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Women and the Catholic Priesthood

September 26th, 2007
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A very thought-provoking review article from FIRST THINGS:

Women and the Catholic Priesthood

By Monica Migliorino Miller

Wednesday, September 26, 2007,  6:56 AM

In May 1994, Pope John Paul II issued his apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis.
It is, as far as Vatican documents go, very short. It deals with one
specific issue, namely the Church’s ban on the admission of women to
the ministerial priesthood, a ban first articulated in the 1976 Vatican
declaration Inter Insigniores
and upheld by Pope John Paul II. He clearly stated: “Wherefore, in
order that all doubt be removed regarding a matter of great importance,
a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in
virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk. 22:32) I
declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly
ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held
by all the Church’s faithful.” With these words, the Holy Father
intended to end the debate regarding women priests.

In October 1995, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then prefect for the
Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, made a response to a
question that was submitted to the Vatican on the doctrinal status of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis.
The official Vatican response, given through Ratzinger, was that the
ban on women priests was “taught infallibly by the Church.” While the
doctrine is settled, much debate, misunderstanding, and, in some
quarters, deep resentment continues over the Church’s insistence upon
an all-male priesthood. As a Catholic, theologian, and university
professor, I know that many Catholics continue to reject Catholic
teaching on the all-male priesthood and certainly cannot articulate the
Church’s reasons for the teaching, much less defend it.

The Catholic Priesthood and Women
is a defense and an interpretation of the Church’s doctrine. It
attempts to provide a new generation of young Catholics and, most
especially, seminarians with an understanding of the Church’s teaching
and give them a “theological orientation to the topic that engages the
chief objections.” It’s author, Sister Sara Butler, MSBT, is a
well-respected theologian who taught at Mundelein Seminary and
currently holds a position at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Dunwoodie, New
York. She openly confesses in the book’s introduction that for many
years she supported the ordination of women. She credits John Paul II’s
“theology of the body” and “his response to the feminist critique in
the apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem (1988)” for her change of heart on this matter.

Her work, divided into seven chapters, is a concise treatment of
the subject. While Butler is a scholar, this book can be read and
appreciated by those who are not trained theologians. The book provides
a summary of the primary Vatican documents regarding women’s
ordination, with an explanation of objections and responses to these
arguments. However, the primary focus of the book is a lengthy
consideration of what she terms the “fundamental reasons” versus the
“theological reasons” regarding the ban on women priests as she
believes they are articulated in Inter Insigniores and Ordinatio Sacerdotalis.

Butler believes that those who advocate for women in the priesthood
are too preoccupied with the theological arguments and do not
sufficiently appreciate or understand the “fundamental reasons” for the
Church’s position. Her insistence on this point is one of the book’s
strengths. However, it should be noted that Inter Insigniores
does not actually use the language of “fundamental reasons” and
“theological reasons.” Instead the document explains the Church’s
position and follows that explanation with theological arguments. I
will show that there is more of an overlap between these two approaches
to the doctrine than Butler admits.

The “fundamental reasons” in Inter Insigniores begin with
a statement that the Church does not believe she has the authority to
admit women to the ministerial priesthood. The Church is bound to
follow an original gesture of Christ when he established the sacrament
of Holy Orders. This is at once a christological and an ecclesiological
issue. When Christ called only men to the company of the Twelve, we are
confronted by the will of Christ himself. The apostles themselves were
faithful to the expression of Christ’s will. The all-male priesthood
begins with Christ, is continued by the apostles and is part of the
unbroken tradition of the Church. As the document explains, “The Church
intends to remain faithful to the type of ordained ministry willed by
the Lord Jesus Christ and carefully maintained by the apostles.” Many
who reject these reasons argue that Christ’s manner of acting, his will
indeed, was subject to the historical conditions of the times. In other
words, Christ was not free to act any differently than he did, as he
was under cultural constraints to deny women liturgical leadership in
the Church. But now that times have changed, the Church is free to
abandon a practice that discriminates against women.

