Saturday, September 13, 1997

Ordination of Women

In 1997 I participated in the Canon 1024 Discussion List. Canon 1024 is the Roman Catholic canon that restricts the Sacrament of Ordination to males. The list was run by a Roman Catholic who wanted the Church to overturn this canon and start ordaining women. I tried to maintain a neutral stance, but, since most of the participants were unabashedly – and uncritically – in favor of ordaining women, I was usually forced to argue the opposite side. This first excerpt from an early message lays out the basis of my participation in the list.

The subtitle of this meeting is "Ordination of Women in the Liturgical Churches." My concern is not so much with OW, per se, as with the impact of OW on the LCs. If women are to be ordained to the priesthood, I would like to see a theological basis for it that does not undermine or compromise the liturgical, sacramental, and iconic nature of the Church. Too often, I fear, such theological concerns have been downplayed, ignored, or subordinated to other claims (e.g., "justice"). And I suspect that some proponents of OW hope to use it as a Trojan Horse to undermine other aspects of the Church's Tradition they oppose. I would like to be persuaded that the ordination of women to the priesthood is to be carried out in conformity with the Tradition of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, not in opposition to it. So far, I find arguments on both sides ultimately unpersuasive.

In my final contribution to the list, I began by addressing a proposal from the list adminstrator to discuss the issue in terms of a specific icon.

We are trying to focus on some specific texts to facilitate the discussion. Why don't we also select one specific icon to focus our consideration of the "icon of Christ" argument against the ordination of women. I propose Andrei Rublev's Trinity. I think it is a very priestly-eucharistic icon, and the contemplation of this icon has convinced me that the "icon of Christ" argument is not very convincing.

For purposes of this discussion, I think the only image of Christ that really matters is that of the High Priest. There actually is a High Priest icon, which shows Christ (with a beard!) enthroned and crowned, looking like a king or a bishop. This image harks back to the Epistle to the Hebrews, whose central purpose is to draw out this High Priestly image and its implications. Verse 4:16, which refers to "the throne of grace," introduces chs. 5-7, which compare Christ to Melchizedek, who was both king and priest. I would guess these chapters are the major inspiration for High Priest icon.

But the images of the next section, chs. 8-10, are more applicable to my argument. Ch. 9 recreates the image of the Holy of Holies of the Tabernacle and recalls the High Priest's role of offering the annual sprinkling of blood on the day of atonement. Ch. 10 invokes the priests' daily offerings of animal sacrifices. Christ fulfills and supersedes the High Priestly role by offering his own blood for the atonement of all Mankind. He intercedes for us before God, offering himself, the perfect Paschal Lamb, as a sacrifice. He is both priest and victim.

The defining role of priesthood in any traditional culture, whether Jewish or pagan, is to offer sacrifice to God on behalf of the people. The Christian counterpart of animal sacrifice is the sacrifice of the Mass, and the Christian priesthood succeeds the former priesthood in offering this new type of sacrifice.

My intermediate conclusions: 1) The defining role of a Christian priest – the thing that sets a priest apart from his brothers and sisters – is celebrating the Eucharist. 2) The Eucharist is a sacrifice. I would further assert that these two points are defining elements of Catholic sacramental theology. Any sacramental theology lacking these elements cannot reasonably be described as Catholic.

The Roman Catholic Church has always been very insistent on the sacrificial nature of the Mass. This is why Pope Leo felt compelled to dismiss the validity of Anglican orders. In the process of reforming the Anglican ordinal, Abp. Cranmer had removed some of the language that referred explicitly to the ordinand's new role as a sacrificing priest. In accordance with lex orandi, lex credendi, Leo feared that recognizing Anglican orders might be seen as implicitly accepting a theology of holy orders that downplayed the sacrificial role of the priest, thereby denying the sacrificial nature of the Mass and undermining Catholic Eucharistic theology. The sacrificial nature of the Mass is so essential to Catholicism that Leo felt obligated to protect it (though we Anglicans might argue that he misunderstood us or went too far). (Note: In recent years, Rome and Canterbury have reached express agreement on the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist.)

As I see it, precisely the same thing is at stake in the issue of ordination of women: the sacrificial role of the priest, which has been understood as an iconically masculine role in all times, places, and cultures. (If postmodern Westerners cannot understand why performing such sacrifices is iconically masculine, this is a reason not to alter traditional practice. We should not presume that our ignorance trumps the understanding of our ancestors and the rest of humanity.) (If anyone wants to assert that there is nothing iconically masculine about priesthood or performing sacrifices, then I must ask: What do you think is iconically masculine? If you cannot offer an answer, then you are implicitly accepting the unisex – i.e., sexually iconoclastic – model offered by the current secular society.)

Protestants, who do not have a sacrificial understanding of the Eucharist, do not face this sacramental/iconic problem in ordaining women as functional ministers. But Catholics must address it if they want to ordain women priests without undermining their sacramental theology.

Can a Catholic church ordain women without implicitly accepting a Protestant theology of ordination – one that denies the sacrificial role of the priesthood? Can a Catholic church ordain women without implicitly accepting a Protestant theology of the Eucharist – one that denies its sacrificial nature? If we really want to see women as Catholic priests, these theological hurdles must be surmounted decisively. Otherwise, we risk undermining all of Catholic sacramental theology and reducing the Catholic sacramental priesthood to a Protestant functional ministry.

Is it possible for a woman to serve as a priest without implicitly contradicting the nature of the priest as one who performs sacrificial rites on behalf of the people? I do not know. I think there are far too many unanswered questions in the areas of 1) theology of priestly orders and 2) theology of sex/gender. These questions are, at base, iconic questions; that is, they are questions of what symbolic realities are embodied by priesthood and male/female.

There are also deeper, more basic, questions of iconic theology here: Is religious iconography mutable? Is all iconography a product solely of its immediate culture, or is some of it rooted deeply in human nature and the created order? If you change a religion's iconography, do you still have the same religion? If so, how fast and to what extent can a religion absorb iconographic changes?

The people with the greatest interest in honest investigation of these questions should be those women who believe they have a calling to be sacramental priests. Any woman who wants to be a functional minister can already do so in any number of denominations. But a woman who wants to be a sacramental priest has an obvious interest in ensuring that her own ordination will not serve to undermine the very role to which she aspires.

P.S. With this opus, I think I have completed my chief work in this forum. I have expressed what we have come to call "the iconic argument" in the fullest form I am able at this time, and I have tied it to other issues such as Anglican orders, lex orandi, lex credendi, and functional ministry in a way that, I hope, sheds light on all of them. I have ended with lots of open questions – questions that, I hope, will be addressed over the next couple of centuries as Catholic theologians grapple with this issue, trying to fill in the blanks in order to turn Ordinatio Sacerdotalis from a possibly infallible assertion into an actual theology.