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A Reflection on "'Tradition says no' by Avery Dulles" (The Tablet, December 1995)

by A. Nonymous II


Fr. Avery Dulles has written an article defending the Pope's assertion (affirmed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith [CDF]) that the Catholic Church lacks the authory to ordain women. His defense recites the various scriptural, traditional and magisterial sources which lead him to conclude that "the Pope and the CDF seem to be on good ground in holding that the Church has no power to ordain women to the priesthood. The constancy of the tradition, based as it is on the practice of Jesus and the teaching of Scripture, supports the idea of infallibility." The purpose of this current reflection is to consider the strength of Fr. Dulles' arguments.

In a brief paragraph on the scriptural arguments on the issue, Fr. Dulles cites the practice of Jesus as found in the Gospels as well as several passages from St. Paul. Let us begin with the practice of Jesus. According to Dulles, "Jesus treated women with respect but he did not call them to be members of the inner circle of disciples known as the Twelve." Certainly this assertion seems unassailable: clearly Jesus did not call any women into the group known as the Twelve. The inferred conclusion, however, is flawed. To assert that Jesus did not include women in the Twelve does not address the question of women in ordained ministry unless one is also prepared to say that Jesus intended the composition of the Twelve to provide the total paradigm for ordained ministry in the Church. This is certainly not clear from scripture or from the tradition. The Twelve are a unique college, but even to refer to them as the only Apostles (those sent to proclaim the Risen Lord) appears problematic, since others lay claim to the title of Apostle as well (most notably, St. Paul). Further, the tradition refers to bishops as the "successors to the Apostles".

As we consider these various facts, then, should we not limit our observation to the simple fact that no women were in the Twelve, but not to extrapolate further? In addition, Jesus never mentioned priesthood; neither, obviously, was he concerned with the requirements for ordination to the priestly office: these are categories of service apparently unknown to him. While he gave advice to the College of the Twelve on how they should exercise leadership, this does not seem to extend to a more specialized notion of priesthood as we understand the term today. To conclude: to equate the Twelve with Jesus' desires on who serves the community in a priestly capacity seems quite a stretch, one which requires both an expansion of the unique role given by Christ to the Twelve, and to burden that College with additional significance not part of the revealed Word. A related example illustrates this point: All of the men who made up the Twelve were men of Palestinian heritage, and yet we do not interpret this fact as somehow normative for selection as a bishop. How then, do we begin to use such distinctions for the sex of the bishop? Further, while the tradition supports the popular notion of the Twelve as the "first bishops", that does not address the issue of deacons or priests. If the tradition is to be followed, it might be said that the "paradigm of the Twelve" might apply to bishops, but not to other ministries in the church.

Fr. Dulles proceeds to cite three passages from Paul which demonstrate, he asserts, "that women are excluded from ruling and teaching positions in the Church by reason of a command of the Lord." What are these passages, and do they support such an interpretation? First is 1 Cor 14:34-35: "Women should keep silent in the churches, for they are not allowed to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says." This is paralled in 1 Tim 2:12: "I do not let a woman to teach or to have authority over a man. She is to be quiet." Finally, back to the Corinthians in 1 Cor 14:37: "If anyone thinks that he is a prophet or a spiritual person, he should recognize that what I am writing to you is a commandment of the Lord." When studied in context, it is interesting to note that in 1 Cor, chapter 11, this same St. Paul recognizes and accepts the role of women in roles of public prayer and prophecy in worship, since he's concerned about the fact that they should wear proper headdress. Now in chapter 14 they are enjoined to silence. How are we to consider this apparent contradiction? At least one commentator suggests that vv. 34-35 are an interpolation, "reflecting the discipline of later churches. . . ." (notes, NAB). In 1 Timothy, Paul is clearly stating his own personal preference, but not proposing this as reflecting the mind of God on the matter.

There are varying levels of concern. First, do these passages reflect a desire on the part of Christ to exclude women from public ministry in the assembly? If they do, and this is clearly what Dulles wishes to assert, 56%desire on the part of Christ to exclude women from public ministry in the assembly? If they do, and this is clearly what Dulles wishes to assert, wouldn't a proper and complete reading result in the argument that women should have no public role, including that of lector, cantor, or other liturgical functions? What should be the indicator to us that these passages apply only to ordination and not to other functions? Further, these same passages dictate other liturgical procedures which are no longer followed by the Church. If we are to accept Paul's injunctions as normative, how do we distinguish those areas we may interpret as somehow advisory and those which we should treat with almost legislative respect?

