Consider Tradition

A Case for Ordaining Women

As a Southerner, reverence for tradition is part of my inheritance. I cherish the traditions of my ancestors, of my region, and especially of my church. Far from alienating me, an appeal to tradition tends to warm my heart. On the other hand, since I am all too aware, again as a Southerner, of the damage wreaked by the misuse of tradition, I have begun to ponder the meaning and nature of tradition and to look critically at its role in the Christian life. What is it that makes a traditional practice honorable (a fine Southern word), not to mention valid, for a Christian? Is it the fact that we have always done it that way? Or is something more required?

I would like to consider three kinds of tradition, which I would call negative, subsidiary, and Tradition with a capital T. All three are implicated in the current controversy about the refusal of the Roman Catholic church to ordain women to the priesthood.

When I was in high school, our service club occasionally visited different churches on Sunday mornings. One denomination permitted no musical accompaniment for its robust hymn-singing because the organ is not mentioned in the Bible. This is an example of what I would call a negative tradition, one based on something not done, rather than on something done. Such an approach to tradition can be risky. After all, much of the secular and religious activity we take for granted was never done or authorized by Jesus. He never rode in an automobile, wore trousers, made a telephone call, used hosts for Communion, condemned slavery (in so many words, at least as far as we know), or ordained Gentiles to the priesthood (if he can be said to have ordained anyone).

When dealing with a negative tradition we must ask why something was never done. Would it have compromised the gospel? Is it harmful to us or to others, and therefore immoral? Did it violate cultural norms? Or was it simply that no one ever thought of it?

The second type of tradition can be illustrated by the church of my mother’s childhood, whose music consisted of psalms, as these were the songs of the Bible. I think of this as a subsidiary tradition, one based on or developed from positive actions or sayings, but not essential to the gospel message. Although subsidiary traditions may take the form of lovely and meaningful customs, such as seasonal colors for the liturgy or singing psalms instead of hymns, they too become dangerous if they displace aspects more central to the mystery of Christ.

Catholicism’s integrity rests in its tradition with a capital T. The Tradition is, first, always at the heart of the mystery of Christ, and second, generally based on the positive actions of Jesus, rather than omissions, unless those omissions are clearly at the center of the mystery. According to the Theological Dictionary of Karl Rahner and Herbert Vorgrimler, it is crucial to distinguish Tradition from "doctrine and discipline that are traditional in the broad sense," but which do not have the "direct authority" of the revelation of God to and through the church. Celebrating the Eucharist is an obvious example of a practice belonging to the Tradition. "For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread..." (1 Cor. 11:23 NRSV). On the other hand, as the liturgical reforms of Vatican II made clear, not every detail of how the Eucharist is celebrated—even some of our most revered practices—can be claimed as part of the Tradition.

There is no need to deprecate the value of less central traditions. They have given us powerful ways of expressing grief, comforting those in sorrow, praising God, and praying together as family or community. The sequence of readings in the Lectionary as well as our liturgical gestures are good examples of such traditions. Our most venerable traditions have reasons behind their longevity, and we should not cast them aside lightly. But even traditional practices that appear to have no rational explanation need not be abandoned, for religious practice does not require the same sort of rationale as, say, computer networking. However, ancillary practices remain vital and valid only insofar as they are consistent with the Tradition itself. They must support what the gospel teaches in other areas, such as the injunction to love God and neighbor and the call to union of all Christians in Christ and with Christ. And they must not supplant or overshadow the Tradition.

All tradition reminds us that we are never wholly creatures of the present moment. Our nature is rather to be creatures of the sacred anamnesis, where past, present, and future are brought together into one: "Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again." While we reside in an age when the Resurrection is already a reality, at the same time we carry within us the reality of the Crucifixion, and we long for the Second Coming. It is memory which links us to the past and hope which connects us to the future. Most often, perhaps, we live in tension between the two, although at times, in graced moments, we repose in their embrace. Both the thrusting of our roots into what was and the reaching out toward what will be, toward the eschaton, are necessary for us as human beings.

Memory and tradition assure us that we are not merely contingent beings but part of something larger than ourselves, and that this something does not easily die. By means of our Christian traditions we live out our shared memories of Jesus and his paschal mystery, as well as of the patriarchs and matriarchs of our pre-Christian and post-Resurrection heritage.

However, our life in Christ is based not only on sacred memory, but also on hope—for Christ will come again, the dead will be raised, the reign of God will reach its ultimate fulfillment. Tradition, in hope, stretches out before us to the consummation of the messianic age, when the wolf shall dwell with the lamb and the reality of Jesus’ prayer that all may be one will finally be manifest. In other words, we are going somewhere, and our tradition, while participating in eternal truths, is not and cannot be static.

