Women Priests: More Needed Than Married Priest

Friday, March 19, 2004



A few weeks ago, I made a comment to a reader that I consider the issue of women's ordination to be the most important issue facing the Church today.

It is more important than the sex abuse scandals. It is more important than gay marriage. It is more important than reuniting with the Orthodox. It is more important than ordaining married men. It is more important than the war in Iraq. It is more important that liturgical reform.

It is simply the most important issue we face in the twenty-first century.

Why is it so important?

His Holiness, Pope John Paul II, addressing the issue in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis stated that the issue is "a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church's divine constitution itself,..."

I agree with him as far as this portion of the statement goes. The issue goes to the very roots of what it means to be a Catholic Christian.

Ordinatio Sacerdotalis went on to state the following:
"I declare that 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."
Is this a solemn and infallible definition?:
"In this case, an act of the ordinary Papal Magisterium, in itself not infallible, witnesses to the infallibility of a doctrine already possessed by the Church."

- Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger's Commentary on the Responsum Ad Dubium

"In the case of a non-defining act, a doctrine is taught infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium of the Bishops dispersed throughout the world who are in communion with the Successor of Peter. Such a doctrine can be confirmed or reaffirmed by the Roman Pontiff, even without recourse to a solemn definition..."

"A similar process can be observed in the more recent teaching regarding the doctrine that priestly ordination is reserved only to men. The Supreme Pontiff, while not wishing to proceed to a dogmatic definition,..."

- CDF Commentary on the Profession of Faith
Contrary to what many conservatives argue, I do not consider the issue to go to the roots of what it means to be Catholic because of an issue of questioning authority or questioning infallibility, as is often assumed.

The Pope is infallible when making solemn papal definitions, and this teaching is no such definition.

The doctrine has not yet been defined solemnly or infallibly defined through any act of extraordinary magisterium, and the Vatican does not claim it has been.

For those who still want to explore or even debate with me the authority of this letter, please read my article Is Ordinatio Sacerdotalis Infallible?

For the remainder of the essay on this page, let's assume that OS is not infallibly defined at this time.

If the issue is not yet defined infallibly, it still may be true. For example, I believe the Church is right to teach that abortion is murder, or that Mary can rightly be called "co-redemptrix".

The Pope may have made the right decision in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis from God's point of view, but the letter itself or the arguments made by the CDF do make this teaching an infallible definition.

At this time in history, we have no infallible guidance, and we can and should consider the issue without appeals to blind obedience to authority. If the argument for the exclusion of women from ministerial priesthood cannot be won without appeal to authority, we need to warn the hierarchy to be careful about making a definition that may be in error, and may even be sinful.

This last point should not be missed. I stated that the exclusion of women from ministerial priesthood may be sinful!

Consider this very carefully with an open mind. Remember, the Church has not yet made an infallible definition, and therefore, we need to rule out the possibility that excluding women from ministerial priesthood could be sinful before we make such an exclusion infallible!

This is why this issue is more important than whether to ordain married men. On the issue of ordaining married men, we already know we can, and we simply chose not to at this time.

However, if we are potentially sinning in excluding women, we need to be careful to avoid elevating an error to near infallibility. If it's not a sin, all questions leading many of us to think it is a sin should be answerable in a clear and coherent way.

In what possible way could excluding women from ministerial priesthood be sinful?

My first reference point would be Guadium et Spes no. 29 which says it is "contrary to God's will" to deny a woman the right to "embrace a state of life". Optatam Totius no. 19 refers to ministerial priesthood as a "state of life".

GS 29 clearly acknowledges that people do not have automatic rights to certain states of life. GS 29 indicates that differences in talents and abilities can and should be considered. However, it is wrong to deny someone the right to a state of life based on gender alone.

Nobody has a right to ministerial priesthood - not even a man. A person needs to be a mature Christian with the necessary character to be a good minister to the community of faith.

