Can You Risk Not Knowing the Truth?

A Response to Arguments for Women Priests #3

Dear Miss Wannabe,

After I had sent my last response to you, I recollected a series of articles in different journals by Bishop Kenneth E. Untener. Misunderstanding sexuality, the two of you share misconceptions about the action of the priest at the altar "in persona Christi." His confusion sheads light upon yours. He also naively misrepresents and dissents from its traditional interpretation. He is quite a man. As a seminary rector, he is said to have shown porno films to seminarians, exposing them to the "so-called" real world.

Bishop Untener's Views

Giving the appearance of orthodoxy, he maintains the usage of "in persona Christi," while evacuating it of any authentic meaning. His claim of a shift in its understanding "since the 1940's" is not substantiated since it was already well developed in the scholastic tradition. Our deepening appreciation of it has been a legitimate instance of the operation of the universal ordinary magisterium under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. As such it takes upon itself a level of certitude, dare I say infallibility, especially in regards to its five citations in the Vatican II documents. Counciliar teachings do not have to be statistically verified. The bishop, trying to find any loophole for women priests, like yourself, ignored this point.

But, perhaps you are not familair with his views? Let me briefly summarize them. He caricatures, and I believe falsely, the teaching as mere "impersonation," no different from an actor pretending to be someone else in a contemporary drama. Opposed to St. Jerome's supposedly "false translation" of the Greek (and here I will transliterate) "en prosopo Christou" (2 Corinthians 2:10) as "in persona Christi," the bishop claims it really means "in the presence of Christ" or "before (the face of) Christ." Although these renditions of the word "prosopon" have some validity, he forgot that the Vulgate remains the official ecclesiastical translation. In contrast, you will avow that the "persona" manifested is the divine Second Person of the Blessed Trinity but disavow his male-differentiated humanity. Christ's identity can never be split. Thus in summary, Bishop Untener actually removes the ontological reality of Christ's presence at the altar and you divide it.

Ecumenically, Anglo-Catholics and Orthodox churches concur with us, even if they might use different terminology. For Eastern Christians, the priest is considered "an icon of Christ." It must be remembered that icons are considered more than images. They are venerated as somehow holding God's presence in them. To say that a priest acts as Christ's icon, means that we can experience the undivided person of Christ in him. To make this identification even more complete, the constitutive element of a priest's maleness is supplemented by such accidentals as vestments and beard.

Bishop Untener may be correct in that the Mass is a drama; but, the priest is more than an actor. Every Mass is Christ's, the principal celebrant. Unless he is present in the person of the priest, this assertion becomes nonsense. He minimized the meaning of the prosopon or mask and you ignored this Greek source entirely. An actor in ancient Greek theater would hold up a prosopon or face to disquise his countenance. More than simply "impersonating" the character as in modern drama, the face he held allowed him to take unto himself a new, even if pseudo-real, identity. These transformations became so thorough, that many of the ancients considered acting to be a vocation.

In the Christological controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries, AD, over the identity of Jesus, prosopon was understood as an external concrete apparition, the appearance of the "physis". The physis was a set of characteristics or properties, in other words, that which made up the nature of a thing. However, even in this context, the word prosopon was strengthened by the term "hypostasis." [This was because some feared what you have done, the dividing of Christ in two.] This last word was closely connected with the term "persona" in the West. The word person signified the firm ground from out of which an existing thing took its stand and developed. [It is the person of Christ who stands and renders sacrifice in front of our altars. The priest does not pretend to be Christ. At the Sacrifice of the Mass, he is the undivided Christ.]

The bishop writes, "In the early centuries we do not see this phrase used to describe the role of the ordained priest." Why is this? The answer is simple. The Church comes to a further understanding of herself and of her doctrinal treasury through conflict. Christ's identification with the minister in the liturgy was not at issue. For that matter, even when surrounded by pagan priestesses and heretical ones, the consensus of the Church was so sure that no defense of the male priesthood was thought necessary.

