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    Fr. Joseph Jenkins

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Priestesses: Can Women Become Men?

Back in 1989, many Europeans celebrated the anniversary of the French Revolution. The Church was heavily criticized for not taking an active part in the festivities. Why did the Church refuse to join in the memorial of an uprising that espoused, “liberty-equality-fraternity”? Well, the answer went deeper than the religiosity of the fallen crown. Liberty for some meant persecution and death for others. Catholic priests were murdered by the thousands. Church properties were confiscated. The faith was mocked. No, the revolution might have been a watershed in French history, but it was also a tragic instance of man’s inhumanity to man. What does the Church have to show for this revolution? Less than 18% of the French go to Sunday Mass. The cathedrals are empty. Their over-emphasis upon individual freedom found its way into existentialist philosophy.

Simone de Beauvoir wrote in her book, The Second Sex, that she envisioned young girls as “thwarted boys, that is, children that are not permitted to be boys,” and defined the adult female as an “abortive man.” Akin to our radical feminists, although they might deny it, she concludes that women can only achieve true emancipation by liberating themselves from their femininity. This changes the question, “Can women become priests?” to “Can women become men?” This is not a ridiculous question. My old rectory cook used to keep a small television running while working in the kitchen. Sitting with her one day she told me of a talk-show hosted by a panel of women who through hormonal treatments and drugs had undergone sex changes. They were literally seeking to become men.  It seems that “liberty” and “equality” have gone mad!

Men are also confused about gender and sexuality. Doctors are seriously considering experiments with the implantation of embryos into the stomach linings of homosexual men. Yes, they want to be mothers! It is in this context of gender confusion that the question of women priests or priestesses arises. Many proceed with the unattenuated assumption that sexual differentiation is primarily a sociological matter. Minimizing the underlying biology, the social roles are interpreted as interchangeable.

A radical feminist theology, analyzed within a Marxist matrix, is one of the contemporary liberation theologies. Its ultimate end is an androgynous utopia in which there is full “mathematical” equality between the expectations and assignments of the sexes. This is in contrast to the Christian goal of a state of holiness and the acquisition of the greatest good, God. This end is achieved by divine grace and through the complementary (but not always identical) instrumentation of gender-differentiated human beings. I sometimes have to wonder even in regard to their official feminist stratagem, if radical feminists are honest; is it really equality they want or superiority? How does the old song from a musical go? Ah, yes, “Anything you can do, I can do better than you!” I suspect this is part of their not so well disguised agenda.

POPE JOHN PAUL II: “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” (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis).

Priestesses: Not Ordination but Subordination?

What are we to make of St. Paul’s writings about women? Those who reject the inspiration of Scripture do not really care what he has to say. Others will try to distinguish changeable disciplines from doctrines, but not everyone draws the line in the same places. Many conservative voices might make light of hair coverings or even silencing women in churches, but still resist a more gender neutral partnership in marriage and more leadership roles for women in the Church. Are St. Paul’s teachings simply culturally conditioned or does his viewpoint reflect God’s timeless mind about matters.

St. Paul is the source for the major texts on the “subordination” of women. Nevertheless, critics of the status-quo of a male-only priesthood often quote his words about equality in grace found in Galatians. Paul is not schizophrenic. His words must not be forced to say things that he did not intend.

Regarding ministry and marriage, Paul is clear.

“What I want you to understand is that Christ is the head of every man, man is the head of woman, and God is the head of Christ . . . a man . . . is the image of God and reflects God’s glory; but woman is the reflection of man’s glory . . . and man was not created for the sake of woman, but woman was created for the sake of man. . . . However, though woman cannot do without man, neither can man do without woman, in the Lord; woman may come from man, but man is born of woman — both come from God” (1 Cor. 11:3, 7-8, 11-12).

Speaking of the organization of spiritual gifts, he demands:

“Women are to remain quiet at meetings since they have no permission to speak; they must keep in the background as the Law itself lays it down. . . . Anyone who claims to be a prophet or inspired ought to recognize that what I am writing to you is a command from the Lord” (1 Cor. 14:34, 37).

Illustrating his sincerity, he repeats himself to Timothy:

“During instruction a woman should be quiet and respectful. I am not giving permission for a woman to teach or to tell a man what to do. A woman ought not to speak, because Adam was formed first and Eve afterwards, and it was not Adam who was led astray but the woman who was led astray and fell into sin. . . .” (1 Tm. 2:1-14).

