During John Paul II’s visit to the United States for World Youth Day, a television reporter interviewed a 14-year-old Catholic girl who was boarding a bus bound for Denver to see the Holy Father. After being asked what she thought of the spiritual leader, the young girl replied, “I think he’s really great, but I disagree with his opinion that women can’t be priests.”
I couldn’t help but wonder what sources had influenced this young Catholic to form her views about this papal “opinion.” Had she actually read the documents issued by the pastor of the universal Church?
Despite the Pope’s injunction that women’s ordination is a non-issue for the Church and the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s recent responsum ad dubium reiterating that the Church’s teaching is to be definitively held by Catholics, it remains as one of the constant benchmarks by which feminists measure progress. Let’s lay out some of the leading propositions favoring the ordination of women and examine them in the light of Scripture, reason, and official magisterial teachings.
Proposition: “Those who support women’s ordination are acting in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council.”
Contrary to popular belief, Vatican II did not support the cause for ordaining women. While many positive statements about equality and the role of female gifts in the Church were made (especially in Gaudium et Spes) no change, explicit or implicit, was made to this effect.
Pope Paul VI (during a May, 1976, consistory in Rome) identified a “polarization” in the Church brought about by individuals who have misinterpreted the message of Vatican II.
He called it a cause of “deep sorrow” that some who “mistakenly believing they are continuing along the lines of the Council, have put themselves in a position of preconceived and sometimes irreducible criticism of the Church and her institutions.”
Included in the list of mistaken critics are “those who believe themselves authorized to create their own liturgy,” “those who minimize the doctrinal teaching in catechetics or distort it according to the preference of the interests, pressures or needs of people,” “those who pretend to ignore the living tradition of the Church, from the Fathers to the teachings of the magisterium, and reinterpret the doctrine of the Church, and the gospel itself,” and “those who interpret theological life as the organization of a society here below, reducing it indeed to a political action [which confuses] the transcendent message of Christ with ideologies which negate this message.”
While Paul VI did not specifically mention ordination in this brief letter, within a matter of months (January 27, 1977) a papally-mandated Vatican declaration was promulgated through the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; it reaffirmed the tradition of a male-only priesthood ( Declaration on the Question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood, 1977).
Proposition: “The Church has no theological grounds for refusing to ordain women.”
The fact that individual theologians may disagree with the grounds the Church uses to explain the male-only clergy is another issue altogether. Church arguments are based on the historical events of the Church, the apostolic teachings, a Sacred Tradition which has never acknowledged a valid female ordination, the “maleness” of Christ, and scriptural references from both testaments.
Catholic writer Michael Novak has written a moving and thoughtful article on the Church’s need to further clarify and articulate the theology which maintains a male-only priesthood ( First Things, April 1993, 25-32). He points out that “the theological reasons for the reservation of the Catholic priesthood to males have lain dormant and unarticulated over many centuries,” mainly because, like so many theological questions, the doctrine was never challenged.
Novak correctly noted that this issue did not even arise at the Second Vatican Council. Rather, it is the result of recent attitudinal changes in Western culture. The main question, according to Novak, is whether the Church, which at many times in its history was called to be “countercultural,” even has the authority to give in to the dominating secular culture on this issue.
Proposition: “Historically there is evidence of female ordination in the early Church, as seen in the gnostic sects that were discredited by the so-called ‘orthodox’ groups.”
It is certainly true that some early gnostic (meaning “special knowledge”) groups favored a more active role for women. Feminist theologians such as Rosemary Radford Ruether point to these groups and proclaim that they offered women greater status before “patriarchal” orthodoxy discredited the gnostic believers.
But two important points must be noted. First, the questionable beliefs of gnostic groups also included dangerous Christological errors (such as a “Jesus” who never had a physical body. Second, while Ruether points to gnostic texts which seem to support feminist causes, she ignores other gnostic texts which state that “women are not worthy of life” and “must become male” in order to reach heaven (the Gospel of Thomas). Overall, the gnostic texts are recognized as a mixed bag of speculative theological teachings and damaging heresies, the latter being rooted out by early Church leaders.
Proposition: “The apostolic teachings, as well as arguments based on the maleness of Christ, are evidence of a culture-bound religious setting almost 2,000 years old. Jesus and his followers were subjects of their culture.”
