This is the first in a multiple part series of essays in which I intend to address the definitive Catholic objection to the ordination of women. This first essay will be introductory: I will summarize the rise of the objection and look at the relevant biblical and patristic background. In summary, the objection is as follows: Women cannot be ordained because during the celebration of the Eucharist, the priest represents Christ. During the eucharistic prayer, the priest recites Christ’s words (the “words of institution”) – “This is my body,” “This is my blood” – and thus makes Christ present by acting as a representative of or “in the person of” Christ (in persona Christi). Because Jesus Christ is a male, only a male priest can exercise this representative function.
In previous essays concerning Protestant objections to ordination, I have focused on arguments based on hierarchical authority: women cannot be ordained because of a permanent hierarchical oversight or “headship” of men over women. Although ontologically equal, men and women have different roles: men always lead and women always follow; men always command, and women always obey.
Catholic objections are distinct from this Protestant hierarchical understanding based on authority in that Catholic objections focus not on authority per se, but on issues of sacramental and, in particular, eucharistic theology. Catholic objections rest on the following assumptions not usually shared by those whom I have referred to as “Protestants.” First, while the priesthood of Christ is unique, ordained clergy in some manner participate in Christ’s priesthood. The clergy are not simply members of the congregation who have been delegated to perform a function, but have a distinct ontological status bestowed on them through the laying on of hands in ordination. The clergy are not simply “elders” or representative members of the congregation, but are in some sense, “priests.” Second, while the primary duty of ordained clergy is to proclaim the Word and to celebrate the sacraments, the Eucharist has the distinct purpose of making the risen Christ sacramentally or “really” present in a way that he is not present in creation in general. The Eucharist is not simply a memorial or “nothing more” than a symbol (as in Zwinglianism), but in some sense, it really is or enables participation in the risen humanity of Christ. The consecrated elements of the Eucharist “are” or “become” or “enable participation” in the risen Christ’s body and blood. Third, the Eucharist is, in a qualified sense, a sacrifice. Protestant objections at the time of the Reformation to the notion of eucharistic sacrifice as a “repetition” of Christ’s sacrifice seem largely based on misunderstanding – one hopes not deliberate misrepresentation – no one seems ever to have believed that! The patristic and Catholic position is that Christ’s sacrifice took place once-and-for-all on the cross of Calvary, and cannot be repeated. Nonetheless, in the celebration of the Eucharist, Christ’s once-and-for-all sacrifice is made effectively present or “re-presented.” Although Christ’s once-and-for-all sacrifice is a past event, its effectiveness is not relegated to the past.
Although I am using the adjective “Catholic” to describe this position, I am not assuming that “Catholic” means exclusively Roman Catholic. Broadly speaking, Eastern Orthodox Christians, many Anglicans (particularly “Anglo-Catholics”), Lutherans, and some Reformed could embrace the above three points. (The third point would be problematic for Lutherans [as well as low-church Anglicans and many Reformed] insofar as Luther rejected the “sacrifice of the mass,” but Lutheran affirmation of the “real presence” still makes the Lutheran position fall into the parameters of what I am calling “Catholic.”)
It needs to be emphasized that is a new argument against women’s ordination. The traditional argument (as noted in this previous essay in this series) was that women cannot be ordained because they are ontologically inferior. Women are less intelligent, more emotional, and more subject to temptation. Precisely because of this ontological defect, women cannot be ordained and they cannot exercise authority over men. (Traditionally, this restriction precluded not simply ordination, but any position of female leadership or authority over men whatsoever.) Neither Protestant “complementarians” nor Catholic sacramentalists any longer hold to this traditional position. Both now affirm the ontological equality of women – which is all to the good. Accordingly, there has necessarily been a need for new arguments. The new argument for Protestant complementarians has to do with distinct gender “roles.” Although ontologically equal, men and women have different roles, and it is the role of women to be subordinate to men and never exercise authority over them. It is the role of men to exercise authority and leadership over women. (I have addressed this position at length in previous essays.)
Catholics have not endorsed this hierarchical opposition to women’s orders. To the contrary, the modern Roman Catholic church has fully embraced women’s equality – including the assumption that women are fully equal to men in exercising leadership and authority. Thus, Pope John Paul II’s Mulieris Dignitatem adapts what could be called an “egalitarian” interpretation of Paul’s exhortation to husbands and wives in Ephesians 6. The “submission” that Paul enjoins to wives is a “mutual submission”: “However, whereas in the relationship between Christ and the Church the subjection is only on the part of the Church, in the relationship between husband and wife the ‘subjection’ is not one-sided but mutual.” Sara Butler notes: “Because the contemporary magisterium has abandoned the view that women are unilaterally subject to men, it obviously does not supply this as the reason women cannot be priests.”
Accordingly, the Roman Catholic Church embraced a new argument against the ordination of women – rooted in sacramental theology. Only a male can be ordained because only a male priest can represent Christ (act in persona Christi) in the celebration of the Eucharist. That this position is indeed a new position is evident in that it first appears in Pope Paul VI’s Inter Insigniores (Declaration on the Question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood) in 1976. In the Declaration, the Pope states first “that the bishop or the priest in the exercise of his ministry, does not act in his own name, in persona propria: he represents Christ, who acts through him: ‘the priest truly acts in the place of Christ’. . .” The Declaration associates this representative stance particularly with the celebration of the Eucharist and the “words of consecration”: “the priest, who alone has the power to perform [the Eucharist], then acts not only through the effective power conferred on him by Christ, but in persona Christi, taking the role of Christ, to the point of being his very image, when he pronounces the words of consecration.” Finally, the pope draws the evident conclusion. Only a male priest can represent Christ in this way because Christ is a male: “The same natural resemblance is required for persons as for things: when Christ’s role in the Eucharist is to be expressed sacramentally, there would not be this ‘natural resemblance’ which must exist between Christ and his minister if the role of Christ were not taken by a man: in such a case it would be difficult to see in the minister the image of Christ. For Christ himself was and remains a man.”