Monday, 15 February 2010
When I was a seminarian, and well on in my studies, I decided that I could see no objection to the ordination of women in the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more reasonable and acceptable it seemed, and I fully expected to see it in my lifetime. I can't remember what I thought about it as I prepared for ordination, and as a newly-ordained priest I had too much to think about as I began life as the curate to a rather difficult parish priest. At some point, I began to think again, and I found the idea uncomfortable. I had no personal objection to women priests, and I could see arguments in favour of them, so why was I now reluctant? The answer lies not in any newly-discovered prejudices but in my Catholic faith. I knew that the Vatican was against the ordination of women, and when the document Inter Insigniores was issued in 1976 (a year or so after my ordination) I knew that I had to rethink the matter. If asked at the time (and I cannot remember being asked) I suppose I would have said that the Vatican has issued a statement and that the "Church" is against it - meaning, by that, the Magisterium. I later read Fr. Manfred Hauke's book (against) but, to be honest, I was disappointed. I suppose I was looking for a clinching argument and, unfortunately, he doesn't provide one. At this point - and I really felt this - the really big argument against the ordination of women was that it was simply not allowed. As a loyal, obedient Catholic priest, that was enough for me. However, I still kept looking for that clinching argument. For some, the fact that Our Lord only chose men is enough, but that argument has been challenged, and keeps being challenged, which means that those in favour of women priests simply do not accept it. Leaving aside their suggestion or belief that Jesus was limited by His cultural background etc (an argument that does not stand in my opinion), there is a reluctance to accept the usual anti arguments, and, in any case, they are often simply dismissed as the arguments of "men".
I was reading St. Matthew's Gospel 20:20-28. Beginning at verse 24 we read;
"When the other ten heard this they were indignant with the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, 'You know that among the pagans the rulers lord it over them, and their great men make their authority felt. This is not to happen among you. No; anyone who wants to be great among you must be your servant, and anyone who wants to be first among you must be your slave, just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many' " (Jerusalem Bible)
I was struck by the phrase; "the rulers lord it over them" I remembered reading a very similar phrase in Genesis. After the fall of Adam and Eve, God tells Eve,
"I will multiply your pains in childbearing, you shall give birth to your children in pain. Your yearning will be for your husband, yet he will lord it over you" (3: 16)
Thinking about these two texts and realising that the sometimes scandalous inequality of the sexes is a consequence of original sin, I then looked again at the words of Christ and began to think about the priesthood. Other texts came to mind, especially Ephesians 5:21-33 where St. Paul wrote;
"Husbands should love their wives just as Christ loved the Church and sacrificed himself for her to make her holy"
The headship of the husband is compared to the headship of Christ, but as Jesus says in the Gospel, he came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life. The ministry of the Apostles is a ministry of service. Its model is not the old Adam, but the new Adam. Since Christ's priesthood cannot be separated from any other aspect of his humanity, what we are talking about is the Priesthood of the New Adam. Whereas the old Adam "lorded it over" Eve, the New Adam lays down his life. The Church is seen in Ephesians as the "Bride of Christ". The Christian priest is called to follow Christ in laying down his life for the Church. To maintain this understanding, the Christian priest must be male.
I will try to make it clearer. The renewal of the relationship between men and women, husbands and wives, requires a male priesthood, otherwise an important aspect of the economy of salvation is distorted. In Christ the consequences of the Fall are reversed. In Christ men and women are made equal, but the cost of that is the sacrifice of the New Adam. Sexual identity is key to all this. The male is no longer "lord" over the female. Although Christ is Lord, He lays aside his glory and becomes "like sin" so that we might become "the righteousness of God". St. Paul's theology of the New Adam requires that the ministerial priest be male. In the daily living out of the faith and the exercise of the priesthood of all believers there is need of a sign of this sacrifice of the New Adam. The bread and wine which become the Body and Blood of Christ must be truly identified as the Body and Blood of the New Adam who gave his life for the Church (the "Bride"). To make this clear, the ministerial priest MUST be male.
I cannot see how anyone can put up a convincing argument against this without dismissing the traditional interpretation of the Bible. In fact, one of the consequences of the ordination of women is precisely the reworking of Holy Scripture, even, in some cases, to the point of regarding much of Scripture as optional or quaint, so that its authority is lessened.