However, it may be contrary to God's will to select or exclude priests on the basis of gender alone.

Catholic Christians believe fundamentally that God gives each person a vocation - a calling.

Indeed, we can speak of several callings from God. There is a general call to holiness that we receive in baptism. In specific moments of moral decision making, our calling is to do good and avoid evil. As we approach adulthood, we make a major life-style choice that is referred to as a vocation. In broad categories, people are called to marriage or celibacy.

Before, during or after discerning God's call to marriage or celibacy, we refer to some other large decisions as vocational choices. The choice of a career can be a vocation from God. The choice to have children can be a vocation.

Ordained ministerial priesthood is so deeply associated with vocation that many Catholics understand the question "Do you have a vocation?" to mean nothing less than a calling to priesthood or religious life.

A vocation comes from God and is planted deep in the heart of the individual. The Church helps people discern a vocation, and the Church even affirms vocations that are oriented to the community of faith.

For example, a vocation to marriage is affirmed and actualized in the rite of marriage.

A vocation to ministerial priesthood is affirmed and actualized in the sacrament of ordination at the hands of a bishop.

Yet, the initial calling comes directly from God and is experienced as a desire deep within the heart of the individual.

Some people have desires that seem deep and are not a vocation from God.

It is highly unlikely that a short person has a vocation to play professional basketball. It is highly unlikely that a blind paraplegic is called to be a medical doctor.

Part of the discernment process in recognizing or discovering a vocation is an honest assessment of talents, skills, character and temperament to ensure that our desires are in accord with the function performed by a specific vocational opportunity.

Even if a person's desire is in accord with his or her talents, skills, character and temperament, it may not originate with God. Many people change majors in college, or marry someone other than their first love.

Most of us toy with various desires growing up, and some of those that pass in time were things we could have done well. A vocation differs from these passing desires in that we discern that the desire is strong and persistent.

In this sense, a vocation can be defined as a calling originating in the mystery of God and discerned as a strong and persistent desire to use our natural gifts in the service of God and the others.

The issue of women's ordination is important because there exists women - thousands of them - who claim exactly this.

Most of the women whom I know personally and who claim this experience are nuns or sisters. Some are lay women. Most hold some sort of degree in theology, or are very active in lay ministry. Their ministry speaks to the character and talent they possess.

Many were raised long before Vatican II, and unbeknownst to many conservative Catholic laity, there were women petitioning Rome for women's ordination long before Vatican II.

Saint Teresa of Lisieux wrote in her spiritual journal of her desire to be a ministerial priests, though it is difficult to discern just how strong or persistent this feeling was for her.

Saint Catherine of Sienna wanted to disguise herself as a man to enter the Order of Preachers. That's a pretty strong desire!

In Inter Insigniores, the Vatican acknowledges that such feelings and experiences among women are "noble and understandable", but not sufficient to discern a vocation.

I am asking those who object to women's ordination to simply momentarily consider, what if God is truly placing this desire in these women's hearts?

What if it is God, himself, who is the origin and source of this experience?

If this were true, it would obviously be sinful for any mere mortal human being to stand in the way of the fulfillment of this desire.

It would be just as wrong and sinful as when some Church officials stated that Black people or Native Americans cannot be ordained, even though there were Blacks and Native Americans who had the calling!

Use your imagination for a moment to consider the possibility that the Holy Father's non-infallible opinion expressed in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis is a mistake.

Imagine that the year is 2050, and Pope John Paul III issues an Apostolic Constitution addressed to the entire Church using the first person plural to state that women can be ordained, and for good measure, he ordains a nun.

What would this mean for the Church?

It would mean that we would view Ordinatio Sacerdotalis much like we view popes like Honorius I who made heretical errors (Honorius was a monothelite), bishops and popes who supported slavery, priests who taught that blacks were an inferior race, clerics involved in witch burnings, the inquisitions, those who condemned Galileo, those who sold indulgences, priests involved in the American sex abuse scandal, Church officials who taught explicit anti-semiticism or supported the Nazis, etc....

