The latent Tradition, throughout the centuries, that implied the possibility of women being ordained to the priesthood
The Church has always believed that its true Tradition is not fully expressed in external statements or practices. Tradition also contains the gospel which our Lord did not write, but taught by word of mouth and implanted in peoples hearts, and part of which the evangelists later wrote down, while much was simply entrusted to the hearts of the faithful (Joseph Ratzinger, On the Interpretation of the Tridentine Decree on Tradition, in Revelation and Tradition, by K. Rahner and J. Ratzinger, Burns & Oates, London 1966, pp. 50-68.) This Tradition is known as the Gospel in the Heart.
It is my contention that, throughout the centuries, Catholics have known, in their heart of hearts and in the marrow of their bones, that women are equal before God and that there cannot be a fundamental objection to the ordination of women to the priesthood. This inner conviction was the sensus fidelium, the Christian sense of faith, the mind of the Church: Ecclesiae Catholicae sensus, or sometimes consensus Ecclesiae, remembering that in these last expressions Church stands for the whole community of believers.
It is important here to note about Latent Tradition:
- Such an inner truth may not be explicitly recognised for a long time. Cardinal Newman called it the reality and permanence of inward knowledge, as distinct from explicit confession. The absence, or partial absence, or incompleteness of dogmatic statements is no proof of the absence of impressions or implicit judgments, in the mind of the Church. Even centuries might pass without the formal expression of a truth, which had been all along the secret life of millions of faithful souls.
- The inner truth goes through the typical development of a living seed. Tradition is living because it is carried by living mindsminds living in time. These minds meet with problems or acquire resources, in time, which lead them to endow Tradition, or the truth it contains, with the reactions and characteristics of a living thing: adaptation, reaction, growth and fruitfulness. Tradition is living because it resides in minds that live by it, in a history which comprises activity, problems, doubts, opposition, new contributions, and questions that need answering (Johann Möhler).
- Tradition is the Churchs growing awareness. Its role in the Church is similar to that played by awareness in a persons life: comprehension and memory, gauge of identity, instinct of what is fitting, witness and expression of personality. This awareness, however, is special, because the awareness comes from Christ. It holds data it has received as a deposit.
Read more about this in Latent Tradition!
As we examine the history of the Church -- our history as Christ's believing community --, we discover, underneath the cultural opposition against women priests, a constant awareness that ran counter to the officially sanctioned social and cultural ideas. This awareness of women's capability of Holy Orders has manifested itself in a number of ways:
- Throughout the centuries the faithful have had a devotion to Mary as priest. They intuitively saw, with their Catholic sense, that Mary shared in Jesus' priesthood more than anyone else. Implicitly it contained the strong, but usually unspoken conviction, that Mary, though a woman, could easily have been ordained a priest, as much as any man. At times this conviction is expressed explicitly. See here a full overview of documents on Mary Priest on this web site.
- There have been isolated cases of women having been ordained priests, especially in the South of Italy. As an historian of Christian antiquity, I need to emphasize that the tradition of the first five to six centuries has not been so unanimous in condemning the female priesthood as is usually held (George Otranto; read Otranto's article with introduction by Dr. Mary Ann Rossi or (in shorter form) Otranto's lecture).
- For many centuries St Mary Magdalen was venerated as a woman saint who had preached (something presumed to be the sole privilege of priests) and who had even taught the apostles the correct doctrine when they went astray.
- All sacraments are administered in the name of Christ. But women administer both the sacrament of baptism and marriage.
- Throughout the centuries outstanding women have testified to their awareness of their equality in Christ, implying also a full share in Christ's sacramental priesthood.
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