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    Fr. Joseph Jenkins

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Bishop Kenneth Untener on Women Priests

The bishop of Saginaw, Michigan, died in 2004. It is not my intention to speak ill of the dead, but I still feel compelled to give a strong critique of his argument in favor of women priests. Giving the appearance of orthodoxy, he maintained the usage of “in persona Christi,” while evacuating it of 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. Conciliar teachings do not have to be statistically verified. The bishop, trying to find any loophole for women priests ignored this point.

For those unfamiliar, let me summarize his views. He caricatured, 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 claimed it really meant “in the presence of Christ” or “before (the face of) Christ.” If the minister only impersonates Christ, and is not actually present in the priest, then his view would open the door to women priests.

Although these renditions of the word “prosopon” have some validity, one cannot so carelessly dismiss the Vulgate Latin Bible. It remains the official ecclesial translation. Further, the terminology “prosopon” was being stretched or advanced in meaning from its routine usage in Greek drama.

In contrast, various critics will avow that the “persona” manifested is the divine Second Person of the Blessed Trinity but disavow his male-differentiated humanity. However, Christ’s identity can never be split. Thus, while Bishop Untener would actually evacuate any ontological reality of Christ’s presence at the altar, these other critics would divide and subtract from 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 simple images. They are venerated as somehow holding God’s presence in them. The priesthood takes this iconic identification still further. 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 may be supplemented by such accidentals as vestments and a 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 as the principal celebrant. Unless he is present in the person of the priest, this assertion becomes nonsense. The late bishop minimized the meaning of the “prosopon” or mask and others ignore the Greek source for this idea entirely. An actor in ancient Greek theater would hold up a “prosopon” or face to disguise 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 critics have done regarding the priesthood, dividing or subtracting from Christ.] 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 wrote, “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 was essentially implying that the sexuality and/or body of the human being should not be a determining factor of worthiness for holy orders.  Historically, there is a precedent that says otherwise. Indeed, as I have taught before, the Gnostics who copied many Christian rituals possessed a female priesthood. They also denied that Christ was really a human being. If he were not really a man, we are not redeemed. Do we really want to run this course? I think not. One minor bishop does not constitute or veto the whole Magisterium in union with the Pope.

Abusing St. Thomas’ appreciation of instrumental causality, the bishop wrote 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.

The bishop’s article about the priesthood and women is reprinted in his book, THE PRACTICAL PROPHET.  The post was a letter to a proponent of women’s ordination.   

AMAZON:  The Practical Prophet