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Recent Theological Studies on the Issue. The Findings of the Research Team of the Catholic Theological Society of America by Sara Butler. New Woman, New Church, New Priestly Ministry. Proceedings of the Second Conference on the Ordination of Roman Catholic Women<BR>November 1978, Baltimore, U.S.A.

Recent Theological Studies on the Issue

The Findings of the Research Team of the Catholic Theological Society of America

by Sara Butler, M.S.B.T.

New Woman, New Church, New Priestly Ministry

Proceedings of the Second Conference on the Ordination of Roman Catholic Women
November 1978, Baltimore, U.S.A. pp 117-125.
Published on our website with permission of the Women's Ordination Conference

[Since this article she has changed her position and supports the Vatican point of view. See her book "The Catholic Priesthood and Women": A Guide to the Teaching of the Church.]

Sara Butler, MSBT, is editor of the recent study commissioned by the Catholic Theological Society of America: “Women in Church and Society. ”She holds a Ph.D. in Systematic Theology from Fordham and has spent the past seven years in Mobile, Alabama, teaching theology to adults, candidates for the permanent diaconate and men and women active in ministry. She currently serves on the General Council of the Missionary Servants of the Most Blessed Trinity in Philadelphia.

Almost three years ago, on the occasion of the Women’s Ordination Conference, a research team sponsored by the Catholic Theological Society of America held its first meeting. We met at the Southfield Sheraton Hotel during the Saturday afternoon of the conference. Although this plan was not exactly felicitous for members of the Task Force, it did have a certain symbolic value. The excitement and enthusiasm of the conference lent special urgency to our task.

What was the task? To conduct a theological review and critique of the work done by various committees and conferences under Roman Catholic and other Christian sponsorship regarding the question of the status of women in church and society. Members of the CTSA research team were: Anne Carr, Frederick Crowe, Margaret Farley, and Edward Kilmartin; consultants were Elisabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza and Joan Range. I served as chairperson.

My assignment this afternoon is to acquaint you with the findings of this research team and to suggest which aspects of the theological questions continue to command our attention.

As I said, the research team was asked to survey recent literature produced by conferences and committees.

The CTSA research team began with a wide-ranging survey of recent literature on the status of women in church and society. This survey revealed that the most pointed considerations occurred in statements regarding the status of women in the church, and, specifically, regarding the question of women’s ordination. We determined to focus our attention on women’s ordination, then, in the belief that this somewhat precise focus would enable us to get a perspective on the wider question of women’s status — a question which is rarely addressed in theological terms. To a considerable degree, this approach did provide such a wider perspective.

We narrowed the literature under review still further by taking up only those documents, mostly “official” positions and consensus statements, which supplied some theological rationale. We were not surprised to discover that most statements were formulated in a situation of advocacy, either for or against the admission of women to pastoral office. (Let me note that the term “pastoral office” is used in our report to refer to the office of bishop and priest; we set to one side the question of women’s accession to the diaconate.)

The documents included in our survey are familiar to most of you: recent Vatican statements, statements from the bishops of this country, statements from learned societies and national associations (the Canon Law Society, the National Coalition of American Nuns, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, and reports from our own conference, “Women in Future Priesthood Now," and from the Detroit “Call to Action”), and statements from bi-lateral conversations in the United States which have addressed this topic. The Vatican Declaration on the Question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood appeared just as we were completing our task.

Our task, again, was to give a theological review and critique. Since it was not possible three years ago to appeal to a consensus in the Roman Catholic theological community regarding such questions as Jesus’ attitude towards women or the “nature” of women, the research team had to work first at getting its own consensus on certain presuppositions so that it had a foundation for its critique. This process, difficult at times, was probably the most valuable experience of the team.

We took some pains to identify the basic arguments for and against the ordination of women to pastoral office. This led to the decision to deal neither with each document (for they were of uneven value) nor with each argument (these are found in the report on pages 17 and 18), but with the presuppositions of the discussion. It is apparent to all who study this question that there are a number of issues involved, all interacting in a way that makes it very difficult to tackle head-on. Our development of four basic categories of issues has, I think, been a helpful tool for analysis.

Before delineating these, let me note that we elaborated two points as regards method which also have wider application. First, we noted that competence to judge particular questions (such as what role women played in Jewish religious life) belongs to specialists in that field; as a research team, we could not properly adjudicate controverted questions of historical fact and interpretation. The very nature of this issue requires scholarly collaboration! Second, we gave attention to the influence of the theological mindsets which are brought to the investigation of this sort of question. As a group, we opted for an “open” mindset, a mindset which emphasizes the future and its still undetermined content and the free activity needed to move creatively into that future, over against a “closed” mindset which emphasizes the past, the already determined, the formulations and institutions handed down to us.

