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Fr. Charles Irvin, Diocese of Lansing at 402-A E. Madison Street, DeWitt, MI 48820 US - On The Ordination of Women

On The Ordination of Women
by Fr. Charles Irvin
July, 1996


Ordaining women as priests? There have been a lot of arguments both for and against this proposal from varying points of view, the more popular of them being politically based. I say politically based because they are constructed on grounds that assume the Church to be an aggregate of like-minded individuals who have voluntarily declared themselves to be Catholic and have individually "bought in" to the over-arching presence of the Church throughout human history and in our present world. This view is based on the notion that the Church is a legal and social entity constructed on the polity of human beings, the doctrines of which can be bought or not bought depending upon how we feel about them.

There is another view, namely that the Church is God's gift to His children, His creatures, whom He wants to love. The Church is the Presence; the Church is the Mystical Body of Christ; the Church is that Mystery wherein God comes to us. The story of the Tower of Babel is the story of a human construction, designed according to human specifications, whereby human beings decided how they were going to get to God. The story of the Church, however, is the reverse. The Church is created, fashioned and maintained by God in His approach to us.

The basic direction which further discussion takes is based upon which choice you make in deciding how you are going to analyze any theological question. Is the Church from God, or is the Church a human creation?

Now there have been a lot of arguments, as I said, with regard to why the Church cannot ordain women to the Priesthood. Several predominate.

 

  1. The icon argument. This is based on the notion that the priest is an icon of the Spirit-filled, risen and glorified Christ who was Jesus of Nazareth. This Jesus of Nazareth was, by the power of the Holy Spirit, raised from the dead as the New Adam, the Progenitor of God's New Creation, the Christ of Glory. Those ordained to stand in the shoes of His apostles are icons of Him, and as icons they must be, to preserve the continuum, males who re-present Him to us in our day and in our time.
  2.  

  3. The Apostolic Tradition argument. This argument is based on the notion that the successors to the apostles are bound to transmit, to hand over ("tradere"), only that which they received from the Apostles themselves. We cannot use pizza and beer, for instance, as the elements for the Consecration into the Body and Blood of Christ during our eucharistic liturgies. We must use bread and wine in order to remain faithful to what Jesus Christ did as well as to remain faithful to what the Apostles handed down to us. The "matter" of the Sacrament must be bread and wine; the "matter" to be ordained to Holy Orders must be male.

    The Great Orthodox Churches of the East never have and probably never will ordain women to the priesthood. Catholics, along with them, remain faithful to the teaching and practices of the College of the Apostles. If the Orthodox Church ever did (by some miracle) ordain women to the priesthood, the Catholic Church would be under enormous pressure to follow along with them. Nevertheless the Orthodox, and we Catholics with them, regard the practice of twenty centuries to be in itself doctrinal. It is impossible to conceive that either Church would ordain women given the history of what both Churches have done from the time of the Apostles. A spectacular intervention by the Holy Spirit would be the only event that would overcome these twenty centuries of handing over the constant teaching of the world's Orthodox and Catholic bishops since Apostolic times. It is the consistency of the teaching that is overwhelming. Many consider THAT to be of such consequence as to be absolutely controlling on the question.

     

  4. The sovereign will of Christ. To my way of thinking this is the most compelling argument. It is based on the notion that Christ was not "culturally conditioned", that He was not "obliged" by His surrounding culture and societal norms to choose only males to be His apostles and to ordain only males to act "in persona Christi". To assert that Christ was not free is to violate a whole lot of other truths we hold about Him, things we simply must believe if we are to identify ourselves as His disciples. It is unthinkable to imagine that Christ was in any way not free.

    What is emerging in my mind is the pope's commitment to the sovereign and free will of Christ, and the fact that the Roman Catholic Church is committed to maintaining with integrity its response to Christ's will. Everything Christ chose to do, He chose to do freely and without constraint. On the night before He died, declares the Eucharistic Prayer, He freely chose His death. Political correctness was the very last thing on His mind!

    The argument runs, it seems to me, this way. Jesus Christ lived, acted, and taught in His sovereign and free will without any constraint other than to do His Father's will. No human, cultural, historical, or other constraint found in God's creation, even the laws of nature, bound Him. He was bound by nothing whatsoever. Even His death, as I just noted, was a death freely chosen, not imposed. What, then, of the allegation that He was restrained by "cultural conditioning"? The answer is, of course, He wasn't! In His own sovereign and unconstrained free will He chose twelve Jewish men, some perhaps married and some perhaps not married, to be His apostles and His successors in the office of His Priesthood. Not even His own blessed mother, the one nearest and dearest to His heart, was chosen by Him to be commissioned to stand in His shoes, insofar as He handed over His High Priestly role to be carried on by others in His post- resurrection Presence here on earth, that Presence He desired to be found in what we have come to know as His Mystical Body, the Church.

    As I take it, Pope John Paul II is looking at the church's historical response to God's offer to us in His Incarnate Son. It is a response that has been maintained with fidelity throughout 2,000 years of human history. The Catholic Church's response has remained integral with other teachings of Christ, for instance His teaching about divorce. For all of the power of the keys granted to Peter and the College of the Apostles and their successors, the church has never changed Christ's teaching about divorce. Oh, to be sure, in instances of failed marriages she has investigated what hath allegedly been "joined together in God." And the Church has found quite a number of marriages to be defective in their sacramentality, and therefore not sacramental in their nature (all of which says nothing about the civil relationship called marriage). But outright divorce? Never. Why? Because of the sovereign and free will of Jesus Christ with regard to the subject matter.

This article is short and so I won't delve into other instances of the church's purported "inflexibility". All I wish to do here is posit my own understanding of why Pope John Paul II is taking the position that he has taken on the topic of ordination of women, a position that has nothing whatsoever to do with civil rights, justice, fairness, or equal opportunity laws, but that has everything to do with remaining integral with the action of Jesus Christ in handing over His priestly role to mere mortals.

Now, as to reality of leadership in the Church, we have abundant examples of women who have led the church, changed the church, reformed and renewed the church, and have called her to faithfulness in responding to Jesus Christ. All have been women of great power and authority. One has only to look at what St. Catherine said to the pope in Avignon, France, the then Bishop of Rome, for but one example among many.

Finally, who is the greatest in the Church anyway? Priests? Perhaps we should consult the teachings of Christ for an answer to that question. For His teaching about importance and power and authority is a matter of far greater importance than the one about ordaining women, which presently agitates some of us so very much.

 


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