The Priesthood and Women

From the January 15, 1965 Issue
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The call of women to the full pastoral office in many Evangelical-Reformed and Protestant churches in Western Europe is an irreversible fact in the history of religion. The idea prevalent for centuries among all Christian denominations was that the ecclesiastical office in its fullness­—including the preaching of the word, administration of the sacraments, and care of souls—could be exercised only by men. Now the realization is growing among those who think as Christians that the ancient role of women in religion and the Church is no longer adequate, and that the exclusion of women deeply interested in religion from central ecclesiastical functions is a grave injustice, contradicting the Good News, the doctrine that every human being bears the likeness of God and is a child of God.

This break with tradition, this call of women theologians to the pastoral office with all its rights and duties in many Evangelical-Reformed and Protestant churches, presses with all the weight of an historical fact on the ecumenical dialogue for the reunion of Christians, and it is surprising that so little has been said about it. As far as anyone can foresee, this development in the churches of so many countries of Western Europe is sure to be consolidated and will inevitably influence other denominations, since it bears the mark of progress both human and Christian. What will happen to the women in these other denominations, women who turn to the study of theology, pass the examinations, and in the subjective certainty of a vocation ask for the office of pastor, and in the Catholic Church for the priesthood?

These women deeply imbued with the Christian message—will they have to go on living under the religious discrimination which regards their sense of vocation as irrelevant and even sinful because of their sex? Ultimately the vocation of a man working toward the priesthood is no more than a subjective consciousness based on his religious and spiritual status, and if we think in terms of spiritual human beings born to the likeness of God and called to be children of God, it is impossible to comprehend how this subjective consciousness suffices for a man to be called to the reception of orders and to ecclesiastical office but not for a woman.

Tradition, which in this case has already been abandoned by many of the churches of Protestant countries taking part in interconfessional dialogue, is not an insuperable obstacle even in the Catholic Church. In an interesting work, Kirche und Sakramente, Karl Rahner has expressed an idea that is as courageous as it is progressive: ". . . it may not be taken for granted as certain that what the early Church did must always and in every instance be able to be done by the later Church; in other words, a decision of the primitive Church may never become an absolute for all later times and thus be considered as of divine law."

As a matter of fact, however, the primitive Church and early Christianity granted woman much higher status than they have had since the middle ages. As long as the char­isms had not been absorbed into ecclesiastical office, the charismatic gifts gave to the woman who possessed them a respected position and recognized rights in the Church. Even the Apostle Paul, who is quoted to the point of ennui against official ecclesiastical activity by women, allowed them to prophesy in the assembly. His directives in I Cor.11, 5, presuppose this. The daughters of the Evangelist Philip were well known as prophetesses in apostolic times. Martyrdom made angels of both men and women, and even Tertullian, who was notorious for his anti-feminism, did not disdain the revelation of women martyrs. He relied upon the vision of Perpetua to decide a contested point of dogma. Women were often the first converts in a city, leaders of the infant congregations which met in their houses. Women evangelized women, for they were the only ones who could do it. Widows and deaconesses held clerical offices in the first Christian centuries, and they were ordained to these offices by the imposition of hands. They received an ordination analogous to that of deacons, one that would have to be reckoned among the higher orders in later theology. The position of such women as Priscilla and Phoebe in the New Testament is imposing. We can interpret the present position of women in the Church only as a forcible strangulation of a life that promised much.

This degenerative development, this suppression of the woman in her genuine needs and aspirations, is cause for deep regret. It has inflicted immeasurable spiritual suffering on countless women, and has stifled a great source of development and enrichment within the Church and Christianity.

