The synodal process and women’s ordination
The very credibility of the synodal process Pope Francis wants to make constituent of the Church’s life depends on how we face the issue of women in the Church
By George Wilson November 30, 2021
From reports on the initial stages of the synodal process in various countries it is becoming clear that one issue that must be on the eventual agenda is “the role of women in the Church”. That anodyne wording represents an attempt to enter gently onto a subject that is surely fraught.
The subtext, as just about anyone will realize, is the “ordination of women”. Naming it directly evokes powerful, if hidden, emotions: hopes that border on the utopian or fears that are all but existential. Will the synod actually confront the situation? Will it actually debate such a radical change? Does it have the power to do so?
One thing that should be clear is that any attempt to decide peremptorily that even a discussion is ruled out would all but destroy the credibility of the synodal process. Developments of the past 50 years demand that the issue must be confronted. There is, at this point, no turning back.
Framing the question
In these reflections I will focus first on the Roman Church’s present policy that excludes women from even being considered for priestly ordination. It is important that the policy be distinguished from the way it is presently carried out.
Defining the limits of acceptability for anyone to be ordained is quite a different matter than making the judgment that a particular individual person (female, in the case under debate) does or does not possess the gifts that are required by the church for service as a priest. The policy decision, as opposed to implementation decisions, is not concerned with individual women who feel called to ordination. It focuses, instead, on a class of humans who are excluded from consideration simply because of their gender. In short, because they are not male.
Any supposed discernment, whether on the part of the individual woman or even a whole local Church community that has experienced the holiness of the individual, would be an exercise in futility. The very possibility that the Holy Spirit might actually call a woman to orders is out of the question on the basis of a condition that is beyond the applicant’s control: her gender.
Supporters of the policy argue that the conclusion is itself based on constant tradition: the Church does not permit women to be ordained priests because history demonstrates that it does not have that power.
The word “history” leads me to mull over a different matter. It concerns the efforts by some highly qualified scholars, women and men both, to prove that women have served, if not as priests, at least as deacons in the early Church. Their research has been prodigious and revelatory, clarifying our understanding of the complexity of our Church’s long structural story.
My wonderment is this: has that effort unwittingly served to bolster the argument of those who are most anxious to ward off the possibility that the church might ordain women? How can that be? Trying to find past examples of women being ordained might actually mean unwittingly accepting this implicit premise: the proof that the Church has the power to ordain women is dependent on the demonstration that it has done so in the past.
By accepting that premise, the advocates for women’s ordination may have tied their hands unnecessarily. They may have conceded that a pastoral response suited to the church of the 3rdcentury must be determinative for its response in the radically different world of the 21st century.
A culturally conditioned phenomenon
To return to the present question then…
There is nothing in revelation that teaches that women are, by virtue of their gender alone, barred from ordination. The restriction is a matter of Church policy. As such, it is based on long-standing custom (called “tradition”). That custom itself was shaped in response to the cultural norms and expectations of the day. The policy is subject to change if the culture to which the church is responding changes fundamentally.
No one can reasonably argue that we live today in the same cultural world as those in the second or third century, when the notion of priestly ordination was being theologically developed. At this point it may help to recall that the New Testament never calls any individual a “priest” except Jesus Christ. Instead, it is the whole body of the faithful that is called a “priesthood”.
In the decades and centuries that followed the founding generation of the Church, the growing community gradually developed the structures that could aid it in fulfilling the mission entrusted to it by the command of the Lord. It drew on some features of the Jewish culture from which it was gradually distinguishing itself, while rejecting others. Other structural features it adopted from its Greco-Roman surroundings. The important thing to note is that the process of structuring its life and mission was a response to its contemporary situation.
The Church and contemporary cultures have been co-creating each other ever since. Church, like its Founder, is an incarnated reality, not a Gnostic idea. It is always in pilgrimage. As the Book of Revelation says, “The one seated on the throne then said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” (21:5)
World culture in the post-New Testament era
One deeply embedded feature common to all the cultures of that founding era was its view of women. At that time, and for centuries thereafter, women were considered property and were treated as such. That perspective is, of course, a far cry from our contemporary understanding of women as human persons, with the same dignity and rights that personhood confers on men. (The tortuous path by which that understanding is still struggling for acceptance in contemporary society is a very different matter.)
The Greco-Roman consensus to which early Christianity was indebted has shifted again and again over the centuries in so many subtle ways that whole libraries are bound to fail in the effort to catalog them. For purposes of this reflection let’s consider three major upheavals that have compelled us to question the premises on which that earlier world was based.
First, the rupture between the Roman and Orthodox Churches brought the realization that Christianity was no longer the monolith we thought it was. The changed reality brought with it changes in how we had to re-image all of life: trade, the arts, education, law, theology.
Our world-view was then shaken even more drastically by the discoveries of Columbus and the other great world navigators. In particular, whole tracts in theology had to be re-thought in light of our changed view of a whole new world. What we called in 1491 “the world” had to be referred to after 1492 as “the then-known world” — as our world of 2021 will be referred to in every coming millennium.
