Barton Gingerich, ecclesiology, female ordination, Institute on Religion and Democracy, IRD Blog, Judith Levitt, New York Times, ordination, Roman Catholic, Roman Catholic Church, sacrament, theology, women
The Sunday opinion pages of The New York Times certainly didn’t disappoint last weekend. Former IRD intern Julia Polese brought to my attention Judith Levitt’s trumpeting for Roman Catholic women’s ordination. The author paints a foreboding picture of a power-mad Vatican. After all, the RCC leadership threatened immediate excommunication to dissident bishops who ordain female clergy. Nevertheless, bishops have tried to pass on the sacerdotal office to women, albeit in anonymity and secrecy. Thus springs the “Roman Catholic Womenpriests.” Levitt reports that a determined minority have pursued this ecclesiastical cause since the post-Vatican II 1970s. She is no longer a practicing Catholic herself but seemed to relish how “deeply it affected me emotionally…[t]he first time I saw a female Roman Catholic priest on the church altar, dressed in traditional robes, performing the Eucharist and all of the rituals that I grew up with.” Likewise, she rejoiced at the since-exploded “discovery of a scrap of papyrus making reference to Jesus’ wife, and to a female disciple.”
Unfortunately for Levitt and her feminist friends, several theological factors stand in the way of women’s ordination in liturgical, sacramental Christian traditions. By this latter phrase, I mean those communions that practice ancient worship forms and affirm such sacramental ideas as the Real Presence of Christ’s Body and Blood in Holy Communion (think Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, high church Anglican, old school Lutheran).
The first hurdle is by far the most universal and can be found in even low-church Protestant circles: Scriptural hermeneutics. Passages such as 1 Timothy 2:12 present clear prohibitions against women exercising authority over men in a congregational setting. A great many Protestant bodies have concluded that this command results from cultural sensibilities rather than permanent principles. More traditional bodies find this interpretational method to be unsustainable and quite the problematic exegesis. They contend that by nature priests can only be men just as by nature marriage is between only a man and a woman. These latter exegetes believe that the context bolsters the prohibition and that this (incredibly unpopular) notion points to a particularly Scriptural metaphysic and theology of sex and gender.
The second obstacle is tradition, which has been the darling for the Vatican’s PR department. That no woman had ever been ordained by a legitimate Christian body for nearly 1800 years is no minor precedent. Similarly, the Christian priesthood is seen as a fulfillment and continuance of the Old Testament priesthood, which was also all-male. Even today, the term “priestess” carries with it the overtones of heathenry and idolatry. Protestant bodies began allowing for women pastors when pressured by the various feminist movements and Enlightenment principles; the Methodists, for example, became early proponents of lady ministers in the mid 1700s. However, all the apostles were male, and the Roman Catholics (and others) see the bishopric as an apostolic office. If Christ set this example while overturning so many other human expectations, the Church should be wary of pursuing such ecclesiastical novelties.
The third point is the most sacramental. In the Eucharist, the priest fulfills a sacerdotal duty, standing in a visible intermediary position of Christ to His Church as well as representing the Church to Christ. Just as Christ is a man, so the presbyter must be a man. The priest is the avenue through which God works. The priest is the waiter while Christ is, quite literally, the host. More Zwinglian Protestants don’t have this holdup, since the pastoral office is mainly concerned with teaching, leading vision, and counsel—all of which women can do just as well as men.
In sacramental traditions, a metaphysical impossibility stands in the way. Only a man can bear the host, but not all men are called to such a vocation. Coupled with such a high view of the Lord’s Supper is a great regard (in various degrees) for Mary. She bore the host as well, but in a completely different way. Suddenly, 1 Timothy 2:15 (taken in context with the rest of the chapter) loses its apparent chauvinism when one considers that Christian mothers seem to participate in this mystery. Again, it can only be performed by a woman, but not all women are called to it. Pretty cool, eh?
Not according to the Roman Catholic Womenpriests, who struggle against this mass of incredible theological inertia. Their willingness to ignore their own Church’s teaching belies a paltry understanding of Roman Catholic dogma, a negligible commitment to a theology of the body, and a loose grasp of historical awareness. If one truly adheres to a Real Presence view, he cannot ignore the emphasis on the supernatural breaking into the physical realm. Emotional satisfaction, good intentions, a mature levelheadedness, and vocational desire cannot deconstruct the brute physical reality. Such efforts would be, in a word, Gnostic. The fans of female ordination in the RCC are already radically revisionist as it is. Moreover, the secrecy of their ordaining bishops truly harms their credibility. If these womenpriests desire a religious home that will allow them to carry out their liturgy in peace, dozens of other Christian bodies stand at the ready to welcome them. If you’re really into women’s ordination, maybe the Magisterium isn’t for you.