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What is it all about - in a nutshell?

Should women not be priests?

   

The Catholic Church must continue to adapt itself to changing times in order to remain prophetic.

Is it not worrying that the Church still maintains a ban on women priests until this day, when the great majority of nations are striving to eliminate inequalities and promote gender equality throughout the world?

The times are changing and so must the Church!

   

St. Thérèse of Lisieux longed to be a priest.

Letting go of past prejudice

   

A hundred years ago, women had little standing in the Church, like in society in general. Women were not allowed to receive communion during their monthly periods; and after giving birth to a child they needed to be ‘purified’ (=churched) before re-entering a church building (*). Women were strictly forbidden to touch ‘sacred objects’, such as the chalice, the paten or altar linen (*). They certainly could not distribute holy communion (*). In church, women needed to have their heads veiled at all times (*).

Women were also barred from:
--- entering the sanctuary except for cleaning purposes (*);
--- reading Sacred Scripture from the pulpit (*);
--- preaching (*);
--- singing in a church choir (*);
--- being Mass servers (*);
--- becoming full members of confraternities and organizations of the laity (*).

But the most important restriction of all: women were barred from receiving Holy Orders (*). They could not be priests.

    Only allowed since 1994 Most restrictions against women (*) have now been lifted. But the ban against women priests still remains.

A new dawn . . .

     

In our time a new awareness has arisen of human rights: of the basic equality of men and women, and of the need to secure equal opportunities to all. On account of this the attitude to women has also begun to change in the Catholic Church.

Women may now be ‘temporarily deputed’ to be readers, Mass servers, cantors, preachers, leaders of prayer services, ministers of baptism and of holy communion.

And other Christian Churches have begun ordaining women as deacons, priests and bishops . . .

   

The Right Rev Chilton Knudsen, Bishop of Maine, belongs to the Episcopal Church of the USA which is part of the Anglican Communion.

Who opposes the ordination of women?

     

Conservative theologians, led by the Congregation for Doctrine in Rome and the Pope himself, maintain that, while the other restrictions placed on women in the past were due to social prejudice, the ban on ordaining women as priests belongs to unchangeable Catholic doctrine.

“Jesus Christ himself excluded women from the priesthood and the Church has always followed his example by never ordaining women”, they say.

   


Read Rome’s arguments in summary form.

This obviously poses a serious challenge.

If the Pope holds a particular teaching, are all Catholics not bound to accept his guidance?

Normally, yes.

But in exceptional circumstances when we know that the Pope is making a mistake, it is our duty as loyal Catholics to make our objections known. As Pope Benedict XVI himself admits: Over the Pope as the expression of the binding claim of ecclesiastical authority there still stands one's own conscience, which must be obeyed before all else, if necessary even against the requirement of ecclesiastical authority.

If the Pope and his officials in Rome are wrong -- and with most Catholic theologians we believe they are with regard to women! -- , great damage is done to the Church by holding back on an essential pastoral development for our time.

    Mary McAleese, President of Ireland

It is the duty of informed Catholics to speak out.

Not simply a gender issue

     

To many people this may look like no more than an ‘equality’ issue, a ‘feminist’ issue, but it is not. At least not in the first place.

For us Catholics it has always been crucial to determine the true mind of Christ and the genuine meaning of Tradition.

The answer to whether women should be ordained or not cannot be decided by social pressure. It must be decided by a careful interpretation of the sources.

* Did Jesus himself really exclude women?
* Why were women not ordained in the past?
* Are there valid theological grounds to bar women from ordination?

These are the reasons that should determine the outcome of the debate.

   

What did Jesus Christ want?

     

It is clear from the Gospels that, for Jesus, women and men were equal.

Women no less than men ‘enter God’s Kingdom’ through baptism, whereas in the Old Testament only men were circumcised.

Through baptism, women as well as men, share in Jesus’ kingship, Jesus’ prophet task and Jesus’ priesthood.

It is significant that, at the Last Supper, Jesus addressed his words “Do this in memory of Me!” to women as much as to men. Thereby he empowered women too to preside at the Eucharist.

   

Baptism confers openness to all sacraments: for women no less than for men.

Why then did Jesus select only men among his twelve apostles?

Probably for practical reasons -- just as he only selected Jews.

It would be entirely wrong to infer that Jesus thereby fixed a norm for all time to come.

Like in so many other respects, Jesus left the working out of developments to the later Church - as needs and opportunities would arise.


   

What would Jesus say today? Would he reject women?

Did the early Christian communities exclude women from ministries?

     

Some expressions in the Pauline letters, such as that women should wear veils, be subject to their husbands and should not speak in church, may not be interpreted as implying a ban on their ordination.

We should not forget that Paul acknowledges Phoebe as ‘the deacon at the church of Cenchreae’ (Romans 16,1).

Yes, in the first centuries after Christ, women held responsible ministries in the Church, including that of the diaconate.

Historical evidence shows that in the eastern part of the Catholic Church women served as ‘deacons’ until the ninth century!

Since they became deacons through a full sacramental ordination, identical to that of male deacons, women did, in fact, receive Holy Orders which implies they can also receive the priesthood.

   

The forgotten story of the ‘women deacons’ suffices in itself to clinch the issue.

“Here lies the servant and virgin of Christ, the deacon [!], the second Phoebe [Rom 16,1], who passed away in peace on the 21st day of March . . . .”

Sophia of Jerusalem, 4th century

Did the early Christian communities exclude women from ministries?

     

During most of the Church's history, a threefold prejudice has blocked the acceptance of women as priests:

     

1. Women were considered inferior beings.

Greek philosophy considered each woman an incomplete human being. ‘The relationship between the male and the female is by nature such that the male is higher, the female lower, that the male rules and the female is ruled.’ (Aristotle)

Roman law, which was adopted in the Church, barred women from holding public responsibilities.

