Publication6

Studies on Women Priests

by Anne E. Patrick

from Women Priests, Arlene Swidler & Leonard Swidler (eds.), Paulist Press 1977, pp. 70-74.
Republished on our website with the necessary permission

Anne E. Patrick, SNJM, doctoral student in religion and literature at the University of Chicago Divinity School, has written and lectured widely on religious dimensions of the women’s movement. From 1973 to 1975 she chaired the Committee on Women in Church and Society of the National Assembly of Women Religious.

Public discussion of the women’s ordination issue by Roman Catholic scholars has increased dramatically in the last several years. The works cited below are especially important. Scrutiny of them will afford a sense of the range and significance of the arguments in favor of altering the current discipline, many of which seem to have been ignored or glossed over by the Declaration.

For an overview of Catholic literature in English on the ordination question published during the decade after Vatican Council II, cf. my “Women and Religion: A Survey of Significant Literature, 1965-1974,” Theological Studies, Vol.36 (December, 1975), pp. 737-765 (cf. especially pp. 752-757). In general, this survey concludes, early works served to establish the importance of the question, while subsequent writings analyzed materials from Scripture and tradition and focused on the pastoral dimensions of the issue. Symbolic considerations have frequently been brought into the discussion by both advocates and opponents of women’s ordination, and recent arguments emphasizing the need to symbolize the fact that the image of God is both male and female are seen to “entail an important shift in the discussion. Rather than asking whether it is right to include women in official ministry, a number of writers are inquiring, at least implicity, whether it is wrong to continue excluding them” (p. 757).

Since this earlier survey covers the literature through 1974, attention will here be given primarily to more recent works available in English. For almost annually issued (since 1969) comprehensive bibliographies of book and periodical literature (many hundreds of items) from all major European languages on women in the Church, including ordination, see: Werkgroep “Samenwerking van Man en Vrouw in de Kerk,” Literatuurlijst Man en Vrouw in Kerk en Maatschappij (St. Janssingel 21, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands, 1969ff.).

The December 1975 issue of Theological Studies, edited by Walter Burghardt, S.J., has recently been reprinted as Woman: New Dimensions (New York: Paulist, 1977). Besides the bibliographic survey mentioned above, this volume contains several essays pertinent to the ordination question, especially “Women and Ministry” by Elizabeth Carroll, R.S.M. (pp. 660-687) and “Roles of Women in the Fourth Gospel” by Raymond E. Brown, S.S. (pp. 688-699). Carroll’s article is cited in the Vatican Commentary on the Declaration, note 52. In addition to the Burghardt volume, then, the following resources are particularly significant:

(1) Haye van der Meer, S.J., Women Priests in the Catholic Church? tr. by Arlene and Leonard Swidler (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1973). A student of Karl Rahner, S.J., van der Meer completed this doctoral thesis in 1962 and published it as Priestertum der Frau? in 1969. He concludes from his investigations of arguments from Scripture, tradition, the magisterium, and speculative theology that “Catholic dogmatic theologians may not hold that according to the present position of theology it is already (or still) established on a scholarly basis that ‘office’ should, by divine law, remain closed to women” (p. 9). Van der Meer does not find difficulty with the idea of women representing Christ, and he also observes that there is something “significantly feminine not only in the Church as bride receiving, but in the Church as imparting, as dispensing life” (p. 149). He further argues that to claim that women cannot administer sacraments on account of their sex logically entails that one must find it problematic for men to receive sacraments. The English edition of van der Meer’s book is enhanced by a bibliographic survey in the “Translators’ Foreword,” as well as by the translators’ overview of developments since the thesis was written. For the recent thought of Rahner on this question, cf. his The Shape of the Church to Come (New York: Seabury, 1974), where he observes that since Christian community leadership should be linked with sacramental and liturgical life, this will require women’s serving in priestly roles in communities where they are leaders(p. 114).