But even in the early Christian Church the rights of women suffered because of the hostile environment. Judaism had once found a high place for Debora, as one of the judges, and for the recognized prophetesses, but it later consigned women to the harem as dumb beings without rights. In the time of Christ and the Apostles not the slightest effort was expended for their schooling or spiritual up­bringing. The ladies were expected to keep busy with their hands, and throughout their life they were completely excluded from education and from the public life of their times. Men, even married men, were enjoined to limit their conversation with women to a bare minimum. Women were incapable of legal action on their own or of acting as witnesses. What was more serious was that they did not have full standing in the Jewish religion of the later period. They were absolved from the duty of reciting the “Hear Israel," were not allowed to wear prayer belts, and were excluded from solemn religious-political acts such as the Pascal meal. In the synagogues they were herded into the loft, which was remote enough to discourage them from approaching the lectern to read from the Scriptures. In the temple of Herod the court of women was separate from the court of the men and lower by fifteen steps. Particularly onerous was the idea, derived from ancient taboos, that the supposed uncleanness associated with sex life should exclude them from divine worship for long periods of their lives. Men were not unaware of this oppressive fate of women at the time of Christ, but they did not lift a finger to improve it. They were content to thank God they were not born women, as we read in the Three Benedictions of the Rabbi Juda at Elae about 250 A.D. As we look back we wonder whether this prayer pleased God more than that of the Pharisee.

We must be aware of these conditions if we are to judge aright the statements and directives of the Apostle Paul concerning women. Paul was a Jew. His statements to that effect should not be regarded as timeless abstractions. His views grew upon the soil of the social, legal, and religious conditions we have recounted. The notion that a woman's uncleanness makes her unworthy of the divine cult was not superseded by Christianity; it flowered repeatedly throughout the long centuries from the early middle ages to the threshold of modem times. It spawned the idea that women are not worthy to enter the sanctuary or touch the sacred vessels. In the days when the faithful received the consecrated bread in their hands, the hands of women were considered much too "unclean"; they had to cover them with a cloth. Married women were too "unclean" to receive Communion frequently. There were also recommendations and directives to the effect that menstruating women should remain away from divine service. Mothers had to submit to ancient Jewish purifications and churching. The idea that motherhood contaminates is deeply ingrained. Only fifteen years ago a priest of high station in the Cathedral of Sion (Switzerland) declared in a sermon that "Motherhood implies uncleanness." In hospitals run by religious even now some Sisters refuse to touch women during or after childbirth.

The Jewish notion had its roots in a Manichean point of view, very widespread in the Orient, that whatever has to do with sex bears the stigma of uncleanness and the curse of the wicked. Bearer of evil, the very embodiment of wickedness, that is woman. She is represented as the source of temptation, of the fall, of sin. Women contribute not one word to this literature which destroys them. In fact it makes sense only as man's reflection on himself in his struggle against sexuality. In those times women did not have the education or the means to defend themselves against the accusations hurled against them, or to counter the Manichean writings of the men with feminist rebuttals. Mary, of course, appears at the opposite pole to the biblical and allegorical Eve, but she remains the only one, absorbing all the light in herself. The highest cultivation of devotion to Mary and of Marian dogma cannot effect any direct exaltation of the ordinary woman in the workaday world. Mary is not only an exception; she is the only exception.

For women it was a tragedy of enormous dimensions that this degradation based on the notion of uncleanness found "scientific" support when Aristotelian thought entered the picture. Totally ignorant of the process of generation, the philosopher decided that the man is the only active principle, one which tends to generate another man. The woman was considered entirely passive in generation; she had only to provide the matter. If a woman was born, it was because of a mistake in the process, due to some defect in the male semen or in the matter provided by the woman, or ultimately to a damp south wind. Woman herself is no more than a man curtailed or miscarried (mas occassionatus). This "scientific" theory therefore proved that women were of lesser worth physically and intellectually. The term "scientific" reaches farther here than it does in modern natural science. It is the foundation for the philosophical conception of man and woman as antitheses: active and passive, spiritual and material. The whole Scholastic system lapsed into this "scientific" theory and this philosophical viewpoint. In this respect also Scholastic teaching culminates in its prince, Thomas Aquinas.

