31 August 2010

On the impossibility of women's ordination in the RCC

Given that a tiny group of ecclesial dinosaurs here in the U.K. are plastering London buses with pro-WO ads, I thought it might be time to revisit the issue in some detail.

Below is a piece I posted back in 2008 at the request of a young Dominican friar who was asked about the Church's teaching on the impossibility of women's ordination to the Catholic priesthood.

It's long, but I promised detail, right?!


First, notice the origin and ground of the objections. All of them are based on one or more of the following mistakes:

a) Priesthood is about power
b) "Access" to the priesthood is about rights and justice
c) The "exclusion" of women from the priesthood denies humanity of women. . .
d) . . .and it denies their proper place as potential "Christs for others"
e) All exercises of Church authority are excluding
f) Tradition is always about male privilege
g) Women would make better priests because of their natural empathy and compassion
h) Jesus' exclusion of women from the priesthood was culturally based and therefore reformable
i) Scripture is silent on the nature of the priesthood b/c it is a third century invention of males
j). Women report feeling called to the ordained priesthood, therefore the Church ought to ordain them.

Let's answer (briefly) each in turn.

Priesthood is about power. No, it's not. Priesthood in the Catholic Church is about service. Do priests often mistake their office of service as a privilege in the use of power? Yup. But that's an abuse of the office and in no way changes the actual nature of the office. Men are ordered to Christ, Head of the Church, to serve his people as he did: sacrificially in leadership. When supporters of women's ordination (WO) claim that women must be allowed to share in the governance of the Church as priests, they mistake the office for a political one.

"Access" to the priesthood is about rights and justice. Wrong again. The only right a Catholic has as a Catholic in the Church is the right and duty to serve others. Justice is getting what one deserves. No one--not even men--"deserve" to be ordained, to serve as ordained priests. To claim that ordination is a right is bizarre given that men are called by God and confirmed by the Church to be priests. This use of democratic rhetoric is attractive but misplaced. You cannot be the subject of an injustice if you have no right to that which you have been denied. I am not being treated unjustly b/c I cannot vote for the next Italian presidential election. 

The "exclusion" of women from the priesthood denies their humanity. In fact, the Church's teaching on ordination reaffirms the humanity of women by clearly laying out what it means to be human, male and female. To be fully human as a creature is to submit one's will to the will of our Creator and cooperate with His grace to achieve our perfection AS men and women; that is, I am perfected as a male creature. My mother is perfected as a female creature. Often this objection is rooted in a modernist notion that one's sex is socially constructed. We are MADE male and female by our Creator and not pieced together sexually by social forces.

The "exclusion of women from the priesthood denies their proper place as potential "Christs for others." This would be true if the only means of being Christs for others was to be a priest. Fortunately, our Lord had to foresight to make sure that there were other means of becoming the sons and daughters of the Father in His service for others. Ordination is one way that some men are called by God and confirmed by the Church to "work out" their salvation. No one is denied their perfection in Christ b/c they are not priests. All the baptized serve the Father by being priests, offering themselves in sacrifice for others.

All exercises of Church authority are excluding. Wrong. If an exercise of Church authority excludes, it does so in order to liberate through a declaration of the truth of the faith., thus including everyone in the knowledge of truth. To be excluded is not in and of itself an injustice or a violation of human dignity. There are many perfectly beautiful options open to all Christians to which I am excluded in virtue of my ordination, e.g. marriage and biological fatherhood. In the case of WO, the Church has used her authority to recognize a limit of her own power. In effect, the Church has recognized that she is excluded from considering the ordination of women.

Tradition is always about male privilege. Tradition has certainly been misused to prop up abusive practices that privilege males. That we have seen these abuses in no way changes the fact that Tradition is the handing on of a living faith, the "living faith of the dead." The faith of the Church never changes. It cannot change. Our understanding of the faith can and does change. However, WO is not a change in understanding but a radical revision of some of the most basic threads of the Christian narrative. To alter these threads does more than "open the priesthood," it unravels the faith whole clothe.

