Rights and Gifts

One current notion is the idea that the Church is denying women their “rights” when it tells us, “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). One need not seek far to find rhetoric like this:

“The prohibition against women priests is based on the ancient idea of the inferiority of women. But we are all created in God’s image and have the same rights; and the fact that Jesus was male does nothing to negate this. That, along with the fact that all the Apostles were male, is the only thing upon which the Church bases its male-only priesthood. But in the days when Jesus was on earth, it would have been unthinkable for him to select women for his ministry. Not because women weren’t capable, but because they would not have been accepted.”

The first difficulty here is that ordination, like all sacraments, is not a “right”, but a gift. Nobody has the “right” to Baptism or Eucharist, much less Priesthood. Trying to apply “rights talk” to sacraments is like threatening to sue Heaven for the free gift of salvation. If God gave us humans what we deserved according to strict justice, we would all be damned. Christ came to save us from, not give us, what we deserve.

And yet, aren’t we are all “equal” in the sense that “God is no respecter of persons.” Yes. And Paul knew better then anybody in antiquity that male and female were “equal” in Christ in the sense of having identical dignity before God. It was he, after all, who said, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). Paul saw nothing inferior about woman’s dignity. But he, like the other apostles, did see something which kept him from ordaining women.

“Right,” says the modern critic. “He saw blinkers. Like Jesus, he was prohibited by his culture from doing something that no ancient would accept. But now times have changed. Now we know women are competent to pastor and preach, so they should be made priests.”

This common objection is founded on a number of misconceptions about what the sacrament of ordination is and what Jesus and the apostles did. First, it is simply unhistorical to say that Jesus was worried about “what everybody would think.” Jesus did and said lots of shocking things. He horrified his hearers by saying, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53). He prompted his fellow Jews to form a lynch mob by declaring “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). He touched lepers, ate with whores, and excoriated the ruling class in Jerusalem. He challenged conventional wisdom in a thousand ways. His message (and that of the apostles) was indeed, so conciliatory to his contemporaries that they welcomed him with crucifixion and hailed his disciples with stonings, beatings, and assassination attempts. Bottom line: If Jesus had wanted woman priests he would have ordained them, public opinion or no. The “Jesus was hamstrung and/or blinded by his culture” thesis is utterly lame. And this is doubly so because Greco-Roman culture had oodles of women priests. So let’s forget this ahistorical appeal to poor Jesus’ jitters at offending.

Similarly, appeals to women’s pastoral and rhetorical competence are quite beside the point. The Church has in her tradition abbesses, theologians, doctors of the Church and teachers aplenty in skirts and habits. The question revolves, not around pastors and preachers, but around the priestly office. Anybody can do pastoral, teaching, preaching, or administrative work. But that is not the essence of the priesthood. The essence of the priestly office is celebration of Christ’s Sacrifice in the Mass.

And that is why all such arguments are not addressing the issue, for the issue is the nature of the sacrament. What is a sacrament? It is a thing which not only does what it symbolizes but symbolizes what it does. In Baptism, the obvious symbol of cleansing, drowning and new life is water, not wine. And so wine, for all its admirable qualities, is not the right “matter” for the sacrament of Baptism. Likewise, in Holy Eucharist, wine–the blood of the crushed fruit–is the obvious symbol which signifies the blood of Christ, who was crushed for our iniquities. Like the blood of Christ, wine invigorates, inebriates, and reminds us of the tang of death and new life. Here again, water, despite being the right matter for Baptism and not in the least “inferior” to wine, is the wrong matter for the sacrament of the Eucharist. In short, certain things are natural images. It’s not a question of “equality” but of fittingness.

Now, Christ is, as he himself teaches, the “Bridegroom” to the Church’s “Bride” in the great eschatological Marriage Feast of the Kingdom (Matthew 25:1-13). Gender has, in Christ’s teaching, a real meaning and is not simply an accident of nature. And he ought to know, since he designed the human person and made it a participant in the mystery of maleness and femaleness. And so, every mass is a local “Marriage Feast of the Lamb” whereby we enter into the self-sacrificial love of that Cosmic Bridegroom for his Bride.

And that gets us right back to the question of symbols. For as with water in Baptism and wine in Eucharist, it is not that a man is “superior” to a woman in being “matter” for the priesthood. It is that man is a fitting symbol of the Bridegroom and woman is not. The priest is an “alter Christus” to the Bride in the mystery of the mass. He signifies. He does not primarily “administrate” or preach or pastor.

Ordination, then, is not a right. It’s a gift. It’s a sacrament that does what it symbolizes and symbolizes what it does, like all sacraments. Symbols therefore matter (particularly those which Christ himself has instituted) and the Church has no power to alter such symbols in their fundamentals. Christ and the apostles revealed what the “matter” of ordination should be just as they revealed what the matter of Baptism and Eucharist should be. The Church merely obeys. That is why the Pope says, “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.”

It’s out of the Church’s hands. The argument is with Christ, not the Pope.


Follow Mark on Twitter and Facebook

Get updates by email