Women Priests in the Catholic Church?
On the Ordination of Women, Pt. I
The Catholic Church in the modern world has faced numerous petitions to alter her doctrine in regard to several theological and moral matters. The ordination of women is amongst such petitions, particularly after the Second Vatican Council. Several Protestant religious traditions have authorized women ministers and preachers. Many churches in the Anglican Communion already permit women to serve at the altar. The Catholic Church is virtually alone, with the sole exception of the Eastern Orthodox, in her commitment to an exclusively male priesthood. Despite these realities, the late Holy Father, Pope John Paul II solemnly declared in his apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis “…the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.” Despite the Holy Father’s attempt to reaffirm the Church’s tradition of male-only priests, the question, at least in debate, still remains. Despite the sincerity of advocates for conferring the sacrament of ministerial priesthood on women, theologically and doctrinally it is impossible. Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) too has reiterated that the church teaching regarding women’s ordination is “founded on the written Word of God, and from the beginning constantly preserved and applied in the Tradition of the Church, it has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium.”
It seems that the current debate over women’s ordination cannot be viewed apart from its historical context – at a time, in which the movement for women’s rights in terms of socio-political opportunities in society is animated and enduring. The Papal “No” by Deborah Halter fully brings this point to life. She examines the reasoning of the Church in regard to the sacrament of Holy Orders and attempts to make a case against it. Halter ultimately rejects traditional Christian anthropology and the ontological difference between men and women. Or at the very least, one may argue she dismisses it as irrelevant to the question of priestly ordination. Halter demands that women be elevated from “subordination to ordination.” She finds it dubious that there are “…seven sacraments for a man, but only six for a woman.”
The problem with such an assertion is that it is framed in a contemporary “equal rights” feminist perspective, not a theological perspective. It is definitive Catholic teaching that “no one has a right to receive the sacrament of Holy Orders. Indeed, no one claims this office for himself; he is called to it by God.”
Moreover, such a rejection of the Catholic view of the human person complicates matters because a clear Christian anthropology is related to the sacrament of the priesthood. In some respect, much of the Church’s teaching, if not all of it, is grounded in what she teaches is revealed truth about the nature of the human person and the difference between man and woman in God’s divine plan. Additionally, the debate over ordination begs a more fundamental question: what precisely is a priest? A priest, in Catholic theology, is a man who has received the sacrament of Holy Orders, which is a call by Christ and the gift of “a special grace of the Holy Spirit, so that he may serve as Christ’s instrument for his Church. By ordination one is enabled to act as a representative of Christ, Head of the Church, in his triple office of priest, prophet, and king.” The priest is a sacrament—not just a sign that makes visible the invisible, but a medium by which God confers his grace. The priest acts and exists in persona Christi, that is, “in the Person of Christ.” The priest is, as it were, a stand-in for Jesus Christ, the High Priest described in the Letter to the Hebrews. The priest represents Christ, who Himself was a twofold representative as mediator; Christ is us [man] to God and God to us [man]. Jesus Chris is the ultimate sacrament of God and the priest represents, and is, this sacrament that is Christ Himself.
Sr. Sara Butler in The Catholic Priesthood and Womenpresents the issue of women’s ordination as settled: women cannot properly be ordained to the ministerial priesthood. The heart of her thesis is that the disagreement on the issue of women’s ordination is often a disagreement on the priesthood—whether it is a social or sacramental reality. The “social” understanding is an improper understanding of the priesthood as an office of leadership that women can claim equality with men. This is often the understanding when advocates of women priests refer to the Pope and the Magisterium as the Church “hierarchy.” This view takes little notice of the priesthood as a divinely instituted office of the New Covenant, in which, the priest is a sacrament of Christ, through whom God confers His grace upon the world. Instead, this view sees priestly minister as a “career,” or a type of religious leadership, out of the context of vocation, which in turn leads to a view that the Church’s exclusion of women “is based upon ‘sex’ taboo.” Sr. Butler astutely highlights Pope John Paul II’s teaching on the dignity and vocation of women. She argues there is no special status or power or reign in the priesthood. Rather, priests are the lowliest because they have in a special way taken on Christ’s role as the servant of all—“to reign is to serve.” Sr. Butler emphatically makes the case that reserving ordination for men does “not imply a negative judgment on women” because the Church, regards men and women as equals in Christ, but this does not in any way support the notion that “the equalization of rights requires the identical treatment of women and men.”
The differences between men and women are not the sole reason the Church withholds priestly ordination from women, but it is essential to understanding why women cannot be ordained as priests. If one considers the figure of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Roman Catholicism gives such reverence to her person in relation to her place in the economy of salvation and personal holiness that many Protestants suspect that Catholics worship rather than honor her. Yet despite her status as t he Mother of God, Mary is absent from the table—as is the case of all women—when Jesus instituted the Eucharist (ordaining the Apostles) and does not receive the specific charisms given to the Apostles at the descent of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. From a Catholic perspective, the fact that Mary wasn’t called to the ministerial priesthood does nothing to diminish her feminine dignity of the world of her role in God’s plan of salvation.
