One way to tell if a proposition is correct or not is to see if the reasons advanced in its favor contradict other propositions already accepted.
It seems clear that one of the reasons the Roman Catholic Church gave up on trying to find reasons for its opposition to the ordination of women — now simply forbidding further discussion of the matter — must be the realization at some level that the reasons advanced against it were leading into erroneous waters.
It took them a while to reach the stonewall position. By 1976, in the official commentary on Inter Insigniores (1976), the leadership had come to realize the shakiness of Fortress Reason: “It is well known that in solemn teaching infallibility affects the doctrinal affirmation, not the arguments intended to explain it. Thus the doctrinal chapters of the Council of Trent contain certain processes of reasoning that today no longer seem to hold.” An interesting confession; yet still they were reluctant to stop trying to defend the position, and soldier on with arguments in support of the faltering cause: “But this risk has never stopped the magisterium from endeavoring at all times to clarify doctrine... Faith seeks understanding, and tries to distinguish the grounds for and the coherence of what is taught.”
Unfortunately, Inter Insigniores itself contains arguments, most of which apart from the unassailable “we’ve always done it that way” have now been dropped in favor of the total stonewall. Let me give an example from this document of the kind of disorder into which rational minds can descend in the interests of maintaining the status quo.
The priest is a sign, the supernatural effectiveness of which comes from the ordination received, but a sign that must be perceptible, and which the faithful must be able to recognize with ease. The whole sacramental economy is in fact based upon natural signs, on symbols imprinted upon the human psychology: “Sacramental signs,” says Saint Thomas, “represent what they signify by natural resemblance.” 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 was and remains a man.
Leaving aside the fact that women are as “perceptible” as men, this leads to a kind of sacramental receptionism (in which the believer’s perceptions are what render the sacrament valid). This reduces the sacrament from an objective reality into a subjective experience. It also puts an undue focus upon one aspect of the priestly person: his (or her!) sex. Why, after all, should sex be any more determinative of perceiving Christ — if perception were the sine qua non for the validity of the sacrament — than any other quality. And isn’t a woman more “perceptible” as Christ than a loaf of bread is as his flesh? Personally, I don’t find the figure of a paunchy octogenarian cardinal to be as “natural” or immediate a reminder of Christ as a younger and more ascetical woman.
Which is, of course, my fault. For I should be able to see Christ in every member of Christ’s body, for Christ is in them. It is not Christ’s maleness that is of significance, in the Eucharist or in anything else, but his humanity, which obviously includes his maleness, but just as obviously is not limited to or by it.
Which brings us to the serious doctrine this position contradicts. For it is taught that what is not assumed (by Christ in the Incarnation) is not redeemed. And Christ assumed the whole of human nature. Otherwise how could women be saved? Christ assumed the totality of human nature when he became incarnate, and as the Chalcedonian Definition affirms, he received that totality of human nature solely from his mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary. And she was, obviously, a woman.
I first noted this contradiction with the Chalcedonian Definition, and the implications for the ordination of women, over twenty years ago. I am very pleased to say that some of the theologians in Eastern Orthodoxy — who hold the doctrine of the Incarnation very seriously and also highly honor the Theotokos — are beginning to see the implications as well. The summer 2002 issue of Anglican Theological Review included a number of essays from an Orthodox/Old Catholic conference that raised this question.
Facing the contradiction
Let’s look at the issue more closely, by asking what relationship sex has to human nature. The nature of any class must be something possessed by every member of that class. As Hooker says, “Now if men had not naturally this desire to be happy, how were it possible that all men should have it? All men have. Therefore this desire in man is natural. It is not in our power not to do the same...” (Laws, 1.11.4) The desire to happiness is thus a part of human nature. But what about sex? “Having a sex” is natural to all human beings. But the actual quality of being male only applies to men; being female only to women. So it is part of the manly nature to be male, the womanly nature to be female. But when human nature is considered as a whole, including both men and women, the specific sex is left to one side as a quality of the individual or of the class of men or women, and only the generic quality of “having a sex” applies to human beings. Maleness or femaleness applies only to individuals, and not to human nature as a whole. So, the “natural resemblance” argument already having been defeated both on objective grounds and on the grounds of a proper understanding of the nature of the sacrament, we are left with an assertion that there is something about maleness, as a human quality, that is required for ordination.
And this is where the conflict with Chalcedon arises: for the Council affirmed that whatever it is in human nature that is of saving importance (since that is the object of the Incarnation) came through a woman — the Blessed Mother of God — and she could not confer what she did not possess. Ergo, the male character is not essential, but accidental. Even if Christ’s maleness was necessary for the fulfilment of prophecy, there is no natural reason to think this carries over to the ministers of the church. To do so is to attach a greater significance to maleness than is warranted.
Some twenty years ago, I wrote the following brief comment in the style of Richard Hooker, addressing these questions. I think it still holds up, and so I offer it here, for the first time in the blogosphere:
They say that women may not receive the benefit of the sacrament of order. But how is this; seeing that they may receive the benefit of both of the sacraments ordained by Christ, and may be, as they will admit, the ministers of baptism, which is the prime sacrament of the church’s very being; and seeing that they may alike receive the benefits of the other sacramental rites of the church, in confirmation, penance, matrimony, and unction; wherefore then are they incapable of receiving benefit of this one only sacrament of orders? Is it that they are incapable of receiving this grace, as if they were a material unfit to receive the impress of a seal? What is the grace? and what that receives it? Is there somewhat in male humanity that exists not in the female? Is it not rather that male and female are qualities of the individual person, and not of collective human nature? For humanity as a whole is neither male nor female, but each individual is either one or the other. To say otherwise were an error, since we know that all that is of human nature in woman comes from man, as Eve was taken wholly out of Adam; and further, all that is in human nature resides in woman, for Christ’s humanity came to him wholly by way of his blessed mother, and she could not bestow that which she did not possess: and finally both man and woman come from God as made in God’s image. (1Cor 11.12) So if they say that either humanity or divinity is the form or image that a woman cannot possess, they are mistaken, for she has it both by nature of birth; and further by the grace of baptism whatever of the divine image is marred or obscured in man or woman is restored to its original likeness. Finally, we hold that the grace of the sacraments comes not from the ministers who perform the rites associated thereunto, but from God; and that the lawful performance of a sacramental rite assures us of its validity and of the grace imparted thereby.
Tobias Haller BSG
on the feast of Elizabeth, Amelia, Sojourner and Harriet: bearers of Christ’s likeness all, and ministers of his Truth!