Despite Pope Francis having stated clearly that female ordination is an impossibility the issue is back on the agenda after a Catholic think tank suggested female deacons might, instead, be possible.
What should a faithful Catholic make of this claim? Firstly we must learn to think theologically as well as sociologically. Which is to state the issue is not simply about equality. Indeed it is perfectly possible to be a firm advocate of women’s rights and yet have grave reservations, on theological grounds, concerning the ordination of women into any part of the sacramental three fold order. What follows are the theological reasons to justify the clear teaching of the Catholic church in all ages.
1. Jesus fully valued, respected and upheld women and their dignity. He called them into full ministry as close disciples. Yet Jesus chose no women as ‘apostles’. Even after Judas killed himself and the evangelist Mary Magdalene, ‘first witness to the resurrection’, was the obvious replacement, she was not selected. The task fell to Matthias.
Supporters of women’s ordination counter this by suggesting Jesus was limited to the wisdom of his age. A dodgy claim given that Christ was ever willing to defy convention and countered pharisaic teaching where necessary. Furthermore the pagan world of his day was simply awash with female priests. They were hardly an alien concept to Christ who nevertheless chose to stick with Jewish practice and ordain only men.
2. St Paul also taught that women were equal to men (‘In Christ…there is no male or female, slave or free’) yet taught that their role was ontologically different. Furthermore he forbade women from holding ‘liturgical authority’ in Church. If we discount Paul as being somehow limited in understanding, or even bigoted, do we not then undermine the credibility of the vast majority of the New Testament which he wrote? Conventional Christian wisdom is that the scriptures are not dubious by nature of who wrote them but, in fact, divinely inspired and to be trusted.
3. It is frequently claimed today that the early church did, in fact, have women clergy. And much effort has gone into proving this claim ever since the advent of female clergy in the protestant world. But such scholarship stands on shaky ground, being driven by ideology not sound historical fact, and most serious scholars agree that there were no women presbyters. This suggests St Paul’s teaching was not mere “sexist” opinion but rather the consensus among all the Apostles and handed down to all their successors.
What then of these supposed female deacons of the early church? These were never, let us be clear, sacramentally ordained women. Rather they were appointed to help other women disrobe prior to baptism. Which is to say they held a role akin to modern extraordinary ministers and were never part of the sacramental three fold order of deacon, priest and bishop.
4. In the 3rd century a group known as Montanists formed. Their teaching was rejected as heretical because they questioned the reliability of Scripture and Tradition. (The Montanists pushed for changes due to fresh revelations of the Spirit…sound familiar?) Part of what condemned them was a desire to ordain women. This not only proves that the ‘male-only priesthood’ was the authentic teaching of the Early Church but also reminds us that this issue is hardly new – as we are often led to believe.
5. The earliest Canon Law strictly forbade women’s ordination. These canons were endorsed by the Council of Nicaea who gave us ‘The Creed’ in 325AD. To endorse women priests is to claim Nicaea gave wrongful teaching. Is this really tenable? If so why trust the creed?
6. Modern secularism promotes a notion of gender as being fluid and interchangeable. But authentic Christianity has ever taught that our sex is fixed and that intentional differences between men and women are to be celebrated not attacked! Male and female HE created them; equal but different. We saw this fruitfully working for the Church in the 20th Century via the ministry of both Mother Theresa and Pope St. John Paul II. Both witnessed with equal integrity – but via different callings. One as the priest -Peter- the other as the evangelist -Magdalene.
This working together of man and woman, to complete each other via a bringing together of intended differences, is not only important within the church but in marriage, the family and wider society. The Church should be upholding Christian teaching not being sucked into secular conclusions that obscure and downplay our divinely intended differences.
7. At the Mass the priest stands ‘in persona Christi’. Christ cannot be ‘sacramentally’ represented by woman because Christ’s ‘maleness’ is not irrelevant but revelatory. (It tells us something about God) It would be ridiculous to cast a man as Mary in a serious passion play. It is equally silly to ask a woman to stand in the place of Christ at the altar.
8. Jesus is male because God revealed himself to be Our Father not Our mother. Whereas in Pagan religion priestesses are the norm because they present a notion of feminine divine- the mother god who gives birth to her creation. (Hence nature worship) Judaism challenged this pagan view by revealing God as the life giver not the life bearer; revealing an intended separateness of God to His created order. Nature created by not of him.
The priest ‘in persona Christi’ symbolises this truth at a deep level. A woman priest leads instead to pagan understandings of feminine divine. And its worth noting here how, since women have been ordained in the protestant world, a more liberal earthy and pagan spiritually has arisen. Heterodxoy has replaced orthodoxy; the holding of pebbles in meditation has replaced the holding of crucifixes for prayer in many places. Even the gender of God is now challenged making him unknowable once more rather than revealed to us in the person and language of Christ.
9. Scripture teaches that Christ’s relationship to his people is signified by the rich symbolism of Christ the groom and His bride the Church. This is echoed in marriage and at mass. It follows that we- the bride- must open ourselves to the groom and be impregnated by his Holy Word. We then ‘give birth’ to fruits of the Spirit. At Mass created order is echoed. Marriage and the Mass tell us about our relationship with God. A female priest or deacon confuses this symbolism and imagery making it sterile.
10. Mother Church (feminine not masculine) has ever taught that changes to belief and practice can only be accepted when backed by scripture, reason and tradition. All three -not just one. So even if modern ‘reason’ suggests women’s ordination might be worthy – it ultimately cannot be accepted- because it is backed by neither Scripture and tradition. Indeed to pursue female ordination we must first dismiss the example of Jesus, the teaching of St. Paul, the practice of the Early church and refute the Council of Nicea. At this point is man not dictating the faith to God rather than receiving it from him?
11. All arguments in favour of women priests rest on political and secular arguments for ‘inclusivity’– which itself stems from the sexual revolution and a misguided view of man and woman as being in a battle for dominance. I am yet to hear a convincing theological argument in favour. Sociology is not the right starting point for Christians who believe scripture and tradition help us discern that which God has revealed to the world.
12. God does not do U-turns. Why would the Holy Spirit teach that women’s ordination is wrong until around 1965 and only then declare the practice valid? God is, the bible teaches, the same yesterday, today and forever! We should be wary therefore of any suggestion regarding a new ‘revelation of the Spirit’ Firstly because to suggest the Spirit contradicts the Son is blasphemous as it points to an impossible disagreement and tension within the Godhead. Secondly because a spirit which has only spoken thus since the rise of radical feminist theory in the last Century seems doubtful at best.
13. The example of the protestant world is not at all encouraging where female ordination is concerned. Despite Anglicans promising, at the time of their innovation in this regard, that the admission of women to holy orders would lead to growth and renewal, the polar opposite occurred. The church became deeply divided, it fractured and numbers have dwindled to an all time low. All evidence shows that it is churches faithful to tradition that attract new members, not those pandering to the zeitgeist in a desperate attempt to seem relevant.
Here then are solid arguments for why the door should remain closed to women regarding the threefold order of deacon, priest and bishop as we have received them.
Perhaps our energy would be better by looking elsewhere in a quest to ensure women are fully involved in the life of the church. One possible idea from the early church might be to renew the vocation and role female Abbesses who ever were the equal of male bishops. Why not simply reprise this vital ministry and give Abbesses greater prominence in the governance of the church? Or create a new role to support female Christians and ensure they are as valued as men? Which is to say one doesn’t need to break the centuries old traditions of the church to ensure an equality is present. Even if there is work to be done in the arena of greater equality.