Women would make better priests. I concede this readily. But we have to be clear about what we mean by "better priests." The objection assumes that the vocation of the priest is simply about empathy and compassion. It's not. Sometimes what the priest must do is show firmness, rectitude, and unwavering direction. . .even if empathy and compassion seem to be set aside in doing so. If the only vocation of the priest were to be empathetic or compassionate, then women should be ordained. However, as we have seen in the Episcopal Church and the Church of England, women priests and bishops (at least for now) seem to be more inclined to the destruction of the living faith than its preservation. Each time a stone in the catholic faith has been removed by female clergy and their male supporters in these ecclesial communities, it has been removed on the grounds of justice, rights, empathy, and compassion--all understood in strictly secular terms. The results have been disastrous.

Jesus' "exclusion" of women from the priest was culturally based and therefore reformable. This objection assumes as true a number of false premises. First, it assumes that Jesus was not who he clearly said he was and is: God. God is not constrained by cultural prejudices. Second, it assumes that Jesus was disinclined to break social taboos. In fact, he broke any number of cultural taboos in teaching and preaching the Good News, causing a great deal of scandal. Why not break the taboo against women as priests/rabbis? Third, this objection also assumes that cultural change should guide Church teaching. Cultural change should and often does guide our understanding and application of the faith in the world, but the world is irrelevant when it comes to determining the content of our faith. A danger for WO supporters here is that the way they understand many of the Church's cherished social justice positions are undermined by this objection to the Church's teaching. If we can alter the faith to follow cultural change and ordain women, why can't we examine many of Jesus' legitimate justice teachings in the same light and alter them as well? Maybe our modern culture and social norms should be used to override the historical Christian concern for the poor. Surely, the recent collapse of the economy can be blamed in part on a misplaced concern for the poor and homeless.

Scripture is silent on the nature of the priesthood. This is a particularly odd objection for faithful Catholics to be making. It is largely a Reformation objection and ignores volumes of Patristic teaching on the origins and development of Christian priesthood. It is simply false to say that the Catholic priesthood is an third or fourth century invention. There are elements of the priesthood as it is enacted in the world that came about in later centuries, but the core nature of the priesthood was infallibly established at the Last Supper when Christ commissioned his apostles and friends as those who would lead the community in prayer and the breaking of the bread, to "do this in memory of me." He had every opportunity to include women in this moment, but he didn't. The key here is to understand that the Last Supper was a Passover meal, a family meal, one that reinforced the bonds of paternal authority in the ancient Jewish tradition. of liberation from slavery. Even with women present at a Jewish Passover, the men are commissioned to perform the rite. Does this mean that women are excluded from the liberation Moses brought and the Passover celebrates? Hardly.

Women feel called to the priesthood. In the paragraph directly below this one I note that all of the objections to the Church's teaching on WO are rooted in modernist, feminist ideology. This objection is a perfect example. What this objection assumes is that the call to priesthood is a subjective experience immediately deserving a positive response from the Church. What can be more modernist than the triumph of personal experience over objective truth. The truth of the matter is that the call to priesthood comes from God through the Church, who is the Body of Christ. To say that a particular person (male or female) receives a call outside the Church assumes that Christ speaks to a member of his Body from outside his Body. However, all calls to serve the Body come through the Church and are therefore verifiable by the Church. Most of us believe we are called to all sorts of vocations for which we do not have the requisite gifts or authentic vocation. I feel called to be a regularly published poet, yet my poetry is regularly rejected. The poetry community (i.e., the Church of Verse) regularly rejects my claims to being a poet. Years of personal experience, strong conviction, earnest effort, and multiple academic degrees cannot make up for the lack of consent by the poetry community to my alleged call. I can call myself a poet. I can rail against the perceived injustice of not being regularly published. I can even accuse my tormenters of bias, hatred, and lack of taste. I'm still not a poet. Think for a moment of the implications if the Church bowed to the "I feel called to priesthood" objection and answered these claims positively. On what grounds could we reject anyone from the ordained ministry? My application to be made a postulant for ordination in the Episcopal Church was rejected. Had the vestry of my parish not done their job of proper discernment and oversight, I would be an Episcopalian priest right now. Thank God they listened to the Holy Spirit!

It is important for faithful Catholics to understand how many of these objections are based on modernist, feminist theories of justice, gender, the social construction of reality, and postmodern identity politics. None of which have a place in the faith of good Catholics. All are deeply rooted in 19th and 20th century liberal democratic ideas about freedom, liberty, and rights. None of them pull from the tradition of the Church or her ancient philosophy and theology. None of them are scriptural or magisterial. I have yet to read a single objection to the Church's infallible teaching against WO that does not rely exclusively on ideas and argument entirely alien to our faith. The canonical objections I've read are little more than legalistic sophistry and grounded in a "hermeneutic of suspicion" that starts with an antagonistic attitude toward truth and quickly devolves into relativism and subjectivism--little more than minute loopholes.

