Concerning Women’s Ordination: Women’s Ordination and the Priesthood of Christ (Biblical and Patristic Background)
his is the second in a multiple-part series of essays in which I intend to address Catholic objections to the ordination of women. This essay will be the first in the series to examine the definitive new Catholic objection to the ordination of women that first appeared in Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Inter Insigniores. In summary, the objection runs as follows: Women cannot be ordained because, during the celebration of the Eucharist, the presiding priest represents Jesus 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 this essay, I will summarize the rise of the objection and examine the relevant biblical and patristic background.
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.”1 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”).2
It needs to be emphasized that this is a new argument against women’s ordination. (more…)