Let no one object at this point that this teaching has long since been abandoned in the Catholic Church. The norm is found in Canon 1366 of the Code of Canon Law, which prescribes that study and instruction in rational philosophy and theology must follow the method (ratio), doctrine, and principles of the Angelic Doctor. In his encyclical Aeterni Patris, which brought Neo-Thomism to life, Pope Leo XIII cites his predecessors who state that through the astonishing doctrine of St. Thomas the whole Church is enlightened, heresies are confounded, and the world is purged of error day by day. Finally the Church prays on the Feast of St. Thomas: "O God, You Who have enlightened the Church through the wonderful learning of St. Thomas, Your confessor and our teacher, and made it flourish through his holy work, grant, we ask, that we may understand what he taught and imitate what he did."

Neither Canon Law, nor the encyclical, nor the liturgical prayer make the slightest gesture toward purging Thomistic teaching of those scientific, sociological and philosophical views that have been outmoded by later developments. One of the contributions of Pope Pius XII was to set some limit to the validity of Thomism, especially in his addresses to the Dominican Fathers of September 22, 1948, and to the Gregorianum on October 17, 1953. But a speech by the Pope is not a formal teaching act like an encyclical, or a legislative one which can abrogate a law. Furthermore, we should observe that the Thomistic teaching on the nature of man is among those which even Pius XII insisted should he follow in every instance. The Thomistic teaching on women is therefore contained implicitly in the formal acts of the Church even today. Its spirit undoubtedly influences many interpretations of the Code and liturgical decisions against the participation of women.

For many centuries women have suffered cruel blows from philosophers and theologians and formal acts of the Church which have hindered and still hinder the development of their spiritual faculties. We should remember that medieval culture was essentially ecclesiastical. There was no secular culture in the modem sense which could furnish intellectual development and values independently of the Church. The modem feminist movement, which has grown to worldwide proportions, was not founded on ecclesiastical thought. It sprang from the rationalistic thinking of the Enlightenment with its concept of the equality of all men as beings endowed with reason. The attitude of Pope John XXIII in his encyclical Pacem in Terris is therefore of the greatest importance. He recognized the aspirations of modern women in terms which can be construed as opposed to the old Scholastic concept: "For the woman, who has become ever more conscious in our time of her dignity as a human being, is not disposed to allow herself to he considered a soulless thing or a mere tool. She wants to have rights and duties in domestic life, as well as in the state, which correspond to the dignity of the human person.''

This statement, of course, is still silent about the position of women in the Church. Schema 13 of the Council is also supposed to treat the equality of the sexes. Whether this statement will have any effect on the status of women in the Church remains to be seen. Now that new fields are gradually opening up to women in secular culture, it is surely to he hoped that the Council will follow this trend by opening a path to a place for women in the Church that will correspond to this notion of equality. This expectation would hardly be met by a mere declaration of "the personal dignity of women" that leaves everything as it was in point of law and fact. Unfortunately there is a tendency in ecclesiastical circles to ascribe the present status of women to the fact the she is different, and to leave untouched the legislation that contradicts her equality of dignity and status.

THE SCHOLASTIC concept of women interrupted the strong beginnings of feminine activity in the early Church, activity that flowed naturally from the Gospels. In historical perspective the throttling of the ancient rights of women appears as an injustice perpetrated against womankind. In the discussion of the restoration of the diaconate, therefore, it is to be expected that this ecclesiastical office will be "returned" to women, who once possessed it, in response to modern needs. But there is no indication of this in the pertinent literature. According to an article by Franz Thoma in the Münchener Theologischen Zeitschrift, there is no prospect of a significant function for deaconesses; for the most part they are predestined to be married to deacons. Disappointing likewise to the hopes of women is the comprehensive symposium, Diaconia in Christo, edited by Rahner and Vorgrimmler. From the discussions of the various authors it is clear that the new "deacons" are not supposed to be ordained to the diaconate in the sense of the first stage of Holy Orders. In principle, then, the woman as a full-time theologian has gained nothing. Very little is said about deaconesses at all in this collection. There seems to be a positive wish for them only in Poland, a country engaged in a severe struggle against atheism.

