Saturday, May 31, 2008

Thoughts on Ordination, Intellectual Dishonesty, and the Holy Spirit of Which the Prophet Joel Speaks

It seems that Vatican officials continue to be in denial about the reality of female priests within the Roman Catholic tradition.

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?

Intellectual Dishonesty

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.

“The Twelve”

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!)

She continues:

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


Anonymous said...

What this ignores is that what constitutes a valid sacramental not only must meet theological requirements but also certain basic requirements of matter and form as a matter of positive canon law. This is an inheritance from the Church's remedy for the Donatist horror show. Unlike purely moral questions, questions of sacramental validity have a much more black-and-white quality because of this. It is only in matrimony - where there are two ministers each involving a subjective element of consent - that things get murky. Otherwise, no. So what we feel should be the case about whether sacraments could be valid in different scenarios is irrelevent to whether they are now.

And the one area where the Church is most likely to retain automatic excommunication is in the area of invalid orders. Because invalid orders raise the prospect of the faithful not being sure whether the sacraments they receive from the putatively ordained are themselves valid. And to put the faithful in that spot is a form of spiritual violence. It's not progressive, however much it might seem to serve another progressive goal. That's why many of my feminist Catholic friends utterly reject the guerrilla ordination route, and it was from them that I realized this paradox.

Anonymous said...

Michael, you're articulating a different type of Christian faith here, different than the one proposed by the pastors of the Catholic Church. The faith and tradition you propose is complete with its own descriptions, prescriptions and proscriptions, its own orthodoxy if you will.

A direct question for you: if the teachings of the pastors of the Church is wanting, both in its content and in the ability of the Church's pastors to teach accurately and authoritatively, then why should the prospective believer believe anyone else who purports to do the same thing?

Anonymous said...


Mark has an excellent point. The Catholic Church and Orthodoxy represent a type of Christianity which obviously you find disagreeable. I share your sentiments. But the Church, under this model, has always been "top-down," "hierarchical," and "docility-oriented." As such, one has to take the package in whole cloth, or reject it. I am sure you are aware of your heretical views -- some quite significant, but odder still, is your perception that the Church of this model is democratic, and that it is not.

It might appear you are spinning your wheels without any promise of success. If that gives meaning, fine, but it seems odd.

CDE said...

invalid orders raise the prospect of the faithful not being sure whether the sacraments they receive from the putatively ordained are themselves valid. And to put the faithful in that spot is a form of spiritual violence.

Liam has a good point.

Also, the reasons you have provided fall apart pretty quickly. The arguments you present conflate equality in dignity with ordination, and assume that ordination is a right rather than a vocation. They also presume a Gnostic view of the person in which gender and the body are irrelevant, rather than something fundamental which reveals something of God's own creative purpose.

What's wrong with being a lay person? The ordained priesthood exists to serve laypeople in fulfilling their Gospel call to be leaven in the world. Why would one desire to abandon the missionary call of their baptism in order to stay in the sanctuary doing a work that God has called other people to? Saint Paul's analogy of the body is very relevant here. The eye does not say to the foot, "I don't need you." There is one body and has many parts. Similarly, the Holy Spirit confers many distinct gifts that are complementary.

There is often clericalism underpinning the demand for women's ordination, as if being ordained were some kind of higher call. It's not. It's a particular call, but the holiest call is simply the one that God gives to us (as opposed to what He gives someone else).

There is also a hermeneutic of power that permeates the women's ordination movement. The basic thrust seems to be: men have oppressed women, held them down, pulled power plays on them. So now it's their turn to return the favor? Not very enlightened. Rather Hegelian and Marxist, actually... which tramples all over human dignity on its way to a collectivist utopia, which ends up as a mere mirage of hope.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi Gay Species,

If I didn't think there was an intrinsically egalitarian and democratic core to the Catholic endeavor than I, and many others, truly would be "spinning [our] wheels."

Yet my studies and my experience tell me that this core does exist and has always existed throughout the history of the Church. (You may be interested in reading about Robert McClory's thoughts on this matter. Also, two reviews of his latest book, As It Was in the Beginning: The Coming Democratization of the Catholic Church, can be found here.)

A calling and desire to personally embody this core, this key aspect of the spirit of Jesus, and to work to see it embodied in the structures of the Church is what keeps me going. At this point I feel it's more important to be faithful to this call than to be concerned about success.



