In April, a group of excommunicated former Catholics pretended to ordain a former nun (also now excommunicated latae sententiae) to the Catholic priesthood. These theatrical performances happen from time to time, and the religiously illiterate mainstream media always covers the event with headlines like “Indiana Nun Ordained a Catholic Priest.” This weekend, I plan to have a ceremony with some friends declaring myself the Grand Poobah of the Loyal Order of the Water Buffaloes (Lodge 26). The media are invited to attend.
Explaining the rationale behind the male-only priesthood is simple:
- The priest is functioning in persona Christi, and Jesus was male.
- Christ called only men to be apostles, and the priesthood is an extension of the apostolic role.
- From the very beginning, the Church understood this to mean that, although women were among the first, and often most important, witnesses to the ministry of Christ, they were never counted among the twelve. They have a different role. No less important, but different.
- The Church has no authority to ordain women, because doing so would overturn 2000 years of consistent teaching that was never in any doubt whatsoever.
- Since ordaining women would undermine those 2000 years of consistent tradition, it would strike at the heart of the Church’s teaching authority and throw the Church into schism as factions line up on different sides.
As I said: simple in theory. And yet … not so simple in practical reality. People can listen to all that, which is perfectly rational, and have a fundamentally emotional–but no less valid–response: it’s still not fair. It’s a valid response because it seems to speak to our everyday experience of the modern world, in which absolute equality must govern all relations and all institutions. Everything is recast as a power relationship. The priesthood is simply another authority role that needs to be split evenly between men and women, or else it’s an offense to justice.
Never mind that the priesthood is a role of service, and that we are called to different kinds of service. And never mind the consistent teaching stretching all the way back to Christ himself, who certainly could have numbered the Marys, Martha, Salome, and others among the twelve. He witnessed to them repeatedly, and their integral role in the Gospels and in supporting the early Church provided ample opportunity to confer priesthood upon them. Jesus overturned other social conventions of the time, so what was one more? The ancient world was full of priestesses. In fact, there were probably more priestesses than priests, and they often had greater authority in pagan cultures.
And yet, from the very beginning, in the New Testament and the early Church, it never happened. That should tell us something. We should learn from it, rather than thinking, “Well, He made a mistake on this one. He was a first century Jewish guy bound by the conventions of his time and place. We know better now.”
We’ve been thinking variations of that thought since about Genesis 3:5. So how’s that working out for us?
When these imaginary “ordinations” happen, Bishops have to respond in order to make sure their flock isn’t confused or led astray. In Indianapolis, Bishop Coyne sent out a letter that strikes an excellent balance between charity and discipline. Here’s part of what he had to say (emphasis added):
The Roman Catholic Church does not ordain women. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is very clear on this issue. As it states in the catechism: “Only a baptized man validly receives sacred ordination. The Lord Jesus chose men to form the college of the twelve Apostles, and the Apostles did the same when they chose collaborators to succeed them in their ministry. The college of bishops, with whom the priests are united in the priesthood, makes the college of the twelve an ever-present and ever-active reality until Christ’s return. The Church recognizes herself to be bound by this choice made by the Lord himself. For this reason, the ordination of women is not possible” (#1577).
The ordination of men to the priesthood is not merely a matter of practice or discipline with the Catholic Church, but rather, it is part of the deposit of faith handed down by Christ through his Apostles. The Catholic Church has always followed Jesus’ example, and does not believe it has the authority to change what Jesus instituted. The will of Christ is not arbitrary.
The woman who attempted ordination this past weekend may have chosen to be a priest in some other “catholic” church, but it is not the one headed by Pope Benedict XVI. She cannot be a priest in a church that has not called her to that priesthood.
She herself states that by attempting ordination and denying the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching in a public act, she has placed herself outside of the Church’s communion. This offers further argument against her “ordination” since to be ordained to the sacred priesthood is to be ordained to obedience in mind and soul to the Church’s magisterium. One cannot serve in obedience if one was ordained in an act of disobedience.
The Catholic Church’s teaching on the ordination of women does not mean that the Church values women less than men. The Catholic Church is sustained by the important contributions of women each and every day. The Catholic Church has always taught that men and women have the same dignity, but they have different duties or gifts. All these gifts are central to the faith and the life of the Catholic Church.
In secular society today, we talk about equal rights and equal protection under the law. That means many different things to different people. In the Church, we believe in an equality of dignity between men and women that is bestowed on each of us by the Holy Spirit in our equal call to holiness. The only universal call is the call to holiness.
No one has a right by baptism to ordination. Ordination to the ministerial priesthood is a distinct gift. It is a gift that exists for the service of God and the Church. In accepting and handing on this gift, the Church is bound by fidelity to the example of Christ to reserve ordination to males who have legitimately received this call from God, and who are accepted by the Church as having received this call.
If you’re remaining in the Catholic Church in the hope that women’s ordination will get here some day, or that it can be nudged along by stunts like this, then you’re deceiving yourself. The Church may well ordain married men one day, since that is a discipline and not dogmatic, but it will never ordain women for very simple reason: it can’t. The Church exists to pass on the faith as received. It’s perfectly possible to make up a whole new Christian faith and set your own rules. It happens every day. It’s called Protestantism, and there are churches in every town where women preach and minister.
But are they not, and never can be, the one true Church founded by Christ. Sorry if that seems unjust, but we don’t make the rules. We just try to follow them as best we can, and if the “women priests” and their supporters want to be Catholic, they should try to do the same thing.
(H/T Michelle Arnold of Catholic Answers, who posted the Bishop’s letter on Facebook)