On January 1, on the Feast of Mary Mother of God, a guest priest at my parish took the opportunity to talk about the advance of women’s rights under Christianity, compared to many pagan and other worldviews (he dared mention Islam in this regard). On the other hand, he noted, our own household is not entirely in order, and he noted, specifically, that the Catholic Church still refuses to ordain women despite the fact that women are just as qualified for ministry as are men.
I’m not sure if Father meant to say that the Catholic Church recognized that women are as qualified as men, but refuses to ordain them anyways, or if the Church has not yet itself recognized that women actually are as qualified – but I suspect the latter. If, however, he meant the former, I am inclined to agree. That is because official Church teaching makes no mention whatsoever of women’s capacities (or lack thereof) when defending its decision to ordain only (baptized) men.
While it is true that some arguments against women’s ordination popular in the past were based on men’s supposed greater innate capacity for ministry (sometimes due to an ostensible advantage in terms of rationality), it is also the case that these arguments were speculative rather than positive. That is, they took the constant practice of the Church for granted and sought merely to explain it in terms amenable to their audience. This being the case, the deficit of such arguments need not be debilitating for the Church’s current (and, we can remember, constant) position on the matter.
The argument is not, the Church seems to be saying, even about whether or not women are capable. They certainly are. The question has to do with something not functional but sacramental. In positive terms, what did Christ intend as the sacramental structure of the Church? In speculative terms, what, within the whole set of symbols that illuminate the Christian view of the world, the doctrines of creation and of grace and redemption, does a male priesthood represent?
My goal here is to present a speculative answer to the second question. As to the first, the teaching of the Church is that Christ chose only men and that the Church has always chosen only men and that it does not feel at liberty to change that constant practice. Positive (in the technical sense I am using here) arguments for the ordination of women, if they are to be successful, need to meet the Church’s self-understanding on this question on its own ground. No (speculative) argument that women are just as capable as men is going to convince a Magisterium that does not deny this to change a teaching which it feels to be bound to quite other criteria.
(Of course, many do not believe that the Magisterium does believe women are so capable, but that is a fight for another day. In any case, insisting that people believe something they claim not to believe is a fairly ineffective way to get them to consider your point of view.)
But to my own project here.
I want to present, in fear and trembling, a speculative reason for the practice of ordaining only baptized men to the priesthood. (As an aside, we can leave the question of the diaconate for another day. John Paull II’s Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, for what it’s worth, specifically mentions priesthood, and not diaconate, when it asserts that the Church has no power to confer ordination on women.)
The germ for my line of thought came from reading recently about the debate over men’s obsolescence. Men, or so many argue, have become obsolete. In the current state of the world, given various economic, political and scientific realities, men are no longer necessary. On the other hand, I have also recently seen an upsurge in articles about the importance of fathers in the lives of their children. Being a father of four, I am predisposed, I must admit, to taking a favorable view to such arguments.
The thoughts generated here have recently cross-pollinated with the response to David Bentley Hart’s new book on God. The atheist critics (though not all of them), seem to think that a God such as Bentley Hart describes is, like biological fathers according to some others in the culture, obsolete. They see in Bentley Hart’s articulation of classical theism not classical theism at all, but an attempt to preserve God from the advance of scientific knowledge that ends up turning God into something other than anything any normal believer, or even the great theologians of the past, could have meant by the term – and as something rather remote and harmless and effectively useless at that.Others have engaged this battle and I need not do it here. I mention it because, however, it strikes me as an interesting parallel with the claim that men, i.e, fathers, are obsolete.
Let us step back for a moment. It is not hard, given the realities of human reproduction, to determine the mother of a given child. Determining the father, is, however, a much more delicate task. We know, or at least we used to know (before the advent of certain technologies), nevertheless, that there must be a father.
(Virgin births, once considered miraculous, will soon be quite commonplace, one suspects –at least in the sense that no sexual event led to the conception of the child. Whether the woman in question has ever “known a man” is a separate question but, interestingly I think, a moot one. That question is now irrelevant to whether or not she may have conceived a child.)
But I digress. The point is that in normal, biological human reproduction, the man’s role is, in at least a symbolic sense, transcendent. The very immanent fact of the pregnant woman is evidence of it, but pinning it down can be tricky. And one wonders, if the pregnancy could be explained without him (as it now can be), would the father be necessary at all?
The immanent is not in any such danger. No one argues that women are obsolete.
My thesis, then, comes down to this: presuming that fathers are, in fact, necessary and not merely superfluous or obsolete (and I think it is fair to say the Church is presuming this), restricting ordination to men symbolizes both the irreducibility of the transcendent to the immanent in a culture where more and more people doubt the possibility of transcendence in principle, and the necessity of fathers in the lives of their children in a culture where more and more people think that dads are replaceable.
There is a way, of course, that no argument based on something as complex and intuitive as a symbol system can be a knockout blow. And I do not intend my argument as such. The point here is to take seriously the Church’s assertion that what is at issue for the question of the sex of the ordained person is what it says sacramentally.
The ordained man, as symbol of transcendence, exists only within Mother Church. While it is easy for most of us (including, to a great degree, myself) to imagine an ordained woman, it is not at all easy to imagine Holy Father Church. The idea is alternately comical and terrifying. But are these two images, essentially of Christ and his Bride, not inseparable? Is not the womb of Mother Church that immanent place in which the transcendent can be met?
I have no doubt that there are many women who are as capable as men for ministry. And I think the Church can only benefit from giving such capable women support in ministry. But I suspect there is wisdom in maintaining the Church’s constant practice in a world in which men are increasingly seen as replaceable and in which transcendence is increasingly seen as an illusion.
Brett Salkeld is Archdiocesan Theologian for the Catholic Archdiocese of Regina, Saskatchewan. He is a father of four (so far) and husband of one.