The second session of the Vatican Council had the restoration of the diaconate under consideration, but nothing was said about admitting women to it in its new form. Surely some thought should be given to the many women catechists, teachers, and assistants in the care of souls, who function in the Church without official recognition in the way of a status consonant with the times, even abstracting for the moment from the question of ordination.

This reticence about deaconesses and the absence of constructive plans for women show well enough how in grained in the Church is the ancient concept of women. The idea of a woman as priest is, of course, still completely taboo. But should a woman interested in developing a religious activity shy away, because of some Scholastic model, from the arguments that favor her reception of orders? In this connection we should observe that Pius XII in his encyclical Mystici Corporis reaffirmed the ancient doctrine that every baptized person is stamped with a spiritual character which makes him capable of receiving the other sacraments. Canon 87 of the Code likewise states that Baptism grounds the recipient in all rights and duties in the Church of Christ. The exclusion of women from priestly ordination, a sacrament, quite obviously runs counter to this doctrine of the full effect of Baptism. To justify the present status of women it would have to be maintained that Baptism, which is administered in the same way to all, is unable to produce its full effect in women. The reason for this would have to be sought in an assumed spiritual inferiority of women which opposes this complete effect and stands in the way of its fruition. But there is no basis either in the Gospel texts in general or in Christ's command to baptize for assuming that a woman is spiritually inferior or that she is incapable of receiving Baptism in its full effectiveness. If Baptism gives a man the capacity to receive priestly orders, we must draw the same conclusion regarding women.

Furthermore if Baptism enables a man to receive seven sacraments but a woman only six, then the membership in the Church based on Baptism is not the same for a man and a woman. Barring women from one of the sacraments is prejudicial to their personal rights in the Church, reducing their standing as members. It follows that even their rights as lay persons are not equal to those of men, since men are potentially priests whereas woman are not. Furthermore since freedom of the will in the area of the sacraments does not move on the same level of human capability for men and women, it follows that women are not persons in the same sense as men.

Among the arguments favoring the priesthood of women the most prominent is the fact that in the first millennium women in some churches were actually ordained by the imposition of hands. As mentioned before, the ordination was analogous to the diaconate. The Phoebe mentioned in the Pauline Epistles was called a deaconess at a time when the diaconate signified ecclesiastical service as such and the precise distinction between diaconate, priesthood, and episcopacy had not yet been made. The most recent ordination of deaconesses took place in an era when major and minor orders were already distinct, and when the diaconate was considered a major order.

It is unfortunate that in the discussion of the vocation of women to the diaconate and priesthood in our time the following questions are never asked: What would Christ do today if He were to found His Church? How would Paul argue, how would he dispose things if he had before him the independent career woman of today instead of a row of harem women with veiled faces whose education and personal rights had been suppressed in a way that we can scarcely appreciate in our time? The adaptation of the ecclesiastical status of women to present needs should follow the lead of these hypothetical questions rather than abstractions derived from a past in which the suppression of their rights, the assumption of inferiority, and deficiency of education consigned women to the fringes of humanity.

THE MOST popular argument against the woman as priest is derived from the fact that only the twelve Apostles were present at the Last Supper. The question whether women were ever present at the ancient Paschal meal has been answered in different ways; it is denied entirely by Zscharnack, for example. Even those scholars who say that women were admitted to the Paschal meal point out that their presence had no significance, since the cult was a cult of men to which women could bring no offering. In the case of the Last Supper there is the further complex question of whether Jesus Christ, who was unmarried and lived outside any family circle, could have admitted women at all, especially since He had invited the Apostles as guests. Even within a family the women of the house did not take part in a meal to which guests were invited. Thus the most popular argument against the ordination of women turns out to be a naive and uncritical assumption which fails to take into account either Jewish custom in general or Christ's situation in particular.