So how could women be given the leadership role implied in the priesthood?

   

Aristotle, a philosopher who greatly influenced the thinking of Church leaders.

2. Women were considered to be in a state of punishment for sin.

Women were held responsible for bringing original sin into the world, and for being a continuing source of seduction.

Do you not know, woman, that you are (each) an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too.

  • “You are the devil's gateway!
  • you are the unsealer of that (forbidden) tree!
  • you are the first deserter of the divine law!
  • you are she who persuaded him (Adam) whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack!
  • You destroyed so easily God's image, man!
  • On account of what you deserved - that is, death - even the Son of God had to die!” (Tertullian)

How could such sinful creatures be channels of God’s grace?

   

Tertullian (155 - 220 AD)

Though falling in disgrace in later centuries, Tertullian was much admired by the early Church Fathers.

3. Women were considered ritually unclean because of their monthly periods.

Rules in the diocese of Canterbury (690 AD):

  1. “During the time of menstruation women should not enter into church or receive communion, neither lay women nor religious. If they presume to do so all the same, they should fast for three weeks”.
  2. “In the same way those women should do penance, who enter a church before their blood is purified after birth, that is for forty days”.

How could women be allowed to defile the holiness of the sanctuary and especially the altar?

   

According to Church Fathers St Augustine of Hippo (above) and St Jerome, all sex is tainted with sin and a womans womb is “simply revolting”.

It should be noted that these prejudices, though cultural in origin, became theological prejudices, prejudices in presumed Church doctrine.

These prejudices were the real reasons for excluding women from the priesthood, as is clear from the writings of the Fathers of the Church, the canons of local synods, church law and medieval theology.

The socalled ‘tradition’ of not ordaining women is thereby proved to have been a spurious tradition. As St. Cyprian so rightly stated: “A custom without truth is nothing else but an ancient error!” (Letter 74,9).

   

The sources can be studied in detail!

Is the ordination of women not found in Christian Tradition ?

     

First of all, women were sacramentally ordained as Deacons as we stated earlier. And according to the Council of Trent, there is only ONE sacrament of holy orders which includes the diaconate.

Then, if we study the history of the Church carefully, we discover a ‘latent’ and ‘dynamic’ Tradition that implied the possibility of women's ordination.

It means that true Catholics have always known, in their heart of hearts, that ordaining women is not against the mind of Christ. Just as true Catholics have always known that slavery is against the mind of Christ, in spite of what the official Church - Popes, theologians and church law - taught to be Catholic doctrine.

   

“Even centuries might pass without the formal expression of a truth, which had been all along the secret life of millions of faithful souls.”

Cardinal Newman (above)

This latent tradition showed itself, for instance, in Marys perceived ‘priestly’ functions.

   

Are there theological reasons to exclude women from holy orders?

     

The Roman theologians argue that, since Christ was male, he can only be represented at the eucharist by a male priest.

The argument derives from medieval theologians, who considered every woman ‘a defective man’. Small wonder that they thought only a perfect man - a male priest - can represent Christ.

“Since it is not possible in the female sex to signify eminence of degree, for a woman is in the state of subjection, it follows that she cannot receive the sacrament of Order.” (Thomas Aquinas)

The argument is flawed. It contradicts Catholic teaching. Women too bear Christ’s image as adopted children of God. In baptism and marriage women fully represent Christ. What is represented by the priest at the eucharist is not Christ’s male or female gender, but his sacrificial love.

    >St Thomas Aquinas

Every woman is ‘a defective male’, ‘born through an accident’, ‘a monster of nature’. Thomas Aquinas (above)

Infallible doctrine?

     

Rome has added to the existing confusion by claiming that the matter has already been decided ‘infallibly’ -- not by the Pope, but by the socalled ‘ordinary universal magisterium’. This refers to the collective teaching authority of all the bishops in the world.

Rome seems to think that, since bishops generally do not ordain women as priests - there have been exceptions! - and since they generally have kept silent on the issue, they have thereby expressed unanimous consent.

    The whole episcopate sometimes exercises the infallible teaching authority.
       

It is clear, however, that the conditions for such an infallible exercise of authority have not been fulfilled. The Councils have defined the strict limits of infallibility.

There are five conditions:

  1. The bishops must listen to the Word of God
  2. and to the ‘sensus fidelium’ (what committed Catholics know ‘in their heart’ to be right).
  3. The bishops must exercise their authority as one body.
  4. The bishops must be free to express their own considered opinions.
  5. The bishops must want to impose the doctrine as definitely to be held.

None of these conditions have been fulfilled.

Popes in the past have made similar mistaken claims.

“We declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff.” Pope Boniface VIII (1302).

Bishop Raymond Lucker lists 65 doctrines that were once taught as authoritative truths which have now been retracted by the Church.

   

Pope Pius IX (1792-1878)

Pope Pius IX, while condoning slavery, condemned freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, freedom of worship and salvation outside the Church. In all these doctrines he has been proved wrong by the Second Vatican Council.

       

Where does this leave us?

     
       

The present tension in the Church regarding the ordination of women should not worry us excessively.

Conflicts and crises preceed growth.

The official Church will come to its senses, as it has done on so many other issues. But, until the matter is resolved, we may not shirk our duty as responsible Catholics. We will have to speak out -- till Christ’s full intention is realised in the ordination of women in the Catholic Church!

     
       
Start the Argument here!      

Wijngaards Institute for Catholic ResearchThis website is maintained by the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research.

The Institute is known for issuing academic reports and statements on relevant issues in the Church. These have included scholars' declarations on the need of collegiality in the exercise of church authority, on the ethics of using contraceptives in marriage and the urgency of re-instating the sacramental diaconate of women.

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