Through all the rhetoric, the bishop is essentially implying that the sexuality and/or body of the human being should not be a determining factor of worthiness for holy orders. Well, gosh gee, you have found one bishop who agrees with YOU. But one does not constitute the Magisterium. Historicaly, there is a precedent that says otherwise. Indeed, as I have said before, the Gnostics who copied many Christian rituals possessed a female priesthood. They also denied that Christ was really a human being. If he was not really a man, we are not redeemed. Do we really want to run this course? I think not.

Abusing St. Thomas' appreciation of instrumental causality, the bishop writes that "Christ makes use of the instrument of a priest in the sacraments in the same way that a physician makes use of a scalpel -- as an instrument, although in this case, an animate instrument." What he bypasses is that a man is not a scalpel and a priest is not any man. The nature of the instrument must be respected. Christ has so configured a man that through ordination he is capable of making the Lord present through his very person. This is the legitimate instrumentality of the priest at Mass.

Tradition Can Be Trusted

"The historical tradition one the question of women's ordination is hardly reliable."

Well, while the question of women priests is for the most part a new one for the West, I have mentioned before that what data from history we do possess seems overwhelmingly negative. Fr. Peter Stravinskas says in his book The Catholic Answer, vol. 1: "In the current debate, we should realize that the burden of proof rests on those seeking to change Tradition. This is standard debate procedure, and one not adhered to by many of the partisans of women's ordination. The best argument against the ordination of women is really the simplest, but also the most easily caricatured: it has never been done. No other change resulting from the Second Vatican Council so clearly flies in the face of Tradition; a vernacular liturgy, permanent deacons, and even married priests all find precedent in Tradition" (p. 36).

Error Has No Rights

"Closing discussion upon th subject of women's ordination is a violation of free speech."

2. As I do not accept the first point as giving the issue legitimacy, I fail to see how free speech ever enters into the picture. Am I allowed to cry out "Fire!" in a crowded theater, even when there is none, causing unrest and deaths by the stampeding crowds. No. If there is no such thing as a female priesthood, will my saying there is make it so? No If women were ordained anyway, as the Anglicans are doing, would this not endanger the spiritual lives of God's people, cutting them off from a legitimate and valid Eucharist? Yes. This point falls, as does its infernal author through eternity, on the same grounds as does that contention of Father Charles Curran. What suddenly is at stake here is a view of ecclesiology and the right of the Magisterium to demand assent even upon issues which might not be formally and infallibly defined as yet. Interestingly enough, many of the same ones who are critics of the Church when their own particular pet views are threatened are quick to commend the Church when it defends its doctrinal integrity against others, i.e. errors about Eucharist and errors about the Trinity and divinity of Christ. A priest friend from the diocese of Peoria was in the initial stages of a book which he hoped would show that the male-only priesthood is infallible due to a consensus in the universal ordinary Magisterium; unfortunately, all kidding aside, he passed away last year. I think his premise is correct.

What Kind of Music in a Catholic Symphony?

"The value of a female priesthood is seen within the "Catholic symphony" of our beliefs and rituals. The analogy of faith must be viewed, not in arbitrary facts, but as something viewed under the illumination of the entire mystery of Christ."

The Holy Father used this term, "Catholic symphony," but never envisioning the inclusion of such topics as women's ordination. Some would transform it into a new codeword in dogmatics for what the "seamless garment" is for moral theology. It must not be used to waterdown particular Catholic teachings from the whole as disharmonious rather than in attempting to discern ways to better integrate them. The comprehensive understanding of Catholicism is not a bad idea; however, few except Thomas Aquinas have ever intellectually up to the task of interweaving the various threads of the Church's faith deposit. Today, most theologians are single issue debaters who might even place their own "personal" intellectual inquiry above those who support, even if inadequately, the teachings offered by the Apostles' successors.

A Role for the Scriptures or Cultural Stereotypes

"The Scriptures are not concise enough to render a verdict upon women's ordination."