The discovery of new worlds post 1492 brought with it new questions, challenging all previous syntheses. Were the people in what was now called “The New World” affected by original sin? Did Jesus die and rise for them? Existing liturgical prayer forms needed to be adapted to the religious needs of people coming from hitherto unknown cultures. The process of liturgical acculturation is still matter for ongoing conversion for Western Catholics. (I recall an American bishop at Vatican II telling me how shaken he was to see tall African tribesmen come down the center aisle of St. Peter’s dancing and beating their long drums at one of the conciliar liturgies. Could “Catholic” include that?)
The changes called for by those upheavals in human understanding have taken centuries to be lifted into consciousness, appreciated, and translated into operational policy. The process continues today.
Two contemporary upheavals
It is safe to say that as a world we are now in the middle of two further shifts of equal or greater magnitude: the push for racial equality on the one hand, and the women’s movement on the other.
We will focus on the latter, but it is worth noting that it took more than 20 years after Emancipation for the Church in America to do the unthinkable and ordain an ex-slave, Fr. Augustus Tolton, in 1886. Women all across the globe are claiming an equality with men that touches just about every facet of human life. They are not waiting for it to be conferred on them by men. They know that it belongs to them by virtue of creation.
In the case of Christians, that equality is grounded even more profoundly in our common Baptism. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free man, there is no longer male or female. For all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28)
In practice, to be sure, the blessings that should accrue, to women and men, from that fundamental equality have been rejected in every land and culture since the beginning of time. Christians find the origins of that sinful discrimination in original sin. The same body of revelation proclaims, however, that “where sin abounded, grace overflowed all the more” (Romans 5:20). That grace is conferred, not only on individual humans but especially on the gathered community we call “Church”
It is a movement of grace that calls us to take one painful step after another on the road to full equality. As Pope John Paul II reminds us in Redemptoris missio, “[every] culture is a human creation and is therefore marked by sin”. It therefore requires a painful effort to reject prevailing assumptions and act counter-culturally. By Baptism we are all called in a special way to work for the elimination of every barrier to the full realization of human equality.
It would seem that the policy that excludes women from even being considered for priestly ordination on the basis of gender alone represents a breakdown in the process of achieving the equality mentioned in Galatians. Women were surely not excluded from the New Testament understanding of a “priestly people.” That women were not further ordained in the early
post-New Testament Church does not preclude the possibility that they could be in a culturally transformed era.
The next question is obvious: What is it about gender that it constitutes an impediment to the ordaining of women? As far as I know, no authority has ever explained the rationale for that exclusion.
A different barrier
We might gain some insight from the Church’s way of dealing with another factor that at one time was considered an absolute impediment against ordination: visible physical impairment. Although the stipulation never reached the level of canonical recognition, for many years a man born with, say, only one arm was not to be considered eligible for ordination to the priesthood. In that case the “rationale” was that such a physical impediment, even if it did not prevent the man from performing the bodily acts of a Eucharistic presider, was seen as a blemish; something unseemly and detracting from the dignity of the Mass.
Thank God, our contemporary culture has rejected that demeaning assumption. Step by step, equal participation in every form of civic activity by people with disabilities is now protected by law. Following the advance in civic culture, Church authorities have quietly allowed the practice to go the route of birettas.
Relocating the burden of proof
Given the fact that…
- the deposit of faith says nothing about who is eligible for priestly ordination;
- cultural assumptions about women and their human capabilities have changed so dramatically and irrevocably over the past hundred years; and
- the lay faithful in so many countries are calling for such a change
…It would seem that the burden of proof for maintaining or continuing the present discipline now lies, not with those who are calling for this new recognition of women’s equality, but with those who deny its possibility.
The argument is often made that, although Jesus challenged the culture of his day by openly including women in his intimate circle of disciples, neither he nor the early Church went so far as to “ordain” them. Conclusion: That choice must represent his will for the Church forever after. If Jesus had wanted women presbyters he would have made them so himself.
Apart from all the historically comic errors on which the argument is based (the men at the Last Supper had the distinction of being apostles but none of them were “ordained”), there remains the simple reality that a change of that magnitude was utterly unthinkable in that world. The network of assumptions that would have to be challenged was so woven into daily life as to be impossible to untangle. As it is, Jesus already pushed the boundaries to the point that it cost him his life.
As we have seen, succeeding shifts have unloosened that consensus, strand by strand, over the centuries. A competing consensus is being generated step by tentative step. It is not an exaggeration to say that a new world, based on different assumptions, is emerging. And the pace is quickening.
But what of the priest’s power to act “in persona Christi”?
At this point the conversation turns to attempts at translating mystical imagery and re-shaping it to justify conclusions of a radically different nature. To view the Church symbolically as the bride of Christ has undoubtedly enriched the faith and spirituality of generations of Christians. It is to be celebrated.
But to take such a metaphor and apply it literally, concluding that only males can represent the Christ at the altar, seems to be the creation of an ideology that masks an underlying fear. The mystics were focused on symbols that touch a deeper level of the spirit than the structuring of organizational roles in the Church. They would surely not have made such an inference.
As I mentioned at the beginning of these reflections, these two words — “women’s ordination” — evoke deep emotions. They can easily lead to focusing on questions that are tangential to the central policy issue. In these reflections I have tried to ensure that the synodal conversation will focus first on the core issue, the exclusion of women in general on the basis of their gender.
I have not dealt with the methods employed to determine whether the church will favor or reject the candidacy of a particular individual applicant, male or female. I hope to address the questions surrounding that secondary decision in a later article.