Wednesday, July 9, 2008

women bishops - Y not?

Some time ago I sent an email to Fr Colombus, parish priest of St Quadraginta. I wrote that I considered him as one of the most morally and intellectually courageous people I've ever met, but that I had doubts about the wider Roman Catholic Church that prevented me from remaining a communicant thereof. He replied with a very nice email thanking me for all my work.

For some time I've been attending services at St Gallicus' in the draughty old fen, ably presided over by Rector Peregrina and her curate, Revd Cantiana. Somewhat appropriate, as one of the reasons I found it impossible to remain within the RC church was the unwillingness to contemplate, let alone officially discuss, the ordination of women to priesthood in its three degrees - deacon, priest and bishop.

In its 1976 "Declaration on the Ordination of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood (Inter Insigniores), the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (later headed by Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI), states: "by calling only men to the priestly Order and ministry in its true sense, the Church intends to remain faithful to the type of ordained ministry willed by the Lord Jesus Christ and carefully maintained by the Apostles." In Pope John Paul II's Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis On Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone, he recalls that Pope Paul VI

reminded Anglicans of the position of the Catholic Church: "She holds that it is not admissible to ordain women to the priesthood, for very fundamental reasons. These reasons include: the example recorded in the Sacred Scriptures of Christ choosing his Apostles only from among men; the constant practice of the Church, which has imitated Christ in choosing only men; and her living teaching authority which has consistently held that the exclusion of women from the priesthood is in accordance with God's plan for his Church."
The passage is a quote from a reply to Archbishop Donald Coggan in an exchange of letters between the leaders of the two churches on the Anglican Communion's plans to ordain women, in which Lord Coggan stated:

It is with this in mind that we write now to inform Your Holiness of the slow but steady growth of a consensus of opinion within the Anglican Communion that there are no fundamental objections in principle to the ordination of women to the priesthood.
In the RC church there are indeed objections to ordination of women, but none are fundamental. Inter Insigniores seeks to sideline the issue by stating that female ordination was restricted to "A few heretical sects...especially Gnostic ones" which were condemned by Church Fathers. It wasn't just the Fathers who were ambivalent about women - St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) was of the opinion that:

The reason...for woman's being less persevering and constant than man is the weakness of her bodily complexion and the frailty of her temperament: "...ex naturali dispositione: quia videlicet habent animum minus constantem, propter fragilitatem complexionis. Et hoc modo comparantur feminae ad masculos..." Effeminacy is the name given to the vice which opposes by deficiency the virtue of constancy or perseverence, since women are generally lacking in this virtue. That is why some men are called effeminate, because they are soft and womanish, because like women they yield readily instead of persevering against difficulties.
It seems that in seeking ordination, women are facing a sort of institutionalised mysogyny that has never gone away. Pope John Paul II concludes Mulieris Dignitatem (On the Dignity and Vocation of Women, 1988), alludes to 1 Pt 2:9 in saying that "Christ looks to them [women] for the accomplishment of the 'royal priesthood'", but finds himself unable to invite women to join the ministerial priesthood - to the extent that he briefy joins the ranks of Gnostics marginalised by Inter Insigniores when he explains, in para. 26, relationship between "what is 'feminine' and what is 'masculine' when a priest celebrates Mass".

The first could it be magic?blow against mysogyny in the churches came not from religion but from science when, in 1953, Watson and Crick published the structure of DNA. Through time it was discovered that the main difference, genetically, between the genders is that women have two X chromosomes, and men have an X and a Y chromosome (left). I have never seen any evidence around what is so magical about this length of 58 million base-pairs forming 86 genes which code for 23 proteins that should restrict the priesthood to men alone.

Genetics, in fact, becomes very interesting when combined with the Gospel story, and perhaps gives us an insight into the identity of the first woman priest in Christian history. Matthew and Luke tell us that Mary conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, as a virgin. Jesus' genetic makeup would have been the same as Mary's. Fr Columbus, in training lay Eucharistic ministers, went as far as to say that part of Mary's agony in watching her son on the cross was that the blood falling from him was her own blood. Poet Frances Croake Frank takes this one step further in her poem, "Did the Woman Say:

Did the woman say, When she held him for the last time in the dark rain on a hilltop,
After the pain and the bleeding and the dying,
‘This is my body, this is my blood’?

The RC Church has always maintained that it's position is not that it won't ordain women to the priesthood, but rather that it has no right to - for example Cardinal Walter Kaspar's (President of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity) speech to the Church of England House of Bishops in 2006. The sticking point is that Christ chose men to be Apostles - but note that the title Apostola Apostolorum was given to Mary Magdalen by the Roman martyr and bishop Hippolytus in the 3rd Century. Did he have access to some information no longer available?

As Kaspar noted, ordination is one sacrament, and admission of women to the priesthood opens up admission to the episcopate. He also states that the Roman Catholic Church sees ordination of women as invalid - which seems a puzzling thing to say to the Church of England's House of Bishops, as Pope Leo XIII declared all Anglican orders invalid in 1896.

Personally, I'm glad that the Church of England Synod voted today to open up the path for women to become bishops, because surely the point is overseeing the clergy and people of God, not the chromosomal makeup of the incumbent.