"Tradition," according to Rahner and Vorgrimler, "ensures the continuance of what has been once begun." But we must be sure that what we are continuing is truly revelatory of the mystery of Christ. One of the more perverse tendencies of believers has been the use of the Bible to justify prejudice toward groups whom we believe God has chosen not to favor. When I was growing up in the segregated South, the story of Noah’s drunkenness in Genesis 9 was cited as justification for the subservient status of people of African descent. If black people were in a position inferior to whites, both socially and economically, this was part of the divine plan, proceeding from the unwary actions of Noah’s son Ham. To attempt to change the situation—to go to school together, to sit down at the same table, to worship together, and heaven forbid, to marry each other—would be immoral, counter to the will of God. As abhorrent as this sounds today, many well-intentioned white people believed this.

Similarly, certain biblical passages have been used to subordinate women in the church. One of the most damaging has been 1 Timothy 2:11–15, which reads in part, "I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve...." In I Suffer Not a Woman: Rethinking 1 Timothy 2:11–15 in Light of Ancient Evidence (Baker, 1992), Richard Clark Kroeger and Catherine Clark Kroeger make a convincing case for a different translation of the passage. According to the Kroegers, the Christian community was combating certain Gnostic views, among them one which claimed that Eve was created first and then created (or was the author of) Adam. The Greek, they maintain, may more accurately be translated, "I do not permit woman to teach nor to represent herself as originator of man but she is to be in conformity [with the Scriptures]....For Adam was created first, then Eve." The passage forbids the teaching of heretical doctrine, and has no relevance to women’s place in the assembly. Nonetheless, even if the verses are translated in the customary manner, any practice based on them (or on any other Scripture passage) must be read, not in isolation, but in the light of the broader Tradition of the church and of what we know of the good news of Jesus Christ. The same approach should be taken when considering the ordination of women to the priesthood.

Unfortunately, the Vatican seems too often to blur the distinctions between different kinds of traditions (see the examples of what is to be held definitively in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s commentary which companions Ad tuendam fidem; Origins, July 16, 1998). It may even neglect Tradition when it comes to the role of women in the church. On Pentecost, May 22, 1994, Pope John Paul II appealed to tradition in his apostolic letter, Ordinatio sacerdotalis: "Priestly ordination, which hands on the office entrusted by Christ to his Apostles of teaching, sanctifying, and governing the faithful, has in the Catholic church from the beginning always been reserved to men alone. This tradition has also been faithfully maintained by the Oriental churches."

The Responsum ad dubium, dated October 28, 1995, and signed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and Tarcisio Bertone of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, offered a clarification: "This teaching requires definitive assent, since, founded on the written Word of God, and from the beginning constantly preserved and applied in the Tradition of the church, it has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal magisterium...."

Let us accept, at least for the sake of argument, that the constant practice of the church has indeed been an all-male priesthood. Still, if the unvarying tradition of the Catholic church has been to reserve the priesthood to men, the question of whether or not the exclusion of women from the priesthood is an authentic aspect of its Tradition remains. Is it really impossible for the church to do something Jesus did not do, especially if the proposed change has not been much of an issue up until recently? (See the 1976 declaration of the CDF, Inter insigniores, 4.)

For centuries, the male priesthood seemed to provide an effective means for the transmittal of the message of Christ, and in this sense could be seen as tradition in service of the Tradition. But what about today? What if the exclusion of women from the priesthood is jeopardizing the handing on of the Tradition? I am not just worried about the practical problem of a lack of vocations. What if the exclusionary tradition of the male priesthood is itself inimical to the gospel Tradition?

I know how heavily tradition can weigh, how morally blinding it can be. My forebears ingested racism with their mothers’ milk, though they would not have thought of themselves as racists. They regarded a hierarchy of the races as God’s will. They would never have joined the Ku Klux Klan or consciously harmed a person of any race. They were kind in the way they knew how to be kind. In their hearts they believed they were living in the way God had ordained for them—yet what unspeakable damage their convictions about race inflicted on generation unto generation!

In a similar fashion, we cannot let the views of the Fathers of the church or of scholasticism or even of theologians early in this century determine how women are to be viewed in the church today. We are responsible for what we have learned about men and women from modern social and biological sciences, as well as from the Holy Spirit. Thomas Aquinas was wise in many things, but even he was a product of his times. In the Summa Theologiae we read that "since it is not possible in the female sex to signify eminence of degree, for a woman is in the state of subjection, it follows that she cannot receive the sacrament of Order." What is more, woman’s subjection is not due to social conditions. Addressing the question of whether slavery is an impediment to ordination, Thomas wrote in the Summa that "sacramental signs signify by reason of their natural likeness. Now a woman is a subject by her nature, whereas a slave is not." Aquinas also believed that "in women there is not sufficient strength of mind to resist concupiscence." One would certainly have doubts about ordaining a creature of such limited endowment.

