Can You Risk Not Knowing the Truth?

A Response to Arguments for Women Priests #2

Dear Miss Wannabe,

How Did Galileo Get into This?

I was wondering how long it would take you to bring Galileo into it. If there was any mistreatment by Church authorities in this bureaucratic matter, the present Pope has made amends for it. However, since the controversial particulars of this case related to science and not to faith, I fail to see its pertinence to the question of women priests. Anyway, Galileo brought his own integrity into question by his broken promises to the Church, his superstitious practice of astrology, and believe it or not, dubious assertions regarding the Eucharist. By the way, your question, "Do you still think that the earth is flat?" has more to do with Columbus than with Galileo and his development upon Copernicus that the sun (and not the earth) is the center of our planetary system. Further, his view, not unique to him, was still thought dangerous to simple people who might equate a truth of the physical universe with the spiritual. The faith tenet that was at stake and which still binds, regardless of where the earth is positioned, is the centrality of self-conscious corporeal-spiritual creatures in the scheme of creation-- a nucleus to which the second Person of the Blessed Trinity would join himself.

I am increasingly feeling that this dialogue is a waste of time. Despite correctives, not unique to me but from the inheritance of the Church, you refuse to yield from your original positions. Your proofs suffer from the same incongruity as your citations, only applicable in an extensively revisionist and re-interpretive light; your suppositions remain in actuality only uncollaborated slogans. Since I mentioned in my first correspondence that these letters could only offer the most cursory replies, I will leave it to you to do the basic academic research into this and into parallel questions of faith, like that of Galileo. While I have misplaced the book in my library that speaks of repercussions from Galileo's thought upon eucharistic teaching, I will try to summarize it briefly from memory. As you may know, traditional teaching regarding the real presence and transubstantiation is intimately couched in Aristotelian categories via the likes of Thomas Aquinas and the scholastics. This theology (very philosophical in nature) speaks of the accidents of bread and wine remaining while the substance or essence is replaced (destroyed as in sacrifice) by the Lord himself-- body, soul, and divinity. Galileo found himself at odds with the scholastic philosophers while he himself was more comfortable as a scientist. It was Galileo's assumption that all the workings of nature could only be expressed mathematically. If anything could not be analyzed as a mathematical abstraction, like the accidents (secondary sense qualities), essences, and causes, then they were either purely subjective or non-existent-- NOT objectively real. I guess you see the possible problem. For more research, Catholic University's Mullin Library and the one at Dominican House of Studies should prove most enlightening in this regard.

I would offer these points against your contentions:

Points of Correction

1. While gender can be distinguished it can never be separated out as "incidental" to either our humanity or to Christ's.

2. The Church is restrained by the pattern of Christ and tradition in perpetuating the priesthood given to Christ's male apostles at the Last Supper (and not immediately to the 70 and never to women). Also, the role of Christ as the groom and the Church as his bride is realized in the Eucharist, impelling us to ordain men who can signify this reality.

3. The correlation of contraception and abortion to the Church's inability, not refusal, to ordain women is nonsense and non-topical. As for the sensus-fidelium, I would suspect that a world majority, not just North American, would argue against women priests. In any case, this has historically been the case, once true, always true, and such a sense must be validated by tradition and responsible religious practice.

4. The statement that a female priesthood is perfectly in line with apostolic tradition is a fallacy. Even most of the feminist theologians acknowledge this state of affairs. Mary Daly has gone so far as to adopt a form of goddess worship, contending that Christianity is unredeemably patriarchal. The early fathers (you should read them) either through implication or direct assertion are unanimous that only men can be priests. The ecumenical council of Nicea (another source of infallible teaching) directly stipulated that women could not be ordained. Your argumentation for this proposition is absent because it is non-existent. Let us not lie to ourselves.

Marriage Imagery and the Priestly Groom

"One of the problems is our false use of the groom and bride imagery for Christ and the Church."