A little bit of truth baked in a cake of deceit is a lot more appealing than the lies as the only ingredient. You see, an earlier doctrinal statement of the Church said just this. This does not mean that the Scriptures or their witness are irrelevant to the matter; they just are not very definitive upon it. I believe the Bible does reveal that Jesus was not locked into arbitrary stereotypes. Thus, his selection of men as Apostles and later as priests cannot be construed as culturally conditioned. His rationale for selecting men must have had a deeper root meaning.

Rebellion Against the Church

"The Church is seriously mistaken in its prohibition against women priests."

Here we begin to see the real colors of this temptor to ecclesial rebellion. It would have us do in the Church what they tried to do in heaven-- fracture! By saying that the Church may be seriously mistaken, the Holy Spirit which guides the Church is blasphemed. (The unpardonable sin?) By contending that authorities recognize the callings of women but lie about them is a projection of the other side's deceit. No one will tell them different. No one will tell them what to believe. No one will change their minds. Gosh! The sin of the devils really is the sin of men. From the early Protestant reformers to the dissenters today there has been an arrogance that refuses to submit to the teaching authority established by Christ. Instead of faith seeking understanding, we frequently find a methodical athiesm in religious guise, that tears down not only the individual dicta of faith but their ecclesiological underpinnings as well. In the end, they would leave us with nothing. If the Church cannot be accorded accuracy on an issue as important as the sacrament of holy orders, then it cannot be relied upon about the rest of religious truth either. Fr. Stravinskas writes: "The Holy Father has consistently said that the Church cannot ordain women; not that she also does not want to do it, just that she does not have the power to do so. The reason is that Jesus Christ, Lord of the Church, chose only men. 'But Christ was limited by His own culture which had a low opinion of women,' comes the retort. That might be true, at least in the sense that our Lord had to preach the Gospel to a people who were limited by their own cultural conditioning. However, Jesus never hesitated to break with other cultural patterns of His day (e.g., dining with sinners). How do we explain this apparent inconsistency, except to say that the all-male apostolic ministry is an expression of divine will?" (p. 36). For one person the matter is women priests, for another it is the consciousness and identity of Jesus, for another it is original sin, for another it is the real presence, for another it is contraception, for another it is abortion, for another it is the homosexual orientation and lifestyle, for another it is the role of Mary and the saints, and the list goes on and on. All together, the Church has never faced such an unslaught upon the faith as in our times. All the heresies of two thousand years, including New Age pagan worship, has resurfaced to battle the Rock of Peter in these last days. But no matter what the particular issue of contention is, they all are united in their repudiation of the Church's teaching authority. In the final analysis, and my former professor Fr. Curran was at least regarding this, the only question is one of ecclesiology. The Church's identity and credibility is at stake. I can well understand why militant feminists would offer a hooray on this note against the so-called oppression of women by an insensitive, sexist, and patriarchal hierarchy seeking to defend its powerbase. However, it is a lie. Indeed, I suspect that their arrogance hides the fact from them that what they are really looking into is a mirror. Despite their contention, power has little to do with the matter. Some of us, maybe most of us in the worldwide community, understand the Church's position in a more positive light. Priesthood is a gift. It is not something that anyone deserves, either male or female. It represents no spiritual superiority over women because in itself it is no guarantee of holiness. It represents no natural superiority because our common and complementary humanity disposes us equally to receive baptism and all the subsequent graces for salvation. All possess equal dignity in the eyes of God. Ordination denotes, not so much a natural superiority of the male over the female, as it represents but one more example of the complementarity between the sexes. Granted, it is a crucial vocation for the sake of the believing and worshipping faithful, but it is still one calling among many. I think I have written before that saints like Theresa of Avila and Clare, as well as many non-ordained men, did much to revitalize the faith and to bring the Gospel to others. They did not have to be priests to do this. Indeed, despite those who have attempted to stretch the facts too far, even the Virgin Mary was not made a priest. But, oh yes, you told me in one response to keep Mary out of this debate. Sorry, but you know, Mary has the tendency to pop up in most debates about her Son. Just as she was instrumental in the theological defense of his Christological unity in the battle with Nestorius, soo too does her witness apply here. Maybe God only appointed men as priests to make Christ present upon our altars since he had already allowed the Woman to conceive him in her womb?

