August 14, 2010

WO is me...

I don't often repeat a post on this blog, but given the recent discussions on the Ordination of Women (in particular to the Episcopate) roiling the Church of England, I think it timely to repeat this post from 2007. The Eve of the Dormition seems an appropriate moment.

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 Stanislas Haller BSG


Daniel Weir said...


An English colleague told me that he had changed his mind about WO after reading a list of those who could not be ordained. After men with various disabilities, there was "A woman" at the end of the list. It seemed to him that the list suggested that women are defective men and that led to his rethinking of the issue.

R said...


I'm struck at how critical this argument is as well in the same-sex marriage debate at this time. That gender (sex) is accidental rather than essential throws into serious question the man-woman only argument for a sacramentally valid, unitive covenant.

Paul said...

I have always thought of Christ's sex as an issue of historical particularity rather than ontological necessity. In other words, He was a man because that was a necessary part of communicating His message to a particular cultural context. I don't see that as communicating anything about the essential nature of the divine.

What really bothers me about the Vatican's position here is that they are relying on authority (i.e. raw power) rather than logic to make their argument. As the average educational level of their audience rises over time, they are going to have more and more trouble with that approach. You can see it already in Europe and the US. It seems like an act of desperation: Believe this because we say so! Is this any way for a church to behave?

The Religious Pícaro said...

You need a "like" button. :-)

WSJM said...

Thanks for posting this again, Tobias. I'm not sure whether I was following your blog three years ago, but I don't recall seeing this then. It's very good. It's much like my own thought processes in the 1970s (though better stated!) as I was working through the question of WO. I remember reading Inter Insigniores in 1976 and thinking, "If this is the best argument they can come up with, then it's Game Over." And of course the argument is heretical. (A subset of Apollinarianism, I think, but I'd be happy to stand corrected on that.)

One of the things that troubles me about all the knotted knickers in England over WO is the current perturbation among some folks over the validity of the sacraments administered by an ordained woman (particularly the Eucharist and Holy Orders). The validity of the sacraments is an important concept, but it seems to me that in this context these folks are way off base. Sacraments are not magic, and Jesus did not give us any rules of magic.

I myself think that the Romans and those who follow in their train actually do not understand what sacraments really are. I'm not normally a big fan of the Articles, but Article XXVIII has it right: "Transubstantiation...overthroweth the nature of a Sacrament."

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks for the comments. I'm now home from a wee vacation! (Much needed...)

Daniel, so true. That's the old Aristotelian / Thomist notion of the male as "norm" and the female as "defective." Sad to see so many living in a world of pre-modern anthropology when the Gospel points us in another more wholesome direction...

R, yes, the implications are there, and open the way for further exploration of the nature of human relationship.

Paul, when authority is all you have, that is what you will use! Problem is, the authority is essentially based on voluntary submission, and when people begin to rebel... well, we've seen a Reformation before!

Billy -- something for Blogspot to think about!

Bill, so true about Apollinarianism. I was once bold enough to point that out to Bp Wantland and he had a fit!

JCF said...

I was once bold enough to point that out to Bp Wantland and he had a fit!

Having met the man, this is not difficult to imagine... O_x

Anonymous said...

I must have a different text of Chalcedon than you do. In reference to your paragraph starting, "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."

Whereas the English translations I have don't have anything relating to your gloss. Furthermore, I don't see where the authority of Jesus to confer the sacraments on His Church was based on His human nature. If that were the case, then one might argue that sinless Mary could have instituted the sacraments. Instead, I would argue that Jesus' authority to institute the sacraments was by virtue of His Divinity, which the Blessed Virgin did not confer upon Her Son.

Put another way, the spiritual power of the seven sacraments is not based upon Jesus' humanity per se but by his identity as the Second Person of the Trinity. In theory, He could have appeared in the form of an apparition or vision and instituted the same seven sacraments with the same graces attached to them.


Anonymous said...

As for your clever argument in the style of Hooker, the error is contained in the first sentence:

"They say that women may not receive the benefit of the sacrament of order."

What is the benefit of the Sacrament of Order? Is it upon him who receives it or for the faithful who receive the sacraments by virtue of the ordained's ministry? I would argue the latter. As far as I know priests of any Christian tradition are not limited to serving the faithful of one sex but rather members of both sexes.


Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Fr Michael, here is a link to the text of the "Creed of Chalcedon." I am referring to the important point that Christ is "consubstanial with humanity in terms of the human nature" and that this consubstantiality is established through his being "born of the Virgin Mary the Mother of God."