It is difficult not to take offense at the suggestion of reconsidering priesthood outside of the context of what you call "the Christ-Church marriage mystery." Not only is it a common thread woven throughout the Christian view of marriage, it is also a bulwark of our ecclesiology and view of the priest conducting the sacerdotal sacraments. It is the cornerstone of a theology and spirituality of priesthood. By virtue of his identification with Christ, the priest at Mass sees himself involved with a mystical marriage to the Church. This is especially true of celibate priests. Cast this aside, and not only would many of the inherent rewards of priesthood evaporate, but many would be unable to continue in this most important ministry. If I were a dissenter, I would probably argue your case differently than you do. Thank God, I have always had a receptive heart and mind to the teaching of the Church.

The Truth vs. Historical Revisionism

"Is there not evidence for women's ordination in the early Church?"

While the imposition of hands becomes a symbolic action for several sacraments and even in charismatic prayer, its use over women in some parts of the early Church, at their own attestation, cannot be ascribed to any legitimate ordination, as understood today. Canon 19 of the Council of Nicea in 325 AD asserts: "Similarly, in regard to the deaconesses, [the Paulianists being received into the true Church], let the same form be observed [rebaptism]. And we mean by deaconesses such as have assumed the habit [enrolled], but who, since they have no imposition of hands [actually it might be rendered, "although, not having been in any way ordained"], are certainly to be numbered [or "reckoned"] only among the laity." I wish I could refer you to the original Greek which might make matters clearer. Unfortunately, Denzinger only offers the text preceding this quotation. Until recently, the need to repudiate women's ordination was not felt in the West. An accompanying note in an old Episcopalian text states: "This whole matter is treated clearly by St. Epiphanius who, while indeed speaking of deaconesses as an tagma, asserts that 'they were only women-elders, not priestesses in any sense, that their mission was not to interfere in any way with Sacerdotal functions, but simply to perform certain offices in the care of women' (Haer. lxxix, cap. iij). From all this it is evident that they are entirely in error who suppose that 'the laying on of hands' which the deaconesses received corresponded to that which persons were ordained to the diaconate, presbyterate, and episcopate at that period of the church's history. It was merely a solemn dedication and blessing and was not looked upon as 'an outward sign of an inward grace given.' For further proof of this I must refer to Morinus, who has treated the matter most admirably. (De Ordinationibus, Exercitatio X.)"

As a Logical First Step: Why No Mention of Deaconesses?

It somewhat surprises me that in questioning the Church's prohibition against ordaining women, you have ignored the topic of deaconesses. Must I both argue your case and refute it, too? Several years ago I published an article responding to the suggested re-examination of the issue of women as deacons espoused by the first draft of the U.S. bishop's pastoral on sexism. I urged caution to unwarranted enthusiasm and reservation to misplaced hopes. It was offered as only one priest's sober contribution to a heating debate regarding the diaconate (and therefore holy orders) and the possibility of women's admission. I tried to keep my rhetoric from becoming offensive and admitted that my feelings went out to the bishops for whom I could foresee no reasonable accommodation for all in their new letter and to those women who feel alienated, desiring more structured and formal avenues of ministerial service. My heart went out to hurting women, but my head failed to fathom any certain argument which would entitle them to holy orders. Too often in the past has the Church in America falsely viewed itself as a representative microcosm for the world community, anticipating in itself changes which ultimately would fail to receive either approval or recognition. Indeed, instead of being a catalyst for change, the individualistic dynamism and blind self-assurance of American Catholics (am I hitting close to home?) has often lead to frustration, grief, and anger. Let me offer three examples of this phenomena in recent times.

Recent Cases of Anticipation Proven Imprudent.

On the level of doctrine, many theologians predicted that Pope Paul VI would permit contraception by the pill since it mimicked the natural hormonal cycles of the woman anyway. Millions of people followed their advice instead of exploring various natural means of family planning which would have been in accord with traditional teaching. Humanae Vitae was promulgated condemning artificial contraception and the subject of sexuality and reproduction has been a hotbed of controversy ever since. On the level of ecclesiastical discipline, both the issues of celibacy in priesthood and of allowing altar girls to serve at Mass have been pertinent. Many priests studying in the 1960's allowed themselves to be ordained even though they secretly held reservations about celibacy; they did such because it was commonly rumored that compulsory celibacy was going to be abandoned. Two decades later, the Church still retained this model of priesthood in the Western Church as the ideal. Those who could not find some resolution in regards to their sexual expression and needs for intimacy have either become disgruntled bachelors or have left the priesthood altogether.

