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This week, Pope Francis has scratched his head over the rumor that he would create women cardinals. “Where did such an idea come from?” he mused. It comes from those who, while realizing that women cannot be ordained priests, would like to see women as deacons, and since cardinals are not technically required to be priests, some activists are suggesting that there could be female cardinals. The whole thing is tied in with the debate over women’s ordination, and the Anglican Church has been the frontrunner among historic churches to promote women’s ordination.
In the 1980s, the members of the Church of England were debating the possibility of women priests. Their sister, the Episcopal Church of the USA, had already made the choice as early as 1974, and various other national churches within the Anglican Communion had followed the American initiative.
As the Church of England continued the debate, Catholic and Eastern Orthodox observers looked on. I was a priest in the Church of England at the time, and I listened carefully to the arguments. To be fair, both sides had interesting and compelling arguments. There would not have been such a passionate debate had they not.
Those in favor of women’s ordination argued from Scripture that “in Christ, there is neither male nor female, neither slave nor free” (Gal.3:28). Just as slavery was eventually abolished (despite its being accepted in Biblical times), so women were to be granted full equality. The advocates argued that Peter’s vision in Acts 11 of the sheet filled with animals he considered unclean, but which God told him to eat, was a sign that the Holy Spirit led the Church to take radical steps forward, overturning old laws to embrace new freedoms. The proponents of women’s ordination held that women could do the job of a priest just as well as a man, and that in certain caring and pastoral roles, she would be even better than a man. When confronted with the argument that men and women perform complementary roles, they responded by saying that if the priesthood were open to both men and women, it would be fully human and well-rounded – that the men and women would complement each other, making the ministry fuller.
Those opposed to women’s ordination also argued from Scripture. They said that St. Paul dictated that women should not teach in positions of authority in the Church, quoting I Timothy 2: 11-15. The opponents said that male and female complementarity was shown by women and men having different roles, not by men and women doing the same roles differently. The opponents linked masculinity to the role of the priest standing in as Christ at the Eucharist and pointed out that while Jesus accepted women in a way that was radical for his time, he did not appoint any women as apostles. The more Catholic-minded Anglicans said that the Virgin Mary showed the proper feminine response to the Lord, which was a response of humble submission to God’s will, and that this example was not only for women, but for men. If women were to be ordained, they argued, this example of the feminine response to the masculine initiative of Christ would be lost.
The Anglicans had to make their way through these arguments as they tried to decide on the issue. Eventually, the measure went to a vote in the General Synod – the governing body of the Church of England. The measure was approved in 1992, and the first ordinations of women in the Church of England took place in 1994. Since then, women have also been ordained as bishops in various provinces around the world, and the innovation has most recently been approved in England and Wales.
In the meantime, it remains part of Catholic canon law that “only a baptized Catholic man may receive sacred ordination” (para. 1577). The Catholic debate on the question has shadowed the Anglican controversy. In 1976 – two years after the first female ordinations in the Episcopal Church – the Vatican issued Inter Insigniores, which concluded that for various doctrinal, theological, and historical reasons, the Church “does not consider herself authorized to admit women to priestly ordination.” Interestingly, in the same year, a study of the Pontifical Biblical Commission agreed that the New Testament alone was not sufficiently clear on the matter, and the members voted that based on the Scriptural evidence, the possibility of women’s ordination could be entertained.
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However, the Catholic Church is not a sola scriptura Church, and in 1994 (the year the Church of England began ordaining women), Pope John Paul II issued the apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, stating, “Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance… 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.” To clarify further, in 1995, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said that while Pope John Paul’s apostolic letter was not itself specifically infallible, it was part of the “infallible universal and ordinary magisterium of the Church… which requires definitive assent.”
Rome has spoken. That settles it.
Nevertheless, certain groups of activists continue their attempts to change the Church’s teaching. Some go so far as to conduct illicit ordinations of women while still claiming to be “faithful Catholics.” Pope Francis’s take on the subject is illuminating. In his comments on the possibility of women cardinals, he commented that those who are pushing for such innovations are trying to clericalize women. Part of Pope Francis’s mission is to shift the Church away from stuffy, clerical control.
He wants the laity – men and women – to hear the call to evangelize and to get involved in the exciting and messy business of living and proclaiming the Gospel. He realizes that we need priests for the sacraments, to teach the faith and govern the Church, but their mission is not an end in itself. The mission of the clergy is to constantly serve and enable the faithful to complete their calling in the world. To focus only on the priests and bishops is to miss the point, and to add yet more categories of clergy is to defeat the purpose.
Rather than make women priests, the priesthood itself needs to become more of an outgrowth of the calling of the whole people of God. Ironically, by insisting that women cannot be ordained, the Catholic Church – rather than being an outmoded and outdated institution – may show all Christians the way toward a new model of ministry in which the clergy, following Christ’s example, will be there to “serve rather than be served.” Rather than clinging to power, they will empower the people of God to be the dynamic Body o
f Christ in the world.
Fr. Dwight Longenecker’s book, The Romance of Religion, will be published in February. He serves as parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary in Greenville, South Carolina. Visit his blog, browse his books, and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com.