LOS ANGELES-If some Church leaders imagined that Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, Pope John Paul II's 1994 apostolic letter affirming the Church's traditional ban against the ordination of women to the priesthood would retreat to the theological sidelines, the Pontiff would appear to have dashed such hopes.
In a May 21 Ascension Day address to bishops from Michigan and Ohio making their ad limina visits to Rome, the Pope not only reaffirmed the prohibition, but, in a speech focused on the theme of priesthood, told the bishops that they “must explain to the faithful why the Church does not have the authority to ordain women to the ministerial priesthood, at the same time making clear why this is not a question of the equality of persons or of their God-given rights.”
He added, significantly, that “the ‘genius ’of women must be ever more a vital strength of the Church of the next millennium.” Bishops pay ad limina visits (Latin, “to the threshold [of the Apostles”]) every five years in order to give an account of the state of their dioceses to the Pope and to venerate the tombs of Sts. Peter and Paul who, tradition asserts, were martyred in the Eternal City. These visits also provide an opportunity for the Pontiff to underscore issues he thinks should be high on their pastoral agendas. The May 21 visit marked thefifth of eight groups of U.S. bishops who will meet with Pope John Paul this year.
Does the fact that the Pope is urging U.S. bishops to be out front on the women's ordination issue imply that the Vatican thinks that America's episcopate has not been forceful enough in promoting the Church's stand? Father Augustine Di Noia, theologian to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB), cautions against reading too much into the recent ad limina address.
“The Pope is working through various themes of importance to the Church in these addresses,” he told the Register. “There is no particular reason that the [May 21] discourse should be singled out,” or that anyone should think there is a hidden critique there.
In any case, said Father Di Noia, the American bishops “responded forthrightly to criticisms [four years ago] of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis coming from the Catholic Theological Society of America (CTSA)” and others, and earlier this year published a collection of essays and commentaries on Church documents related to the women's ordination issue.
Jesuit Father Avery Dulles, Laurence J. McGinley professor of religion and society at Fordham University, and a prominent commentator on the women's ordination issue, agrees that it's difficult “to read the mind of the Pope.” Nevertheless, he points out that the U.S. bishops have said little on an official level about the teaching since 1995. In late 1995, the U.S. bishops issued a statement supporting the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's (CDF) Oct. 28, 1995 clarification on the apostolic letter, the Responsum ad Dubium, which indicated that the prohibition on women priests “requires definitive assent ... [and] has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium.”
“It's only a guess, but perhaps the Pope feels not enough is being done,” he said.
The reticence is not hard to understand, said Father Dulles. “Some [bishops] feel that [the women's ordination ban] is a hot iron, and they're not particularly anxious to touch it. They don't want to stir up the ‘other side, ’the teaching's opponents, and incite more vitriolic reactions.”
The influential 1,400-member CTSA, for example, has continued to be in the forefront of opposition to the papal teaching. Three years ago, in the wake of the Responsum, they published statements challenging the CDF's assertion that the prohibition on women's ordination was irreversible. And just last June the society enmeshed itself still further in controversy when it renewed the challenge, arguing that “serious doubts” remain about the authority of the Pope's ban and “its grounds in tradition” -a position sharply criticized by several U.S. bishops, among them Bernard Cardinal Law of Boston.
“What [the CTSA] has tried to do,” observed Father Dulles, “is to focus not on the teaching — what the apostolic letter taught — but on the CDF clarification and the infallibility issue. It's a tactic. They don't want to be labeled as dissenters, but what they're saying is that it's not necessary for all the faithful to give full assent to this teaching. That places them in real conflict with what the Pope is saying.”
On the other hand, said the theologian, “the silence of the teaching's defenders runs the risk of giving the impression that all the theologians and the best scholarship are on the dissenting side. And that's just not the case.”
In fact, there's evidence that a growing band of theologians, philosophers, and distinguished lay people — men and women — are helping to develop the kind of framework the Pope has urged: a positive presentation of the teaching of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis that both “explains” the prohibition theologically and articulates a genuine Catholic vision of the role of women.
For one, Dr. Ronda Chervin, the well-known Catholic philosopher and lecturer, author of Feminine, Free and Faithful, has made the Pope's message a centerpiece of her talks to lay groups around the country.
“A point that the Pope emphasizes in his teaching,” she explained, “is Christ's sovereign right to choose. As Lord, he has a right to choose certain disciples, and not others, for the performance of specific tasks.” He chose certain men to serve as the Twelve; but, likewise, he chose to reveal his divine identity first to the Samaritan woman at the well, and not to others.
“It's his right,” she said.
Chervin, a consultant to the U.S. bishops ’committee on the concerns of women, has little patience with the objection that in choosing male disciples, Jesus was simply operating according to the customs of the time. Even Christianity's critics, she pointed out, acknowledge that the behavior of Jesus toward women “runs deeply against the grain of first-century Jewish culture.”
Citing Anglican writer C.S. Lewis's God in the Dock, written during the early stages of the Anglican communion's debate on women's ordination in the 1960s, Chervin said that the issue is really about two completely different notions of religion: religion as a cultural expression, and religion as revelation.
“What we are defending in this debate,” she said, “is nothing less than revealed religion.”
Having said that, Chervin underlines that the issue of respecting women and “receiving women's gifts in the life of the Church” is the other half of the Pope's message.