St. Paul is regarded as infamous in certain circles for his view of marriage:

“Wives should regard their husbands as they regard the Lord, since as Christ is head of the Church and saves the whole body, so is a husband the head of his wife; and as the Church submits to Christ, so should wives to their husbands, in everything. Husbands should love their wives as Christ loved the Church and sacrificed himself for her, to make her holy. . . . In the same way husbands must love their wives as they love their own bodies; for a man to love his wife is for him to love himself. A man never hates his own body, but he feeds it and looks after it; and that is how Christ treats the Church, because it is his body — and we are its living parts. . . . This mystery has many implications; but I am saying it applies to Christ and the Church” (Ephesians 5:22-25, 28-32).

Leaving out commentary, I suspect some readers are already angry. These Scripture texts seem to fly in the face of what many know of the contemporary experience. I have known Christian feminists who gave blunt appraisals of St. Paul. They saw him as sexist and utterly patriarchal. I still remember one frustrated woman of WIT (a group at Catholic University called “Women in Theology”) who just admitted angrily, “I hate Paul!” If she could, she would have torn his writings out of her bible. But there is the catch. St. Paul is in the Bible and many of us believe that we must wrestle even with those texts that challenge us and are hard to accept. St. Paul is the great apostle to the Gentiles. The Pauline community and its beliefs will become pivotal to the Church’s understanding of sin and the measure of faith, ministry, the family and the Church.

The analogy of the spousal relationship is directly attached to Christ’s relationship to the Church. It is this analogy that is operative at Mass, wherein the priest signifies Christ, the head of the Church; the congregation is immediately reflective of the rest of the Mystical Body. The priest is one with the divine bridegroom; the assembly, representative of the bride of Christ, is identified with the Church. As I have mentioned before, unless one is going to overlook “sacramental lesbianism,” a woman cannot fulfill the function of priest in such a theological framework.

St. Paul wanted women to know their faith and to hand it on in the domestic setting; however, they were not allowed to offer the official teaching that is associated with the presbyter at liturgy. Paul makes it definitively clear that this prescription is tied up with the God-given order of creation (1 Cor. 11:7; Gn. 2:18-24). He further admits to a specified “command from the Lord” (1 Cor. 14:37). Although this command is not known to us, it should not be dismissed. Paul is not a liar. Christ is perceived as the ultimate author of a corpus of religious teaching that must be handed on in exact detail and preserved by the teachers of faith (1 Cor. 11:23, 15:1-2; 2 Tm. 1:13). Several times Paul encountered serious assaults upon his person and office (1 Cor. 1:12, 4:3; 2 Cor. 10-12); if he had invented this “command from the Lord” to shore up his arguments, he would quickly have been stripped of his authority and unveiled as a deceiver. Such did not happen.

Will we allow the truths of Christ via St. Paul to speak to us today? I pray it will be so. I only hope it is not too late. As an experiment I read these passages to several fine women in my parish and even the most docile took some offense. How deep is the secular infection in the hearts and minds of believers? How can we recover St. Paul so that traditional values about ministry and the home can be preserved while women might still be empowered and given the respect they deserve?

POPE JOHN PAUL II: “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” (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis).

Apostolic Tradition Vetoes Priestesses

The early Christian community kept faith with the practice of Jesus in depending entirely on male priests. The Scriptural witness is ratified at every turn. Although the Virgin Mary occupied an honored status among them (Acts 1:14), there was never any hint that she should replace Judas as one of the twelve (Acts 1:15-26). Further, on Pentecost, despite the universal showering of the Holy Spirit upon the infant Church (Acts 1:13-14), it was left to “Peter and the Eleven” to take on the initial preaching of the Gospel (Acts 2:1, 14). Looking to St. Paul, it is evident that he relied heavily upon the help of women, maybe even more than Jesus did. Paul makes known Phoebe who served the Church in Cenchreae and also many other women who assisted him in his labors (Romans 16:1-16). He counted Priscilla and her husband Aquila among his friends (Romans 16:3), even entrusting to them the completion of his instruction of Apollos in Ephesus (Acts 18:26). Paul, who said some formidable things about the place of women, is left speechless when Lydia insists that he receive her hospitality at Philippi (Acts 16:14). The great apostle takes it for granted that men and women alike will pray and prophesy when the community gathers for public worship (1 Cor. 11:4-5, 13). Yet, even in the face of all this, he insisted that the leadership in the community and the official teaching come from male office-bearers. I mention all this because sometimes certain post-Christian and anti-patriarchal feminists caricature the early Church as a woman-haters’ club. Far from it, the apostolic community was in many ways more liberating for its women than pagan society; however, women were still not ordained. They felt the very real need to perpetuate the model of ministry established by Christ.