Butler points out that Inter Insigniores and Ordinatio Sacerdotalis
both insist on Christ’s sovereign freedom in his choice of male
apostles. And this is an enormously important point. Indeed, much of
the legitimacy of the “fundamental reasons” is based on the fact that,
not only did Christ act in a certain way, thus setting up a permanent
norm, but that Christ acted in freedom. History does not constrain him,
culture is not a barrier, history is not a force that may dictate to
Christ his choices. Christ is the Lord of history, he is the Lord of
his Church. Behind the “fundamental reasons” is a christological one,
and while the Church’s documents insist on Christ’s freedom, it is the
theologian’s task to explain why this is important. Butler does not
provide this much-needed explanation. What is at stake is the very
person of Christ—the divine Logos—in a gesture by which the
constitution of the entire new covenant depends. If we follow the
arguments of the dissenters, we are forced to conclude that in the very
founding of the Church Christ (perhaps innocently) was guilty of an act
of injustice to half of the human race. This, of course, is untenable.

Butler’s book is helpful when it explains objections to the
Church’s teaching and her responses to those objections. Occasionally,
however, Butler’s responses lack a necessary depth. For example, in her
response to the accusation that the Church’s exclusion of women to the
priesthood is unjust, Butler states that no injustice exists so long as
the Church does not prevent anyone from attaining personal holiness.
Since the ordained priesthood is not required for personal sanctity,
there is no room for complaint. Such responses cannot bear the weight
of the complaint and leaves the reader (especially those who have
difficulty with the ban on female priests) rather dry.

Sometimes the author relies on the pat, perfunctory, and expected
answer. This is especially the case when Butler answers an objection by
a heavy reliance on the argument that not ordaining women is the
Church’s tradition. For example, one objection states that Christ
called only Jews to be apostles, but the Church sees no problem in
departing from that original gesture of the Lord. Butler responds by
stating, “[W]hile there is no theological or canonical tradition
concerning the admission or exclusion of Gentile converts from priestly
functions, there is a tradition concerning the exclusion of women from
priestly ordination.” Butler brings the focus back to the “fundamental
reasons,” which is necessary, considering how they are neglected in the
debate. The fact remains, however, that the “fundamental reasons” alone
have trouble convincing—and must be followed very quickly by the
“theological reasons.”

While Christ as the divine Logos acted in a sovereign manner in
establishing the sacraments of the New Covenant, it is important to
argue quickly that the will of Christ is not arbitrary. Butler rightly
demonstrates that insofar as the protagonists of women’s ordination
“call into question the ‘fundamental reasons’ themselves, the
distinction between reasons and arguments serves no purpose for them.”
Yet the theological reasons are absolutely necessary unless we are to
accept that Christ’s will is arbitrary and shrouded in an unfathomable
mystery that makes no sense to believers.

In some ways Butler’s book gives the impression that the Church’s
ban on female priests does not depend on “theological arguments” for
its validity. She emphasizes, for example, that even The Catechism of the Catholic Church, as it relies on Inter Insigniores, refers to the

ongoing role of the Twelve—carried out by their
successors—in the life of the Church. This rather sober,
ecclesiological formulation directs attention to the vocation and
symbolism of the Twelve, and for its importance for the constitution of
the Church. It is by way of Jesus’ choice of 12 men that we know his
will for the apostolic ministry of bishops and priests. No other appeal
is made. . . . It does not say that bishops and priests are chosen from
among men in order to represent Jesus who is male—only that they must
be men to represent in the midst of the Church the Twelve whom he chose
and sent out to carry on his ministry.

Again, Butler desires to emphasize that the “Church’s living
tradition provides the proper context for discovering Christ’s will.
One could imagine that things might be arranged differently, but the
ecclesial discernment is rooted in the concrete events of biblical
revelation and is bound by fidelity to Christ’s manner of acting.”

This reviewer agrees with Butler’s insistence that the fundamental
reasons need to be better appreciated. Yet in a book that seeks not
only to interpret the Church’s “settled doctrine” but also to explain
it, the theology cannot be far behind. Indeed, I do not believe that
the so-called theological reasons as articulated, for example, in Inter Insigniores
are as secondary to the “fundamental reasons” as this book’s argument
assumes. It may be important to emphasize the distinction because,
after all, certain arguments on women’s unfittingness for the
priesthood put forth by the Fathers of the Church and great saints like
Thomas Aquinas are insulting to women and are rightly abandoned by the
Church and contemporary theologians. The theology of an all-male
priesthood has to do with the complementary/nuptial meaning of human
sexuality and Christ’s masculine identity as bridegroom to the Church—a
marital I/Thou relation that forms the very order of the covenant of salvation itself.