What, then, are the four categories of arguments? First, there are arguments based on the praxis of Jesus, the apostles, and the church. Second, there are arguments based on the nature of pastoral office. Third, there are arguments which turn on presuppositions about the nature of women. And fourth, there are arguments which appeal to principles of justice.

I should like to summarize briefly the conclusions we drew regarding the first and the fourth categories and then develop at more length the critical questions raised in the second andthird categories.

The research team concluded, in its section on the praxis of Jesus, the apostles, and the church, that the evidences of Sacred Scripture and the tradition of the Church are not decisive for the question of admitting women to pastoral office. Our critique of the usual arguments from the New Testament as regards the mind of Jesus proposes that Jesus and the apostles did in fact invite women to a situation of equality with men in their ministry and mission. Reasons adduced from the New Testament for the exclusion of women from priesthood and episcopate cannot, we believe, be supported by critical scholarship. (CTSA Report, page 46) The basis on which the church of later ages judged that women could not be ordained to pastoral office — namely, their natural state of subjection — can no longer be seriously maintained. We judge the constant practice of later centuries to be an unexamined manner of acting, not a genuine theological tradition. It is important to note that reasons adduced from this so-called tradition run contrary to the church’s contemporary teaching about the equality of women and men. We observe, moreover, that the growing consensus among Anglican and Protestant churches is evidence of the development of the tradition. Pastoral roles for women in the Roman Catholic Church which have emerged since Vatican II contribute evidence that strongly favors the admission of women to pastoral office. By virtue of juridical mandate or commissioning, women are being sent to assume charge of parishes and carry out many priestly tasks, short of celebrating the Eucharist, Reconciliation, and the Anointing of the Sick.

With respect to the fourth category of arguments, those based on considerations of justice, the research team concludes that the principles of equality, duty implies right, and the common good clearly support the admission of women to pastoral office. Injustice is done when women are excluded, unless it can be established that this matter has been settled in advance by the divine will, that is, unless the divine will, as shown by some reason drawn from theological anthropology or by the nature of pastoral office, can be demonstrated so to qualify the person or office that no woman is, in fact, ever a suitable candidate. The pertinence of the “justice argument,” then, turns on the resolution of these two questions: the nature of pastoral office and the nature of women.

Let us consider next the nature of pastoral office. The justification advanced for the traditional exclusion of women is this: The ordained priest must act officially in the person of Christ; it follows that a male priest is required to act in the person of the male Christ. This assertion, already proposed in the 1972 report of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Theological Reflections on the Ordination of Women,” was strongly reiterated in the Vatican Declaration Inter Insigniores. The Declaration attempts to call attention, in virtue of the analogy of faith, to the “profound fittingness” of admitting only men to the sacrament of order. Since sacraments must represent what they signify by “natural resemblance,” the priest must be a man, for Christ himself was and remains a man.

The CTSA research team addressed this line of argumentation by challenging the adequacy of the Thomistic theology of the eucharistic ministry of the ordained. The view, traditional with Catholics since the thirteenth century, that the priest directly represents (or denotes) Christ when he pronounces the words of institution in the eucharistic prayer, has been severely criticized by contemporary Catholic liturgical scholars on three counts. In the first place, it neglects the structure of the eucharistic prayers of East and West, overlooking the epiclesis and incorrectly separating the “moment of consecration” from the rest of the canon. Second, it tends to regard the Eucharist as a sacred drama - with the corresponding implication that the faithful are spectators while the priest “plays” the role of Christ. This view is totally out of keeping with the authentic Catholic explanation of the Eucharist as an expression of the faith of the Church, the sacramental coaccomplishment of the sacrifice of the cross in and by the Church. Third, this view separates too drastically the cultic powers of the priest from the ecclesial dimension of ordained ministry.

This third point is really the key to our critique. We reject the view that the priest represents Christ independently of his function of representing the church. The priest acts “in persona Ecclesiae” as well as “in persona Christi.” How are these representational functions related to one another? Contemporary theology situates the priest squarely in the midst of the believing community. This community, the church, is the sacrament and locus of Christ’s presence, because of its faith. Within this community, the priest first represents (denotes) the faith of the church; in virtue of his participation in the collegial office of the whole church, he also gives expression to the unity of local communities and thus to the common faith of the universal church. In his person and activity, then, the priest as member of the believing assembly represents (connotes) Christ who is, with the Holy Spirit, the active sharing source of this exercise of faith. It is in this manner, we suggest, that a priest represents Christ as Head of the Church.