POPE JOHN PAUL II: “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” (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis).

The Mind of Christ About Priestesses

Emotionalism often pollutes the debate about women’s ordination. As in so many liberal dissents, there seems to be the impression that shouting and acts with shock value can replace rational discussion and humble obedience to the Magisterium and the sacred deposit. Personal biases spouted in slogans will help no one. The sober question has to be asked, what does our Lord reveal to us about this question in the Scriptures and faith of the Church? It is crystal clear that he did not call any women into the number of the apostles (Mark 3:13-19).

First, this fact alone takes on heightened importance because certain women accompanied the group on their journeys and financed their needs (Luke 8:2-3). None of them were given priesthood.

Second, Jesus did not hesitate in dismissing then current religious and cultural attitudes in relating to females. He disregarded the hemorrhaging woman’s legal impurity (Matthew 9:20); he allowed the disreputable woman in Simon the Pharisee’s house to approach him (Luke 7:37); he sided with the adulteress (John 8:11); and he undermined the Mosaic Law in espousing the equal rights of men and women in marriage, protecting the woman from abandonment in divorce (Mark 10:2; Matthew 19:3). Obviously, Jesus could not be coerced by societal prejudices to prohibit women priests; it must have been his own choice.

Third, he illustrated in his stories an unheard of empathy with the lives of women as in the parable of the good housewife (Luke 15:8-10) and of the widow before a crooked judge (Luke 18:1-8). It can be assumed that Jesus did not feel that his exclusion of women from holy orders was any real slight to them.

Fourth, as his disciples, many of the women showed a courage greater than that of the apostles, even so far as to stand at the foot of his Cross (Mark 15:40-41). Individual qualifications apparently took a backseat to other concerns; perhaps the inability of female humanity to image Christ as the head of the Church? Does not the laity, as feminine, still look upon the Cross now transformed into an altar at which the priest renders Christ’s sacrifice? Yes.

Fifth, they were the first to proclaim the Good News on Easter morning, and to the apostles themselves (Matthew 28:7; Luke 24:9; Jn 20:11). Does this not tell us how much the Lord prizes the laity in the Mystical Body? Maybe the problem is not that we esteem the ordained priesthood too highly, but that we look upon the laity too disdainfully. The bulk of all evangelism is still done by the people in the pews. However, despite all this, the women were not mentioned at the Last Supper (Mark 14:17). Surrounded only by the apostles, this absence is made all the more striking since the Passover is a family meal at which women and children were customarily present (Exodus 12:1-14).

In light of this evidence, one can readily conclude that the exclusion of women from priesthood must have been freely and directly willed by Christ.

POPE JOHN PAUL II: “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” (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis).

The Holy Spirit & Magisterium Say No to Priestesses

While some conservative critics would disparage all forms of feminism, I am of the opinion that a distinction can be made between a Christian and Catholic feminism and the more radical or liberal or Marxist variety. The days are long gone when women were denied the vote and found the doors to academia and business closed to them. I think most sensible people believe in equal pay and benefits for men and women doing the same job. I would also contend that men and women should be held to the same moral standard. Of course, I would raise the bar for men instead of lowering it for women. The many sins that afflict our culture are no step forward. Further, the rights of women who become mothers should not be deemed as automatically cancelling out the rights of fathers or of the children they carry in the womb. There are also occupations that are gender specific. Men might enter the field of dance but all eyes are upon the graceful ballerina. Motherhood and fatherhood are distinct. Various occupations and vocations may share similarities but they are not the same. Women can enter religious life as nuns or sisters. Men can become monks or priests. It is the contention of Catholicism that priesthood is gender specific.

Some critics of a male-only priesthood might argue that they are not in league with the radical feminists; and yet, their basic assumptions are embraced to get to the revisionist conclusions. Freedom of choice, equal rights in all things, unencumbered self-possession and self-determination, an indeterminate sexual nature, an arrogant presumption of the will of God as identified with their own narcissistic goals, pragmatic reasoning from utility that disregards ontic questions of reality, interchangeable gender, avoidance or reinterpretation of unsupportive data, anger and belligerence– all these are elements in their opposition to the status-quo, be it regarding women’s ordination or any other topic.

