The ordination of women to the priesthood

The ordination of women to the priesthood (or lack thereof) is a topic which a reader asked me to write about, but for which I just never seemed to be able to find the time. Again, recent events have created a climate in which I feel the subject should be treated despite my having a completely coherent picture in my head on the matter.

First of all, let me acknowledge some excellent work on this topic by Elizabeth at Arwen/Elizabeth:

Let me state that I support the magisterium of the Church 100% on this question. That being said, I do feel that the Church can do a better job articulating its position.

Let me also say, though, that the burden of proof lies on those who want the change to justify it. The Church is a fundamentally conservative institution, as it has to be: its function is to "conserve" the message of Christ and not let it be diluted or distorted by the spirit of this world. I therefore do not accept that the Church needs to "justify" a 2000-year old practice. Explain, yes, but not justify: that burden lies on those proposing a change to that practice. And quite honestly, every argument I've heard in favour of the ordination of women to the priesthood is quite loose. It usually rests on an affirmation of the subjective feelings of those called, or on the idea that the community should not be deprived of the sacraments by a lack of ordained ministers. The first, however, is hardly a criterion of truth, and the latter skirts the whole question of the validity of such ordinations in the first place, as valid sacraments cannot be supplied by persons who are invalidly ordained (obviously I am referring here to those sacraments requiring an ordained minister as presider).

But while the arguments in favour of the ordination of women to the priesthood are poor, those presenting the arguments against are not always doing much better. The argument from Tradition is often presented simply as: "We've never done it, so we can't do it." I find this intellectually unsatisfying, to be honest, as it seems to discount entirely the existence of the development of doctrine. I'm not saying that this doctrine can develop in this way, but it makes no sense to craft a counter-argument that, as a corollary, denies that any other doctrine can develop either.

Even recent Vatican documents have not been particularly helpful. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, for examples, mentions that "Only a baptized man (vir) validly receives sacred ordination. (no. 1577)" The way this sentence is crafted, however, is to describe the current state of affairs: it does not state that this is the way it *must* be. As well, the reference for this phrase is the Code of Canon Law, which contains both doctrinal and disciplinary elements. Confusion therefore arises in the minds of some as to whether this prohibition is essential to the sacrament, or arises from the discipline of the Church.

Another example is the key Vatican document Inter Insigniores, also known as the Declaration On the Question of Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood. In this document the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith gives a number of references to the Fathers of the Church in which the ordination of women to the priesthood was condemned. The existence of such passages would go a long way to strengthening the argument from Tradition, so I decided to look them up for myself. In all honesty, the references were very weak, and in some cases had very little to do with women's ordination (except in a very oblique way). Fr. John Wright came to the same conclusion in an article published in Theological Studies in September 1997.

All this means that the work of theologians must continue. The magisterium has pointed out the "destination" of this doctrine, but we need to work on articulating better why this teaching/practice is the way it is. Again, I want to state that I support the magisterium on this *but* I do feel it necessary to point out our poverty in this area.

In my opinion, a complete theology regarding women's ordination is going to have to tackle a whole host of questions, the centre of which will be a renewed theology of gender difference. And this centres on the identity of Jesus himself. Is the fact that Jesus came as a man necessary to his mission, or or is it merely a secondary consideration? In other words, did God simply flip a coin in heaven and it came up 'male', or was this part of the plan from the beginning? Of course not. But if maleness matters to ordination, what does this say about the meaning of gender difference in general?

In all of this I am comforted that God's grace is bigger than anything we can imagine. While I am appalled by the self-serving "ordinations" that the media has reported on in recent weeks, I also am proud to have a very good female friend who is an Episcopal priest in the US. Knowing her as I do, I know she has great integrity, and that she has avoided all the radical feminist rhetoric for a faith centred on Jesus. I am convinced that her work has helped bring many others to Christ. Is this despite her status as a minister? Or thanks to it? Perhaps it is both, depending on what aspect we are examining. But I could say the same for myself, knowing how unworthily I live the grace of ordination at times.

At any rate, people like my friend are living witnesses for me of the need to make sure that the gifts God has granted to women find an institutional home within the Church. Holy Orders is reserved to men, but the early Church also had a special place for women: the order of virgins, the order of widows, and the order of deaconesses are all mentioned in Scripture and Tradition. Where are these now? Perhaps there is an opportunity for renewal here.