With all due respect.
In the letter the pope intended to put the question of women's ordination to rest by removing all doubts from the minds of believing Catholics and putting an end to any conversations on this subject. He asserted that the Catholic Church will never have the authority to ordain women because such an act would violate its divine constitution and that church teaching on this matter was not open to debate but must be definitively accepted by all faithful Catholics.
The reasons offered for his judgment included both the witness of sacred scriptures that Christ chose only males to be his apostles and the foundation of his church, as well as the long-standing practice and teaching of the church in this matter. Also cited were Vatican documents implying that males embody a more natural symbol of Christ the priest and bridegroom of the church. The pope argued that this policy was not discriminatory, noting that not even Mary was ordained and that the church is profoundly committed to the dignity of women. Finally he suggested that since the church's hierarchy is a ministry of service to all the faithful, ordination is not a "better gift" and offers no elevation above the laity. Hence, it would seem, no one is harmed by exclusion from this ministry.
Here in the U.S., Archbishop William H. Keeler, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, described the pope's letter as an affirmation of the "authentic" teaching of the church and argued both that the "matter of priestly ordination does not limit the potential of women in the church" and that the Catholic Church "affirms the fundamental equality of women and men...but does not accept an understanding of equality which ignores the unique roles and gifts of women and men."
Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago noted that the "question of ordination is not related to justice because no one has an inherent right to ordination" and joined Keeler in urging all Catholics "who may find this further affirmation of the church's authentic teaching difficult to accept to receive it lovingly, pray for understanding, and to see in it a call for them to live out fully their fundamental Christian vocation according to the gifts that they have been given."
Indeed many faithful American Catholics have found the pope's new letter difficult to accept, and it seems highly unlikely that this document will persuade them to agree (definitively or otherwise) with the exclusion of women from the priesthood or to bring the conversation about women's ordination to a close. Although they appreciate the seriousness with which the pope and these bishops have spoken and desire to respect the legitimate teaching authority of their church, they are also attempting to attend to a number of other "authoritative" voices from their churches, their cultures, and their consciences, and they are not yet prepared to close this conversation.
In spite of the affirmation by the pope and these bishops that ordination is not a justice issue and that the exclusion of women does not involve discrimination, an increasing proportion of faithful Catholics--women and men--find the current practice and teaching profoundly disturbing precisely because they view it as a grave moral disorder. Indeed, they see the refusal to ordain women as part of a larger institutional pattern of sexism and patriarchy infecting their beloved church and marginalizing more than half of the faithful to roles that may be critical and necessary but are also secondary and imposed.
As these faithful Catholics seek to receive and understand the pope's letter, they are also attempting to listen to Catholic scholars and the voices of the American and global church. And like good Catholics, they are attending to what Pope John XXIII referred to as the "signs of the times," that rich tapestry of intellectual, cultural, and scientific voices reflecting the breadth of human experience. Finally they are attempting to listen to the voices of women, believing with Vatican II's Gaudium et spes (Constitution on the Church in the Modern World) that the "joys and hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men [and women!] of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these too are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ."
In the midst of this continuous conversation, five concrete questions haunt those faithful American Catholics wrestling with the tension between the magisterium's teaching that women cannot be ordained and their own deepening unrest at the seeming injustice of this judgment; and they will need their church to answer these questions--not just authoritatively or authentically, but persuasively--in order to resolve the doubts that continue to linger in their hearts and minds. Otherwise it will not be helpful or possible to bring this conversation to a close.
These questions are:(1) Did Christ intend to found a church with a ministerial priesthood reserved only to males? (2) Are males a more natural symbol of Christ the priest? (3) Isn't the reservation of ordination to males only discriminatory? (4) Are we really obliged to be quiet and give our full and unconditional assent to this teaching? (5) Why doesn't this teaching offend our episcopacy or hierarchy?
First, modern popes and church documents argue that a fundamental reason for reserving ordination to males is the "example recorded in the sacred scriptures of Christ choosing his apostles only from among men" [read males]. From this example, the argument goes, we know with certitude the intent of Christ to make these twelve males the foundation of his church and to forever exclude women from ordination. But does the scriptural witness prove that Christ intended to exclude female priests? After all, the twelve males in question were also Jews, and we feel free to ordain Samaritans, Arabs, and all sorts of gentiles (including Anglicans). Why are we sure that of all the groups not represented among the twelve it was only women Christ meant to exclude?
In 1976 Pope Paul VI assigned the Pontifical Biblical Commission to investigate the scriptural evidence regarding women's ordination, and the commission's member scholars voted 17-0 that the "New Testament does not settle the question [of women's ordination] in a clear way, once and for all; [and] 12-5 that neither Scripture nor Christ's plan alone excluded the possibility." It would seem there are serious doubts about what the scriptural witness proves, even to biblical scholars.
