The greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven are not the ministers but the saints.
Normally this blog avoids current controversies. Partly this is because controversy gives rise to partisan spirit. People moved by an ardent enthusiasm for their party, faction or group are too prone to fall into the trap of thinking that it is more important to be right than it is to be kind. Any truth which relies upon unkindness to advance its cause is no truth at all. Partly also it is because being controversial is a great way of alienating people. The readership of this blog is perfectly formed in the sense that each person reading this is a uniquely wise and gentle individual. It is also, however, small and I have no great desire to make it smaller by leaping into a here-today-gone-tomorrow argument when the main purpose of this blog is about the deep love to be found in a close relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Nevertheless because I live in England the almost universal applause which greeted the recent decision by the local Anglican ecclesial community (the CofE) to 'ordain' women to the role of 'bishop' reminded me how little known and understood are the Catholic reasons for not applauding. I feel moved then to do my little bit to redress the balance. If it so happens that you in your turn feel moved to stop reading my blog because you fundamentally disagree with me then let me take this opportunity to thank you for your patience thus far and prayerfully wish you all the best for your future journey.
Many arguments cannot be characterised as debates in any meaningful sense of the word. The participants talk past each other because they are really talking about different things. In this case the advocates of women's ordination tend to advance their case on the grounds of equality and justice, the Catholic opponents advance theirs on the basis of authority and its limitations. I will come to equality later but will begin with the limits of authority because I suspect it is the least known and least understood category in the whole dispute.
In his Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacredotalis Pope St John Paul II made this definitive statement I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women. You might think 'he's the Pope, he has the authority to do whatever he likes.' but you would be wrong. The Catholic Church is the steward of a gift which she has received, she is not the author and mistress of a philosophy of her own devising. In the Nicene Creed she proclaims her belief that the Church is, among other things, Apostolic. This means that what the Church believes to be true about the revelation of God to man in the person of Jesus Christ are those things, and only those things which she received from the Apostles who were the companions of Jesus on His mission. Many of the doctrines which the Church proclaims and teaches to be true, such as the doctrine of the Blessed Trinity or devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary are only implicit in the deposit of faith. Centuries of reflection upon and debate about this deposit has led to the implications being drawn out ever more fully and expressed ever more clearly. Blessed John Henry Newman in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine compares this process to a seed which grows into a tree, all the elements of the tree are present in the seed but many lifetimes may pass before the tree reaches the fullest extent of its development. Part of the stewardship role of the Church then consists in cultivating the Apostolic faith because it is a living thing rather than in preserving it unchanged as if it was a mere museum piece. But what the Church cannot, must not, do is introduce new doctrines which do not have their origin in that initial deposit of faith.
You might think 'why not? The world changes and the Church should change with it.' To which the answer is, and not for the first time on this blog, Yes and No. The world does change and since Christians have an obligation to evangelise the world with the Gospel of Jesus Christ then they must always so far adapt themselves so as to make it possible for each new generation to hear, understand and accept that Gospel. God, however, does not change. The final word which He spoke in universal revelation to all humankind was contained in the person of Jesus. Nothing exists to be added to or taken away from that word, nothing can be more true, more sublime or more relevant. The Church, therefore, while always seeking to present that word as effectively as possible must be absolutely, unequivocally and unwaveringly faithful to it whatever the cost may be. The fullness of that revelation was summarised in the faith of the Apostles which the Catholic Church holds in the form of Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. Moreover our Lord gave this promise to the Apostles and implicitly to their successors the Bishops, behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world. (Matthew 28:20) Which is understood to mean that the Saviour did not simply leave a set of teachings and a stellar example to His followers before disappearing off to heaven, His promise includes the continued presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit in the counsels of the Church. That is to say, whenever the Church is definitive about a subject concerning the faith which she has received, whether that be through an Ecumenical Council, an ex cathedra statement by the Pope or through the universal, unanimous, unbroken and continuous teaching of the Church (the Magisterium,) then the protection of the Spirit has the effect of ensuring that that teaching is infallibly a true and accurate understanding of the faith.