Also, on the level of a Church rule, I cited in my article the matter altar girls. It is now a mute topic, although it has already caused its share of upset. While such permission has recently been given local ordinaries, it was widely anticipated long before this throughout the country. A special synod bumped the issue from its agenda at the urging of third world bishops who thought the topic was absurd compared to their life or death issues. A lack of restraint placed Church leaders, like Cardinal Bernadin and our own Cardinal Hickey, in the precarious situation of looking the other way for many years since the furor from parents if the children were dismissed might even compete with the indignation of Rome towards their passivity. However, past dissent is not legitimized by a change in policy. It is unfortunate that this impression has been given. Such anticipation in Arlington, VA, where female servers are still banned has placed disobedient churches in a most disagreeable light. Lincoln, Nebraska is another diocese that disallows altar girls. In both cases, there is the very real concern that priestly vocations will be hurt by the liberalization of this ministry. If you have read the permissorial statement from the Congregation for Worship and the Sacraments, you will note that women priests are disavowed.

You Aren't A Deaconess Yet.

The same advice against anticipation must be sighted in the matter of the deaconess. I doubt anyone in their right mind would ordain a woman without permission from the Holy See; however, a great many authorities might think that such an allowance is only a matter of time. A few years ago, a number of women I know entered the seminary presuming that since the Episcopalians were ordaining women, the Catholic Church would immediately follow suit. [However, they failed to appreciate that the Catholic Church even questioned the validity of Episcopalian orders rendered to men.] These women graduated from their theology programs only to watch their male counterparts pass them by in receiving ordination. Now, many of them have blamed the Church for the years they spent in studies and some have excluded themselves from any possible posts in religious education by the scandal of public dissent with the Church. One woman in this situation was interviewed on the national news, and she said that she would not accept priesthood today, not even to mention the diaconate; no, she said that she deserved to be a bishop. Even if her gender was male, one would have to seriously wonder about the worthiness of such a candidate. [This is the kind of person who irritates even those sympathetic to women's ordination.] However, I would suggest that these female opportunists constitute the majority clamoring for holy orders.

It is of interest to note that in the cases of anticipation I recorded earlier, there is no real doctrinal problem with either a married priesthood (as in the Eastern rites) or with altar girls who require no form of ordination. Both are matters of ecclesiastical discipline. The priest is celibate so that he can single-heartedly love and devote himself to his people. As for altar girls, they are now a LEGAL reality. However, concerns still remain. Despite clarifications to the contrary, simple people are readily making the leap in their minds from female servers to female priests.

No Clear Precedent.

It has been cited by advocates of a move toward ordaining women, that a commission sponsored by Pope Paul VI perceived no clear theological reason why women could not be ordained. This was a preliminary study since surpassed by researched formulations during the pontificate of Pope John Paul II. However, the earlier report acknowledged that the tradition carried no clear support for the change. Next to the Scriptures themselves, the rule of Tradition possesses a normative quality of no minor significance. From this legacy has arisen a couple reasons why we should be reserved regarding the issue of women's ordination to the diaconate. First, there was no clear precedent in that the holy women or deaconesses of the early Church performed a different role than the men and essentially prepared female neophytes for initiation, out of propriety; or some were possibly called such out of respect for their deacon husbands. As for the first instance, the early Church had a realistic understanding of the danger of scandal and the weakness of the flesh; as for the second, the practice has continued even today in nations like Germany of calling a woman after her husband's professional title. The male deacons were clearly chronicle d in the Scriptures and Patristic writings as members of the three-tiered hierarchy who through the laying on of hands were commissioned to represent the Church and to preach the Good News. Although initially ordained to care for Hellenic widows and thus fulfill the social mission of the Church, they also rapidly became important evangelizers. The Eastern Rite churches in Orthodoxy have remained rigidly faithful to these same roots; any departure in this area would probably cause irreparable damage to our ongoing ecumenical dialogue with them. An important maxim of the Church emerged: Function follows charism. The nature of their vocation was seen as different through the divergent things they performed. If restored, might the deaconess continue to be something other than the ordained male diaconate? Yes.