Anonymous said...

"an intrinsically egalitarian and democratic core" - what's this? The Twelve in the Upper Room are actually the cast of Le Miserable? Jesus was a proto-Jeffersonian Democrat? Is that what's being asserted here, that the "egalitarian and democratic" are some necessary sign of the presence and ministry of the Holy Spirit?

Anonymous said...

And this, too: "A calling and desire to personally embody this core, this key aspect of the spirit of Jesus, and to work to see it embodied in the structures of the Church...." Is this the ground of pastoral authority in a reformed Catholicism?

I reiterate my previous question: if the teachings of the pastors of the Church is wanting, both in its content and in the ability of the Church's pastors to teach accurately and authoritatively, then why should the prospective believer believe anyone else who purports to do the same thing - even if they claim to have recovered some latent egalitarian, democratic core and are attempting to reactivate it against overwhelming, reactionary counter-pressure. Kind of sounds like a Dan Brown novel to me....

Anonymous said...

Oh, and this: "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.”

Yet these prophets won't accept the whole mantle they've claimed for themselves and go public? There's nothing more useless than a gutless prophet. I understand how hard it is to risk losing one's job, but if people are really following Jesus, one's life is not too much to give. Isn't that what Jesus promised His followers?

The pastors of the Church are not going to put people on the rack for pity's sake, they're going to fire those bishops who willfully chose to break the unity of the Church for what they considered true faithfulness to Jesus and the Gospel.

Let Roman Catholic Womenpriests take their evidence of valid ordination in apostolic succession public, and be judged by that evidence. The Catholic people have a right to know who ordained their priests and by what rite, right and authority. Otherwise I could just hang out my shingle and call myself a priest, couldn't I?

Anonymous said...

Sorry, one more thought comes to mind. Just because somebody reads the ordination rite out of the Roman Missal doesn't mean they have a Catholic intention to do what's done when the Church ordains, or a Catholic intention to minister as the Church expects a priest to minister. Of course this is not a new problem, and its not a problem restricted to those women to attempt ordination.

In fact, this has everything to do with why the Lutherans have such an animus towards the historic episcopate: when the Lutheran party attempted to present their candidates for ordination to the local Catholic bishops for ordination, they were rejected. So instead they practiced presbyteral ordination, doing away with the bishop entirely.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America does have folks called "bishop," but such bishops act only as presiders of the local ELCA Synod. The title "bishop" is also only temporary in the ELCA; once a pastor's term as bishop is completed, he or she is a pastor again, nothing more. And without having been both called by a local congregation and endorsed by the local synod, such a pastor is effectively no more than a lay person.

Presbyterian polity is even more interesting. Each parish is governed by its own elders and a committee - a session. Each local session elects members of the governing session, and its (as I think the Scots call it) the Kirk (Church) Session that is, in effect, the overseer. In otherwords, in Presbyterianism, a committee is the "bishop."

Or in Episcopalianism, at least in the U.S., you have a polity where a diocese is synodically-governed and episcopally-led. It could be instructive to look across the wide array of alternative catholicisms and christianities to see where the locus of what a Roman Catholic would identify as "episcopal authority is located, and how this other forms of episcopal authority are co-located with the egalitarian and the democratic. And to see what the historic, comparitive, practical advantages and disadvantages of these various structures are. Call to Action may see itself as doing something new, but I think it is more accurate to see CtA as part of a larger, longer tradition that sees itself as, as Michael says, egalitarian and democratic.

Whether all this is a fresh sign of a latent Holy Spirit remains to be sign. You've got at least two groups claiming to be "the Church," against which the "gates of Hell" shall not prevail.

CDE said...

If I didn't think there was an intrinsically egalitarian and democratic core to the Catholic endeavor than I, and many others, truly would be "spinning [our] wheels."

Yet my studies and my experience tell me that this core does exist and has always existed throughout the history of the Church.

If this is so, what was the Enlightenment about in France? How could so much passion, virtiol and violence be launched against the Church at that time if Enlightenment principles of democracy were already in place in the Church? Had these principles merely waned, and the Enlightenment acted as a "renewal"? Is this the kind of renewal you hope for in the Church today?

Anonymous said...