So what has this got to do with the ordination of women? Well, we know that Jesus only chose men to be Apostles but this is not crucial to the argument, His mission was very specifically to the Jewish community. However, the Apostles appointed successors to themselves, bishops, wherever they established Christian communities and their successors appointed successors and so on. There is no evidence that in the century or so after the first Pentecost that any of these bishops were women. And it is certainly the case that it has never been the universal practice of the church to appoint women as either bishops or priests. Given the wide geographic spread of Christianity even in its early days and the accompanying wide variety of cultures in which it operated there is no argument that in every case the idea of women priests was locally unacceptable as it would have been in Judea. In places where inhabitants were familiar with the idea of priestesses because the indigenous pagan cults had them Christians could have ordained their own women priests but did not do so. Despite the best efforts of advocates for women's ordination to prove otherwise there are no grounds for supposing that the Church at any point in its history would have countenanced such a practice had it been considered by an Ecumenical Council, a Pope or the Magisterium. Which brings us back to the limits of authority. If the deposit of faith had included an implicit notion that the priesthood and episcopate was open to both men and women then the Holy Spirit which guides the Church in such matters would have facilitated an expression of that notion somewhere within the practice of the Church at some point prior to the 20th century. That He has not done so leads us to conclude that the notion is not present and that therefore the Church does not have the authority to introduce it as if it had been.
Before looking at the question of equality and the idea that ordaining women is A Good Thing regardless of obscure theological quibbling I will touch on what all this has to do with the CofE. It is popularly supposed that at the time of the 'Reformation' a new religion was established in England which ousted the old religion of Catholicism and replaced it with a new body called the CofE. Anglicans however do not, at least officially, see it that way. They define their faith as Catholic and Reformed and affirm that they believe essentially the same things that the Church believed prior to the 'Reformation,' they are not a new body but a continuation of the old one purged of irrelevant accretions, superstitions and distortions. Their website says this-
"The religious settlement that eventually emerged in the reign of Elizabeth I gave the Church of England the distinctive identity that it has retained to this day. It resulted in a Church that consciously retained a large amount of continuity with the Church of the Patristic and Medieval periods in terms of its use of the catholic creeds, its pattern of ministry, its buildings and aspects of its liturgy, but which also embodied Protestant insights in its theology and in the overall shape of its liturgical practice"
Anglicans claim to hold to the faith of the undivided Catholic Church as it existed prior to the schism between Catholicism and Orthodoxy, it proclaims that the CofE is part of the Catholic and Apostolic Church. Which means, among other things, that part of its mission is to establish unity between the sundered members of the Christian family. And also, crucially, that the formulae of faith (the creeds) which emerged from the Ecumenical Councils were accurate because the Councils were guided by the Holy Spirit. Now, it is clear that part of the deposit of faith which the CofE received was that priestly ordination was reserved to men. In its own practices it upheld this up until the late 20th century. Now it does not and by extending the concept of women's ordination to include the office which they call bishop, successor to the Apostles, then they are either innovating, introducing a new doctrine not included in the original deposit of faith, or asserting that this doctrine was always present but only implicit. In the first instance they would be immediately departing from the catholic faith by any reasonable definition of the concept. In the second then they are using a provincial council to change the doctrines of a universal Church, something which only an Ecumenical Council can do. That is, despairing of the prospect of persuading the Catholic and Orthodox Churches they have unilaterally established a new position. In both cases the CofE has decisively moved itself from the position it claimed as a member of the Catholic body and into a new role as just another Protestant sect.
And so, equality. Let me make my personal position clear; if the Church had the authority to ordain women few people would welcome that more than I would. I have spent most of my working life in overwhelmingly female workplaces and am well aware of the talent, abilities, strengths and enthusiasm that women can bring to the many roles which they fill. It is not here a question of competence to fulfil certain defined tasks. For reasons about which we can only speculate God has appointed that the role of sacerdotal priest is reserved to men. Why that might be so we do not know for certain that it is so we can be sure or else He would have included it in the Apostolic faith which He revealed to the world. In the New Testament there are a number of statements by Jesus known as 'hard sayings,' like for example he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost, shall never have forgiveness, but shall be guilty of an everlasting sin. (Mark 3:29) which Christians may not fully understand but do fully accept because they have the authority of our Lord behind them. The Church is, in a manner of speaking, a continuation of Jesus by other means and this doctrine about women's ordination is one of her hard sayings and Christians should accept it in the same spirit and for the same reasons.