You also seem to think this has something to do with the "authority of Jesus to confer the sacraments" -- which is not at all my point. I am addressing the claim (as I thought was clear in the text previous to the "Hooker" passage) in Inter Insignores, which explicitly links Christ's maleness with the maleness of ministers.

I've noted elsewhere that Eastern Orthodox theologians have taken note of the importance of the Chalcedonian Definition on the question of the ordination of women. See the article by Yokarinis, for instance, as part of an Old Catholic / Orthodox symposium in 2000. He makes specific reference to the importance of Chaldedon, in particular in light of Maximus the Confessor's articulation of the meaning of "human nature."

As to the "benefit" of the sacrament -- I was referring to the sacrament of order itself, not the ministries it empowers one to exercise; that is, the charism of being ordained, not the ministry of one ordained.

Tim said...

`in such a case it would be difficult to see in the minister the image of Christ. For Christ was and remains a man.'

Jesus was a man; the Christ is "the God bit", a "bit" that by definition transcends sex and gender. The `image of Christ' harks back to the `image of God' which *all* humans inherit - if we're going to be stupidly literalist about it, then from `male and female created he them'.

And let's face it: the bible, which is supposed by some to carry some authority, categorically has Jesus interacting more than the socially accepted norms with women, and women going on to have roles in the early Church. Until the RCC wake up and repents of its bigotry, it remains the very kind of social oppressive force that Jesus himself opposed.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Tim, verily and Amen.

LP said...

Substance of a sacrament "represents what it signifies by natural resemblance" but this is not to say that the perception is important. The substance itself is important.

But all that said, WE don't get to choose the substance. We didn't institute the sacrament, or any of them. Jesus did, and we don't invalidate or change that.

Bread must still be the substance of bread for a valid sacrament, even if as a sacrifice, bread is accidental. Fish might even be claimed to be more valid as it is at least fish (I am the fish/flesh of life? Wierd.)

But God chose bread. It must still be bread, not flour, not uncrushed wheat. It is the substance, not it's perception by you or me that makes it valid.

Women, though human are not valid substance for the sacrament. Because the substance is not "humanity" as you are claiming, but man. To trivialize this specific role of a Man (Christ) in salvation is to do the same to Mary. Sex is not accidental but intentional to salvation, and the different but complimentary roles of male and female unified are important parts of the nature of sacraments.

Jesus could not be incarnated through a male. Good heavens. With this, it should be obvious why homosexual union can not be right. They are not stone walling, they are telling people to stop teaching heresy and heterodoxy and eliminating confusion.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Craig, you offer a good example of merely repeating the assertions instead of engaging the argument. You simply declare as if it were obvious that the maleness of Christ is essential. That leads to the heresy that denies his full humanity.

I'm not the one who put forth the "natural resemblance" argument: that was Cardinal Ratzinger. It remains unconvincing, for the very reason you cite.

Your elision to homosexual union is a brilliant example of the non sequitur.

LP said...

Ugh. "Mary could not give what she did not possess."

All humans possess the fullness of human nature. But this does not mean that women do not have the psychological and physical aspects of males to some extent. Even in genetics, everything other than sexual organs and the very beginning of the expressions of sexuality is expressed in both male and female, from genes for the expression of testoterone, to genes for the expression of psychological propensities.

But this brings to light that one thing that Mary simply did not have was the ability to determine a male. This cascade (the turning on of both her and a male set of genes to express male aspects in their varying forms) can only be started by a male.

So while we don't know by what mechanism God did this, the determination of his sexuality was NOT from Mary. His humanity can very well come from her. But his masculinity, as with you and me comes from the grace of God. It is no accident that He is male. And it is no accident that Mary is female. That determination is (to us) what appears to be a random choice between a fathers x and y chromosome that are always both available.

So unless you would have us believe that the choice of a massive miraculous biological intervention that could only be initiated through direct fertilization of one form or another had Jesus incarnate as a MAN was an accident, I'm pretty convinced that it was intentional.

Not to mention, Christ's sexuality is revealed even before He was incarnate (Luke 1:35)

I haven't seen much evidence for the assertion that the substance of this event is an accident.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Craig, you are confusing two things. First, I am using the term "accident" in the philosophical sense: that is, maleness is not of the essence of a human being, but a characteristic of the individual human; much as height, hair color, and so on. All particularities are "accident" as opposed to "essence." There is no doubt that Christ was male. The point is that maleness is not essential to human nature (not all humans are male; that is, it is a characteristic of _some_ humans. Christ assumed the whole human nature, from Mary -- as the Chalcedonian Definition puts it.

Second, I find it odd that you object to the "miraculous" if you are willing to accept the Virgin Birth.