As important as the fundamental reasons are for the all-male
priesthood, these reasons must be doctrinally based on something. In
the chapter that deals specifically with these reasons, Butler
recognizes that doctrinally the male gender of Christ and the Apostles
“is not arbitrary, but significant.” Thus a close connection does exist
between the fundamental reasons or Church doctrine and the theological
reasons. I would argue that, indeed, the doctrine and the theology
overlap and begin to merge into one another. This merger is rooted in
the fact that the priest acts in persona Christi. This is not
simply a theological argument. It is the doctrine of the Church. Acting
in the person of Christ means to act in his role as head to the Church.
Eucharistically, Christ cannot simply be identified with the Church. He
is the head that causes the being of the Church. Christ’s gender is a
sign of his headship—his masculinity is a sign of his
difference-in-relation to his people.

Butler is correct when she points out that in the Incarnation the
Logos “assumed our human nature.” She argues that the assumption of
human nature is the primary focus of the Incarnation and not the male
gender of Christ. She makes it appear, however, that Christ’s
masculinity was a kind of divine flip of the coin, since Jesus, to be
human, had to be “characterized by sex.” Since he chose to be male,
this is now a “fact of history” and this fact becomes significant for
the economy of salvation—as if this is something the Church is stuck
with and must make sense of theologically. Yet there are trinitarian,
christological, and metaphysical reasons for Christ’s incarnation as a
male that Butler does not consider—reasons that would help the book
steer clear from making Christ’s male gender appear arbitrary.

Arbitrary or no, Christ’s male gender, as Butler recognizes, is
constitutive of the economy of salvation. But this means we are not
dealing any longer with merely theological reasons for the ban on women
priests. After all, Christ’s male gender is as much a historical fact,
as much a willful historical choice on the part of the Redeemer, as was
his choice to call only men to be among the Twelve. Thus Christ’s
having called only male human beings to be apostles, having called only
male human beings to share in his priestly ministry, is preceded by the
fact of his own masculinity in relation to the Church. Thus the
“fundamental reasons” and the “theological reasons” are closely
intertwined. If the Church believes she must remain faithful to an
original gesture of Christ when he called only males to be apostles,
she is even less free to dismiss the male gender of Christ in the
economy of salvation upon which the meaning of that gesture depends.
The ban on women priests is not simply a matter of the Church remaining
true to a fact—Christ only chose men—but a matter of the Church
remaining faithful to the fundamental truth of the relation between the
order of redemption and the order of creation—an order the Church has
no power to undo.

The strongest section in Butler’s book, perhaps a little
ironically, is her discussion of the theological significance of
Christ’s male gender as presented by John Paul II in Mulieris Dignitatem.
Anyone looking for a good explanation of the all-male priesthood will
find these pages very helpful. Towards the end, the book also provides
quick summaries of and responses to the major arguments against the
Church’s teaching. This section is a helpful reference tool. Moreover,
Butler completes her book with a real contribution when, in chapter
seven, she investigates the Church’s teaching on the all-male
priesthood within John Henry Newman’s development of doctrine. It is
interesting to note that here Butler concentrates on the theological
reasons for the Church’s ban on women priests.

Catholics need to be well informed on the subject of this book if
they are to offer a reasoned defense to a world that fails to
appreciate sexual differences, much less the sacramental significance
of those differences. Butler’s treatment of the Church’s ban on women
priests, while not perfect, is a welcomed examination of a topic that
still proves troubling to many. Considering her own personal
intellectual transformation and her standing in the scholarly
community, Butler’s book may have a positive influence on those who
still find it difficult to accept the Church’s teaching on the all-male

Monica Migliorino Miller, Ph.D., is associate professor of
sacred theology at St. Mary’s College of Madonna University, Orchard
Lake, Michigan, and author of
Sexuality and Authority in the Catholic Church.

