I think I’m finally beginning to understand what my problem with the whole ordination of women thing is. (Oh, a heads up – I have a problem with the whole all-male priesthood thing.)
Not that I’ve “solved” it by any means, but I’m starting to understand it more. The key, at least for me, is the distinction between fundamental and theological reasons for doctrine.
Fundamental reasons are used to determine whether something is part of divine revelation or not. It is basic question of “is this true?” and is an appeal to authority of the Word of God. So, what says the Bible? Tradition? And the Church? In regards to the all-male priesthood, Pope Paul VI stated these fundamental reasons clearly when he wrote,
“[The Church] holds that it is not admissible to ordain women to the priesthood, for very fundamental reasons. These reasons include: the example recorded in the Sacred Scriptures of Christ choosing his Apostles only from among men; the constant practice of the Church, which has imitated Christ in choosing only men; and her living teaching authority which has consistently held that the exclusion of women from the priesthood is in accordance with God’s plan for his Church.”
(Paul VI, Response to the Letter of His Grace the Most Reverend Dr. F.D. Coggan, Archbishop of Canterbury, concerning the Ordination of Women to the Priesthood (1975), quoted in John Paul II, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (1994).)
These fundamental reasons for excluding women from priestly ordination are, for a Catholic, pretty unassailable. In fact, if we can disagree with the Bible, Tradition or the Magisterium on this issue, then we have no reason to trust them on anything else and the whole structure of Catholicism comes crashing down. Many attempts to “disprove” the all-male priesthood end up “proving” too much, usually that the priesthood itself is sinful, or Jesus was stupid, or something else equally untenable.
It’s when we come to the theological arguments that things start getting tricky.
“Theological arguments follow after the fact; they attempt to show why the fact is meaningful, or “fitting.” They employ analogical reasoning to show that the Lord’s dispensation in this matter clarifies and confirms other doctrines and finds a place within God’s plan of salvation.” (Sara Butler (2011), Embodied Ecclesiology: Church Teaching on the Priesthood, in Erika Bachiochi (ed.), Women, Sex, & the Church. Pauline Books & Media, p. 143.)
The main argument we have for why it fitting to have a male priesthood is what I’m calling the sexual symbolism or sacramental argument.
The Christian priesthood is a sacrament, representing Christ and acting in persona Christi. The priest doesn’t just administer the sacraments, he is a sacrament. And like all sacraments, the priest must have a “natural resemblance” to the thing he signifies, in this case Christ. He is represents Him through the “natural” and easily recognisable sign of masculinity, because “Christ Himself was and remains a man.” (Paul VI, Inter Insigniores, 5) This, the argument goes, is no more discriminatory than the fact that Christ chose to bread to be the “natural sign” of His Body, or water of Baptism. It just is.
More deeply, the male priest represents Christ who is always pictured as the Bridegroom of the Church, just as in the Old Testament the LORD speaks of betrothing myself to His bride, Israel. That’s why Christ has to be a man, and why his priests have to be too. This nuptial imagery resonates throughout the Bible, (cf. Hos 1-3, Eze 16, Eph 5, etc.), right up to the Wedding Supper of the Lamb (Rev 21). Again, Pope Paul VI wrote that,
[U]nless one is to disregard the importance of this [nuptial] symbolism for the economy of Revelation, it must be admitted that, in actions which demand the character of ordination and in which Christ himself, the author of the Covenant, the Bridegroom, the Head of the Church, is represented, exercising his ministry of salvation – which is in the highest degree the case of the Eucharist – his role (this is the original sense of the word ‘persona’) must be taken by a man. (Paul VI, Inter Insigniores, 5)
Ok, so what’s my problem? I can happily say that I find much of that imagery beautiful, and it does make some sense.
But symbolism, by its very nature, is always polysemic and just a bit slippery. And sacraments which involve actual people are also more complicated than something inanimate like bread or water. I’m not merely a sign of something, a cut-out of femininity, to carefully arranged and then deployed to represent some cosmic truth. As a person, I am always more than simply a persona.
But my real beef is that this argument seems quite small to be supporting such an awfully big (and unpopular) doctrine by itself. The reason it seems comparatively weak is that we used to have other “theological” reasons for the all-male priesthood. It’s like we had a table with four legs, only one of which is still standing.
We don’t use them anymore because they are wrong/absurd/mistaken/derogatory/evil. Some were based on (misreading) the Bible, some on assuming 1st Century Greco-Roman and Jewish attitudes were the eternal standard for Christians, some on some really bad philosophy, and some on good old-fashioned prejudice.