Catholics are encouraged to develop a devotion to the Mother of Christ. We need her to help us in our understanding of the priesthood. To begin with, we should note that as in Genesis the order of creation of humanity is man first and woman second, in the order of the Redemption it is the woman who is called first. In fact, as St. Bernard famously noted, so much hangs on Mary's "yes". Where Eve effectively said, "No" to God, the New Eve said "Yes!". This was the beginning. She then became pregnant with the Saviour of the world. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception takes its place in all this. As Eve was the first to sin, so in the human order, the Mother of Jesus was without original sin at her conception. In the order of the Redemption it is woman first and man second. As it is expressed in an old Marian hymn, the Stella Maris, the Archangel's "Ave" is the reversal of "Eva" (Eve). The restoration of humanity in Christ does not come about just through words. The very Word of God himself becomes flesh, and this flesh - male flesh - is given, sacrificed, offered, poured out. The rejection of the sinful lordship is a total rejection. The new Adam is "servant". The ministerial priesthood which is a sign of this, is therefore necessary for the equality of the sexes, and, properly understood and lived, is NOT in any sense a denial of women's rights, but a guarantee of them. For this to work, the ministerial priest MUST be male.
There are other things to say and there are other texts that can be quoted in support of this case, but the basic argument is given above. Enough has been said, I think, to make the case clear. Ultimately the only argument against this is an argument against the analogy of Holy Scripture and a re-reading or rewriting of the Word of God. However we may discuss Genesis, it is either the Word of God or it is not. This is not a fundamentalist position; the case against women's ordination outlined above does not depend on a literalistic interpretation. Genesis, like all Scripture, is inspired by The Holy Spirit. Some may want to write out references to the consequences of original sin; it cannot be done. We are not dealing here with historical accuracy, but with the work of The Holy Spirit, who convicts us of sin. Genesis was written partly from the common experience of humanity and, given the inequalities of the Ancient Middle East, and the inequalities we can still see in the "unredeemed" Arab culture, it would surely be almost unbelievable that Genesis 3 could have been written without divine help.
Arguments referring to ancient Palestinian culture have been used to promote the possibility of women priests. If cultural arguments are to be accepted, then the one I am presenting here is surely worthy of consideration.
Postscript: The Basic Cultural (from Scripture) Argument in Favour of Women Priests
I want to finish with a few remarks about one of the arguments most often advanced by proponents of the ordination of women, namely that Christ would have been unable to choose women at that time because of the cultural background etc. This argument does not stand. St. Paul makes absolutely clear, in 1 Corinthians, that it is the Cross, above all, which is a "stumbling block". This word is scandalon. A scandalon was deadly. It is not just a piece of wood or a stone in your path; it is not like a speed bump or even a fallen tree or a mound of earth that you have to climb over. A scandalon was the kind of obstacle that could kill. It was like the rock that would send you over a cliff or the sharp stick in an animal trap that would very likely cause the death of the victim. This is not just something you step over or walk around. A scandalon is a grave offence, just as the drinking of blood mentioned by Jesus in Chapter 6 of St. John's Gospel caused many to walk away. The idea that the choosing of women to be Apostles would have been seen in this light is a nonsense. As Bouyer pointed out years ago, Palestine was not a totally isolated area without contact with other cultures. Galilee itself had been influenced by the Greeks. The existence of women serving in pagan ttemples was known to some in Israel, and certainly beyond the confines of the borders of Israel there would have been no major problems with women Apostles. No, it is an argument that does not stand. But this is not the only reason for rejecting it. We need to revisit the doctrine of the Incarnation and the fact that Jesus truly was and is the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity made flesh. Is it really to be considered a serious argument that in matters relating to the establishment of His Church He would have allowed Himself to be limited by cultural concerns? Jesus broke with many customs and cultural taboos. He appeared to Mary Magdalene in the garden. She effectively became the first one to announce the Resurrection -BUT - she was not one of the twelve. Christ's meeting with the Samaritan woman is another example. . It is really time that the argument about His supposed cultural limitation with respect the choice of male Apostles was placed where it belongs - in the bin!
- Fr John Abberton
- I was born in Sheffield and brought up in Halifax, Yorkshire.I was trained at Ushaw College, attended Durham University and was ordained in 1975. I am a member of the Marian Movement of Priests and a Secular Carmelite(ocds). I am also a reader of "True Life in God"