This summary cannot do justice to a rather subtle and complex line of argumentation. The crux of the matter is that Christ is present to his church through the exercise of the church’s faith, and not by way of an “institution” (in this case, apostolic succession) which operates independently of that faith. If you have not already done so, I strongly urge you to examine this argument carefully. It has been proposed most successfully by Edward Kilmartin. This thesis regarding the manner in which the bearer of pastoral office represents Christ the Head of the church constitutes the strongest positive argument in favor of women’s ordination. If the pastoral office at the first level of signification directly represents the faith of the church, then women, as full members of the church, should be eligible for this office. There is nothing to exclude them from the symbolic function of denoting the faith of the church and simultaneously connoting the headship of Christ in eucharistic ministry.

Let me underline, then, the conclusion that what is in question is not whether women are capable of imaging the male Christ in eucharistic ministry. Rather, the question is whether any priest has the function of directly representing Christ. How does the priest represent the church and Christ? We propose that the priest represents the faith of the church and thereby represents Christ and the Holy Spirit, the source of that faith. “Only within a Thomistic theology of priesthood, with all its seeming defects, can one argue to the exclusion of women from the ordained minister because of the necessity of symbolic correspondence between the minister and Christ the male.” (CTSA Report, page 32)

One must acknowledge, nevertheless, that the Thomistic theology of priesthood accords well with the view of the Orthodox and Oriental Churches. The larger schema in which the issue is addressed them and by the Vatican inevitably appeals to the relation of maleness and femaleness to the orders of creation and salvation. The schema is familiar. It proposes that God created male and female with complementary functions and gifts; according to this divine design each realization of human nature has its own unique role: man, the role of headship, and woman, the role of protectress and channel of life. This division of humanity into male and female constitutes a revelation of the divine mystery. The male has a symbolic correspondence with the Father; the female, with the Holy Spirit. Christ represents the Father and is Lord of the church; thus, his male sex is deeply symbolic. It follows, according to this view, that among members of the church roles of headship and representation of Christ should be awarded only to men. The bearer of pastoral office functions as an icon of Christ; it is essential that there be a symbolic correspondence between this officer and Christ the man, Head of the church.

This line of reasoning is familiar. I mention it within the discussion of arguments related to pastoral office only to point up the grave inconsistency between this view of the divine order (and therefore of church order) and the actual practice of the church! Women not only successfully exercise roles of leadership (“headship”) in the secular order; they currently function within the church in pastoral roles previously reserved to priests. Women baptize, preach, give religious instruction, officiate at marriages and preside at funerals on the basis of church commissions. In other words, they act “in the name of the church,” by special ecclesiastical mandate. The great anomaly is that these pastoral roles are being carried out by juridical mandate rather than ordination; this is a remarkable departure from tradition! It is hard to fathom how the actual exercise of “headship” can be denied to those who function in these pastoral roles.

At this juncture I wish to address the issues which relate to our final category of analysis: the nature of women. The schema of order of creation and salvation which I just recalled comes directly under scrutiny here.

What is the nature of “woman” (as they say)? The very question reveals the problem. On the one hand, one could say that the nature of woman is “human nature,” the very same nature as that of “man.” In our report, we noted that those who presumed a single human nature, common to women and men, advocated the admission of women to pastoral office. This position has been called a “one-nature” vision of humanity.

On the other hand, of course, are those who make the case for a “special nature” of women, equal but different from that of man. This “two-nature” vision of humanity sees in the division of male and female a distinction which is the foundation of unique roles which are not interchangeable. Men and women, according to this dual model of anthropology, are ordained to complement one another. Together, they are the image of God. Those who espouse this view generally argue for the exclusion of women from pastoral office on the grounds that the function of headship is appropriately male. Time does not permit a full elaboration of these questions from the realm of theological anthropology. Permit me simply to highlight several points.

First, it should be noted that the case in favor of women’s ordination can be made independently of which view of humanity — the single or the dual — one holds. This is so because the pastoral office does not directly represent Christ.

Second, the underlying argument consistently used by the Vatican has been the two-nature view. Women are seen to be essentially complementary to men. Vatican congregations speak in terms of “the revealed identity of women” and the “originality of women’s nature,” and so on. Women, it is affirmed, have equal dignity by reason of their nature, but God has planned a diversity of functions.

