I found myself recently in a discussion where I defended the Catholic Church’s position that there must be (of necessity) a male only priesthood. I explained the logic of this using theology of the body, liturgy, cosmological implications for Christian liturgy, and Gender as a transcendental category distinguishable from maleness or femaleness. However, today, I thought of the following thought experiment which may help clarify for Catholics precisely what it is about the sacrament of ordination which results in women being barred from receiving it.
Take the following thought experiment: suppose that a woman seeks after ordination, and she is told that women cannot act as liturgical icons for Christ or ‘God’, since that would imply that we are a Masculine Church relating to our Feminine God (which is antithetical to the Gospel story of God’s Grace coming to us rather than us making our way ‘into’ God). She finds this explanation acceptable, but decides to get a sex change so as to make herself physically male. Now, given that she’s had a sex-change, is she now able to be a priest? The intuitive response to this is to dismiss this person as a candidate for priesthood on the basis of her/him not accepting the plan of God in her/his life, and instead ‘playing God’ with her/his body (this ties in nicely, for those reading who were there, with the bioethical discussions we were having that night as well – since this is an example of doing something antithetical to what one’s ‘nature’ as a normative given is). So, she/he might be dismissed on the basis of arrogant behaviour, and perhaps also by reason of the scandal it would cause the Church (that’s a pragmatic/pastoral reason).
However, suppose for the sake of argument, that a woman were abducted by Aliens, and they performed a sex change, along with damaging her/his memories such that this (now male) person had absolutely no recollection of being female. Suppose, then that this person felt called to the priesthood, and supposing they received the ‘ordination’ rite in good conscience – would they indeed be sacramentally a priest of the Catholic Church?
This question is helpful in a few ways. First, I think it helps people think freely and openly about the sacramental theology involved. It also helps to clarify the Church’s position on this issue. I think the only two solutions are something like what follows:
- Either there is something more/other than physical ‘sex’ which determines ‘Gender’ (like substantial form, providence, etc.)
- Or, the Church’s stance is disciplinary and essential in such a way that females are barred from the sacrament not by reason of ‘male-ness’ being necessary for the matter of the sacrament, but maleness being necessary for the FORM of the sacrament.
Now, while I am not opposed to the first solution in principle, I find the second option more satisfying and more in tune with the ‘sense of the faith’ (sensus fidelium) which I have (or at least to the extent that I, ever a sinner and in need of correction, have it).
The second solution, however, entails that women are not barred from receiving the sacrament of ordination by reason of their bodies not satisfying the matter, but by reason of their femaleness (as distinguished from femininity) not satisfying the form of the sacrament. That may imply that it is logically possible for women (such as the one described in the thought experiment above) to be ordained, but that it is impossible that the Catholic faith approve of the ordination of any woman as licit. This is especially clear when one considers that the principle function of the priest is to facilitate the Mass or Eucharistic liturgy, in which the president/presider (the priest or Bishop) must be male as a matter of liturgical orthodoxy.
This raises curious issues; take the example of St. Brigid of Ireland who, as the story goes, knelt down before a bishop to receive a consecration to the religious life, and instead received the ordination rite making her a bishop. The bishop who performed this, moreover, said that he had not been in his right mind (he had not realized what he was doing throughout the liturgy until the end, as he was just mundanely going through the rite thinking that it was the proper rite when it was actually the rite to ordain somebody to the position of a Bishop – he was shocked and mortified at the end to realize all of a sudden that he had ordained her a Bishop). Now, whether this story is apocryphal or not is hard to tell – some scholars have suggested that Brigid of Ireland never even existed in the first place (which is technically compatible with the Catholic faith, since her canonization was never formalized in the way that canonizations in the west have been since pope Gregory X). To this day, however, St. Brigid’s Icon in the Catholic Church always depicts her holding a Bishop’s staff. However, St. Brigid, according to the Vita(s), never once presumed to have the authority to perform the Eucharistic liturgy. Rather, she simply asserted her prophetic authority in guiding other pastors and bishops in what they ought to do, but in such a way that there seems to have been an implicit and tacit awareness of authority on the level with a Bishop.
This final point sounds very much like it might open the door to changing the Church’s stance on the ordination of women – After all one might imagine that the Church could ordain women to the priesthood and ban them from performing any of the Sacraments themselves. But of course such a ‘hope’ would be misleading. First of all even if one were to admit, for the sake of argument, that there is a great deal of truth to the above tradition (small ‘t’), which is already gratuitous, there is nothing in principle revolutionary about a woman having the extra-ordinary authority (prophetic authority) over a Bishop of even over the Pope. Furthermore, one might propose that if the ordination rite did occur then the sacrament could just as well not have occurred by reason of a failure to satisfy matter and form together. This story, far from demonstrating that women can be priests, simply helps to demonstrate that even a woman who was ‘apparently’ ordained, and could have deserved the honour if it could have been applied to her sacramentally, knew better than to pretend she was a priest – she never once dared to, or even suggested to, perform the Eucharistic liturgy.
What it demonstrates is rather that the reason women cannot be priests, as a manner of discipline entailed by the faith (to which matters of discipline merely suggested by the faith, such as clerical celibacy, are not analogous), is precisely because the form of the sacrament is not satisfied with a woman being a priest (this is even more obviously true of the form of the Eucharist). The sacrament cannot be thus satisfied. Of course, Rome has already spoken authoritatively on the matter, infallibly declaring (even if one doesn’t believe that the statement from John Paul II which follows is ex cathedra, I take it it is obviously issued by the third organ of infallibility called the ordinary magisterium) that the Church does not have the authority to overturn the tradition of selecting, in imitation of Christ, an exclusively male priesthood. After debate arose within the Catholic Church, even after the decree of Pope Paul VI, about this issue, John Paul II took it upon himself to write a very brief, succinct and straightforward apostolic letter on the matter – probably the shortest ever written. It ends as follows:
Although the teaching that priestly ordination is to be reserved to men alone has been preserved by the constant and universal Tradition of the Church and firmly taught by the Magisterium in its more recent documents, at the present time in some places it is nonetheless considered still open to debate, or the Church’s judgment that women are not to be admitted to ordination is considered to have a merely disciplinary force.
Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.
~John Paul II, Ordinatio Sacredotalis
The only question which remains a legitimate one for a faithful Catholic theologian to ask is what the logic behind this ‘deposit of faith’ is. I suggest is it precisely by reason of the ‘Form’ of the sacrament, rather than the matter. This position should not cause scandal: certainly I’m not bound to my position, but it seems the best way to make sense of the Church’s statements as far as I can tell, and it also acts as an opportune catechetical tool, since to understand the logic behind this position one must involve themselves in the study of issues touching upon infallibility, sacramental theology, and most especially the way liturgy relates to both cosmos and sacraments. Moreover, the alternative (that it is by reason of the matter) seems harder to maintain by reason of thought experiments such as the one presented above.