There is no question that the Vatican’s recent listing of attempts to ordain women to the priesthood as being among the graviora delicta or “serious crimes” deserving automatic excommunication and other severe punishments, along with such crimes as pedophilia, the dissemination of child pornography, the violation of the secrecy of the confessional, and some other violations of the sacraments, has turned out to be a colossal PR mistake. It may seem to have made sense in terms of closing some technical gaps in the present 1983 Code of Canon (i.e., church) Law—something that is hardly done every day. But the last thing the church needs in the midst of its present difficulties is to see itself branded as the number one enemy of half the human race!
The fact is, however, that the official church policy regarding the ordination of women, especially to the priesthood (the deaconate is another matter), has seemed to be a closed question for the last seventeen centuries or so. Despite the verdict of the Pontifical Biblical Commission which concluded, back during the reign of Pope Paul VI, that there was no decisive reason given in the scriptures as to why women could not be ordained, Pope John Paul II officially proclaimed that the church had been given no authority to do so. In other words, here we have a case where the tradition and the various arguments (e.g., that Jesus was male, etc.) used to support it has seemed to overrule the silence of scripture when push comes to shove.
The problem is that with such arguments, whether they are taken from the Bible or from church traditions or other customs, is that they have to be understood in context. For example, the argument that Jesus did not pick any women to be his official “apostles” does not translate directly, without making a questionable leap of logic, into saying that therefore women could not be ordained priests. For if being an apostle means being an “emissary”, or if you will, an official “ambassador”— someone picked directly by the person he or she represents — then, if we call a bishop or even the pope a “successor” of the apostles, we can only mean that they are, in very loose sense, a kind of second or third hand replacement for someone who, strictly speaking, can never be replaced. The same goes when we, even more loosely, call an ordained priest “another Christ.” We are at best rather poor substitutes and despite that fact that I may have a beard like Jesus, I have no doubt that many women could do a better job at being “another Christ” to others than I can. In fact, my best qualification for being a presbyter (the New Testament word that is usually mistranslated as “priest” but which literally means “elder”) is that I am old and that, presumably, I’ve picked up some wisdom along the way.
Instead, the fact is that the
word (hieros), which really or
literally means “priest” as someone who mediates for the people and offers
sacrifices to God, is only used, in the New Testament order of things, first in
regard to Christ himself, and second, of the whole Christian community in
My own opinion, then, about this whole matter (much as our local former bishop, now retired, said at a meeting where he was asked about this issue some years ago) is that eventually the Holy Spirit will guide the Church to make the right decision, even if, at least for now, it cannot see, as a result of the burden of its traditions, how it can yet be done. After all, as Jesus told us, “All things are possible with God” (Mark 10:27). So in the meantime (like Mary in today’s gospel and unlike Martha who wanted to immediately rearrange all the furniture), maybe we should all seek “the one thing necessary”— and, at least for now, sit patiently at the feet of Jesus, ask a few questions, and, most of all, seek the guidance of God.