(2) Anne Marie Gardiner, S.S.N.D., ed., Women and Catholic Priesthood: An Expanded Vision. Proceedings of the Detroit Ordination Conference (New York: Paulist, 1976). This volume features major papers by Elizabeth Carroll, R.S.M., (“The Proper Place for Women in the Church”), Margaret Farley, R.S.M. (“Moral Imperatives for the Ordination of Women”), and Anne Carr, B.V.M. (“The Church in Process: Engendering the Future”), as well as responses by C. Stuhlmueller, R. Ruether, G. Tavard, E. Hewitt, R. McBrien, and E. Fiorenza. In “Synthesis of the Ordination Conference,” Mary Daniel Turner, S.N.D. calls attention to themes recurrent in the discussion:

“(1) the need for a reinterpretation of the priesthood within today’s pastoral needs,
(2) a concern for bonding among women, and
(3) an emphasis on fidelity to the tradition of the Church” (p. 136).

This volume commends itself not only because of the historical significance of the 1975 Detroit Conference, which was attended by over 1200 persons, but also because of the quality of theological and pastoral thinking displayed in the proceedings. In particular, the discussion of “justice” by Farley and that of “tradition” by Carr bear examination because they bring out dimensions of these concepts often ignored in superficial treatments of the ordination question. (For a brief discussion of the “tradition” aspect of the ordination question, cf. my “Conservative Case for the Ordination of Women,” New Catholic World, Vol. 218, No. 1305, May-June 1975, pp. 108-111). The Gardiner volume also contains several appendices, including a selected bibliography of works published from 1965 to 1975, as well as the text of Archbishop Bernardin’s statement of 1975 reiterating the teaching that “women are not to be ordained to the priesthood” (p. 195).

(3) Ida Raming, The Exclusion of Women from the Priesthood: Divine Law or Sex Discrimination?, tr. by Norman R. Adams, preface by Arlene and Leonard Swidler (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1976). First published in Germany in 1973 (Der Ausschluss der Frau vom priesterlichen amt: Gottgewollte Tradition oder Diskriminierung?), Raming’s historical study investigates the juridical and doctrinal foundations of canon 968, section 1, of the Code of Canon Law and concludes that the traditional arguments supporting the law are invalid.

(4) Roger Gryson, The Ministry of Women in the Early Church tr. by Jean Laporte and Mary Louise Hall (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1976). The often-heard notion that women’s ordination is a pecularly “American” concern seems contradicted by the fact that several of the key resources for the discussion were originally published in Europe. Gryson’s book frst appeared as Le ministère des femmes dans l’Eglise ancienne (Gembloux: Éditions H. Duculot, 1972). It endeavors to be an exact, objective account of the ministerial situation during the first six centuries and points to the need for further research on the question of why “Jesus did not mandate women to preach the gospel with apostolic authority” (p. 133), the question presumed by the Declaration to be settled (cf. par. 10 and following, “The Attitude of Christ”). Gryson notes that “it is not out of place to ask whether the Jewish mentality at that period was ready to listen to the preaching of a woman” (p. 133). He concludes that to decide the question of the attitude of Jesus and the question of the reasons for the discipline of the early Church will require “a serious study of the image and the juridical status of woman in the different milieus of ancient society where the Church was born and developed . . . [and] a parallel study . . . devoted to the understanding of woman herself in the primitive Church” (p. 114). For a brief discussion of the status of women in the ancient Semitic, Egyptian, Hellenistic, and Roman worlds, and a thorough analysis of the status of women in early Judaism see: Leonard Swidler, Women In Judaism: The Status of Women In Formative Judaism (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Prcss, 1976).