Shall we have a listen to why Mr. Bogus Misogynist thinks women can’t be ordained?
“Women aren’t the image of God! How could they represent Christ who is the fullness of the image of God? Why, St Augustine said, “The woman together with the man is the image of God, so that the whole substance is one image. But when she is assigned as a helpmate, which pertains to her alone, she is not the image of God: however, in what pertains to man alone, is the image of God just as fully and completely as he is joined with the woman into one.” (De Trinitate, 12, 7, 10) (Gee, thanks St Augustine!)
“Women are too [insert sin or characteristic here], fickle, emotional, changeable and hysterical; they are so easily cowed and persuaded – except when they are stubborn and shrewish but God persevere us from that kind!”
“Women are just inferior beings, lower down the order sacred chain of being, closer to the animals than we more heavenly-minded men. St Thomas Aquinas says they are “defective and misbegotten”. But don’t be angry at poor Aquinas, he’s just following Aristotle who said “The female is, as it were, a mutilated male” (Book IV, chp 6) and “females are weaker and colder in nature, and we must look upon the female character as being a sort of natural deficiency.” (Book II, chp 3)
“Women are gossips. They could never keep the seal of the confession. And they’re so vain. They’d always be thinking about the vestments.”
“Women are to be silent in churches, and submissive in the home, and to be under the dominion of their masters, I mean, their fathers or husbands or brothers or sons – or any responsible male so how could they be priests? Besides, it’s dangerous for them to be out and about. Or to ask questions. Or to think. Better stick to sewing, silent prayer, and making babies.”
“Women are daughters of Eve, gateways of the devil, vessels of perdition. Man fell because woman sinned and they can never pay for it enough! *violent raging* Tertullian was right! “You are each an Eve… [and] you destroyed so easily God’s image, man.” (On the Apparel of Women, book 1, chap. 1)
You get the idea.
Ontologically, women couldn’t represent the perfect God-man Jesus Christ, the image of the Eternal Father because they were just “misbegotten males”, and functionally, they were weak, inferior, and less naturally spiritual/rational. If you were Aristotle, you thought all women were good for was making babies, and if you were St Jerome, becoming nuns. But definitely not priests.
(Side note: the idea that women are more naturally spiritual is a common one today and began with the Industrial Revolution at precisely the same time that religion became severed from rationality (particularly science) and instead began to be treated as a private opinion and/or comforting myth. Go figure.)
It was these sorts of arguments that, along with the argument of sexual symbolism, upheld the all-male priesthood. And no one really questioned it, at least not seriously. So (male) clerics and writers through the centuries just keep repeating it all, appealing to Aristotle’s bad biology, Augustine’s dodgy theology, and Aquinas’ shocking synthesis of the two.
Now, we are questioning it.
Because if women are equal in dignity and ability with men, sharing in the same image of God and being conformed to the same image of Christ, then we need some bloody good reasons to keep the priesthood male. And I have to ask, is the “sexual symbolism” argument good enough?
I think it is – or at least, it could be. The real challenge will be if we can successfully extricate it from all the other dodgy arguments which imply women are lesser. Although it confesses the full equality of women, the “sexual symbolism” argument also raises bigger questions like, why is Jesus male? Did he have to be male? Is God only Father or also Mother? And to what extent are we bound by biblical and traditional analogies when we know they are just that – imperfect analogies?
To be honest, it’s hard to believe the all-male priesthood is such a good thing when it supported by such very bad reasons for so long. It hurts that such denigration of women came from men the Church esteems as saints. How can they be so right about the Trinity and so wrong about the image of God? Then’s the fear that when all is said and done, the “sexual symbolism” argument is really just “women are inferior human beings” with more theologically luxurious trimmings.
So what’s a girl to do?
We can appeal to authority, and in a way that should be enough for Catholics. It is the magisterial teaching of the Church, inspired by Sacred Scripture and informed by Apostolic Tradition, that the ordination of women to the priesthood is impossible. Pope John Paul II wrote that,
“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. Lk 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.” (John Paul II, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, 1994)
But the Church’s authority is always reasonable, and faith always seeks understanding. And we can – and should – always be seeking deeper, stronger, more robust reasons for the truths we believe. We ask our questions in the Church, with the Church, confident that if, as the Church teaches, only men are to be ministerial priests of the New Covenant, then that truth will stand up pressure.
We will see that it is good and beautiful, and indeed, this truth, like all the truths of God, will make us truly free.
“If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:32)