Inadequacy of the Male?

"Male Priests can never be as nurturing as females."

There is a stereotype where some contrast the so-called gentle Mary with the judgmental Jesus. Priests have traditionally been urged to have strong devotions to Mary and to learn her more passive and/or feminine qualities. Ah, maybe God chooses men to confound worldly wisdom. If this is the case, then it would seem that women of the more militant variety would want nothing to do with priesthood as understood by the Church at all. Maybe it is something else they and even many men desire. The humility of priesthood means obedience, celibacy, and poverty (if not materially, at least internally in regards to Jesus as one's greatest treasure). Since supposedly male characteristics are usually already inculcated, the humility and prayer of Mary becomes a staple for the priest to develop the so-called feminine attributes of nurturing, caring, gentleness, receptivity, listening, etc. The problem develops that the wholehearted love which the Church desires is often not nurtured and even those who have accepted priesthood, may seek partial fulfillment elsewhere. More often than not, these men who have not discovered how to live out the active/passive, powerful/weak, and administrative/creative tension in priesthood, may cease to develop their shadow side-- and in consequence, more readily side with women who feel somehow slighted by not being priests. It is peculiar that those who most harp against stereotypes should then fall prey to them.

Vocation is Pure Gift

"Women deserve to be priests, it is their right."

We are all made in the image of God and by grace are called back to him. Historically, one might also recall the ancient maxim of the Church, "Whatever is not assumed, is not redeemed." Christ took upon himself our common human nature so that as our "pontifex" we might have a straight path to bridge the gulf caused by our rebellion. This is also a gift. There is nothing that we have ever done nor about who we are which compelled God to redeem and offer us salvation. Similarly, vocation to diaconate and priesthood are also purely gifts given a few who could never be deserving. In priesthood grace is received but one has already received sanctification in Christian initiation. There is no mandate that one must attempt to collect all the different graces available with the various sacraments. Some are not priests; some are not married; some do not receive the opportunity for anointing; and many of our Protestant brothers and sisters are cut off from sacramental reconciliation-- are they less human or damned because of it? I should hope not. This brings us to the teaching of the priest as an icon for Christ mentioned by myself and improperly portrayed in your data sheets.

Fr. Peter Stravinskas writes: ". . . the reasons for a male priesthood are enhanced by Byzantine theology. When God chose to reveal Himself, He did so through the taking on of human flesh by the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity as God's Son. Anyone called to the priesthood since is called as a member of the one and unique priesthood of Jesus Christ. Just as Jesus was the icon (image) of the Father, so is the priest to be an icon of Jesus. This is also tied in with the so-called 'scandal of particularity' which reminds us that God's ways are not our ways. For example, why did God call the Jews and not the Romans or the Greeks, who were certainly better educated and far more cultured? We do not know; nor do we know why men are chosen as instruments of sacramental grace, especially since the qualities they are expected to show forth in their lives are often looked upon as 'feminine' virtues (like patience, humility, kindness). Perhaps the paradox itself contains the answer: God chooses whomever He wills to confound our human expectation and to show what an incredible new order of reality is being established. We must be comfortable in living with mystery" (pp. 36-37). We return to my over-riding question, if the acting priest is not a male, and such is counter to Christ's will, can that person signify Christ in a sacramental way? I think not. Of course, in arguing all this, it is taken for granted that maleness is more than testicles, penis, and facial hair; our gender is a given which profoundly informs our whole being.

Fr. Stravinskas notes: ". . . we are not dealing with a question of rights here, for no one (male or female) has a 'right' to ordination. If persons had such a right, the Church would not be able to set any prerequisites for holy orders in regard to health or intelligence or moral living; all that would be necessary would be the assertion of a self-perceived inner call by the individual. No, a call to priesthood is one that comes from the Church and not from the individual. The biggest problem of all, however, is the strange idea that somehow sacramental ordination increases one's holiness or chances at salvation. Neither logic nor experience bears this out. Far from a question of rights, it is really a question of a diversity of roles and ministries in the Church -- all of which are needed for the building up of the Body of Christ. In the natural order a man should not feel inferior to a woman simply because he is incapable of bearing children; his role is different and so it is in the Church" (pp. 36-37).

