Women's Rights in a Traditional Church

Justice in the Church: Gender and Participation by Benedict M. Ashley OP

(Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1996, 234 pp.)

This book comprises the 1992 Michael J. McGivney Lectures given by Father Benedict Ashley at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Washington. In addition, there are three appendices and four chapters that seek to address the question of women's rights vis-à-vis the tradition of the Church concerning the ordination of women.

In chapter one, the author examines the nature of equality in society in general. He develops his thesis based on traditional philosophical ideas about authority and participation. Problems with women's ordination and modern notions of freedom can be traced to a theory of human freedom that looks on all hierarchical authority as contrary to the idea of freedom.

This cannot be sustained even from the point of view of philosophy. Nature is not monotonously uniform. Human life and relations cannot be either. Still, hierarchy must first be based on the fundamental equality of the human persons that it serves.

The author then makes a distinction between functional equality and personal equality that will serve as the foundation of his whole thesis. Personal equality is “the radical capacity for truth and freedom” that God has given each of us in creation. This personal capacity does not mean that all are equally intelligent or good, only that they have the capacity to develop intelligence and goodness. Basic human rights, such as the right to life, follow from personal equality.

Functional equality is another matter. It “requires an order or ‘hierarchy’ of functions if these functions are to be coordinated in a unified action.” Some functions demand that a person be not only competent, but also chosen. To maintain that justice demands the complete destruction of all hierarchy is not only naturally destructive, but also socially destructive.

The author maintains that the only way for functional equality to actually promote personal equality is to remember that the function of office must serve the common good and the one exercising it must sacrifice himself or herself to this good. Justice in the Church therefore demands fidelity to the hierarchical nature of the Church as well as the caveat that this hierarchy must be a servant and victim in imitation of Christ.

In chapter two the author examines another key term—participation. He explains that though there is a hierarchy of functions in every society, this hierarchy exists to encourage each of the members to take their full part in society. The state and family have an order of functions, yet the virtue of leadership in both these natural societies consists in promoting the reasoned and moral participation of each member. Justice in the Church can only be viewed as an analogy to justice in secular societies. Though this justice also promotes participation, it does so in a very different way from natural societies.

The third chapter examines six arguments that favor ordination of women and systematically answers each from both Scripture and tradition. The central difficulty turns around an attempt by some to interpret the priest as acting only in persona ecclesiae (in the person of the Church). Since the Church is made up of both sexes, this would permit ordination of women. Father Ashley points out that there are two ways the priest acts representatively that must be viewed as complementary and not contradictory. He acts both in persona Christi capitis (in the person of Christ the Head) and in persona ecclesiae (in the person of the Church). The first representation would exclude women from ordination.

In chapter four, the author examines the relation of women to worship both historically and theoretically. He uses Mary as the model. Though there are parts of this chapter that are very beautiful, it is the least satisfactory in the book. The question of the diaconate for women is treated here as well as some speculation of the reasons for the place women have occupied in worship.

The three appendices that follow are generally excellent, critically examining recent objections to the magisterial teaching on the subject of women's ordination, an important recent book advocating a change in the traditional explanation of the names of God and the Trinity based on feminist ideas, and the question of the infallibility of Pope John Paul II's 1994 apostolic letter, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (On Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Only). These appendices are the deepest and most satisfying part of the book.

This book is a highly readable, intelligent contribution to the current debate on all women's issues.

Father Brian Mullady teaches theology at Holy Apostles Seminary, Cromwell, Conn.