C.S. Lewis in his essay Priestesses in the Church makes a case against women’s ordination in the Anglican church on the basis of the difference between men and women and keeping with Christian tradition. Lewis inquires, “Why should a woman not in this sense [as a priest] represent God?…she may be as ‘God-like’ as a man.” Lewis in his answer to his own question suggests that one look at the question the other way around. If one were to say God is Mother instead of Father, or suppose that the Incarnation of God had taken on a female form instead of male, which would mean that the Second Person of the Trinity would be referred to as “the Daughter,” the first instinct, Lewis thinks, is to accept it. At first glance, there seems to be no reason not to. God is not a biological being characterized by gender. However, Lewis argues a more careful consideration leads to the realization that carrying through this imagery would lead to the reversal of the role of Christ as the bridegroom and the Church as the bride, and in the end, one would say this is a “different religion” with its own symbolism and theological context.
More importantly, Lewis emphasizes that there is an objective nature to gender. The idea of manliness and womanliness is not wholly a social construct, but rather, there is a fundamental reality in human nature that makes men and women inherently different. Cultural norms only recognize these differences and translates them into societal gender roles; it is not the vice versa. In Genesis, it is written that “make and female, He created them.” Men and woman are equal as they have the same causation, but as “male and female” they are different.
Lewis’ ideas are expressly consistent with Catholic theological anthropology remarkably expounded upon by Pope John Paul II, after St. Edith Stein’s attempt in harmonizing phenomenology and Thomism, which highlights the difference between men and women. St. Edith Stein in her writings sought to demonstrate that a difference in body constitutes a difference in spirit, that is, the soul is not unisex. The difference in body structures lead men and women to different lived experiences—emotionally, spiritually, intellectually, and so forth. For example, a woman is created—ontologically—for motherhood. Women are created n such a way that gives rise to psychological, spiritual, and emotional characteristics that would be necessary for motherhood; this is true even if a woman has no children, she has still the capacity for maternal love in spiritual motherhood. Obviously from this perspective, a man can never, even with the best imitation, be a mother.
Given the understanding that “manhood” and “womanhood” do not reflect solely the body, but the soul as well, the question of the priesthood can be looked at rather differently.
Jesus of Nazareth, God incarnate, was not just a human, but he was a man. Given this, only a man may properly obtain the sacrament of the priesthood—a sign of God in the flesh, masculinity personified. God, the bridegroom, Who gives and provides for His wife, the Church, the mother, bearer, and nurturer. This, physically and sacramentally, confirms the imagery used throughout all of scripture from God and Israel in the Old Testament to Christ and the Church in the New Testament.
It is agreed that Jesus chose only men to be His Apostles. Had he wanted women apostles, He would have chosen them. Otherwise, Lewis argues, one would have to make the absurd case that God Himself was restrained from a necessary, perhaps even just, action because of cultural taboos despite the fact that Jesus lived a countercultural life. In fact, no time favored the creation of women priests more, as a great number of pagan religions had priestesses and it would have been perfectly normal, perhaps, even natural for Jesus to choose women—the Gentiles surely would not have objected, if the Jews did. There were prophetesses in the Old Testament. Why not priestesses?
Lewis eloquently points to an often forgotten fact. Christians do not call God “Father” because of the influence from a patriarchal, anti-women society. God Himself became incarnate and taught us to call Him “our Father.” God the Son chose the image of “son” to describe Himself. God has chosen how man should speak to Him and of Him. This is consequential; moreover, it is from the priestly traditions of the Old Testament that God would create His new ministerial priesthood. From Lewis’ perspective, which would indicate also the Catholic position, to dismiss Christian anthropology— literally the symbolism used in Scripture and written all over the human person—is irrational. Ultimately, the argument in favor of women’s ordination reduces the scriptures in their richness. One must argue that the nuptial imagery of notion of gender roles are not inspired, but of human origin, or at best, arbitrary and unessential. This is not an acceptable Christian view.
In many ways, the argument in favor of women’s ordination must dismiss scriptural authority by reducing biblical text to writings that assist man in attaining salvation, but despite its divine inspiration, majorly lacks in a comprehensive view of the human person because the authors at the time could not possibly have a coherent view of the human person without the scientific understanding and historical criticism available today. Christian tradition, as follows, is nothing more than a mere continuity of this tragic, flawed way of thinking, thus it must be reserved. The two sources of Divine Revelation—Scripture and Tradition—are entirely trustworthy and both inaccurate on the matter. Therefore, the argument is self-defeating.
In the end, the argument in favor of the ordination of women is an argument against Christianity. The Holy Spirit has not been with the Church for the last two thousand years because the Church has taught falsehood and deception about the sacraments, about the nature of man, and what God has revealed. If this is true then, any advocate of women’s ordination is misplacing their efforts. If their case is true, why should Catholics make women priests instead of work to abolish Christianity?