I say “reality” because 1) there are validly* ordained female priests currently ministering in the Church, and 2) Jesus invited women as well as men to become leaders – an invitation both celebrated and continued in the earliest days of the Christian Church.
Despite such realities, the Vatican, reports the Associated Press, is once again insisting that it is “properly following Christian tradition by excluding females from the priesthood [and that] women taking part in ordinations will be excommunicated.”
Monsignor Angelo Amato of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith declared in all seriousness that: “The church does not feel authorized to change the will of its founder Jesus Christ,” an apparent reference to Christ having chosen only men as his apostles.
My initial response to such, er, “reasoning,” was: Give me a break! Is this the best they can come up with?
Do I come across as disrespectful? Well, to be honest, I have a hard time respecting intellectual dishonesty within my Church – be it displayed by the pope or the guy next to me in the pew. And the Church’s stance on female ordination reeks of intellectual dishonesty as there are no valid theological or moral reasons for excluding women from ordination. And the Vatican knows it. It can’t defend its position and so resorts to forbidding people from even talking about the issue. As a thinking person and as a Catholic, I find such a ploy both pathetic and embarrassing.
Fear not, however. Here at The Wild Reed thinking and talking are not only allowed but encouraged. So let’s take a closer look at Amato’s statement, shall we? As has been noted, the gist of what he (and the Vatican) is saying is that the Church cannot ordain women because Jesus only chose men as his apostles. Furthermore, those apostles were the equivalent of today’s priests. All of this, we are told by folks like Monsignor Amato, is Jesus’ will, which presumably means: don’t even think of questioning or arguing with what we say, because if you do then you are questioning and arguing with Christ himself! Boy, they sure know how to clear a room of conversation.
Yet people will not be quiet. Nor is the threat of excommunication intimidating those women called to the priesthood. For instance, here’s part of a media release from the Women’s Ordination Conference:
We reject the notion of excommunication. In our efforts to ordain women into an inclusive and accountable Roman Catholic Church, we see it as contrary to the gospel itself to excommunicate people who are doing good works and responding to injustice and the needs of their communities. While the hierarchy prattles on about excommunication, Catholic women are working for justice and making a positive difference in the world.
This inappropriate use of excommunication and the Vatican’s stance on ordination are based on arguments that have been refuted time and again. In 1976, the Vatican’s own Pontifical Biblical Commission determined that there is no scriptural reason to prohibit women’s ordination. Jesus included women as full and equal partners in his ministry, and so should the hierarchy.
Discerning the Will of Jesus
The conversation continues here, as well, starting with a question concerning the “will of Jesus Christ”: As followers of Jesus, aren’t we called to look first and foremost to the example of his life? After all, if there’s anything that can be called his “will,” than surely it can be found there. And with regards to the place and role of women in the community, it’s clear that the example Jesus gave was one of radical inclusion and equality.
Another question: Did Jesus found the Roman Catholic Church? In other words, is the Church we have today what Jesus talked about and envisioned? Was Jesus the first Catholic?
I appreciate the perspective of Catholic theologian Hans Küng on such weighty questions. In his indispensable little book, The Catholic Church: A Short History, Küng writes:
[Jesus] did not seek to found a separate community, distinct from Israel, with its own creed and cult, or to call to life an organization with its own constitution and offices, let alone a great religious edifice. No, according to all evidence, Jesus did not found a church in his lifetime. But we must now immediately add that a church in the sense of a religious community distinct from Israel came into being immediately after Jesus’ death. This happened under the impact of the experience of the resurrection and the Spirit. . . [So] although the church was not founded by Jesus, for its origins it made an appeal to him, the one who was crucified yet lived, in whom for believers the kingdom of God had already dawned. The church remains the Jesus movement with an eschatological orientation; its basis was initially not its own cult, its own constitution, its own organization with specific offices. Its foundation was simply the confession in faith of this Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, as it was sealed with baptism in his name and through a ceremonial meal in his memory. That was how the church initially took shape.
