Reflections on objections to the ordination of women to the priesthood and a fortiori to the episcopate (for some of you this may be old hat and you’re tired of hearing about it. Feel free to skip to the next post):
Obj. 1. Christ did not appoint any female apostles.
Reply Obj. 1. Christ also did not appoint any Italian or Polish or German apostles. (Where did all these Popes come from? Jesus didn’t even appoint any English apostles!) Further; Jesus did not authorize the installation of flush toilets in parish churches. (Does anyone really expect us to take this line of argument seriously?)
Obj. 2. The New Testament forbids the ordination of women, e.g. 1 Cor 14:33b-36, 1 Tim 2:11-15.
Reply Obj. 2. Well, I suppose there is a sense in which it does. (I would argue that St. Paul is not the author of either of these passages — the former completely breaks the train of thought, reads like an interpolation, and contradicts Paul’s general attitude toward female colleagues in the ministry, and the latter is from the Pastorals which I believe are pseudo-Pauline, at least mostly. But these passages are still canonical Scripture, whoever wrote them, so they have to be dealt with.) However, these verses don’t simply forbid the ordination of women, they forbid any exercise of general authority in the Church by women. This means (and until fifty years ago was widely understood to mean) that women not only cannot be ordained, but also may not serve as lay readers, members of the vestry, delegates to diocesan convention, deputies to General Convention, etc. There are still some very conservative evangelical churches (some Baptists, for instance, though certainly not all) who closely follow this direction and do not permit female leadership of anything but women’s organizations, nor may they teach Sunday School to classes including boys above the age of seven. At least this position is Scripturally consistent. I personally remember when it was said in the Episcopal Church, “If you elect a woman to be Senior Warden, next they’ll want to be ordained priest!” Yep! Ex ore dooforum.
Obj. 3. A woman can no more be a priest than a man can be a mother.
Reply Obj. 3. Actually even C.S. Lewis made this argument somewhere (I forget exactly where; I could look it up, but it’s not really worth it), and one still hears it occasionally. Well, Lewis was brilliant 99% of the time, which is a lot better than most of us. The assumption is that priesthood is essentially fatherly, and therefore a woman cannot exercise it. Where does one begin with this? Paul uses paternal imagery for his relationship with his churches (1 Cor. 4:15, 1 Thess. 2:11), but he also uses maternal imagery (Gal. 4:19, 1 Thess. 2:7.) I’m not sure where the idea came from that Christian priesthood (including episcopacy) is essentially paternal, other than that for most of Christian history bishops and priests were all men. But in a large percentage of cases, we might note, they were not fathers, except metaphorically. The superior of a religious community of women is often called “Mother,” and her responsibilities are quite equivalent to those of the superior of a men’s community. The only difference between an abbot and an abbess is their gender. Actually the use of parental titles and imagery for priestly ministry is open to question, I think, and I suspect we are moving away from it. As one who was ordained and called “Father” at the age of twenty-four, I am sensitive to the ultimate silliness of this custom, although I still observe it, sort of, some of the time.
Obj. 4. Thomas Aquinas writes: “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.” (Summa Theologiae, III.Suppl. Q.39 a.1. The Supplement to Pars Tertia was edited and published posthumously by Rainaldo da Pipeno, of course, but the text is taken directly from Thomas’ earlier Commentary on Book 4 of the Sentences of Peter Lombard.)
Reply Obj. 4. It is this that was really the definitive argument through most of the Church’s history. But it is obvious to most of us today that it is an argument with serious problems. First, the premise that ordination is related to “eminence of degree” (see also Q.34 aa.1&2.) is a pretty shaky one, and that’s to give it more than it deserves. Second, the premise that a woman is in “the state of subjection” is also a non-starter. Aquinas was a good enough logician to realize that when the premises are false, the conclusion is also likely to be false (or at least not proved by the premises). Unfortunately it seems not to have occurred to him to give his premises a really thorough examination.
Obj. 5. A priest (or a fortiori a bishop) is a sign of Christ, and Christ was and is a man. As Pope Paul VI said (Inter Insigniores, Chapter 5, 1976), “‘Sacramental signs,’ says St. 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 papal teaching has been subsequently reaffirmed by both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.)
Reply Obj. 5. Pope Paul’s 1976 declaration interestingly enough discarded (subtly, but still discarded) the Thomistic argument in Obj. 4., and substituted this one. It’s a long and fairly well thought out argument, but in the end it just doesn’t work. In fact, pushed to its logical conclusion, it represents a heretical Christology. All baptized persons manifest the image of Christ. Women are not “lesser” images of Christ. “Christ the priest” is not a better or higher image than “Christ the servant” (if anything, quite the contrary, by Jesus’ own words) and the Church, God knows, has never had any hesitation assigning to women the role of servant. It has been commented about this declaration that by this thinking a woman not only cannot be validly ordained, she cannot even be validly baptized. This argument is a classic instance of the clergy “thinking more highly of themselves than they ought to think” (Romans 12:3). I think it may well have been this argument that was the final straw for many Anglicans (and others), including me: If this is the best argument for not ordaining women, then there clearly is no good argument for not ordaining women. But Rome held on nevertheless. In 1994 Pope John Paul II issued an Apostolic Letter, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, in which he named as reasons for not ordaining women: (1) “The example recorded in the Sacred Scriptures of Christ choosing his Apostles only from among men,” ignoring the fact that Christ chose only Jewish men; but in any case, so what? See Reply Obj. 1. (2) “The constant practice of the Church,” that is, “We’ve always done it this way before,” and (3) “her [the Church’s] living teaching authority,” that is, “Because I say so.” John Paul II concluded: “I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful.” Tell me if I’m mistaken: is this the only instance in history in which the Pope declared that the Roman Church had “no authority whatsoever”? I can’t think of another one offhand. But of course I could be wrong….
Obj. 6. The Church of England or other Churches of the Anglican Communion do not have authority to make this change in the Church’s ordained ministry without the consensus of the Universal Church.
Reply Obj. 6. In other words, we can’t ever change anything anytime anyhow. First of all, the consensus of the Universal Church (presumably expressed through an Ecumenical Council) isn’t going to happen in the foreseeable future, or, alas, even in the unforeseeable future. Actually, in real life this means “we can’t make this change until/unless Rome says we can.” Umm, do we remember that we are Anglicans?” (These aren’t the same folks who are also making the big whoop about the 39 Articles, are they? Article 21: “General Councils…may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God.” Article 37: “The Bishop of Rome hath no jurisdiction in this Realm of England.”) Those in the Church of England who will not accept the ordination of women until/unless the Pope or a General Council says they can would be in violation of the Statute of Praemunire, except that Praemunire was repealed in 1967. Darn. (Incidentally, are any of these folks aware that the permission of the clergy to marry, stated in Article 32 — not just the ordination of married candidates but the marriage of priests already ordained — is a violation of quite ancient tradition and canon law? The Church of England said that this was an issue within its competence to decide, and I am not aware that there has been any argument about this within Anglicanism. The ordination of women is also within the competence of the Anglican Churches to decide.)