To bind Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity, with cultural constraints is historically and theologically inept. As the 1977 Declaration (nos. 3, 4) points out, Jesus often broke with religious and societal convention: He converses with a Samaritan woman (John 4:27), pardons a woman caught in adultery and indicates that a man is equally guilty in sins of lust (John 8:11), and departs from the “unbreakable” Mosaic law concerning the rights and duties of both sexes in marriage (Mark 10:2-11). Jesus surrounds himself with women in his ministry and even appears first to women after his Resurrection.
Despite these and other examples of breaking with prejudices and discriminations of his own time concerning women, Jesus appoints only males to serve as the twelve apostles in his ministry. This was a freely made decision on Christ’s part, as he was not constrained by culture or convention. The Declaration (no. 2) recalls Pope Innocent III’s thirteenth-century teaching: “Although the Blessed Virgin Mary surpassed in dignity and in excellence all the apostles, nevertheless it was not to her but to them that the Lord entrusted the keys of the kingdom of heaven.”
Proposition: “But scripturally, Paul states in Galatians 3:28 that there is no more distinction ‘between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, but all are one in Christ Jesus.'<|”
The Church has consistently interpreted this passage to be an essential truth of the salvation message of Christianity. As the Declaration (no. 6) points out, “This passage does not concern ministries: It only affirms the universal calling to divine filiation, which is the same for all.”
In a similar way, part of the remarkable teaching of Jesus centers around baptism as a sign of covenant for all people. This is in marked contrast to the Jewish custom which it replaced-circumcision of the male, whereby a man’s entire family was dedicated to God through a patriarchal show of faith.
Proposition: “The maleness of Christ is not a necessary component of God’s plan of salvation.”
Although some feminist theologians have argued that since Jesus represented all of humanity, he must have been either sexually androgynous or neuter, orthodox Christology has always maintained that Jesus was “fully human.” Furthermore, the prophetic tradition inherited from the Old Testament looks specifically for a male Savior from the house of David (“For to us a child is born, a son is given . . . He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom,” Is. 9:6-7).
Scriptural imagery from the Song of Songs to Revelation presents a nuptial theme of bridegroom (Christ) and his bride (the Church). The “bridegroom,” according to the New Testament writers, has been revealed as Christ (Eph. 5:23-32). The Declaration (no. 5) states that “In the exercise of his ministry of salvation . . . his role must be taken by a man” who is acting ” in persona Christi” (in the person of Christ). Christ, the God-man mediator, was prophesied as being male and, in fact, was born, suffered, died, and was raised in male form.
Proposition: “The concept of revelation is antiquated, and revelation is seen as an ‘ongoing’ process after Vatican II.”
This is clearly a false notion. The teaching of the First Vatican Council (that revelation ended with the death of the last apostle) was supported by Vatican II. Some modification did take place in Dei Verbum (the conciliar declaration on divine revelation), but this stressed the coequal weight of Scripture and Tradition as “a single sacred deposit.” The Council also stated that this deposit can only be authentically interpreted only by the teaching office of the Church (the magisterium). While there may be a deepening of understanding about the deposit of revelation, there is no “new” revelation.
Proposition: “Women are ordained in other Christian churches, so the Catholic Church should do likewise.”
Neither of the two oldest traditions (Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy) permit the ordination of women. Unlike the Protestant churches, these traditions have maintained a total sacramental system in which the theology of ordination is a central part.
Sacramental theology teaches that a grace-giving sacrament instituted by Christ must be carried out the way Christ intended it-this is considered “essential and normative” for the Church.
Most Protestant churches have entirely rejected the sacramental system of Rome and the Eastern churches and, as a result, have rejected a sacrificing priesthood as well. Instead, they ordain “ministers,” a role very different from that of priest. Ministers do not act in the person of Christ and make no claim to do so. Furthermore, not all Protestant churches ordain women.
For example, Evangelical teaching relies heavily on Paul’s letter to Timothy concerning instructions on worship (“I do not permit a woman to have teaching authority over a man” [1 Tim. 2:1].). By the way, this passage is not presented by the Vatican as a “proof” against ordaining women.
Proposition: “The Christian concepts of justice, equality, and dignity apply to men and women and therefore support the idea of females in the priesthood.”
Justice and equality are not identical. Justice is “giving a person his due” and can be taken either negatively (punishment) or positively (reward). While all persons must be treated “justly,” they need not be treated “equally”-if for no other reason than because each has different potential and capabilities.
As a teacher I cannot give a student who has an average grade of 65 percent the same “A” for a course that I would give a student who has an average of 95 percent. Both students get what they deserve (justice) but not the same grade (equality). For his part God shows favor to certain individuals (Jacob, Mary, John “the beloved disciple”) in ways that are beyond the understanding of creatures.