(5) An important cluster of resources is the literature generated by the Declaration itself. Early responses were carried widely in the secular and religious press, and there is indication that instead of settling the issue, the Declaration has promoted further research and discussion. An especially useful article is “Women, Priesthood and the Vatican” by John R. Donahue, S.J., America, Vol. 136 (April 2, 1977), pp. 285-289. Donahue raises questions about the Declaration’s use of Scripture, tradition, and theology, and observes that current pastoral practice in many parts of the world includes women in ministerial roles formerly denied them on the same grounds as ordination to priesthood. He writes: “The tradition of the church is, therefore, already in the process of change at the level of practice, and the contemporary ecclesia orans (”church praying") or the sensus fdelium (“understanding of the faithful”) has as much to teach the church as official declarations" (p. 289).

Also very signifcant is the “Open Letter to the Apostolic Delegate” from the Pontifical Faculty of the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, which appeared in Commonweal, Vol. civ, No. 7 (April 1, 1977), pp. 204-206. This document builds on an American tradition of loyal opposition (“We dissent not because we disassociate ourselves in any way from the Catholic Church or from the Roman Pontiff, but because we feel ourselves very much united with both. Dissent in our culture is the protest of those who belong,” p. 204) and states that “it is our judgment that the conclusion of the Declaration is not sustained by the evidence and the arguments alleged in its support, and that it could sanction within the Church a practice of serious injustice” (ibid.). These theologians maintain that the injustice of the present discipline does not lie in the fact that any particular woman is denied orders for no one can claim a “right” to ordination. Instead, they state, “the issue of justice is engaged when an entire class of Catholics is antecedently excluded on principle even from the possibility that Christ might call them to this ministry . . .” (p. 205). They note that the Declaration itself acknowledges the growing awareness of women’s rights as a major development in contemporary moral thought, and yet “retards that movement and commits the people of God to abiding and exclusive government by men” (p. 205). Recalling examples of “serious mistakes” made in the past by Roman Congregations they declare that “in its decision, the Roman Congregation may well be repeating in its own form and through its insufficient sensitivity to the issues involved, such condemnations as those of the Chinese Rites, of the Copernican understanding of the solar system, and of the early emerging biblical movement at the turn of the century” (ibid.).

(6) Finally, mention should be made of the forthcoming report of the Taskforce on the Status of Women in Church and Society of the Catholic Theological Society of America. Chaired by Sara Butler, M.S.B.T., this committee will present to the June 1977 meeting of C.T.S.A. its evaluation of the arguments for and against the ordination of women to pastoral office which have appeared in recent Catholic “consensus statements.” Such statements include official church documents, resolutions prepared by Catholic organizations, and reports of ecumenical consultations.

Without attempting to draw out all of the implications of this burgeoning literature, some observations are in order here. For one thing, this literature testifes to the fact that women have found their theological voice, and are employing it in channels formerly inaccessible to them. Careful research, clear and cogent argumentation, fidelity to tradition, pastoral sensitivity, and a sense of vocation to preach the gospel in today’s world—such are the features of much that Catholic women have written on the ordination question. These qualities are, of course, present also in much that Catholic men have written, and the fact that so many “established” male scholars have devoted energy to the question evinces the growing reality of a partnership between men and women in the chureh.

Also, in contrast to the more narrowly-based arguments for maintaining the status quo, studies open to the question of changing the discipline tend to take account of a broad range of data: scriptural and historical research, the findings of the “human sciences,” and reflection on contemporary experience. Whereas references to contemporary pastoral needs and to justice issues are not developed in most of the literature defending current practice, the more “progressive” literature tends to integrate the conclusions of recent Vatican documents on evangelization and justice into the discussion about ordination. What is especially at issue here seems to be a difference in understanding the nature of the activity of the Holy Spirit in the Church. This difference might be summed up in the question: Is the Spirit given mainly to protect the past of which we are “sure” or to guide us into an uncertain future, confident that God will make up for what is lacking in our best human efforts? Given a Church whose history records both conceptual and structural development, the currently available defences of present practice do not argue convincingly against the possibility that in our times the Spirit calls women as well as men to pastoral office in the Roman Catholic Church. On the other hand, the arguments in favor of women’s ordination are convincing many faithful Catholics that such vocations are, at this point in history, more than “mere possibilities.”


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