In reviewing various extrabiblical sources of the tradition, including the patristics, medieval practice, and the teaching of the scholastics, Dulles finds universal rejection of the idea of ordaining women. He observes that they "relied principally on the authority of Scripture and secondarily on the idea that the priest represents Christ as head or bridegroom." One might observe, however, that if modern scripture scholarship is sufficient to raise doubts on the interpretation of several passages such as those we've considered above, then perhaps later practice was consequently flawed by an innacurate reading of scripture. Therefore such practice would not be a suitable authoritative source.

Dulles remarks that since the Reformation, "the ordination of women was consistently held to be forbidden by divine law." This is true if one accepts Jesus' non-ordination of women as constitutive of the divine will. But the fact that Jesus did not do something does not mean that Jesus forbade something. There were many things that Jesus did not do, that we do not logically now consider as reflective of the divine will. Jesus did not ordain an Irish priest, for example, and yet no one would propose that Irish men should not be ordained because it is against the will of God since Jesus did not ordain such a person. To carry the analogy further, Jesus did not bake an apple pie, or drive a car; no one would suggest that the fact that he did not do these things reflects the divine will that these things should never be done.

Moving into modern times, Fr. Dulles asserts that the CDF "conducted a new study" into the question and concluded that the practice of ordaining only men was a part of God's plan for the Church, and must be considered permanently normative. And yet, what goes unsaid is that the Pontifical Biblical Commission (PBC), in reviewing the scriptural evidence, concluded that the exclusion of women from the priesthood could not be sustained through an appeal to scripture alone. How are we to incorporate this finding into the "new study" of the matter by the CDF? Is the PBC report to be disregarded?

In a similar vein, Fr. Dulles asserts that "the Holy See is reported to have conducted serious consultations before issuing its recent pronouncements." What exactly does this mean? What constitutes "serious consultations"? Who conducted these consultations, and with whom? Dulles simply accepts this assertion as fact, apparently giving it full probative value. One must observe, however, that this is hardly a well-articulated argument. Since he is willing to accept the fact of such unspecified consultations as having some determinative value, it would be useful to have more information about them.

Likewise, Fr. Dulles appears to discount the sensus fidelium as simply too hard to determine. Yet he finds that there was remarkable agreement between the faithful and the pastors "that Pius IX and Pius XII considered necessary before they issued their Marian dogmas." But now, it seems, Dulles feels that such "remarkable agreement" is unattainable. Is it unattainable in se, such that our traditional teaching of the sensus fidelium is no longer to be observed, or is it unattainable simply because Catholics don't have a common understanding that the ordination of women is clearly against the will of God? Fr. Dulles appeals to the fact that "revelation affirms both the essential equality of men and women before God and the diversity of their roles in the Church." However, this statement, while true on its face, does not appear to address the specific question of the possibility of women's ordination. How are we to define "essential equality" before God? If God sees men and women as equal in their humanity (Gal 3), how are some roles in the Church to be seen as reserved to one sex or another? The appeal seems to rest upon the notion that "the very nature of priesthood, as determined by Christ, requires the male gender." Is this true, and does Dulles offer an insight to this statement?

Fr. Dulles refers to the argument that at the altar the priest acts in persona Christi, especially as Bridegroom to the Church. Let's unpack this statement. First, does not such an argument attach too much biological significance to an allegorical title? Is "Christ the Bridegroom" as related to His spouse the Church to be interpreted so literally? If so, does this not have consequences for biological males who are members of the Bride-Church? If men may be part of the Bride-Church, why may we not suggest that women may be part of the Bridegroom as well? The imagery of Bride and Bridegroom is is certainly beautiful and has much to offer us in our understanding of the covenant, but biological literalism seems inappropriate and inaccurate.

The same may be said of the notion of in persona Christi. One must account, it seems to me, the basic premise of Galations 3: "In Christ there is no Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free". May only biological males represent Christ in the assembly? Are only biological males "iconic" of Christ? This, as in the previous paragraph, seems far too literalistic and biological an understanding of a spiritual reality.

Finally, Fr. Dulles states that while such theological positions are not strictly probative, they do demonstrate "why it was fitting for Christ to have decided freely to have reserved priestly ordination to men." But, as we have seen in this response, may we say with such sureity that Christ made such a free will decision? It seems highly problematic to speak with such certainty of the mind and heart of Christ on such uncertain evidence.

In sum, it seems that Fr. Dulles has opted to accept far too much on untested assertions. There is insufficient attention paid to the legitimate objections raised to imprecise forms of scriptural interpretation or the need to recognize historical developments of ministry in the Church. These questions demand a far more critical reading of the scriptural evidence and historical practice before one may be allowed to accept the conclusions of the CDF.

9 March 1996


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