“Some women seek the priesthood as a solution to the sense of powerlessness,” she said.
For Chervin, the way forward lies in studying “the whole tradition of women saints,” the teaching of major Catholic figures such as Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, and, more recently, Blessed Edith Stein's “theological anthropology of woman,” which, many scholars insist, has influenced Pope John Paul's pioneering teaching on women in his Letter to Women, issued on the eve of the 1995 U.N. women's conference in Beijing, in the call for a “new feminism” in the encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life) and, most significantly, in the 1988 apostolic letter on the dignity and vocation of women, Mulieris Dignitatem.
Stein, born into an Orthodox Jewish home in Breslau in 1891, converted to Catholicism during her philosophical studies at the University of Gottingen in 1921. As one of the first women admitted to university studies in Germany, Stein wrote extensively in the area of the ontology of woman in the years after her conversion, and eventually became a leading voice in the Catholic women's movement in central Europe.
“Her best pupil,” observed Jean- Marie Cardinal Lustiger of Paris during a recent visit to the United States, “is the Holy Father.”
Father Matthew Lamb, a theologian who teaches at Boston College, likewise sees the women's ordination issue in the context of the central tenets of Christianity.
“The priest isn't carrying out his own ministry, but he carries forth the priestly ministry of Jesus,” he said. “The Church is not the expression of our mission, but the continuation throughout time of the visible mission of the Word incarnate.”
Since this is her charter, he said, the Church “doesn't have the authority to contradict this mission from the Lord. The question of who is, or is not ordained [to the priesthood] is something in response to the actions and choices of Jesus Christ communicated through the apostles.”
The push for women's ordination, says Father Lamb, is “not the result of serious theological reflection,” but a superficial response to certain cultural movements.
“We live in a careerist society,” he said. “For some, if we don't play the same role in the drama, we're not equal. But that fails to grasp the different ways that men and women embody the response to Christ. There's a kind of clericalism at work here.”
Finally, he said, there is “only one calling: being caught up in the beatific vision and sharing in the life of God.”
Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon puts the stress on what is happening at the grassroots level, in parishes.
“My perception is that women's ordination is a non-issue for people in the pew,” she told the Register. “Women's ordination is a flag waved by ideologues. The regular Churchgoing Catholic has got a lot of things on his or her mind — good preaching, good liturgy, the shortage of priests — but not that.”
For one thing, she said, most Catholics realize that ordaining women to the priesthood won't solve any of the major problems facing the Church. They have taken note of the fact that the Anglicans in the United States who elected to ordain women in 1977 have been plagued with division, but haven't solved their priest shortage by doing so, or added numbers to their ranks.
“But,” said Glendon, “that's not to say that we don't need to listen to what the Holy Father is saying about women.”
Glendon, who headed the Vatican delegation to the 1995 U.N. women's conference in Beijing, laments that the Pope's vision of “a new feminism” is not better known.
As the law professor wrote in a widely quoted March 1997 article in Crisis magazine, “Where women's changing roles are concerned, the Pope's writings contain no trace of the dogmatism that often characterizes the rhetoric of organized feminism and cultural conservatives alike ... [John Paul II] invites women to reflect and meditate with him about the quest for equality, freedom, and dignity in the light of the faith.”
That's not to say, Glendon urged, that the Church lags behind other institutions in society in according respect to women.
“There never has been a secular institution that shows as much respect to women as our Church does,” she told the Register. But as long as significant numbers of women experience forms of injustice in the Church, or find that their contributions aren't welcomed, “you are going to have this argument for women's ordination.”
Finally, said Father Dulles, the issue comes back to the connection between the sacraments and the actions of the historical Jesus. An essential insight of Catholicism, he said, has always been to insist that what the Church does is in conformity with what Jesus did.
“It's vital to preserve this,” he said. “We can't just substitute what we would have done if we'd been Christ. Otherwise, we'd be right to wonder whether religion has any real content at all.”
Gabriel Meyer writes from Los Angeles.
It appears on the books as early as the middle of the fourth century.
Epiphanius, a bishop in Cyprus, complains in his encyclopedia of heresies, The Panarion, or “Medicine Chest,” written about 375 A.D., about the Collyridians, assemblies where women offer bread and partake of it in a quasi-sacramental manner.
In the Middle Ages, at least on a theoretical level, scholastic theologians debated the issue of whether women could be ordained to the priesthood, often using the same scriptural texts and considering the same arguments proponents of women's ordination raise today. Agradual consensus developed that the tradition was a matter of divine law.
In 1916, the Holy Office, the predecessor of today's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, condemned the making and distribution of images of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Calvary clothed in the vestments of a priest — a reaction to a 19th century Marian devotion which posited that the Virgin offered Christ to the Father on the Cross after the model of the Mass.
According to some scholars, the acute priest shortage following World War I caused German bishops to raise the issue of ordaining women to the priesthood — a discreet discussion in which Blessed Edith Stein figured — and which ended with a unanimous verdict that the Church could not ordain women. Some other significant Catholic women scholars also participated in this 1930's effort, among them, the writer Hilda Graef.
In 1976, during the debate on women's ordination in the Anglican communion, the CDF issued the declaration Inter Insigniores, on the question of the admission of women to the ministerial priesthood. This is a much longer statement than Ordinatio Sacerdotalis and contains a fuller treatment than the 1994 apostolic letter does of the theological underpinnings of the prohibition.