Yeah, that argument is pretty derivative of the "invisible faithful remnant" heresy. It's not Catholic or Orthodox by any strech as an ecclesiological perspective. Visibility is one of the four marks of the true Church.

Anonymous said...

I've done my limited studies of the early Church, and Greek as well as Latin Church Fathers -- at least those whose writings survived -- where "processionists," a core doctrine apparently obvious without any obvious statement of it. But numerous writers in the first two centuries mention it.

As the Father sent the Son, so the Father and Son sent the Holy Spirit, so the Son and Holy Spirit sent the Apostles, so the Holy Spirit and Apostles sent the bishops, and so on.

Whether processionism is as neat and ideal as this statement, its charms are the notion of "sending." And "Sending" is a primitive motif, that is hierarchical in itself. When Catholicism captured my fancy for a time, it was because of this ontological processionism.

That said, the "feedback loop" of the sensus and consensus fidelium is of critical importance, but it plays a subsidiary role to the divine action of sending, which through the Spirit, confirms the faithful in the catholic faith.

Over the 15 centuries, the "feedback loop" has virtually disappeared, and ultramontane thinking prevailed. But here is the dilemma: Perhaps the "feedback loop" was meant to fail, as the Holy Spirit confirmed a single directional of "top down." Thus, the Vincentian Canon was wrong, corrected by the Holy Spirit's preference for the ultramontane.

This "chicken or egg first" question can never the settled. Intellectually, only processionism, confirmed by the sensus and consensus fidelium, is honest. But honest or not, it is not operating, and despite Vatican II, it seems to have no light of day for the foreseeable future. And Rome has repeatedly reminded folks it is a "top down" without "bottom up" organization and organism, requiring obedience rather than assent.

Anonymous said...

Mark, the ELCA renamed its "supervisors" as "bishops" in order to merge with Episcopalians. The problem with this move, is the sense of the episcopacy, flawed in Anglicanism, but denied entirely by Lutherans. Changing names to deceive seems so Christian, no? Wolves in sheep's clothing, and such?

Anonymous said...

"Jesus invited women as well as men to become leaders" - utter tosh. The the role the women in his band was ministering to him, and supporting him financially - see See Mark 15:40-41 & Luke 8:2-3.
As to Mary Magdalene being an ‘apostola Apostolorum’ (apostle to the Apostles), Matthew appears to pick up on the fact that in Mark the women did not carry out their mission (to tell the disciples) due to fear. The angel no longer says “do not be astonished” (as in Mark 16:6) but “do not fear” (Matthew 28:5). The Angel gives the instruction to the women to tell the disciples he has risen and to meet him in Galilee – they set out, but as a corrective to their failure at this point in Mark, in Matthew the two Marys meet the risen Lord, who repeats the Angel’s assurance “do not be afraid” and he gives them the limited commission to tell the disciples to go to Galilee (He does not need to remind them he has risen – they see it with their own eyes). John’s Gospel also does not make Mary Magdalene the messenger of the Resurrection to the Twelve. The initial message she gives to Peter and the beloved disciple is about the missing body and her guessing that the body of Jesus has been taken. The Risen Lord later gives her a limited commission to tell 'my brethren' about his forthcoming Ascension. It is clear from John 20:24 that the description of 'the disciples' in John 20:19-23 (the Apostolic Commissioning) is restricted to the 'twelve' (minus Judas), and does not include the wider group, with such as Mary Magdalene. The same applies to Matthew’s Gospel – the commissioning in Matthew 28:19 is restricted to the eleven (Matthew 28:16). Neither in Matthew or in John is Mary Magdalene commissioned by the Lord to be a witness of his resurrection – nor of any other Apostolic function.
There are of course some questions to be posited about the Resurrection appearances supplied by Matthew and John. The much earlier Apostolic tradition of the Resurrection appearances in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, provides that Peter was the first to see the Risen Lord. Luke agrees with this (when the disciples who met the risen Lord on the road to Emmaus get back they find he had already appeared to Peter - Luke 24:34). Matthew places the meeting of Mary Magdalene (and the other Mary) after the point of failure in Mark where the Women keep silent due to fear, thus redeeming this failure. John (much much later then Matthew) follows this lead.
One must be honest about claiming precedents for women Priests within the New Testament, and to read out of the text (exegesis) and not read into the text (eisegesis).
Dr Michael Foster (An Anglican Priest).