And these doubts multiply when we look to the blossoming body of contemporary biblical and historical scholarship indicating that, indeed, women ranked much more prominently among the disciples of Jesus and exercised more ministries and leadership in the early Christian community than the church has traditionally believed or taught.
Scripture scholars such as Sister Sandra Schneiders, I.H.M. have argued that our attention to the twelve males has constricted our vision of discipleship, leading us to undervalue the discipleship of those women who were close friends of Jesus', who remained faithfully at the foot of the cross, who first went to the tomb, and who gave the earliest witness to the Resurrection. In fact, Schnieiders argues, Mary Magdalene meets all of the basic criteria of apostleship.
Likewise, in her text When Women Were Priests, Karen Jo Torjesen points to women who were prominent leaders in the early Christian communities and historical evidence of women serving as prophets, presbyters, and even bishops. With all of this scholarship beginning to uncover the full presence of women among the disciples of Jesus and the leadership of the early Christian community, it hardly seems the right moment to close the conversation on women's ordination.
Second, it is argued that the reservation of ordination to males makes sort of rough anthropological sense in that they embody a more adequate or appropriate symbol of Christ the priest and bridegroom of the church. In short, males make a better sacramental sign of the Christ "who was and remains a man."
But is this true? As Sister Elizabeth Johnson, C.S.J. shows in her prizewinning volume, She Who Is (1993, Crossroad), this theology seriously conflicts with Saint Paul's description of the risen Christ. The apostle says that all of us, male and female, share in and make up this risen body, not by copying the maleness of Jesus but by participating in the Paschal Mystery through our baptism.
How then can the body of Christ remain male and require a male sign to mediate it in the Eucharist? Galatians 3:27-8 tells us that "there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus." Are we now to believe that only males and not females are fully taken up into the resurrected body of Christ through Baptism and that women's bodies cannot adequately image the resurrected Christ?
Third, the pope argues that reserving ordination to males is not discriminatory, with Bernardin adding that there is no injustice here because persons do not have an inherent right to ordination. Furthermore, the pope contends that because ministerial priesthood is not a promotion but a service, being excluded from it constitutes no hardship.
Meanwhile Keeler affirms the church's commitment to the fundamental equality of women and men but only an equality based upon the "unique roles and gifts of women and men." He adds further that the "matter of priestly ordination does not limit the potential of women in the church" and mentions the leadership roles women have exercised in Catholic health care and education and the examples of Saints Elizabeth Ann Seton and Frances Xavier Cabrini (the first two U.S. citizens to be canonized) as proof positive of women's fundamental equality in the church. Unfortunately, at least to a U.S. Catholic audience, if not to others as well, these statements seem profoundly unpersuasive (even unbelievable) and in the mouths of lesser men would sound cynical.
Certainly if we heard of a church excluding persons of color from ordination, we would cry prejudice and discrimination from the rafters. Just as certainly we know that every other cultural, educational, professional, and economic barrier that has been raised against women on the uniqueness of their sex has revealed itself as discriminatory and been decried as such by our own Catholic social teachings. And certainly as Americans we have reason to be suspicious of a policy supporting the "separate but equal" dignity of women based upon their "unique roles and gifts," particularly when those roles and gifts have been discovered and assigned by men. Our experience tells us that "separate but equal" has consistently failed to produce anything like equality.
As for the assertion that excluding women is not unjust because persons do not have an inherent right to ordination, don't persons have an inherent right to be treated equally? If Catholics treat people differently without a good and persuasive reason, aren't we unjust? African Americans weren't born with an inherent right to sit at lunch counters or eat at Denny's, but people of faith certainly believe it was an injustice to deny them that access or treat them like second-class citizens. Likewise, in spite of the claims made above, it seems incredible to argue that being systematically excluded from the pinnacles of authority and power in the church's sacramental, educational, administrative, financial, and juridical hierarchies is neither a disenfranchisement nor a limit to women's potential in the church.
Are we to believe that the structure of the Catholic Church is so fundamentally different from every other social institution with its ministries of authority that there is no advantage in gaining access to the corridors of power and decision making in this community? And are we really to think that those males who serve in the ministries of leadership are not themselves usually served by women whose wages and creature comforts are significantly smaller and who would see it as an advantage to be consulted, empowered, or waited upon?
