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 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:
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?
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’?
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.