Probably the best book on this subject was written by Sr. Sara Butler, MSBT, The Catholic Priesthood and Women: A Guide to the Teaching of the Church, Sr. Sara started her life as a religious as a supporter of WO and has since looked carefully at the scriptural, tradition, magisterial, and archeological evidence for that position and changed her mind. This book does a much better job of defending the Church's teaching than I ever could, and I highly recommend it.

It is vitally important that women understand that the Church's lack of authority to ordain them to the priesthood is not based on the notion that they are inferior or damaged or in any way "less than men." Yes, some medieval theologians, including Thomas Aquinas, put forward certain metaphysical explanations for an all-male priesthood that few of us will applaud now. But these are merely explanations of any already existing teaching and their dubious nature in no way detracts from the truth of the faith. In other words, Aquinas, et al did not invent the all-male priesthood based on medieval notions of biology and metaphysics. They took up the question in light of the sacaramental theology then current and the already existing reality of the all-malle priesthood and attempted to explain the truth of the priesthood in the light they had. Demolishing Aquinas' argument for the all-male priesthood does not demolish the Church's infallible teaching against WO.

A note on the question of the infalliablity of Pope John Paul II's document, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis. This 1994 document was issued by the Holy Father in order to settle forever the question of whether or not the Church has the authority to ordain women. Drawing on scripture, tradition, and centuries of papal magisterial teaching, he concluded that the Church does not have the power to ordain women. It is very important to understand that the Pope did not say that the Church will not ordain women or that the Church does not feel like ordaining women. He wrote: "I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women. . ." The Church CANNOT ordain women. The Church also cannot declare that Jesus is not the Savior. The Church cannot declare that Mary was not the mother of Jesus, etc. In other words, the failure of the Church to ordain women is not based on a lack of will or inclination or patriarchal prejudice. If every bishop in the Church, including the Pope, laid hands on a woman, performing the entire sacrament of ordination on her in St Peter's Bascilica in front of the College of Cardinal with their wild applauses, she would still be a laywoman. And she would be a laywoman if every Catholic in the world believed that she was a priest.

Is this teaching infallible? Yes, it is. The Pope wrote in full: "Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church's divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Luke 22:32) 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."

Now, some theologians claim that this teaching is not infallible. They want to make a fine distinction between the content of the teaching and this declaration of the teaching. They want to say that OS itself is not infallible; in other words, they want us to believe that the Pope's declaration that the teaching is infallible is not itself infallible. This is typical modernist sophistry and a confusion of terms. All the Pope did in this document is repeat an ancient truth: women cannot be ordained. This is not new. Imagine the Pope issuing a document tomorrow declaring that Jesus is the Messiah. Such a document would be pointless because the Church has always believed this. There is no need for an infallible teaching on the question. How odd would it be then for some theologians to assert that the document is not infallible when it asserts that the teaching that Jesus is the Messiah is infallible. Simply bizarre.

Reread the highlighted phrases above. Those are the words required for an infallible teaching. Period. OS as a document, OS per se does not have to be infallible, just as a document declaring Jesus as the Messiah would not have to be infallible. The content of the teaching is without error regardless of the magisterial/canonical status of the document. What the supporters of WO want us to believe is that the Pope is not interpreting the ancient teaching correctly. That he is merely repeating what has always been the case in the Church seems to be irrelevant to them. It seems odd to me that the Pope would issue this document "so that all doubt might be removed" and then have some claim that he did so in order to set the stage for future women's ordinations! We had a professor in my seminary who taught exactly that. Fortunately, none of us fell for the deception.