The testimony from the New Testament is worthy of reflection but is unclear:

Romans 16:1-2 - The only explicit reference of a deaconess, in this case a woman called Phoebe of the church at Cenchreae who has been a helper of many "including myself" (St. Paul).

1 Timothy 3:11 - Probable reference to deaconesses and their qualities (to be serious, no slanderers, but temperate and faithful in all things). It immediately follows the qualities to be looked for in a deacon. There is confusion in this regard as to whether they might have been the wives of deacons; of course, it is possible that such were deaconesses in their own right.

It is interesting to note that the principal restriction placed upon women in the early Church was a prohibition from proclaiming the Word of God and preaching. Nevertheless, women did an assortment of valuable ministries, even if they were chosen and not strictly ordained like men. Figures like Cyprian, Hippolytus, and Tertullian were unanimous that women should not be engaged in liturgical functions. The Council of Nicea, as mentioned at the beginning of this letter, cements this point of view by contending that deaconesses, as lay people, were not to undergo the imposition of hands.

Recently it came to my attention that a man studying for priesthood in Rome wrote a dissertation in which he argued that the diaconate was not a part of holy orders and therefore not a sacrament. His work was acknowledged and passed by his instructors. This has been an idea with which many thinkers at home have also toyed. If accepted, it would immediately pave the road for women to join the ranks of deacons. However, in my estimation, any such minimization of the diaconate as outside of holy orders, which suspiciously only arose from those seeking to protect a male priesthood or to placate interested women, would rightly infuriate permanent deacons, patronize feminists, and be at variance with certain Church teachings.

Infuriate Permanent Deacons.

First, with the restoration of the permanent diaconate, men have been told all along that they were now not only clergy but partakers in one of the seven sacraments, holy orders. Having said this, and with bishops ordaining with this purpose in mind, is this really free ground for discussion? I do not believe the Church could err on such a basic reality of its life, nor do I believe these good men in the diaconate have been deceived about their vocation. In the story about the student in Rome there is an interesting side note. During his oral examinations for the priesthood he is asked, "Is the diaconate a part of holy orders?" He answers, "No," and summarily fails. A few days later he returns to take the test again and answers, "Yes." I will not remark about the cost of integrity today; I will say that we all should be alert to those who allow the intellectual endeavor to possess them instead of them owning it as merely a tool on the behalf of faith and truth; otherwise, the consequences from their enthusiasm might make us all the poorer in our Catholic inheritance.

Patronize Feminists.

Second, feminists would be offended by the offer of a gutted diaconate. As if this is not enough, some have acknowledged that the two forms of diaconate in the New Testament and early Church were different and that the holy women or deaconesses could still be restored. Theoretically, this might be quite possible, even within orthodox limits. However, would it be prudent to do so? Before the changes incurred by the renewal of the Second Vatican Council, the Church included men from tonsure to the subdeacon in the ranks of the clerical state. The subdiaconate was conceded by most not to be a sacrament. Interestingly enough, even prior to the changes, his role was usually abrogated by the priest. However, the ecclesiastical institution of the subdiaconate, even if it was restored for women might give the impression that it was a preparation for priesthood as it was for men in days of old.

In addition, no matter whether one called it the ministry of deaconess or subdiaconate, most feminists would interpret it as but another attempt at subjugation by a patriarchal and oppressive system. Being neither bishops, priests, nor ordained deacons (orders of divine institution), proponents might do some arithmetic and figure that they were number four on the list and not even in holy orders at that.

Time and space limits any debate on this topic, however, I need to remark that during my studies at Catholic University, most women with an interest in holy orders never mentioned the diaconate. They have their eyes set on priesthood and maybe even that which is beyond. I cannot help but think that they confuse the sacraments as something you can earn on a social justice agenda. In contradiction, they are purely God's gifts given in the Church founded by Jesus. I have asked the question before and I will ask it again-- why is it the Mother Teresa's of the world choose not to want holy orders and our feminists at home do? Maybe this is something telling for us in regards to this question? I recall telling one woman advocating female ordination, that she would never be satisfied with being a priest. Angrily, she asked why? I answered her, because it would be a step down since by your vocal dissent you have already made yourself pope.

