Church bureaucrats choose misogyny accusations over discussion of gender
St Peter’s in Rome: perceptions have changed of women’s place in society. Accepted as being fully human and made in the image of God, a woman can “icon” Christ as effectively as can any man. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
As a result, it is the teaching itself that must be challenged. This is not difficult.
On the big issue, women’s exclusion from ordination, the teaching is of recent origin and is based on remarkably shoddy scholarship. The exclusion is long-established. The justifying doctrine is new.
In October 1976, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) produced a declaration, (Inter Insigniores) teaching that Jesus could override cultural taboos and therefore, in selecting only men as apostles, he was acting with complete freedom. His example should therefore be considered normative. This norm was then elevated into an implied blueprint of God’s eternal plan for his church. Then, the term “apostle” was stealthily extended to include priests and offices of authority, allowing the CDF to “recall” the pope’s words that the church “in fidelity to the example of the Lord, does not consider herself authorised to admit women to priestly ordination”.
Women’s exclusion from ordination is based on remarkably shoddy scholarship
The snag was Mark 3:14 on which they were relying. It makes it perfectly clear that Jesus did not act in complete freedom. He was constrained by the culture of the times which dismissed women’s evidence as worthless. Mark explains the selection of male apostles in verse 14: “they were to be with him and to be sent out to preach”.
Jesus was selecting itinerant preachers; no job for a woman in first-century Palestine. The verse as written would cut the ground from under an already-flimsy argument. So, the CDF rewrote scripture to suit their purpose.
This is how the problem verse is presented in their declaration. (Mk 3:14): they are to represent Jesus to the people and carry on his work.
No quotation marks, but the unwary reader is (mis-)led to believe they are quoting the scripture when in fact they are altering it.
Eighteen years later, Pope St John Paul II tried to put an end to the argument about women’s ordination which Rome had been losing in the interim. His apostolic letter, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (October 1994) formulated a new doctrine to justify a discredited practice:
“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.”
This is not a development of doctrine. There is a theological chasm between it and the earlier statement which would of its nature have been open to reassessment.
The new doctrine has been mischievously labelled as infallible.
St John Paul was badly served by those who drafted the apostolic letter for him. They depended heavily on the earlier declaration and faced the same dilemma with the second half of verse 14: “and to be sent out to preach”. Their solution was just to omit it. This is not the only magisterial document that cuts short a citation to suit its brief. The authors go on to rely on at least two classical logical fallacies and on footnote references that, when checked, offer minimal support or are irrelevant.
Matter and form
Furthermore, the letter contradicts the declaration on one essential point. The declaration says the church has always had the power to “lay down or modify what she considers more fitting” for the sacraments, “provided that their substance remains unaltered”. This makes the issue one of discipline and contradicts the teaching of the letter: “that the church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women”, unless the gender of the recipient can be proved to be part of the substance of the sacrament. This the letter wisely does not attempt. The sacrament is composed of matter and form; the imposition of hands and recital of prescribed prayers.
The letter asserts that the celebrant must symbolise Christ in a natural and meaningful way and that a woman cannot do this because Christ was a man. The medieval perception of women would have made this difficult for some. But perceptions have changed along with women’s place, education, options, leadership and expectations. Now accepted as being fully human and made in the image of God, she can “icon” Christ as effectively as can any man.
Finally and fatally, neither document dares to relate the issue to the institution of the Eucharist or of the sacrament of Order or pays much attention to the greatest commandment, on which depend “all the law and the prophets”.
These “authoritative” documents are neither infallible nor persuasive. Rather than risk further discussion, however, the Vatican bureaucrats will dutifully suffer the misogyny accusation.
John O’Loughlin Kennedy is an economist and co-founder of Concern Worldwide
The Irish Times, 9 April 2018