The late Holy Father, Pope John Paul II writes in his book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope:

“I think that a certain contemporary feminism finds its roots in the absence of true respect for woman. Revealed truth teaches us something different. Respect for woman, amazement at the mystery of womanhood, and finally the nuptial love of God Himself and of Christ, as expressed in the Redemption, are all elements that have never been completely absent in the faith and life of the Church. This can be seen in a rich tradition of customs and practices that, regrettably, is nowadays being eroded. In our civilization woman has become, before all else, an object of pleasure” (p. 217).

Do we see the irony in all this? Remove the unique significance of gender and its all important difference to our personhood and we begin to make impersonal objects of one another. The radical feminists, by their calculated destruction of structures and customs deemed as sexist, have created a situation in which the truly feminine is disfigured and the woman is knocked from the pedestal of the sacred to be profaned as but a source of transitory pleasure. Objects can be interchangeable, human persons cannot. There was a time when good women called forth what was best in men. Now that things have been reduced to mathematical equality, we are worse off than cattle. We can see the gender differentiation on the level of genitalia but refuse to admit that such distinction goes any deeper. Our technological world has, in a sense, reduced the human to identical mechanical parts. Such runs contrary to the Christian teaching that everyone is irreplaceable and precious. A woman is desired for her flesh, not for her soul. This should not be. To some extent, the same derogation of our nature can be seen in many women’s preoccupation with men’s back-sides and hairy chests. The radical feminists talk about personhood, but they have essentially redefined it. For them the person is not who you are but what you want.

These feminists of the wrong kind must displace the marriage analogy of Christ the groom to the Church his bride in both the Mass and in the way we understand ecclesial structure and dynamics. This runs contrary to revelation and tradition. If signifying Christ’s full identity, including his maleness, is not important in the Mass then gender is logically qualified as insignificant. This is the contention of moral separatists who acknowledge a role for the two genders in mutual physical “recreational” stimulation; but, who disavow that it signifies any communication of core identity. Capitulation on this issue, allowing priestesses, would be the most controversial change in Church teaching since her foundation two millennium ago. More than a new reformation, it would signify the beginning of a new faith and a new cultus.

In May of 2011, Pope Benedict XVI removed Australian Bishop William M. Morris from office for suggesting that women should be ordained priests. Not only would such ordinations go against 2,000 years of sacred tradition, guided by the protective hand of the Holy Spirit; the bishop entirely dismissed the solemn declaration of Pope John Paul II. The late Pope said as universal teacher that the Church does not have the authority to change the priesthood by opening it up to women. Indeed, the current Pope spoke about the teaching as settled and infallible. The case is closed.

POPE JOHN PAUL II: “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” (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis).

Priestesses: Ancient Heresy & New Church

Do we really think that allowing women to be ordained would be an improvement for priesthood? I suspect that numbers of interested women are greatly exaggerated. We are having trouble with shrinking orders of women religious. Further, it is interesting that many of those who are most vocal would insist also upon being married or having same-sex partners. They want to violate doctrine and change the long-standing disciplines of the Church.

Akin to Gnosticism is another heresy of the early Church called Docetism. It claims that Christ’s body only appeared to be real and therefore his suffering and death was a pretense. In Gnosticism, Christ the Redeemer is really one of the aeons (cosmic and semi-divine powers) who descend upon the human Jesus in order to reveal the saving knowledge or gnosis. Similarly, he did not really become a man and die on the cross. Both saw the material as evil. Removing the sexual requirements from sacerdotal priesthood “is a Docetism as romantically superhuman as that which engages plans for a non-institutional Church, free of the trivia of administration” (Priest and Priestess by George William Rutler, p. 79). Fr. Rutler writes:

“It places the burden of integrity on the individual’s talents rather than on the simple fact of his sexual existence, scorning the Messianic precedent which chose a specifically masculine human nature with all its limitations for the earthly representative of the High Priesthood of Christ Himself” (Ibid., pp. 79-80).