I don't know about you, but I'm sick and tired of needing to explain to secularist and fundamentalists alike why I remain Catholic despite all the obvious faults of the people running the Church in history.

So, given what it would mean if the Holy Father is wrong on this issue, we should proceed very cautiously on the issue.

Of course, there are those who argue that it is simply inconceivable that the Church could be in error on such an important issue for 2,000 years. There are at least four flaws in this reasoning.

First, the leadership and common belief of the Church has been in error for long periods of time in the past. Slavery is a prime example.

Guadium et Spes clearly calls slavery an offense against human dignity, and the Church condemns slavery today.

However, all the way up to the end of the of the nineteenth century, only the most liberal Catholics were opposed to slavery, and popes and bishops not only defended slavery, but purchased slaves!

Another example is usury. Another is geocentricism. The list could go on and on....

Second, and even more importantly, it simply is not true that there have never been women have never been ordained to ministerial priesthood by validly ordained bishops.

An indisputable case occurred in the life-time of many readers. Validly ordained Bishop, Felix Davidek (1921 - 1988) ordained several women in the year 1970 behind the iron curtain during the days of communism for the purpose of providing ministry to Catholic women in prisons.

This was done prior to the Vatican statements such as Inter Insignores in 1976 or Ordinatio Sacerdotalis in 1994.

Davidek did not act in disobedience, and was unable to communicate openly with the Vatican to ask permission. Necessity lead him to the decision that it was the right thing to do.

Ludmila Javorova is one of the women he ordained, and though she has agreed to cease acting as a priests, she maintains to this day that her ordination was valid.

Nor is this an isolated case in history. Pope Gelasius wrote concerning his knowledge that Italian Bishops were ordaining women in the late fifth century. He ordered them to stop, but did not make any declaration that the ordination that had already taken place were invalid. Nor did he write in any way that can be considered a universally binding decree for all time.

Historians are uncovering evidence that women were likely ordained to ministerial priesthood for at least four centuries in the early church. I treat the historical evidence in some more detail in my Petition to the Holy Father for Women Priests.

Furthermore, Scripture refers to a woman named Junia as an Apostle in Romans 16:7, and bishops derive their authority from Apostolic succession.

Likewise, Phoebe is a deacon in Romans 16:1-2, and the word presbyteress is used in the Greek of 1 Tim 5:1-2. Compared to the same chapter, verse 17, the context implies an ordained ministry.

The Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon, canon 15, provides instruction for the ordination of women to deaconate, and Chapter II of the 23rd Session of the Ecumenical Council of Trent specifies that deaconate and all lower orders (including alter servers) is directed to ministerial priesthood. We even have alter girls today!

The Holy Spirit seems to be saying we can ordain women because we already have ordained them, or put them in positions that are directed to ordained ministry.

Third, even if we reject all historical evidence that women have been ordained, Jesus and the early Apostles never ordained a non-Jew.

The Church is not bound to try to replicate the historical circumstances of the first century in every instance.

Our guiding principle is not "What did Jesus do?", but "What did Jesus intend?" or "What would Jesus do if he were here right now in the flesh?"

Fourth, if the second coming and the last judgment were to occur in the year 10,000 AD, the year 2004 would be considered early Church history, and the Church will survive until the end of time!

For these four reasons, the argument that "this is the way things have always been and we could not have made a mistake for all these years" is simply shown to be false.

If validly ordained Bishops have ordained women in the past, and there are women today who seek to enter this "state of life", and it is contrary to God's will to deny a woman the right to a "state of life" based on gender alone, what is the reason that women cannot be ordained?

Conservatives argue that Jesus was a man, and the ministerial priest acts in the person of Christ, as an image or icon of Christ in Eucharistic worship. Thus, in the sacramental system of sign and symbol, a priest must be a man. Depending on how we interpret this argument, there are one of two flaws.