Variance with Church Teachings.

When the ministries were being challenged by the Reformation, the Council of Trent more than inferred the diaconate as divinely instituted. Rather than vetoing this move, the reforms of the Second Vatican Council have further exalted the role of deacon in the Church. Pope Pius XII, a precursor for our age of renewal, stated for us in the constitution Sacramentum ordinis within the old debate over the substance of the sacraments: ". . . We, with our supreme apostolic authority and certain knowledge, declare . . . the matter of holy orders of diaconate, priesthood, and episcopate, is the imposition of hands. . . ." The diaconate was and is an inseparable member of the triad of orders in the Church.

As to whether or not women should be given admission to holy orders or some sort of pseudo-order, I believe we would do well to follow closely the model given us by Christ and the apostles. We need to move forward with discretion on matters which could cause further scandalous division and with humility in regards to the immutable attributes of the sacraments which are God's gifts to us.

Declaration on the Question of the Admission of Women to Ministerial Priesthood

I have always found the Declaration on the Question of the Admission of Women to Ministerial Priesthood to be particularly insightful. I will summarize it as follows:

1. In her Tradition, the Catholic Church has never felt that priestly or episcopal ordination can be validly conferred on women. "A few heretical sects in the first centuries, especially Gnostic ones, entrusted the exercise of the priestly ministry to women: this innovation was immediately noted and condemned by the Fathers, who considered it as unacceptable in the Church."

2. Jesus Christ himself did not call any women to membership in the Twelve. "If He acted in this way, it was not in order to conform to the customs of his time, for his attitude towards women was quite different from that of his milieu, and he deliberately and courageously broke with it."

3. Even Mary was not called to the Twelve as a member. Paul tells us in Acts, that the fulfillment of the prophesies in Jesus were made only by "Peter and the Eleven."

4. The attitude of Jesus and the Apostles on this matter is of permanent value. The Church itself is BOUND by Christ's manner of acting.

5. "The Christian priesthood is therefore of a sacramental nature: the priest is a sign, the supernatural effectiveness of which comes from the ordination received, but a sign that must be perceptible and which the faithful must be able to recognize with ease." The priest is a man because this natural resemblance in the minister makes it easier to see the image of Christ there. For Christ himself WAS and REMAINS a man. [Note that the priest acts "in persona Christi" (persona referring to the entire identity of Jesus not just a genderless Spirit, as you suggest), not merely "in persona Ecclesia."]

6. "But it must not be forgotten that the priesthood does not form part of the rights of the individual, but stems from the economy of the mystery of Christ and the Church." It is simply and purely a gift, not the goal of some merited action in social justice.

Words from St. Chrysostom

Somewhere between the mid-370's to the mid-380's, St. Chrysostom wrote the following in his treatise On the Priesthood: "Will you, then, still contend that you were not rightly deceived, when you are about to superintend the things which belong to God, and are doing that which when Peter did the Lord said he should be able to surpass the rest of the apostles, for His words were, 'Peter, lovest thou me more than these?' Yet He might have said to him, 'If thou lovest me practise fasting, sleeping on the ground, and prolonged vigils, defend the wronged, be as a father to orphans, and supply the place of a husband to their mother.' But as a matter of fact, setting aside all these things, what does He say? 'Tend my sheep.' For those things which I have already mentioned might easily be performed by many even of those who are under authority, women as well as men; but when one is required to preside over the Church, and to be entrusted with the care of so many souls, the whole female sex must retire before the magnitude of the task, and the majority of men also; and we must bring forward those who to a large extent surpass all others, . . . ."

Borrowing his words, "Will you, then, still contend that you were not rightly deceived, . . . ."

May the boy-child of Bethlehem continue to bless you,
Fr. Joseph Jenkins


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Revised on April 30, 1998.