and functioning of the state. “The assumption that in their inculturation the first Christians adopted the format of the Graeco-Roman world finds support in various of Paul’s letters, in which the contradiction between the principle inherited from Jesus that all humans are equal, and deference towards the highly patriarchal society of the Graeco-Roman world, in plainly evident” (5)

The other is surely also the ambivalence within the Christian communities between their “fidelity” to the praxis of Jesus and their own patriarchal roots. It must be remembered that all the men came from a patriarchal background. Further, very little is known about women’s attitudes; these too, may well have been patriarchally moulded.

However, if one takes as points of comparison our current arguments on partnership, equality and the emancipation of women, one can certainly empathise with that path of development. How difficult “our” men found it, and still find it, to risk a different role distribution, not to mention a division of power. And so it must have been a lot more difficult for people, especially for men, in an era where a pious Jew used to thank God daily for not making him a woman, and where a Greek was convinced of the natural inferiority of women.

No matter how the growing exclusion of women from community functioning was brought about, it was a fact that in this connection an anthropology emerged which has little in common with Jesus’s praxis regarding the equality of women and men and the encouragement of domination-free dealings among his followers.

This anthropology starts with the introduction of the principle of woman’s subjection to man (1Cor 11,3-10; Ep 5,22-6, 9 et al.), first restricted to marriage and family, then soon extended to community organisation where it is expressed in the famed and ominous “Women are to be silent in the Churches” (1Cor 14,34). and even if these words are not Paul’s own, he had already introduced a theological distinction still alive today: the differentiation between the order of grace in Christ which implies the equality of women and men before God and which is to come about in the eschatological dimension, and the order of creation, which is present in the earthly sphere within the existing social structures. and in this there is no question of that equality, rather of the subordination of women to men: “- - so is the husband the head of his wife” (Ep 5,23).

We find a stop being put for the time being to participation by women in community structures in 1 Tim 2, 8-15 (dating from about 100 CE), for here women are definitively barred from teaching: “I am not giving permission for a woman to teach” (2,12a). Nevertheless, 1 Tim adheres to the functions of the community widow (5, 3-16) and the deaconess (3, 11), both of these being ecclesial offices which will have gone by the end of the 6th century. so it took about 70 years for the women of the early Christian communities to be largely ousted from the office, services and functions initially exercised in partnership.

There is no clear affirmation in the New Testament regarding the historical development of the community offices which would answer our question of whether the non-admission of women to the priesthood can be based on Scripture. And one must also answer “no” to the question whether the praxis is “revealed doctrine” for that cannot be sufficiently justified by textual evidence. Rather, if seems to be that the culturally and socially based fact (ie that women were excluded from hierarchical office) in time assumed the character of revealed doctrine and influenced correspondingly the further institutional development of the Church.

But that means that introducing the priesthood of women - in spite of the “tradition argument” - is surely still possible. Rahner, too, writes: “The attitude of Jesus and his apostles can be sufficiently explained by the cultural and social milieu in which they acted, and had to act, as they did, without their attitude needing to have normative importance for all time.”

So as the “tradition argument” is not compellingly sufficient to justify the exclusion of women from ordained ministry we must turn to the “symbolism argument”.

The Symbolism Argument

Here the line of argument is roughly as follows: the role of Christ in the Eucharist can only be expressed sacramentally (as a sign, as a likeness) by a man, for Christ was and remains a man. Thus we are inevitably led to the third point of contention, even more fundamental to the issue - the question of the status and role of women in the Church, and the suspicion that here the old concept of the subservience of woman to man and her inferiority to him seeps through.

Nobody in the Church would maintain (openly) that women are less valuable because of their sex. Vatican II repeatedly stressed that discrimination against women on gender grounds is in fact a sin, and that the full participation of women in the social, economic and cultural life of society must be demanded. Only in the “society” of the Church is that not possible.

It is often very hard for outsiders (just as for insiders) to fathom why this should be so. And suspicions are voiced, maybe not quite unjustly, that the Church either still has not overcome certain notions about the inferiority of women, or that is a matter of sheer clinging to power (which of course entails fighting by any means to hand). For from the sacramental viewpoint there is no proof “that a person acting on behalf of Christ, and to that extent (and indeed not otherwise) acting ”in persona Christi" must of necessity represent him in his masculinity" (Rahner). On could push the analogy to the point of contending that this person would have to be a Jew, since God assumed humanity in a Jew. Nor can the bridal symbolism mentioned above furnish substance (Christ loves the church as his bride; he is the type of the man who loves his wife; for this is clearly culture-specific symbolism, where the active man chooses for his wife a passive woman. That no longer fits in with today’s concept of partnership, where two equivalent and independent persons enter into a relationship.

So we are left with the supposition that the reasoning must be connected with the so-called nature of women and with their sex. The Church has a long tradition of belittling women on account of their sex, starting in the New Testament, where Paul is already placing women ethically and existentially below men (Order of Creation), and where 1Tim attempts to justify his ban on women teaching, precisely by this inferiority. Thus he introduces a view of the nature of women which women have been unable to shake off till our times: Eve was the first to sin, and tempted Adam into sinning. Both the Church Fathers and the Scholastics took up the themes of woman’s subjection to man and of Eve the Temptress, established in his way the idea of inferior woman (even up to the belief that woman is not in the image of God), and laid further foundation for what in time became legally established - that non-enfranchisement of women because of their gender, which ban still exists.

One cannot imply that ecclesiastical pronouncements are intended to perpetuate these discriminatory and derogatory notions on women. Nevertheless, they fail to prove why the Church does not admit women to the priesthood, or explain why it does not give reality within its own life and structures to its own doctrine on equal rights for women.

Quite apart from the fact that women are usually not listened to over many decisions by the ecclesial teaching authority concerning them or their “own” nature and “specific” role, the question arises whether the Church has really grasped that both the fact of men and women being made in God’s image and likeness, and the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ have fundamentally altered, too, the status of women.

And even if the official Church will not accept this, many women experience it as one of the last patriarchal bastions, where superiority and inferiority on gender grounds seem eternal. They see themselves as victims of an ideology embodied in the structure of the Church, allowing them no chance to take part fully in the structures of decision and power. It is really not surprising that many women experience and understand this power structure as being in strict contradiction to the salvific message of the Gospel and the domination-praxis of Jesus. The subject of priestly ordination for women shows up most clearly of all that the Church still has an unsolved problem over the existential equality of woman and man, and their equal entitlement in the orders of grace and creation. So this is by no means a peripheral problem, but a matter which in the last resort concerns the self-awareness of the Church as the People of God. For here it is not just academic chit-chat, here we are dealing with questioning which will help determine the Church’s future.


1) Stimmen der Zeit 195 (1977) 291-301

2) Letter from the German Bishops to all those entrusted by the Church with proclamation (Trier 1967), 12

3) On questions concerning the status of women in church and society (1981).

4) M Brennan: ‘Women and Men in the Service of the Church’, in Concilium 4 (1980) 289

5) op. cit. 290

Translated by Mary Dittrich, June 2000

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