Over a decade ago, I read an article in the National Catholic Reporter about 72 lay women from the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago promoting women’s ordination. In the course of the report, Dean Hoge, a sociology professor at Catholic University noted that studies he had conducted suggested that if ordination were opened to women, only about 3,600 would take up the offer by the millennium. While I was not convinced of his figures, I had to wonder what kind of women would make up this group. It gives me cause to shudder. One student at CTU remarked, “It isn’t the Eucharistic part [I should hope not], I’m attracted to that. It’s the clericalism, the celibacy and the political system that I couldn’t stand.” Ah, so the nature of priesthood and our ecclesiology would have to be revamped before many women would embrace orders. It makes sense. Indeed, would not the ordination of women itself imply such a transformation? Yes, I think so. There would be a new priesthood for a new Church. It would also mean the end of real Christianity.

POPE JOHN PAUL II: “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” (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis).

Priestesses & Dissent Against the Deposit

It is evident from the Epistles and the Acts of Apostles that the roots of our ordination teaching are pre-Nicene. While insufficient to remedy the break in apostolic succession that afflicted the Anglican ordinal early in England’s reformation, it is true that their priests and bishops who have shored up their orders with Old Catholic and Orthodox Bishops concelebrating their ordinations and consecrations may indeed be sharers in holy orders. When the Anglican Archbishop of London was received into the Roman Catholic Church, he was not re-ordained as is the usual practice but was conditionally ordained a priest. This exception was shown because he was able to show with some certitude his pedigree of orthodox precursors. Otherwise, the 1896 papal bull, Apostolicae Curiae, still holds: Anglican orders are null and void. This all aside, the point I want to make is that the exclusion of women is a long held tradition that cannot be dismissed arbitrarily. Indeed, it is a fitting example of the canon discerned by St. Vincent of Lerins about the certitude of a doctrine as a practice or belief common to the Church “everywhere, to everyone, at all times.” The Church would allow for the organic development of doctrine analogous to the growth of a human body from infancy to maturity; but, and this comes straight from John Henry Newman, this development while real must not result in the least alteration to the original significance of the doctrine involved. This cannot be said of the revisionist position in favor of Christian priestesses. The faithful Catholic must “guard the deposit” (1 Timothy 6:20), the revelation enshrined in the Scriptures and interpreted in the Church’s tradition by the Magisterium.

Proponents of women’s ordination dissent from the promulgated Catechism of the Catholic Church. This work has been given the Imprimi Potest by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger himself, head of the Congregation of the Faith, who is now Pope Benedict XVI. It is introduced by the Apostolic Constitution, Fidei Depositum, by Pope John Paul II. He writes: “It can be said that this Catechism is the result of the collaboration of the whole Episcopate of the Catholic Church, who generously accepted my invitation to share responsibility for an enterprise which directly concerns the life of the Church.” He makes no qualification in declaring “it to be a sure norm for teaching the faith and thus a valid and legitimate instrument for ecclesial communion.” A couple of paragraphs later, he says it again: “This catechism is given to them that it may be a sure and authentic reference text for teaching catholic doctrine . . . .”

Nevertheless, by dissenting against the teaching of the male-only priesthood, critics seek to undermine the truthfulness of the entire document and the God-given authority of the Church to teach it. They even castigate the Magisterium as murderers of vocations. They make relative what should be objective truth. They reinterpret Scripture according to their own “personal” and false enlightenment and dismiss the exegetical role of the teaching Church. They ignore tradition as irrelevant or pretend that it is somehow in their favor. They do all this, and yet plead to be a good Catholics. We must be careful of dissent.

Let us look at what the catechism says about women priests:

[1577] “Only a baptized man (vir) validly receives sacred ordination” (CIC, can. 1024). The Lord Jesus chose men (viri) to form the college of the twelve apostles, and the apostles did the same when they chose collaborators to succeed them in their ministry. The college of bishops, with whom the priests are united in the priesthood, makes the college of the twelve an ever-present and ever-active reality until Christ’s return. The Church recognizes herself to be bound by this choice made by the Lord himself. For this reason the ordination of women is not possible (Cf. John Paul II, MD 26-27; CDF, declaration, Inter insigniores: AAS 69 [1977] 98-116).

Inter insigniores leaves no room for discussion. It says:

“. . . the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith judges it necessary to recall that the Church, in fidelity to the example of the Lord, does not consider herself authorized to admit women to priestly ordination.” A sentence or so later it reiterates the point: “The Catholic Church has never felt that priestly or episcopal ordination can be validly conferred on women.”