Third, the CTSA research team finds this dual model of anthropology inadequate and favors, instead, a single (or “one nature”) view as in every way more true to our times. The single model is more in accord with the experience of contemporary women and the data of the human sciences. These sciences-biology, psychology, cultural anthropology, history, and sociology — lead us to new reflections on the project of being human. The data coming in raises hard questions about the validity of the traditional understanding that males as a class are complementary to females as a class and that the arrangement of social roles on the basis of this duality is essential and necessary to sexual identity and good order. Women’s experience and the human sciences disclose this arrangement as a disguised form of subordinationism. The research team observes that failure to admit data from these sources affects the credibility of claims regarding the divinely-revealed nature of women. Willingness to admit this data with respect to questions regarding the rights of women in the secular order only further compounds the issue, for another standard is invoked for discussion of the rights of women within the church.

The standard invoked is the one I noted earlier in which male and female together image God. The male, however, has symbolic correspondence to the Father — and thus to “headship.” The maleness of Jesus, then, is regarded as theologically significant, with the consequence that maleness is also essential for pastoral office. The research team calls attention to the problems embodied in this newly-explicit but traditional view: problems relating to the doctrine of God, the person of Christ, and the extension of salvation to women.

In sum, the CTSA research team “does not. . . find that the arguments adduced on the question present any serious grounds to justify the exclusion of women from ordination to pastoral office in the Catholic Church.” (Report, page 47) It calls for a fuller examination of the representative role of the priest and a careful critique of the traditional view of the nature of women.

Since the completion of this study in May, 1976, several remarkable collections of essays have appeared: Sexism and Church Law, a study of the Canon Law Society of America edited by James Coriden; Women Priests, a paragraph-by-paragraph commentary on the Vatican Declaration edited by Arlene and Leonard Swidler; and Women and Priesthood, a commentary by members of the faculty of the Catholic Theological Union at Chicago, edited by Carroll Stuhlmueller. A collection of nine essays first published in L’Osservatore Romano is now available from Our Sunday Visitor Press.

My review of these essays leads me to advance four recommendations to all who feel a responsibility to pursue the dialogue with the Vatican.

1. Most of the essay on the evidence from Scripture and tradition in the Swidler and Stuhlmueller books are excellent and do help to consolidate the opinion that nothing from these sources decisively closes the issue. It is important, I think to become acquainted with the arguments (e.g., concerning the Twelve, the apostles, women in the New Testament church) in order to respond to the most frequently-asked questions.

2. The theological critique of the Thomist theology of priesthood is strikingly corroborated by the experience of women in pastoral service. This issue needs to be pressed in order to close the case. The disjunction between the prayer of the priest “in persona Ecclesiae” and “in persona Christi” (words of consecration) is criticized as artificial and without foundation in the texts of the rite itself (cf. Ralph Kiefer’s essay in Stuhlmueller, pages 103-110). This same disjunction, it was observed in yesterday’s reports from mission situations, occurs in the pastoral ministry of women. They pray “in persona Ecclesiae” but call the priest in to pray the “words of consecration” “in persona Christ”. This is clearly demonstrated as an intolerable rupture of the meaning of eucharist in the assembled community. I think it would be fruitful to make a solid critique of this on liturgical principles.

3. It is imperative to become more sophisticated in our use of the data of the human sciences. The absolutely fundamental obstacle to the admission of women to pastoral order is the Roman Catholic symbol system and the social structures it supports. To admit women to the symbolic center of the life of the church, to eucharistic presidency, would be to overturn the social order of the church. Cultural anthropologists have much to tell us about the relationship of personal identity to body; of symbol to social organization and, ultimately, to cosmic structures. Mary Douglas’ book, Natural Symbols (Pelican and Random House, 1973), suggests how these relationships interact to reinforce a particular vision of reality. It is this total vision of reality which is threatened by women who refuse to accept the “Body identity” their society mediates to them. This, I believe, is where the issue is joined when we entertain the hope of dialogue with the Vatican. The present symbol system legitimates the subordination of women in church and ministry. (Do not miss Nadine Foley’s superb analysis of the Vatican “ontology of women,” in Sexism and Church Law, pages 82-108. We are faced with the challenge of reinterpreting these symbols to correspond with our lived experience.

One task of theology is to demonstrate the intelligibility of our faith commitment. I believe we have a “full agenda” — not a short one — if we hope to bring our church forward into the future with mutual respect, intellectual integrity, and fidelity to the past which has brought us this far.

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