If the emphasis is placed on the notion of sign and symbol as icon and image, the problem becomes that we are implying that the Eucharist is merely an act of theater - and not a very good one.

If we took this argument to it's logical extreme, only a Jewish male in his mid-thirties could play the role of Christ.

The liturgy is an act of worship, not a play. It may have some theatrical elements, but the purpose of this act of worship is for all of us to become the Body of Christ by receiving the Body of Christ.

Lumen Gentium no. 10 states that there is truly only one priest in the Church - Jesus Christ.

Through Baptism, we all enter into a common priesthood. The ministerial priest is a unique expression of the Baptismal calling that is ordered to the common priesthood. The ministerial priest calls the community together to become what it is by nature of Baptism. The primary role of the ministerial priests is not to be Jesus for us. Rather, the ministerial priest calls us together into our common priesthood so that we all become the Body of Christ together.

The second interpretation of the phrase that a woman cannot act in the person of Christ is actually close to heretical.

There are people who argue that men and women are "ontologically" different, and that a woman is "ontologically" incapable of acting in the person of Christ.

"Ontology" is a fancy word for describing the nature, being, or essence of a thing.

It is the answer to the question, "What is that?"

Men and women are certainly different, but are they two different natures? Or, are they one nature - a human nature?

Through Baptism, we are all conformed to Christ and grafted into his Body and become a common priesthood. Human beings can receive Baptism, but dogs cannot, since dogs are a different ontology.

If a woman cannot be ordained a ministerial priest due to ontology, she should not be baptized, because her nature is as unsuited for conformity with Christ as a dog. She is incapable of being grafted into his Body as a cat. She is as capable of being a priestly person in a common priesthood as a rock.

Since the grace of Baptism is necessary for salvation, the position that a woman is ontologically unsuited for ministerial priesthood ultimately implies she is incapable of being saved!

There are those who argue against women's ordination by saying that the Church is the Bride of Christ, and therefore, the ministerial priest must be male to properly convey this. There are a couple of problems with this argument.

First, of this is true, all males that are not ordained are wives of ordained priests - meaning we have a gay marriage.

Second, the image of the Bride of Christ as it is used in the New Testament always - in every instance - is a symbol of unity that is immediately subsumed and contextualized in the Body of Christ metaphor.

The emphasis on the marriage metaphors is that two become one, as in Genesis, where two become one flesh.

Thus, to use a sign and symbol of unity to sharpen a distinction to the point of division and exclusion is to turn the metaphor on its head!

There are those who argue simply that men and women are different, and that is all that matters.

Men and women are different, and I believe this is all the more reason we need women priests. If women cannot function as priest, we are telling our daughters that they cannot fully imitate Christ, and they cannot fully participate in the Church, and we are symbolically saying women are lesser than men. Men can be like God, but women cannot fully be like God.

In the Book of Genesis, the very first result of the Fall is that inequity is introduced between the sexes. The inequity between the sexes is not the original order of things, and not God's intent. Christ came to redeem humanity. Women's equality represents that the reign of God is close to triumph - the oldest result of the Fall is being overcome, and perhaps the hardest to overcome!

It makes perfect sense that the Christian religion would seek ways to bestow the highest honors on women in counter-action to a fallen sexist world.

In Christ, there is no longer a division or distinction between man and woman (see Gal 3:28). Jesus was known for the way he treated women inclusively, and there is evidence women were ordained and/or acted as ministers in the New Testament. It is time for us to imitate the Master.

Given the fact that the exclusion of women from ministerial priesthood seems to almost certainly be sinful according to GS 29, and the application of theological metaphors to defend this exclusion leads to heretical or silly conclusions, and the historical and scriptural data run counter to Rome's position, it seems abundantly clear that the most important issue facing the Church of the twenty-first century should be correcting this error before we make it worse.

Peace and Blessings!

Readers may contact me at jcecil3@attglobal.net

posted by Jcecil3 4:02 PM

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