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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

8 Responses

  1. Hi, I just wanted to leave to you a note of support and thanks. I found this looking up Bishop Ken while reading this year’s little black book and only a week in having concerns with it’s implications, especially quoting Desmond Tutu, the ANGLICAN bishop who was apparently pro-homosexual since the 70’s, and not referring to JP2 as a saint.

    I only mention that because so many people mention how great the little black books are. To me it seems to be watering down the gospel and overly focused on this material life, when it has any real substance to it. Today’s reading was about the gospel passage of feeding the five thousand (even though today’s gospel reading for madd was the temptation of Christ, so dont know if it’s using another calendar or something – it does say it’s for 3/1/20), and it was all about sharing our food with others, and God providing (materially) to help us do so – no mention at all of the Eucharist!

    Anyway, thank you for this well written yet brief defense of a pretty basic Church doctrine. It’s always nice to see a voice of sanity in these confusing times. God bless you, father.

  2. I’m with sportsfan8888. Untener was not Hans Kung. His “little books” are a marvelous contribution to evangelization in the best sense of the word. He is worthy of deep respect.

    FATHER JOE: Bishops are indeed worthy of respect given their high office. However, this particular bishop was very wrong about his support for women’s ordination and his argument against the priest as a living icon of Christ.

  3. As a woman, I am quite content with our priests being exclusively male as they have been for over two thousand years since the twelve apostles (all of them men). It fits with the natural order of the family: the father being the spiritual head, provider, and protector. The fact that women can’t be priests does not mean they do have an important role to play in the Church. The Congregation for the Clergy published a document called “Eucharistic Adoration for the Sanctification of Priests and Spiritual Maternity” http://www.clerus.org/clerus/dati/2008-01/25-13/Adoration.pdf in which they discuss the great need for women to fulfill the role of Mary for each priest, who is made an alter christus (“other Christ”) upon Ordination. I am in the process of putting together an apostolate that will help unlock this call of Mother Church. St. Catherine of Siena, in fact, was responsible for bringing the Pope back to Rome. To hear more from us women about contentment with, and defense of, this precious teaching of Mother Church, you may wish to read this book: http://www.amazon.com/The-Catholic-Priesthood-Women-Teaching/dp/1595250166.

  4. Bishop Untener was no “minor bishop” as you say. What kind of a shop are you running where you speak of a follow clergy like this. Have you ever heard or read his little books. He was and is a masterful evangelist who happened to be way ahead of his time and many subjects, not just women priests. Pathetic, it’s priests like you who have held the church back

    FATHER JOE: I would not deny his gifts. Indeed, there are many Protestant evangelists who inspire and move people to faith. However, this does not mean that they can be trusted as authorities on all matters. Pope John Paul II declared infallibly that women cannot be priests. This was confirmed by Pope Benedict XVI. Your fight is not with me but with the “true” Catholic Church established by Christ. The speculation of men, even priests and bishops, does not outweigh the deposit of faith as transmitted by the universal Magisterium and the Vicar of Christ.

  5. Bishop Untener was right and you are wrong.

    Bishop Kenneth Untener ‘s thinking and practices was more along the lines of Pope John XXIII and the current Pope Francis..

    Bishop Untener tried to live and breath the teachings of Jesus.

    There are very many right wing hypocrites in the Church today
    who, if Jesus was here today, would be driving out of the Church
    like he drove the money changers out of the Temple..

    Right wingers and their Middle Ages view of the Church, their non inclusiveness, their excessive secrecy and adherence to dogmas has done more to damage the Church in the last 50 years than just about anything else…

    FATHER JOE: Fr. Hans Kung is an old friend is an old friend of Pope Emeritus Benedict, but the errant priest remains stripped of his license to teach. Friendship does not compromise with dissent. The dogmas come from Christ and are protected by the Holy Spirit in the Church. Your fight is not with me or orthodox churchmen… rather your conflict is with the truth and the God who is the source of truth. Pope Francis may be misconstrued and unclear at times… but you will not find him throwing over immutable doctrines. You are very much mistaken.

  6. Get out of the stone age….

    Bishop Kenneth Untener was a friend of our family
    and a much better representative of Jesus and his teachings
    than many of the hateful right wing bigots in the Catholic Church.

    Bishop Untener’s thinking was more along the lines of Pope John XXIII and the current Pope Francis…

    FATHER JOE: Pope John XXIII opposed women priests. Recently Pope Francis reiterated that the question of women priests was NOT on the table. The matter was settled once-and-for-all by the late Pope John Paul II. Pope Emeritus Benedict has asserted that the papal clarification is a formal teaching of the Magisterium. There is nothing hateful about this… only a matter of the truth and the mind of Christ.

  7. Father Joe, Thank you for posting a very clear explanation with evidence and arguments. You helped me understand how the Magisterium works, the special role of the Holy Spirit, and not to take our Faith lightly. You made my day.

  8. Dear Fr Joseph, I simply would like to thank you for offering me such a wonderful book to read, study and ponder. If only we had more bishops and priests as courageous as Bishop Ken Untener. Thanks once again.

    FATHER JOE: Hum, not quite the reaction I expected, but even flawed books may have some value. In any case, while I had disagreements with the man and his book, he was a bishop of the Church. He spoke and acted with sincerity and conviction. Rest in peace.

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