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  1. Holger Sonntag
    September 26th, 2007 at 11:36 | #1

    A thought-provoking article indeed! What is thought-provoking already is who wrote it and on what it was written: One female professor of theology comments on the book by another female professor of theology. This makes sense only in the context of the Catholic distinction between laymen and priests. While only men can be priests, women (laywomen) can teach theology. Sacrificing the mass still (and dispensing the six other sacraments of Rome) is what ultimately matters (note that the Latin mass of Trent does not have a slot for a sermon!); teaching theology (the WORD), well, that can be left to women too since there apparently no “representation” of Christ or of the Father vis-a-vis the church is going on. You wonder what Paul really meant in 1 Tim. 2 where he, based on the order of creation, prohibeted women to teach or exercise authority over men. You also wonder what John 1:18 means — isn’t it part of Christ’s representing the Father his making him known in an authoritative way (i.e., by “teaching theology”)? Also John 1:14: the WORD was made flesh (as a man, not surprisingly for those who know Gen. 1-2).
    McCain: Holger, all interesting comments, but not really to the point of the post. What do you make of what the person said about the fact that Christ is a man and what that does, or doesn’t, say about women as pastors?

  2. wcwirla
    September 26th, 2007 at 11:52 | #2

    “Thus Christ’s having called only male human beings to be apostles, having called only male human beings to share in his priestly ministry, is preceded by the fact of his own masculinity in relation to the Church. Thus the “fundamental reasons” and the “theological reasons” are closely intertwined. If the Church believes she must remain faithful to an original gesture of Christ when he called only males to be apostles, she is even less free to dismiss the male gender of Christ in the economy of salvation upon which the meaning of that gesture depends. The ban on women priests is not simply a matter of the Church remaining true to a fact—Christ only chose men—but a matter of the Church remaining faithful to the fundamental truth of the relation between the order of redemption and the order of creation—an order the Church has no power to undo.”
    This is a very important paragraph, which, I believe, we ignore to the peril of our ecclesiology and doctrrine of the holy ministry.
    It would appear that this work is of vital importance to Lutherans as well as Roman Catholics.

  3. Holger Sonntag
    September 27th, 2007 at 11:25 | #3

    Certainly, the example, including the maleness, of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is important for arguing against women’s ordination. Yet my question is: what elevates an act, or a feature, of Jesus to being an example for us today? Generally put, what tells us that a fact of biology or sociology is actually in accordance with God’s will and not a result of man’s fall into sin?
    In my humble opinion, what really makes a difference here is only God’s word, not our speculative ideas. God’s word — and with the confessions, I distinguish it from mere examples contained therein, see Ap. VII/VIII, 40; XXVII, 60 — alone establishes articles of faith. It alone is the norm and source for our teaching concerning faith and life, and that includes who may or may not occupy the pastoral office. And God’s word then also sheds light on the structures of creation, allowing us to distinguish between the clear and splendid remnants and vestiges of God’s good work of creation and the dark results of our fall. What Luther once said about the bible is even more true of God’s hidden workings in history: there’s a difference between what God said and what he said *to you* (cf. AE 35:170-173).
    I know that Catholics don’t see it like this, also because they have a, let’s say, weaker doctrine of sin. This makes me hesitant to jump on seemingly good arguments taken from a different system of theology.
    I also know that many find the biblical position on women’s ordination to be arbitrary. But, really, what’s not arbitrary to the natural man in theology? That God is one in three, that Christ is two in one? That baptism saves? That man cannot save himself? That Christ is the only way to heaven? That the world was made in six days? That we get to consume Christ’s body and blood in communion?
    I speak here of personal experience as one who, back in my German territorial-church days, once was in favor of women’s ordination. What convinced me that that was wrong was God’s word. Not right away, of course; there is man’s sinfulness. Later I learned why it happened this way: my sin blinded me; but God’s inspired word, efficacious in *all* its teachings, gave me light when it so pleased God. Thanks be to God! Do we have anything more powerful than God’s word to establish and defend a teaching?
    My 2 cents.

  4. Phil
    September 27th, 2007 at 13:11 | #4

    “Certainly, the example, including the maleness, of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is important for arguing against women’s ordination.”
    But how far we can go in emphasizing the “maleness” of Christ to the detriment of losing the emphasis of Christ’s “humanness”? Isn’t it his humanity which is important and not his maleness? As the Father’s confessed, “That which isn’t assumed is not redeemed.” And so, in the end, what is truly at stake in the Incarnation is not that God became incarnate in a man but that God became incarnate in a human; and hence, that human is the Saviour of all humans.
    McCain: Ah, yes, but the fact that Christ was incarnate as a man is a beautiful fulfillment of all the promises of the OT that it would be precisely this way. So before we get too “gender optional” here…a bit more thinking is in order. God saved humanity by sending a Second Adam, for as in Adam all die, so in Christ shall *all* be made alive.

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