Jesus' attitude to women showed St Paul up to be the man of his time that he was. Pope John Paul appeared to be of the opinion that Mary may have been present at the Last Supper as a participant - a comment that cannot be found now - and stated in the Angelus of 5 June 1983 that "every Mass puts us into intimate communion with her, the Mother, whose sacrifice ‘becomes present’ just as the sacrifice of her Son ‘becomes present’ at the words of consecration of the bread and wine pronounced by the priest".

I look forward to worshipping in a more integrated church which has a commitment towards tackling the stained-glass ceiling, and in which the priest celebrates in persona Christi regardless of gender, celebrating the sacrifice and victory of the Man who had all of humanity engraved within the very building blocks of his body and blood. The RC Church has obviously decided it doesn't have enough gender issues to be going on with, because dark comments are being made about Anglicans who can't accept women bishops swimming the Tiber. The point about that particular river, however, is that it's swimmable in both directions.


  1. Now, this is one point on which I strongly disagree with you. One can be an apostle (one must!) and not be a priest. Neither can I see Mary in any way, shape or form as having the same role as the Twelve, although her role is more important than theirs. How can one stand in persona Christi regardless of gender? Our gender is a most fundamental part of Who We Are. I am dumfounded at the thought that others do not perceive this. There is a very deep reason for even such superficial things as men's clubs and women's clubs. I cannot understand how it can be missed. I don't know what else to say - !

  2. Hi Pam, thanks for your comment.

    All I can do is try to answer your concerns from my side, with the almost certain knowledge that we aren't going to agree.

    Although, as St Paul tells us in Ph 2:7, "[Jesus] emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, becoming as human beings are" - specifically, a man, the Second Person of the Trinity, as God, transcends gender. Catechism of the Catholic Church ¶239 states: "We ought therefore to recall that God transcends the human distinction between the sexes. He is neither man nor woman: he is God. He also transcends human fatherhood and motherhood, although he is their origin and standard". (Although it reiterates in ¶1577 that ordination in the Roman Catholic Church is reserved to ordained men.) Given that even St Paul, very much a man of his times when it comes to gender issues, states in Gal 3:28 that "there can be neither male nor female - we are all one in Christ Jesus", I found I couldn't agree with the RC Church's teaching that it has no right to ordain women, and took what I saw as the appropriate action.

    God bless - FD

  3. Jesus (God) took the form of a man (He could have taken the form of a woman and chose not - for a reason, not a small one, and probably, reading His works, for many important ones), and He consistently and invariably referred to the first person of the Trinity as Father - never, ever, as Mother, or as a being without gender. We are told in the creation story that the male (Adam) was created "in the image and likeness of God". So gender is important to both the first and the second Person of the Trinity, and it is male. Since the mother of God conceived by the Holy Spirit and begot a Son, we must also presume that the Spirit also has a male role. That Person of the Trinity is also never, ever referred to as female, in any way. This in no way infers that God, either Father, Son, or Spirit, considers the female as inferior, but rather as having an entirely other role. Mystically and symbolically, as Bride, a prototype of the Church as the Bride of Christ, of the individual soul as His Bride in another perspective. It is, I believe, in this way that there can be no male or female regarding Christ, as our souls stand, in regard to Him, as a bride stands respective to her husband. Active vs. passive. The old archetypes are there for a reason - a reference point, to help us understand something bigger than our times.

    I do appreciate your not wanting to remain inside and dissent, but it cannot help but affect me that the Church, a single Church, which Christ founded, should continue being torn asunder. It is, in still another sense, His Body (the Church) being rent, as in the crucifixion. You cannot believe He intended to found numerous Churches, all with a quarrel against one another, can you? And have you read very many of the saints' writings, in depth, and still claim those who dissent are wiser? I ask you to continue to re-consider, while respecting your position of remaining outside while you dissent. Thanks for your kind response.

  4. Pam, I am so sorry for not getting back to you before now. When I put my latest post up it was the wee hours, then I was working in a shop in the village today.

    I don't think either of us has an answer that the other would find satisfactory. I don't beleive that I'm wiser in any sense than any of the Saints, or people who have doubts but choose to remain within the RC Church.

    The issue of women clergy was just one of the reasons why I left. Another was the way in which the Novus Ordo Mass was introduced. Not the Mass in itself, but the way in which it was presented as superseding the Tridentine Rite. I beleive both liturgies are beautiful, but the way in which the Novus Ordo was introduced was wrong, and I don't think the Church has yet recovered from that period. Soemtimes, thinking about it, I get very sad.

    I'm sorry that my beliefs and actions cause you pain. Hopefully, one day - which I fear will come too late for either of us - we will all be able to not only recognise but celebrate our differences and worship together. Until then, God bless you.


  5. My dad is still upset over the Novus Ordo too, and now attends an Anglican Rite Catholic Church here in Houston. Unfortunately, having no memory of the Tridentine (I think I was 4), I feel lost there, although I do go with them sometimes. Thankfully, our new pope is trying energetically to make up for the damage.

    Here is the prayer of Our Lord and Savior. I make it mine:

    ",...that they may be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me."

    As the Truth is One, may we be one in Him.

    I am also glad your wife has been able to stay with your children. What a blessing.

    God bless you, too.


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