Yet as soon as the new Christian community began to commemorate the death of Christ at the Supper, women were present also. If membership in the right sex had been considered essential for the celebration of Christ's supper, women should have stayed away later also. This would have been foreign to the charismatic attitude and the Pentecostal spirit of the time. The admission of women to the celebration of the Supper did not lead to further consequences in the administration of the sacraments because of the circumstances of the time, especially the reactionary Judaic tradition. It should be observed, however, that the group of those who received at the Last Supper was identical with the group that later administered. It is past understanding that this principle should not apply to women, once the Scholastic idea of woman as passive and receptive has been abandoned.

It is precisely this concept of woman as a passive, receptive principle, which even in its abstract form is based on the faulty science of antiquity and the middle ages, that lingers on in spite of the publication of scientific findings. It seems to be the lot of Catholic women in particular to see and experience themselves still as the passive principle in the Thomistic synthesis, if we may judge from the writings of well-known Catholic women. It is of course true that the religious attitude is at first receptive, a readiness to accept God's grace and guidance, His commands and directives. But this is typical of any religious person without distinction of sex, and it does not make sense that a woman should have to maintain an attitude or passive reception while a man goes into action with the gifts he has received. To think of the woman as embodying the passive principle is to deny her the ability to move from a passive attitude to spiritual possession and the possibility of a profound spiritual formation. It should be clear enough that any religious person, especially a man functioning as a priest, must receive before he can give. It is incomprehensible that the rhythm of receiving and giving should not be analogous for the two sexes, as the rhythm of inhaling and exhaling is the same for both sexes.

Any argument favoring the priesthood of women will first have to deal with the symbolism in Ephesians 5, 23, which describes the relationship of Christ and His Church with the analogy of man and woman in marriage. The exegesis of this passage is difficult, and a great deal of meaning has been falsely read into the symbol and then later logically deduced from it, as we can learn from the scholarly work of Else Kühler, a doctor of theology, in Die Frau in den paulinischen Briefen. If we take our cue from the one side of the comparison, the relationship of Christ to the Church and community, we can see that Christ is indeed described as the Head, but also as the one "who gave himself up for the Church, to purify it through water combined with the word, so as to bring the Church before him in glorious array…" Since no man can claim that he has given himself for the Church and done for it what Paul is talking about, no other man has the right to put himself in the place of Christ.

This should be a disillusionment to those theologians who seem to relate the man, because of his manhood, directly to Christ without qualification and make him Christ's representative on the basis of Ephesians 5, 23. It seems to have escaped the notice of these exegetes of the Pauline symbol that every man except Christ belongs to the Church or community and is related to Christ in and with the Church. Furthermore it is the Church which administers the sacraments, announces the word, explains the Bible, determines the liturgy and the form of the sacraments, etc., so that the direct comparison of woman to the Church in Ephesians 5, 23, is a poor choice if it is supposed to prove that women should be barred from these very functions. It may also be observed that according to the Gospel accounts Christ gave the commission to announce His message, to baptize, to celebrate the agape in His memory, etc., but He never said anything about a Christ-representative in the sense usually taken from Ephesians 5, 23.

The behavioral sciences are not exact sciences. Arguments considered valid here are entwined in a complex cultural fabric. The modern woman's understanding of herself compels a revised view of women in general. It is the right of the woman interested in religion to peruse the store of theological and philosophical literature and form her own judgment. She may look forward to a disturbing experience as she comes to realize how theology was plied almost two thousand years without her. By taking a critical view of this anti-feminist deposit, she will mature in a new religious understanding of herself, of her independent spirituality, and of her immediate likeness to God as a child of God. Because she has these spiritual qualities, she must not be cut off from the horizons of religious and ecclesiastical activity.

Gertrud Heinzelmann, an attorney-at-law in Zurich, edited Wir Schweigen Nicht Länger, a collection of statements by women addressed to the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council.

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