Who Is the Highest Ranking Human Female in the Church?

A FB friend writes:

Totally serious with this question. With all the Dustup going on with HHS etc. and living in a “Liberal” diocese with it’s own collections of “Liberals” (or Insert Loons if you’d Like), We’ve gotten the Bishop’s Response, but where does one find the Highest Ranking HUMAN Female of the Church? I do realize who our Highest Ranking Female is, and I have prayed to her for helping me in my unbelief and confusion, but this is one of those questions when I heard it Really made me go Hmmmmmmm.

Unless someone has been baptizing female aliens, all females who are members of the Church are human females.

The highest ranking female is thus the highest ranking human female, who is the Virgin Mary, who I am assuming is the one the reader has prayed to. Rank, in her case, is assessed based on her relationship with King Jesus, her son.

At the present moment, however, the Virgin Mary is in heaven and thus is not active except through her intercession in the Church Militant (i.e., the Church here on Earth).

If the reader means, “Who is the highest ranking female in the earthly Church” then the answer will depend on how one interprets the concept of rank. This can be assessed by different criteria, including honor, power, and authority, both secular and religious.

I don’t know how you assess honor apart from power and authority, though there are various women who have special honor even though they do not have corresponding power and authority. These might include the Catholic queens who head some nations. They have notable honor in the secular sphere, though since most are in constitutional monarchies, they do not now wield significant power and authority.

The difference between power and authority is that power involves the ability—in practical terms—to get things done, to have an effect. Authority, by contrast, involves the legal prerogative to exercise power, whether one actually has that power or not.

In terms of which women have the greatest power, it might well turn out that some of the pope’s assistants have that. They may not have high-ranking (highly authoritative) positions, but in terms of their ability to influence the actual course of affairs. Some of these women are members of the papal household, they take care of the pope, they have his ear and can get messages to him whenever they want, and—I am led to understand—one such “behind the scenes” woman is entrusted with the sensitive task of writing some of the current pope’s public addresses, which means that words she writes can become magisterial statements when he endorses and utters them.

These women, despite their great influence, do not have legal authority, however, which is measured along a different axis.

Because the Church’s organization depends fundamentally on the apostolic succession instituted by Christ and conveyed historically through the sacrament of holy orders, no women are part of this apostolic-sacramental hierarchy. The members are all a subset (a small subset) of baptized males.

The apostolic-sacramental hierarchy, however, does not exhaust the Church’s administrative structure. For example, there are offices in the Roman Curia, which assists the pope in the administration of the Church, that do not require ordination.

In recent years, some women have been appointed to position in the Roman Curia, and in terms of legal prerogatives, some of these women would exercise a corresponding legal authority, apart from that exercised by members of the Church’s apostolic-sacramental hierarchy.

The relationship between the legal hierarchy and the sacramental hierarchy is something that awaits further clarification.

The more fundamental of the two is the sacramental hierarchy. In a certain sense, anyone who is ordained will always have powers that are not possessed by someone with a merely legal (juridical) office. On the other hand, those with juridical offices may possess the authority to do certain things that a person is not entitled to do merely by virtue of ordination.

The relationship between sacramental and juridical authority thus is complex and may well be clarified in the future.

Because of the complex relationship between sacramental and legal authority, it will never be the case that you can point at a woman with legal authority and say that she “outranks” a man who is ordained without qualifying the type of authority in question. You could, however, say that she outranks him with regard to certain legal powers, and that he outranks he with regard to certain sacramental powers.

The same is true of non-ordained men. They can in principle be given all kinds of legal authority without having any sacramental authority whatsoever.

Historically, the bestowal of legal authority in the Church has been tightly linked with one’s place in the sacramental hierarchy, but this has been loosening in recent years, and we will have to see what the future holds.

This all deals with the question of authority within the Church. The question of authority in the secular sphere (e.g., those women in national governments who wield secular power) is a completely separate topic that does not map onto this one.

Thus, whatever influence Kathleen Sebelius wields in the Obama administration, she is not the highest ranking female in the Church, regardless of her power to force abortion and contraception down American Catholics’ throats.

What do you think?