But what about this idea of the apostles being the first priests? (Seriously, that’s what it comes down to for some folks. More on this later.) Well, first, we need to remember that although there were words for “priest” available during the time of Jesus and the early church, none of them were ascribed to the apostles by the writers of the New Testament. Indeed, these writers say nothing about clergy or ordained. Discipleship, not priesthood, is the dominant theological foundation of the early church. The few times that the Greek word for priest is mentioned it is in relation, firstly, to Christ and, secondly, to the whole people of God. The later rise of the ministerial priesthood is thus clearly a change, a development in the Church. Whether this development has been for good or ill (or both) is beside the point. The point is that there’s been change – a change, one could argue, from “the will” of Jesus. And this change was facilitated by the Church.
And while we’re exploring this idea of “the will” of Jesus, have you ever wondered how the example of Jesus’ life of simplicity and egalitarianism can be reconciled with the palaces of popes and bishops and the imperial trappings and triumphalistic attitudes of many within the Roman hierarchy?
Here is Hans Küng’s response to such a question, a response that begins with certain observations concerning the Jesus we find in the Gospel:
One who relativized the fathers and their traditions and even called women to his circle of disciples cannot be claimed in support of a patriarchalism which is hostile to women. . . . One who served his disciples at table and required that “the highest shall be the servant [at table] of all” can hardly have desired aristocratic or even monarchical structures for his community of disciples.
Rather, Jesus radiated a democratic spirit in the best sense of the word. This was matched by a people (Greek demos) of those who are free (no dominating institution, even a Grand Inquisition) and in principle equal (not a church characterized by class, caste, race, or office), of brothers and sisters (not a regiment of men and a cult of persons). This was the original Christian liberty, equality, and fraternity.
Mmm . . . it would seem that in the foundational matters of Christian liberty, equality, and fraternity, elements within the Church have had no qualms whatsoever, indeed, felt “authorized” to “change the will” of the man they claim to be the Church’s founder.
But let’s return to “the twelve.” Most biblical scholars agree that the twelve apostles are meant to correlate with the Jewish scriptures’ twelve tribes of Israel. It was a way for the writers of the Christian scriptures to support their claim that Jesus was the fulfillment of the Jewish scriptures. Some would even argue that the concept of “the twelve” is a literary devise for the benefit of Jewish Christians audiences.
More importantly, if we are to insist that Catholic priests must be male because Jesus supposedly chose twelve male apostles, then these same priests should also be Jewish, speak Aramaic, and be able to marry. After all, if we insist on taking scripture literally, we need to be consistent.
And another thing: the early Church clearly recognized and celebrated Mary of Magdala as an apostle - indeed, as “the apostle to the apostles.” Writes scholar Ute Eisen, “This . . . reveals that [the New Testament writers] maintained a broader concept of apostolicity.” Yet somehow modern Roman Catholicism downplays all of this. And the question must be asked: is this yet another departure on the part of the Church from “the will” of Jesus?
The Appropriation of Pentecost
Of course, related to all of this is the Roman hierarchy’s appropriation and narrow interpretation of Pentecost to strengthen its own power. For instance, recently I heard a priest give a homily in which he declared that the authority of today’s bishops and priests stems from that first Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was poured out onto the twelve apostles in that upper room in Jerusalem. In short, the members of the Roman Catholic hierarchy – and they alone – are the spiritual heirs of the twelve apostles.
Yet the Book of Acts clearly says that it wasn’t just “the twelve” in that upper room. Jesus’ mother was present, along with the disciples – and women (and probably youth and children) were among the disciples.
Thus contrary to what this young male priest insisted, the Holy Spirit was given to the Church, not just to the twelve male apostles. His ignorance of such a basic element of the Christian story made me wonder what on earth they’re teaching in the seminaries these days!
