In Memory of Martha
In previous essays in this series on women’s ordination, I have focused primarily on Protestant objections against the practice, dealing especially with issues of biblical exegesis. Beginning with this essay, I will be addressing Catholic objections, focusing primarily on issues dealing with sacramental integrity.
Strictly speaking, this first essay should not be necessary. As with a previous essay addressing non-theological objections to women’s ordination,1 I will be addressing an objection that is not actually a theological objection. Stated as succinctly as possible, the objection is that an ordained woman would be a “priestess,” and the Christian church does not have “priestesses,” but “priests.” This is an objection that one does not hear among Protestants, since Protestant churches do not refer to their clergy as either “priests” or “priestesses,” but as pastors. It is not an objection that is encountered in the theological literature, as, I think, most theologians realize that the term “priestess” is offensive, and those who advocate women’s ordination are not advocating the ordination of “priestesses,” but the ordination of women who will fulfill the same roles as male clergy, who, in Protestant churches are referred to as “pastors,” and in churches of Catholic tradition (Orthodox, Roman Catholic, many Anglicans) as “priests.” In personal experience, I have encountered the objection primarily in two venues: (1) on the bad-mannered no-holds-barred free-for-all of the internet, where the term is used regularly by those opposed to women’s ordination, and (2) in private conversation, where those opposed to women’s ordination are referring out of earshot to women clergy, for whom they use the term “priestess.” In both cases, the term is used disparagingly, with the conscious realization that the women to whom reference is being made would not use the term to describe themselves, and would find the term offensive. It is significant that those who use the term “priestess” are assuming as valid assumptions about women’s ordination that they know those who are in favor of women’s ordination would reject, and are addressing arguments that they know that those in favor of women’s ordination would not make. Since advocates of women’s ordination do not believe that ordained women are “priestesses,” to argue against “priestesses” is a classic example of a “red herring” argument. Nonetheless, since the argument does raise issues concerning the continuity between the Old Testament priesthood and New Testament church office, and the differences and similarities between Old Testament priesthood and pagan religions, it provides a helpful introduction to this next group of essays.
Lions and Tigers and Priestesses and Goddesses, Oh, My!
The first formal use of the argument of which I am aware is found in an essay by C.S. Lewis, “Priestesses in the Church?”2 As an Anglican, Lewis was objecting in 1948 to the possible ordination of women in the Church of England. In a short six pages, Lewis raises many of what will become the standard Catholic objections to women’s ordination, particularly issues about language and imagery concerning God as male and the symbolic implications of female clergy, objections that will be addressed in a later essay. Most significantly, Lewis uses the term “priestesses” and makes the argument I will be addressing in this essay. The single issue that is at the heart of his essay can be found in a succinct statement: “Goddesses have, of course, been worshipped; many religions have had priestesses. But they are religions quite different in character than Christianity.” Lewis goes on to say that the ordination of women “is an argument not in favour of priestesses but against Christianity.”3