Another Christ

"The priest, even at the altar should not be identified with the historical Jesus."

Such a statement is outside Catholic orthodoxy. Alongside the Protestant reformers, those who hold such a position object to an identification of the priest with Christ, and with Christ and the Church. Catholic teaching has always been deeply incarnational. We should not hunt for conflicting dualisms. The Church is sinful in that her members are sometimes less than what or rather who they are called to be. The Church is holy because so joined is she to her groom that the presence of her lover fills every space, every fiber of her being. The Church as Fr. Schillebeeckx would offer is indeed the sacrament of Christ. All of this is at the heart of what it means to be regenerated as new Christs in the community of the Mystical Body. Fr. Stravinskas writes: ". . . we must remember that the role of a priest in the liturgy is to stand in the person of Christ (the icon of the Father), not as part of the people but as their head. In the liturgy we witness a union between the bride (the Church) and the groom (Christ). The spousal union is made visible and sacramental through a male priesthood -- and only through a male priesthood" (p. 37).

"The consecration words are repeated as part of the Last Supper narrative, a past event; as such they are uttered "in the person of Christ" but in the sense of otherness, not by way of identity."

The final point is made that the simplest refutation of the Church's stance, initially laid out in the Declaration on the Question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood, rests in the signification of the words of consecration. The point is made, but it does not hold up. One might argue that the individual who wrote these sentences needs desperately to reread his Jungmann. Once again, his stress against identification of Christ to the priest and upon the act as simply a narration of a past event resemble reformation attacks against holy orders and the Mass. The priest is identified with the person of Christ most simply because by his ordination, when he utters those sacred words of Christ in the Divine Liturgy, it is not simply the recalling of a past event, but it evokes it as present. Suddenly, Christ is specially among us and that Last Supper which is forever blended with Calvary is in our midst. Christ is brought to us and we are transported to Christ undergoing his Paschal Mystery. The death of Christ which was enacted once and for all for all mankind, in a sacramental fashion, breaks the bonds of time and space and Christ is made present to us. "This is my body. This is my blood." The identification is complete. This alone should be enough to humble any man who aspires to priesthood. It is one of the most perfect ways in which one can say, "It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me." The only difference from the first time and now is that it is an unbloody sacrifice and that we are offering ourselves to be transformed. We were first there in that the cumulative sins of all humanity murdered Christ. Now, guided by our priest, we are also on the other side of that cross. He gives us his flesh and blood to show that we are not orphans. He is still here. He is present to us in many ways: in our community as his Church, in the Word proclaimed, in the Eucharist, and yes, in an important way in our priest as he invites Christ to stand at our altar table of sacrifice. The celebrant becomes both priest and victim. In baptism we were all raised to share in Christ's dignity as Priest, Prophet, and King. In ordained priesthood, a person is called to bring Christ to the community in the sacramental life of the Church. It is a special call to humble service, a decreasing so that Christ might increase. The only thing which might make it a vocation of one in opposition to the other, Christ, is the tragic reality of sin, and even that is limited in order to safeguard the sacraments for believing recipients. Christ may not always be reflected well but the efficacy of the sacred mysteries do not hinge upon the personal sanctity of the priest. Of course, the greatest of sacrileges is still a priest confecting the sacraments while in a state of serious sin. This being the case, the so-called intrinsic argument against ordaining women does not so readily collapse. But, where does this reasoning take us? It should be noted that the kind of priesthood for which the dissenter argues might allow for the ordination of women; however, SUCH ORDINATIONS WOULD NOT BE VALID AND CERTAINLY NOT CATHOLIC GIVEN THE PRESENT UNDERSTANDINGS. A new church would have to be started. The problem would be that Christ would have no real part in it and would certainly not be its founder.

The issue of women's ordination pales in comparison to the crucial threat the two of you pose in Christology.

Sincerely yours in Christ,
Fr. Joseph Jenkins


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Revised on April 30, 1998.