In her informative (and entertaining) book, Putting Away Childish Things, German theologian Uta Ranke-Heinemann shares an interesting story related to this appropriation of Pentecost:
At a theological symposium in the diocese of Essen shortly after the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the first speaker was the Jesuit Karl Rahner, followed by the then-bishop of Essen and later Cardinal Franz Hengsbach. On the subject of the council, Bishop Hengsbach said: ‘Well, the theologians [looking in Rahner’s direction] will have quite a bit more work to process what the Holy Spirit inspired us bishops with at the Council.’ We have Acts’ account of Pentecost (or what the Church has made of it) to thank for this sort of remark. There sat Karl Rahner, a great theologian, silent and modest and – in the bishop’s eyes – spiritually subordinate to the bishops, because he had been given no inspiration from the Holy Spirit. And there stood Franz Hengsbach, a theological midget compared with Rahner, trumpeting his owership of the Spirit.
Ranke-Heinemann also notes that the apostle Peter uses a line from the Jewish prophet Joel as a prophecy of the Christian feast of Pentecost. Writes Joel: “I will pour my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and daughters shall propesy, . . . on my menservants and my maidservants in those days I will pour out my Spirit” (Acts 2:17-18). Observes Ranke-Heinemann: “This isn’t the only passage in the [the Bible] where [the] Jewish tradition is friendlier to women than the Christian [one].”
It’s also a line that “has not in fact been fulfilled,” and its nonfulfillment “convicts an arrogant male hierarchy of narrow-mindedness.” (Ranke-Heinemann sure doesn’t mince her words!)
If the Church’s leaders claim in the Roman Missal that the Holy Spirit has come down on them ever since Pentecost, then this ‘and your daughters’ is the norm of the Spirit against which they must be measured. Hence, no Holy Spirit ever came down on that all-male company then, because there is no Holy Spirit exclusively for men. Which is why, as things now stand, the Men’s Church should for the time being keep silent about their Holy Spirit, keep silent at least until the Holy Spirit promised by the prophet Joel has really come down upon them.
The Role of Women: An Historical Perspective
So what has been the role of women, historically, in all of this? Bishop Patricia Fresen (and, yes, that’s Roman Catholic Bishop Patricia Fresen) addressed this question last summer in Minneapolis, when she presided over the ordination of two female priests and three female deacons.
Said Bishop Fressen:
In the early Church, we know that women and men presided at Eucharist. We know from some very scholarly research by people such as Dr. Dorothy Irvin that there were women who were deacons, bishops, and priests for many, many centuries. It was only after the twelfth century, when the first canon law code was compiled, that women were officially excluded from ministry as priests . . . Corruption and dysfunction in our beloved Church [has resulted from this exclusion]. Yet [the Church] is our family, the family that we love. And we want to work for a renewed ministry within a renewed Church.”
In closing, I bring to your attention the Vatican’s designation of today, the Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, as “World Day of Prayer for the Sanctification of Priests.” I’ll be setting aside time this evening to honor this designation, and I’ll be praying for that “renewed ministry within a renewed Church” of which Bishop Fresen speaks.
And when you think about it, this is another way of saying that I’ll be praying for the coming of that Holy Spirit of which the prophet Joel speaks. Perhaps you’ll join me.
* Roman Catholic Womenpriests, for instance, receive their authority from Roman Catholic bishops who stand in full Apostolic Succession. These bishops bestowed sacramentally valid ordinations on the women listed on the RCWP’s website. According to this website: “All the documents pertaining to these ordinations have been attested and notarized. All minutes of the ordinations, including data about persons, Apostolic Succession, and rituals, together with films and photos are deposited with a Notary Public.”
Image 1: Graham English.
Image 2: “Rabbi Jesus Says To Love One Another” by Clara Maria Goldstein.
Image 3: “The Twelve Apostles Were Jewish” by Clara Maria Goldstein.
Image 4: “Mary Magdalene” by Richard Stodert.
Image 5: A contemporary depiction of Pentecost. Artist unknown.
See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
• Roman Catholic Womenpriests Ordained in Minneapolis
• Crisis? What Crisis?
• Reflections on The Da Vinci Code Controversy
• Thoughts on The Da Vinci Code
Recommended Off-site Links:
• Roman Catholic Womenpriests
• Women’s Ordination Conference