And if some extraordinary women like Seton and Cabrini have prevailed over or circumvented these structures of discrimination, does that prove there were no injustices committed against them? Would we say that the success of Martin Luther King, Jr., Sidney Poitier, Bill Cosby, or Michael Jordan proved there was racial equality in America? Has no one in the hierarchy heard of the damage done to women by being relegated to a marginal role in the faith community? Is no one aware of the harm inflicted upon women by sexist language, by depriving young women of role models in leadership positions, by the presence of glass ceilings?
Have the bishops who wrote about the church's commitment to equality failed to notice the disproportionate amount of power and authority males wield in public places in the Catholic Church? When Keeler mentions the leadership roles women have in health care and education, does he really believe there is even a rough equality between these islands and the continents ruled by men? Can the presence of inequality in the church really be news?
Fourth, the pope's judgment about women's ordination came in an apostolic letter, a very serious and authoritative form of church teaching, and he argued that, as this judgment pertains to the "divine constitution" of the church, it is not open to debate but is to be "held definitively by all faithful Catholics." These are all signs of the seriousness and authority of this teaching, which deserves to be taken with utmost seriousness by faithful Catholics. Thus Keeler's call to receive this teaching lovingly and pray for understanding seem quite correct.
The problem for many faithful Catholics, however, is that, while the pope and most bishops treat women's ordination as a doctrinal question devoid of moral issues, an increasing segment of the church views the exclusion of women from ordination as a profoundly moral issue and perceive current teaching and practice as unjust. How, then, are disturbed but faithful Catholics to understand their moral obligations in the face of an authoritative teaching that generates such profound moral dissonance in them?
Aside from the well-known Catholic position that no person can ever be obliged to violate his or her own conscience, there may be some other reasons to suggest that the authority of this teaching has real limits. To start, while papal letters (including both encyclicals and apostolic letters) are serious documents, some very recent ones have taught beliefs and practices no longer accepted in the Catholic Church.
In 1950 Pope Pius XII wrote an encyclical (Humani generis) to argue that the whole human race descended from Adam and Eve and added "this subject can no longer be considered a fit matter for debate." A decade later John XXIII used an apostolic letter to order that all seminary classes be taught in Latin. Neither of these documents are currently part of church teaching or practice.
Furthermore, it seems relevant to point out that a central reason for the shelving of these documents was their poor reception by the faithful (including the theological community), for one of the key signs of an authoritative teaching is its reception by the whole church. And indeed there are good reasons to wonder how this present document will be received in a global church, where, as John XXIII said 30 years ago, "women are becoming ever more conscious of their human dignity" and where many other Christian churches have begun to ordain women to ministry.
It has also been the consistent teaching of the Catholic Church that its authoritative teachings in moral matters must be profoundly reasonable, that is, they must be understandable and persuasive to women and men of goodwill. In his recent letter on moral teaching John Paul argues that the authority of the church when it speaks on moral questions neither conflicts with nor adds anything new to the consciences of reasonable persons, "Rather, it brings to light the truth which it [the Christian conscience] already possesses."
The great theologian Father Karl Rahner, S.J. underscores this point when he argues that authority must have a demonstrable trustworthiness, meaning that it must be persuasive. That is the problem with the current teaching: many do not find it reasonable and see it as a contradiction to their grasp of the dignity and equality of the human person.
Finally, when Catholic social teachings are applied to every other human organization, the moral authority of its leaders depends upon the presence of just social structures, open democratic processes, and the full and equal participation of all its members. Even within the Catholic Church developments since the Second Vatican Council have deepened our commitment to collegiality, fuller participation of the laity, and the protection of the human rights and dignity of all the baptized. Thus, it must be noted that the authority of a papal or episcopal document defining the unique roles and gifts of women will be seen as seriously undermined as long as no women either participated in developing this teaching or had a voice in selecting those roles.
The fifth and final question is addressed to our American episcopacy. On the morning the pope's letter was promulgated, I was sitting on the lawn of Georgetown University's campus watching my sister graduate from law school. Seated with my parents, siblings, and nieces we were, like so many there, bursting with pride at the accomplishment of our gifted and brilliant sister, herself named after Elizabeth Ann Seton.
As the graduation ceremony came to a close, former Congressman and Law Professor Father Robert Drinan, S.J. left us with a parting thought from the ancient Greek lawgiver, Solon: "Justice will not come until those who are not hurt by injustice are as indignant as those who are."
Let me offer that thought to our "brothers" in the American episcopacy. When you come to address those who are disturbed by this teaching and ask them to receive it lovingly and pray for understanding, please explain why you are not so offended, why you, with the singular exception of Archbishop Rembert Weakland, do not seem to find this teaching "difficult to accept."
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|Title Annotation:||challenges to the Catholic Church's prohibition of the ordination of women|
|Date:||Sep 1, 1994|
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