Why Not? Scripture, History & Women's Ordination

By Egan, Robert J. | Commonweal, April 11, 2008 | Go to article overview

Why Not? Scripture, History & Women's Ordination


Egan, Robert J., Commonweal


Why are women excluded from being deacons, presbyters, and bishops in the Catholic Church? Are the reasons given reasonable and convincing? What can be learned from the testimony of Scripture and tradition? And what can be learned from the experience of Christians in contemporary societies? These questions provide us with an illuminating example of the crisis of contemporary Catholicism.

"The meaning of Vatican II," Bernard Lonergan once remarked, "was the acknowledgment of history." Sometimes I think it was just this acknowledgment of history that so soon afterward provoked a screeching of the brakes in the church and a determined effort to go backward. For acknowledging history can be painful and confusing. It teaches us about the fictions of memory, the prevalence of legend, and the truth about diversity, conflict, change, and discontinuity. We have to learn how to live with the whole truth about our history, to face it and accept responsibility for it. Even making changes is not enough if we're still unable to acknowledge failings and experience repentance.

An issue like the exclusion of women from ordained ministry reminds us that the sense we make of anything--an event, a policy, an institutional arrangement--will be affected by our cultural context, by the shared meanings and values of the communities to which we belong. Many factors will shape the norms, implicit and explicit, for what seems plausible to us.

The possibility of ordaining women has not been much discussed in the church's history: briefly in the early centuries, and briefly again in the High Middle Ages, but not much at all in the past five hundred years. Nor was it raised or discussed at the Second Vatican Council. It was mostly just taken for granted that only men were suited for these important offices. But the second wave of the international women's movement, beginning in the early 1960s, brought this question to our attention in a new and more urgent way.

This movement initiated a compelling analysis of women's oppression by entrenched cultural systems. The response of most of the other Christian churches in the West was to acknowledge their own past bias and to welcome women into positions of public leadership and decision making. Many Catholics, once the issue had been raised, likewise became persuaded that including women in these offices today would be appropriate, desirable, and just. Theologians and Scripture scholars of stature, including Karl Rahner, had agreed.

In 1976, however, in the document Inter insigniores, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), with the approval of Pope Paul VI, said that women could not be ordained--that this exclusion of women was, in effect, out of our hands--part of the unchangeable core of Catholic faith and practice. It was determined as such by Jesus himself, confirmed by an uninterrupted and universal tradition, taught by the worldwide episcopacy, and clarified and made more understandable by a theological reflection focused on the masculinity of Jesus, the nuptial relationship between Jesus and the church, and the need for anyone who represents Jesus in an ecclesial act--as presbyter or bishop is said to do when presiding at liturgies--to be male, to have a "natural resemblance" to Jesus, so as to be an image of Jesus more effectively and to symbolize more clearly "Jesus the Bridegroom."

Obviously there are many assumptions packed into this argument that require reflection and analysis. But setting aside considerations about natural resemblances and nuptial relationships, the key reason given for the exclusion of women from these offices was then, and has remained, Jesus' exclusive choice of men as members of "the Twelve."

The arguments of Inter insigniores were found unpersuasive by many theologians, church historians, Scripture scholars, and other Catholic intellectuals, as well as by many laymen and laywomen involved in the church's ministries. …

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