It is argued that on this issue, and on a number of others, the Church is making herself increasingly look outdated, out of touch, old fashioned and misogynistic (misogyny means having at least an ingrained prejudice against women.) That may indeed be how she is perceived by many people especially in the West and especially among the young. Well, let it be so. The Church always has to pay a price for her fidelity to the faith, in the past it paid other prices in the future it will pay still other ones. It is not the job of Christianity to conform itself to popular taste. She has no choice in this matter, she cannot ordain women whatever else may happen. What she can do, must do and to a certain extent has been doing is to proclaim by both word and deed her absolute commitment to the fact that not only are women and men equally beloved by God but that neither sex is superior to the other on the grounds of intelligence, ability, talent, commitment or any other good quality you care to name including, crucially, leadership ability.
We can, I think, deduce from the New Testament and the entire history of the Church including the Apostolic era that the correct Christian approach to what are now called gender issues is to be found in the ideas of balance and harmony. In the context of people 'equal' does not mean 'identical.' Women and men are different from each other and these differences, hard to pin down precisely as they may be, should not be ignored. They do not provide any valid excuse for the exercise of oppressive power. What they provide are fields of opportunity. It should not be the function of the Church to demand that women behave like men or that men behave like women. There is a considerable overlap, areas where both men and women can operate alongside each other in identical roles each producing equally satisfactory outcomes. But there remains a residue of areas where persons are better qualified to function by virtue of their sex than other equally talented persons of the opposite sex. In the context of the Church for mysterious reasons God appears to uniquely qualify some men, but only men, for the role of priest however He also seems to exercise a preferential option for women when it comes to the handing out of charismatic gifts (something I touched on in my earlier Girl Power post.)
We can see some evidence for this in the category known as Doctors of the Church. These are people whom the Church recognises as having made particularly important contributions to developing ever more fully our understanding of the faith. Much has been made of the fact that the list of Doctors is overwhelmingly male. But this is exactly what you would expect in a 2000 year old institution. It is in the nature of such things that those most qualified to teach would first of all have learnt and until relatively recently higher education, within and without the Christian world, was almost exclusively reserved to men and so men would have the greatest opportunity to explore the intellectual realm. It is to be hoped and indeed can be confidently expected that future Doctors of the Church will be as likely to be female as male so long as higher education remains equally accessible to both sexes. For our purposes, however, it is interesting to note that 3 out of the 4 women Doctors had little education. That is St Teresa of Avila, St Catherine of Siena and St Therese of Lisieux, indeed St Catherine may well have been illiterate until quite late on in her mission. What they possessed was the authority of charisma, a technical word in this context which means a particular gift of the Holy Spirit. This gift enabled each of them in very different ways to instruct the Church and indeed to act as leaders to groups of disciples often including priests and bishops. St Catherine of Siena, like her near contemporary St Bridget of Sweden, practically bullied several Popes. And what these women did in their way many hundreds of others like St Margaret Mary Alacoque, St Bernadette of Lourdes, St Faustina Kowalska and Chiara Lubich did as they had been guided to by the Spirit guiding in their turn many others both male and female.
The model for the balance and harmony I suggested earlier can be glimpsed in the relationship between Mary and Jesus. Our Lady is the mother of all charismatics, she was and is the spouse of the Holy Spirit, through their fruitful collaboration salvation came into the world. Whatever power Jesus had by virtue of His role as priest, prophet and king He voluntarily submitted to the authority of Mary, her requests are never unanswered. He performed His first public miracle in response to her prayers. She in her turn voluntarily submitted to Him because of the roles He filled. Mutual submission and a complementarity of functions in those instances where they do not overlap is a rule with them and so also with the Church, yesterday, today and forever.
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