We cannot judge Thomas Aquinas. But we know better. We know that women are not by nature inferior to men (see John Paul II’s 1988 apostolic letter, Mulieris dignitatem). We know that a woman is no more in a state of subjection by her nature than is a man. Aquinas’s objections can no longer be cited as reasons to refuse ordination to women. Nor can any other reasons that imply inferiority. To do so would stand in contradiction to what we now understand of the good news of Christ.

The National Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine takes up this challenge in its observations on the Catholic Theological Society of America document "Tradition and the Ordination of Women." These observations emphasize that the magisterium’s rejection of the appeal to female inferiority means that "other factors" should be stressed. What are these other factors? Are they sufficient to safeguard the tradition of the all-male priesthood without endangering the transmission of the Tradition?

The iconic nature of the priesthood is primary among those reasons, as Inter insigniores also points out:

"Sacramental signs," says Saint Thomas, "represent what they signify by natural resemblance." The same natural resemblance is required for persons as for things: when Christ’s role in the Eucharist is to be expressed sacramentally, there would not be this "natural resemblance" which must exist between Christ and his minister if the role of Christ were not taken by a man: in such a case it would be difficult to see in the minister the image of Christ. For Christ himself was and remains a man.

This is a confusing passage. Is Inter insigniores saying that having women at the altar would be the equivalent of using pizza instead of bread, or Coke instead of wine? Are we being told that the sign-value would be defective because women are of a fundamentally different nature than men, and therefore of Christ? Are we to understand that a woman cannot resemble Christ sufficiently for the faithful to see Christ in her, for her to become a sacrament of Christ? Surely that is not what is being suggested. I say surely, because any denial of the power of Christ through his passion, death, and Resurrection to transform a believer into his image is irreconcilable with the Tradition. What would be the reaction if one said that a particular race or nationality could not adequately image Christ? And yet in another age and among certain groups, this too would have been acceptable. The sacramentality of the priesthood cannot demand a male presence in the same way that the celebration of the Eucharist requires the elements of bread and wine. Christ is the destination and ultimate identity of each human being, and all are called to be remade in his image. Thus women are not called to be lesser images of Christ than are men.

But what about Mary? Pope John Paul II, in Ordinatio sacerdotalis, writes:

the fact that the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God and Mother of the church, received neither the mission proper to the Apostles nor the ministerial priesthood clearly shows that the nonadmission of women to priestly ordination cannot mean that women are of lesser dignity, nor can it be construed as discrimination against them. Rather, it is to be seen as the faithful observance of a plan to be ascribed to the wisdom of the Lord of the universe.

Again, the argument is confusing. If Mary’s role was not to be a priest, does that mean that no women are ever called to be priests? Was Mary not called to be a priest because she was a woman? Or was Mary not called to be a priest because she had another call? Some are called to be prophets, some teachers, some evangelists, some healers, some priests. And one amazing woman was called to be the mother of the Savior. No, if Mary was not ordained, it was because she received a more important call, not because she was a woman.

The constant Tradition of the church is that all, men and women alike, have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. But out of God’s great love, the Word became flesh, taking on everything about our human condition, born of a woman inter faeces et urinam (to borrow Augustine’s expression)—like us in all things but sin. We are all, women and men, through our participation in Christ’s death and Resurrection in the Eucharistic mystery, which unites all the sacraments, and in the mystery of our everyday lives, called to "be conformed to the image of [God’s] Son" (Romans 8:29). We are all "being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another" (2 Cor. 3:18). In the words of Lumen gentium (7), "All the members [of the body of Christ] must be formed in his likeness, until Christ is formed in them (see Gal. 4:19). For this reason we, who have been made like to him, who have died with him and risen with him, are taken up into the mysteries of his life, until we reign together with him...."

In the call to holiness, that is, the call to represent Christ in the world, the church has not traditionally held women to a lower standard than men—on the contrary. Nevertheless, whether or not the intention is there, the all-male priesthood and the arguments proposed in its favor do suggest that women are a lesser image of Christ than men.

"What do I tell my daughters?" I hear a parish leader ask when the topic of ordination comes up. And I imagine Jesus responding, "If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea" (Mark 9:42).

Does it matter whether or not women were at the Last Supper, or whether their role in early Christianity included priesthood? The questions are important, but for the discussion of ordination in today’s church they cannot be decisive. For the restriction of the priesthood to men is primarily a negative tradition, based on an omission, not on Jesus’ unambiguous instruction. It is also a subsidiary tradition, not at the heart of the gospel mystery. Finally, considering what we know today about human beings and about the gospel, it is a tradition that has become a stumbling block to Christ’s little ones, a scandal to the world, and a detriment to the handing on of the church’s constant Tradition.


Related: Why Not?: Scripture, History, and Women's Ordination by Robert J. Egan, SJ

Published in the 1999-01-29 issue: 

Rose Hoover, RC, is on the retreat staff of the Cenacle in Metairie, Louisiana.

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