The answer apparently is “No”, because the Catholic Church doesn’t accept women to the ordained priesthood. Does this merit re-consideration? Though not a theologian or church historian I would address the question from three angles: (i) The objections to women’s ordination (ii) The nature of the priesthood (iii) The life of Mother Mary.
THE OBJECTIONS: I had to search my records to find the “Declaration on the Question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood”, published in L`Osservatore Romano on 3/2/1977. There may have been other official pronouncements thereafter, of which I am not aware, hence I wish to be excused.
Normally, when studying an issue, the pros and cons are debated before arriving at a conclusion. Unfortunately, this Declaration begins with the premise that it is not possible and then proceeds to fit its arguments into the same. This is a flawed process. I quote, in the sequence in which these statements are made.
First there is a frank admission. “In the life of the Church herself … women have played a decisive role and accomplished tasks of outstanding value”. Despite that it continues, “The question has been asked whether the Catholic Church too could not modify her discipline and admit women to priestly ordination”?
After raising the question it gives a categorical answer that “The Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith does not consider herself authorized to admit women to priestly ordination”. If so, then what need of a Declaration? Despite a categorical statement it argues that “The Catholic Church has never felt that priestly or episcopal ordination can be validly conferred on women”. Who are they speaking for? Back then, and even more so today, there is a strong thrust for women’s ordination. (I have earlier written how married clergy are also acceptable to the church).
The Declaration claims that its stand is willed by the Lord. “By calling only men to the priestly order the Church intends to remain faithful to the type of ordained ministry willed by the Lord Jesus Christ”. It continues, “The practice has enjoyed peaceful and universal acceptance”. Not true. Does the Church want a storming of the Bastille agitation before ceding ground? There is a limit to human patience, as recent developments in Pakistan and Sri Lanka have demonstrated.
While it admits that in his itinerant ministry Jesus was accompanied by a group of women it still insists that he “did not call any women to become part of the Twelve”. It continues, “Although the Blessed Virgin Mary surpassed in dignity and in excellence all the Apostles, nevertheless it was not to her but to them (Apostles) that the Lord entrusted the keys to the kingdom of heaven”. This is an admission of the incompetence of the Twelve!
Could this also mean that these doormen have “shut the kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces, neither going in yourselves, nor allowing others to go in, who want to” (Mat 23:13). Is apostleship and priesthood meant for keeping people out, or inviting them in? Empty churches in Europe and America are a warning that these doormen seem to have jammed the key in the lock!
The declaration admits that post-Resurrection Mary was in the Upper Room with the Apostles (cf Acts 1:14), that several women did apostolic work with Paul (Rom 16:3-12, Phil 4:3), yet “at no time was there a question of conferring ordination on these women”. It then reverts to its earlier position that “Could the Church today depart from the attitude of Jesus and the Apostles?” One could counter, “What proof is there of such an attitude, or even of the so-called ordination of men other than the Apostles themselves?”
The Declaration’s closing argument is the most specious. It quotes medieval theologian St Thomas Aquinas to say, “Sacramental signs represent what they signify by natural resemblance”. Hence “The same natural resemblance is required for persons as for things … there could not be this natural resemblance … if the role of Christ was not taken by a man”.
Is gender the only hallmark of Jesus? How do pink sashed bishops living in palaces and travelling in luxury sedans have a “natural resemblance” to the one who said “Foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head” (Mat 8:20)? For natural resemblance they should also have been circumcised, do carpentry, walk on water, multiply loaves and heal the sick. Would those with Caucasian, Negroid and Mongoloid features resemble the Semitic Jesus?
WHO IS A PRIEST? The answer is in the Vatican II “Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests”. It describes priestly qualities as “goodness of heart, sincerity, strength and constancy of character, zealous pursuit of justice and civility” (PO 3). Are such qualities limited to men? Many would argue that they are more feminine.
The Decree identifies three priestly functions:
- The “primary duty is the proclamation of the Gospel of God to all” (PO 4).
- They perform sacred functions so that “they make Jesus present in every gathering of the faithful” (PO 5).
- The “office of pastor … is formation of a genuine Christian community” (PO 6).
The question now is, are these functions the preserve of men? Even “sacred functions” are not an end in themselves, but directed towards making Jesus present. To what extent is our male clergy fulfilling these functions? The Decree warns that “They cannot be of service to men if they remain strangers in the life and conditions of men” (PO 3).
The Church in India Seminar was held in Bangalore from 15th-25th May 1969. It was the Indian equivalent of Vatican II. Its observations on priestly images are telling. I quote: “The priest appears as an organizer, an effective worker, but is not taken as a man of God who is concerned with spiritual things … A certain attitude of dominance prevails … Missionary work gets only second place in comparison with the importance given to the field of education … Some impressions of the priest are – a big man, an official to be saluted, one from whom we get money, one staying in a big house, often the best in the neighbourhood. The idea of a priest being a minister of God is not conveyed by such living”.
This is a scathing indictment. There are several wonderful and dedicated priests, especially those working for tribals and dalits in remote areas (Stan Swamy was not the only one). Sadly, exceptions prove the rule.
THE LIFE OF MOTHER MARY: The main references to her are at the Annunciation, the Visitation, Nativity, Presentation, Cana and the Crucifixion. Let us meditate on them.
At the Annunciation she is told, “Nothing is impossible to God” (Lk 1:38) to which her classical response was “You see before you the Lord’s servant, let it happen to me as you have said” (Ibid). Is not this act of faith a priestly quality? At her greeting at the Visitation “the child leapt in her womb and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit” (Lk 1:42). Mary was the first evangelist, incarnating the Word in another. She is called Queen of the Apostles, so how could she not be an apostle herself?
At the Nativity she “treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Lk 2:19). So she was a contemplative. At the Presentation the Prophet Simeon said to her “A sword will pierce your soul too” (Lk 2:35). Hence she is called the Mater Dolorosa and co-mediatrix, because she shared in the redemptive suffering and mission of Jesus. It is at her instance that Jesus performs his first miracle, at Cana. Mother and son were responding to a felt need, for which she authoritatively says, “Do whatever he tells you to” (Jn 2:5). She had the mind of Christ.
At the Crucifixion where were the male apostles? Judas who was “ordained” at the Last Supper betrayed Jesus. Peter the successor succeeded in denying Jesus. All the other “brave men”, barring the young John, abandoned their master in his time of greatest need. Thereafter, at the Resurrection, Mary did not run to the Sepulchre. She had no need to. She had already experienced the death and resurrection in the sword that had pierced her soul.
So did Mary need to be ordained, just as she did not need to run to the Sepulchre or be present at the Last Supper? Could any human confer on her what she had already received from the Lord?
This is why I draw inspiration from what Jesus said. When a woman in the crowd said “Blessed the womb that bore you and the breasts that fed you” (Lk 11:5) his sagacious reply was, “More blessed still are those who hear the word of God and keep it” (Ibid). As the receptacle and doer of the Word, Mother Mary was blessed. She was a priest who did not need to offer any other sacrifices, either for herself or for others (cf Heb 7:27). In like manner those of her gender and genre should be considered for the ministerial priesthood.
If some still feel that the Gospels are silent on Mary’s priesthood let us remember how they end. “There was much else that Jesus did; if it were written down in detail, I do not suppose the world itself would hold all the books that would be written” (Jn 21:25).
- The writer’s devotion to Mother Mary is rational, not cultic.