In terms of male and female identities, the Declaration (no. 5) stresses the different gifts, talents, and contributions of the two sexes. Beyond the obvious physical differences, men and women are seen as different but complementary expressions of the one human nature. The equality affirmed at Vatican II in Gaudium et Spes and Pope John Paul II’s 1988 apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem (On the Dignity and Vocation of Women) denies the premise that men and women are interchangeable in every.aspect of their existence. Instead, Christian equality is based on the “equality of dignity” of both sexes.
In preserving the uniqueness of the sexes (an idea which is increasingly rare and “politically incorrect” in today’s social climate), the introduction to the Declaration supports a view of equality that will “secure the building up of a world that is not leveled out and uniform but harmonious and unified, if men and women contribute to it their own resources and dynamism.”
The Vatican document points to the differences between the sexes as being much deeper than differences of ethnicity or race (which are not factors in ordination). Sexual differences go beyond those of mere biology and represent the primary division of characteristics between human beings.
Proposition: “If a woman feels ‘called,’ she should have a right to be ordained a priest. This is the only way that women can gain entrance to the hierarchy of the Church.”
The Church has consistently taught that not everyone who feels “called” to a vocation in the priesthood must be ordained ( Declaration, no. 6). It is within the Church’s authority to discern the veracity of a calling. There is no inherent “right” to ordination. There is no “due.” Thus there is no justice denied. Biblically speaking, Christ “called to him those he wanted” (Mark 3:13). Following the Ascension, it was the Church that received the duty of authenticating and validating vocations to the priesthood. Even the great apostle Paul, who received a special revelation and direct calling from Jesus, had to have that calling verified by the leaders of the Church.
A “calling” to ministerial service should not confuse the specific sacramental priesthood (acting vicariously for Christ on earth) with the “royal priesthood” incumbent on all the baptized who must serve and glorify God (1 Pet. 2:9). It is this second type of priesthood which can and must be carried out by all Christians according to their abilities.
If becoming a priest is seen primarily as an entrance into hierarchical power, then the words of the Declaration (no. 6) have an even more solemn warning: “The priestly office cannot become the goal of social advancement; no merely human progress of society or of the individual can of itself give access to it; it is of another order.”
The issue of service to Christ and the issue of governance are two separate items. It has been stated often enough that the Church is not a democracy. Doctrine, truth, and revelation are not voted upon as one would vote on a local school tax. “It must not be forgotten,” states the Declaration (no. 6), “that the priesthood does not form part of the rights of the individual, but stems from the economy of the mystery of Christ and the church.”
Proposition: “Catholics sincerely interested in women’s rights should support women’s ordination.”
There are two approaches to feminist concerns for the Catholic. One way is to look at the secular world’s views on feminist concerns and then try to impose these ideals on the Church-even if this requires opposing legitimate episcopal authority. This position is exemplified by a statement made in 1992 by Ruth Fitzpatrick of the Women’s Ordination Conference. When the U. S. Bishops issued “Called to be One in Christ” (affirming John Paul II’s position of a male-only clergy as a “tradition which witnesses to the mind of Christ and is therefore normative”) Fitzpatrick responded strongly.
“This is unacceptable,” Fitzpatrick said. “Women are called by God to minister fully in the Roman Catholic Church. If they [the bishops] can’t say that, they should say nothing.” In other words, if the Pope and the bishops don’t agree with Fitzpatrick’s views, then the pastors of the Church should make no pronouncements at all on the matter.
Pope Paul’s 1976 letter on polarizing elements in the Church warned about the type of ecclesio-political mentality fostered by Fitzpatrick. The Holy Father had written: “Such Christians are not very numerous, it is true, but they make much noise, believing too easily that they are in a position to interpret the needs of the entire Christian people or the irreversible direction of history.”
The second way of looking at feminist concerns for the Catholic is to be inspired by the magisterium of the Church and reflect on what being a woman means in the light of Church teaching.
As Mary Ellen Bork stated at the Wethersfield Institute’s conference on “The Catholic Woman” (1990), “[Feminists] present Catholic women with a serious challenge: to seek a more profound understanding of Catholic teaching on women and articulate it well to a culture vastly confused about women’s roles. By reflecting on the faith view of women expressed in sacred Scripture, papal documents, and in our own lives, we will persuade women of our day that there is a better way.”