Fr. Joseph Fitzmeyer, quoting a supporter of WO, Rev. Herman Pottmeyer, "According to Pottmeyer, 'O.S. is an instance of ordinary (i.e., non-infallible) magisterium, declaring that the church’s unbroken tradition with regard to ordination is irreformable.' In saying this, he may be right, even though the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith subsequently explained that the doctrine about women’s ordination belongs to the deposit of faith and has been constantly held in the church’s tradition and infallibly set forth by the ordinary and universal magisterium." Fr. Fitzmeyer concludes his critique of Rev. Pottmeyer, "Pope John Paul II stated in O.S. that 'the church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women' (No. 4). He did not mean that 'he could not himself change tradition in this matter.' He spoke rather of Ecclesiam facultatem nullatenus habere. If it is so, that the church has no ability to change it, then the Pope cannot invite everyone to prayer and dialogue as he would summon 'a council to make a final decision.' If 'the church' cannot do it, then a council cannot do it, no matter what 'signs of the times' may be or what 'faithfulness to Jesus' might seem to call for in Pottmeyer’s estimation."

Best book on the history and theology of the Church's teaching authority: Magisterium: Teacher and Guardian of the Faith, Cardinal Avery Dulles, SJ.

This link from the USCCB helps to clarify a number of issues.

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  1. If God Had Wanted Women Priests
    If God had wanted women to be priests and bishops,
    He would have made a woman
    the means of His Incarnation,
    the agent of the first manifestation
    of His Real Presence
    in Body and Blood.

    Oh, wait...

    This is from Tobias Haller's blog, in a Godward Direction. I'd like you to address his post on 8/14/10. http://jintoku.blogspot.com/2010/08/wo-is-me.html

  2. Those interested in a more...uh...robust defense on the Church's teaching on this matter would do well to consult Women Priests and Other Fantasies by Fr. Vincent Miceli, SJ.

  3. I'm not sure why God wanting to manifest Himself requires that He do so through a woman. . .

    Besides, priests don't manifest Christ, they are "in the person of Christ, the Head of the Church."

  4. Also, the Eucharist is not merely (if I may use that word here) Christ's Body and Blood incarnate as such, but His Body and Blood as offered for us on the Cross.

    It was not by His incarnation but by His death that Jesus instituted the Eucharist.

  5. maryclare9:05 AM

    Dear Fr.P,
    I think the important word is 'IF'... Both you and Faith are 'singing from the same hymn sheet' i.e. that it is clear that God did/does not want women priests therefore.
    Great post by the way.
    Regards maryclare :-)

  6. Regarding Tobias Haller's thought pattern, it seems to me that it's abundantly clear that the priest is not the mother, with the child in her womb, the priest IS the child in the womb. That's where Haller's logic fails.

  7. Anonymous10:49 AM

    I'd argue that it's a myth that women are necessarily more empathic and compassionate. As many women would confirm, when women get to leadership positions, it's not uncommon for them to portray a caricature of men, with a penchant for coldness and ruthlessness. Bishop Shori, in her relentless pursuit to form a new church in her own likeness and image, comes to mind...

    Regardless, vocations from God are not solely an intimate and personal call, but a solemn and public one in the Church, be it for marriage or for ordination or for religious life. Therefore, they are confirmed by the Church and by the faithful, in this order. Therefore, the Church has confirmed that no woman has a true vocation by God to be a priest.

    If even St. Therese didn't become a priest just because she fancied it once, why would old bats?

  8. dear fr. Philip, interesting post. i would be interested in the opposite question too: why are only men ordained priest? where does this bond between priesthood and malehood come from? are there theological reasons apart from traditon?

  9. fragranceofgod12:47 PM

    Very clear explanation, thank you!

  10. Well done, Father. Why don't we ever hear these reasonable arguments from the pulpit? More Catholics need to hear this.

  11. Thankyou for this Fr..would you mind adding my new blog to your links please?

  12. Anonymous11:56 AM

    But male and female are not a biological binary, so any theology based on this binary notion has to be flawed.

    XX and XY are not the sole determiners, would you ordain someone who is XY but appears female? Which controls? or who is not XY but appears male?

    The doctrine will fall because sex in humans is not a clear binary condition.

    But that's for another century, I'm sure, and frankly I consider it a minor issue, God doesn't waste people.

    The question I'd like addressed is why does the model of church that focuses on church=bride override any of the other models (such as Christ the head and we the members) which are not sex-linked?

  13. Brilliant. Very clear. A+

  14. Is there a way you could tag your blog entries so they would be easier to find later, Father? For example, this one could be tagged priesthood, women, and apologetics, perhaps.

    There have been times I have tried to find something you wrote several months before, but found it difficult to find something specific among all your writings.