Attention World Media and All Catholics Loyal to the Third Vatican Council

The Catholic Faith is not the personal property of the Pope nor his plaything.  Therefore, there is precious little the new pope can change about it.  He cannot, for instance, alter the matter of the sacraments (that is, the stuff the used to celebrate sacraments) in order to make the sacraments more “relevant”.  The Church’s job is to hand down the faith and practice of Jesus and the apostles.  So even though milk and cookies are really quite nicer tasting than those flat little disks of unleavened flour and not terribly good wine, the Pope can’t decree that the matter of the Eucharist will henceforth be milk and cookies, even if the People of God think that would be nifty.

In the same way, though lots of people thinks Shea butter is waaaay nicer than olive oil, the Church can’t anoint people with Shea butter.  (I know.  I feel your pain and I share it.)

Likewise, the Church can’t baptize people in hydrogen peroxide, even though hydrogen peroxide is, for some things, superior to water (particularly as a germ killer, and therefore as a symbol of cleansing from sin).  The sacrament here, as elsewhere, symbolizes what it does and does what it symbolizes, and the attempt to “improve” it with different matter than that handed down from Jesus and the apostles results only in mischief.  For hydrogen peroxide, while terrific at sterilizing, is not so good at communicating life. So water, which washes, drowns, and gives life is the matter for the sacrament of baptism which does all that to our spirits.

So here’s the thing: both marriage and ordination also have the matter they have because they are symbols that do what they symbolize and symbolize what they do. So the new Pope will not be embracing gay “marriage”, nor will he be embracing women’s ordination. Because marriage is the image of Christ the bridegroom and his bride the Church and the priest is an alter Christus, an image of the bridegroom as he stands before his his Bride in self-sacrifice. A woman can be a lot of things in the life of the Church, including hold offices of enormous power and influence such as queen, president, prime minister, abbess, hospital president, university chancellor, military commander of the French army kicking the English out, or any other office weilding power. So the notion that the Church denies that women are competent to weild power is rubbish. Likewise, women can and have held roles of great prophetic moment in the life of the Church, such as Hildegard of Bingen, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, or Therese or Lisieux. And of course, the single greatest member of the Church and the greatest creature in the universe is a woman: the Blessed Virgin Mary.

But for all that, women cannot be priests because Jesus and the apostles did not ordain women, not even the sinless woman Mary, as priests. Therefore, the new Pope–and all popes after him till That Day–will have no power to make women priests because women are not the matter for that sacrament. They are equal in dignity to men just as wine is equal in dignity to water. But wine is not the fitting matter for baptism any more than water is the fitting matter for the Eucharist. So no, neither this pope nor any pope to come will ordain a woman a priest.

On the other hand, not this Pope, I think, but some future Pope might decide to make a lay woman a cardinal, because cardinals are simply a human invention, cooked up in the High Middle Ages to help make a reasonably functioning machine for arriving at a new Pope. Just as your parish finance council is a machine built by human beings to get a bit of adminstrative work done, so the college of cardinals is a bureaucratic machine invented by humans which humans can change if they decide it prudent to do so.

I’m not saying some future pope will or should do this, merely that it is theoretically possible in a way that, say, changing the form of absolution to “Hey, don’t sweat it! Jesus sez it’s cool” is not possible. Learning what is reformable and irreformable in the Catholic tradition is not really all *that* hard, if the media would just make the effort. Unfortunately, it seems few do.

Meanwhile, let me just add this: Love that man!

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  • To make a woman a Cardinal the Pope ought to alter some features of the Cardinals’ office. Each Cardinal is formally the parish priest of one of Rome’s parishes, so as to keep the legal form that it is the clergy of the city of Rome who elect the Bishop of Rome. I was in Rome once when the current (I think) archbishop of Manila was made Cardinal and celebrated a very nice mass in my mother’s parish.

  • MattyD

    Honest question. Please help me make sense of this. A woman cannot function as an image of Christ, the bridegroom of the Church. IE, the gender of the priest is entirely relevant as a symbol of the bridegroom. Fair enough. But how, then, can any men in the Church participate in mass as symbols of the bride? How is it that I, a man, am of the right substance to function as a symbol of a bride, when a woman is not of the right substance to function as a bridegroom? I’m not seeking debate, I’m hoping to understand an argument that is, on its face, self-contradictory.

    • 3 quick, not very profound points:

      1. The priest, personally, acts in persona Christi. You, personally, are not the Bride of Christ; the Church is.
      2. The priest is a symbol of the Bridegroom sacramentally. The Church is not the Bride of Christ in the same sacramental sense (I should say, in the same sense of “sacramentally,” but that gets over my head pretty quick).
      3. The priest is a symbol of Jesus, Who is a man — not symbolically, not analogically, but literally. The Church is not a literal human bride.

      • Bill

        great reply

      • MattyD

        Thanks, Tom, those thoughts are helpful. Though it does leave me feeling like there’s something arbitrary, or patchwork, about this marriage interpretation of the mass when applied to ordination. IE, in this symbolic marriage — a singular event — the gender of the groom is literal, but the “gender” of the bride, the Church, is non-essential and symbolic. For me, it seems to lack the cohesion and consistency that we find in so much of Jesus’, and the Church’s, teachings.

        • Mark Shea

          Actually, I think the nuptial dimension of the gospel is immensely important and it is really impossible to grasp the thought of John without it. And it really does suffuse the Mass.

  • Becca

    @mattd good question

  • ivan_the_mad

    I love the picture 🙂

  • Scott W.

    While technically correct that being a cardinal does not involve a sacrament, the only people who should be allowed to vote are those who are on the hook so to speak. Eligibility matters.

  • Patrick

    Wait, how could the church be trans-phobic? I’m Catholic, and I personally witness trans-substantiation every weekend.

  • What exactly is Shea butter and why is it on my wife’s vanity table?

    • 🙂



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