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Selections from ARCC LIGHT
the ARCC Newsletter 
edited by James E. Biechler, Ph.D.

A Question of Rights
No Eucharistic Sacrifice if Women Excluded

By James E. Biechler

ARCC's "Charter of Rights" is simply wrong when it states that "all Catholics, regardless of...sex...have the right to exercise all ministries in the Church for which they are adequately prepared" (Right No. 16). The pope has made it very clear that Christ has excluded women from the office of priest. The female sex and the Catholic priesthood are simply incompatible.
þLAM, Naples, FL 

Yours is a statement rather then a question. I suppose this is appropriate for a Catholic who is persuaded that the pope is correct in his opinion. For such a person a "question" about this is a dogmatic impossibility. But for most Catholicsþand this would include bishops, priests, and theologiansþnot only may such a question be formulated, they have already answered it for themselves. They see no incompatibility between their Catholic faith and women priests. 

Fifty years ago you would have to look far and wide to find any Catholicþor even any Christian, for that matterþseriously suggesting the ordination of women. It wasn't a question. What has happened in the interim to change this state of affairs in the Catholic church? 

The first thing which comes to mind is the changing status of women throughout the Christian world. This change has its roots in the Christian sense of the natural equality of men and women and the inherent freedom of the human person. Granted, Christians did not succeed in building societies which embodied these truths; in fact, society is still a long way from their realization. 

But the readiness of Catholics to accept women priests is the result not only of the changing social status of women. Since the Second Vatican Council Catholics have a different understanding of the Eucharist than they had before the council. Before the council, the Mass was seen as a propitiatory sacrificeþwhat anthropologists call a prophylactic sacrificeþa ritual designed to ward off damnation, appease an offended God, and win social and natural benefits from the Almighty. his notion of sacrifice meshed with a conception of priesthood similar to that of the Jewish and Graeco-Roman cultures. Here sacrifice was almost exclusively patriarchal because its primary purpose was the protection of the family, tribe and race, and success in agriculture and war. Prophylactic sacrifice protected family and society by assuring that the divine beings responsible for the construction of the social and natural orders would offer protection, and the evil spirits who might work against them were placated or warded off. 

Christians naturally carried these practices with them when thinking of priesthood and sacrifice. Prophylactic sacrifice was given some New Testament legitimation by the Letter to the Hebrews, which related the priesthood of Christ to that of the temple, without, however, mentioning priests other than Christ. Elsewhere the New Testament refers to all the followers of Christ as a "royal priesthood." 

We no longer understand the Eucharist as a prophylactic sacrifice. Because we now understand that the social order is a product of human making we do not approach the spirit world for its maintenance. The same is true of our understanding of agriculture, and natural processes. These matters are in our hands and are our responsibility. 

Especially since Vatican II sanctioned liturgical participation and lay responsibility we have come to understand the Eucharist not as prophylactic sacrifice but as sacrifice of abandonment. In this kind of sacrifice the members of the community sacrifice themselves in an act of self-abandonment to the whole. It corresponds to Jesus's actions at the Last Supper when he washed the feet of the disciples, when he told them they were his friends, not servants. 

The objective of the sacrifice of abandonment is the intensification of community by the mutual self-giving of all. In this way, all are priests, all share the priesthood of Christ in the act of self-immolation. The result is the neutralization of hostilities, the erasure of boundaries and obstacles to love and relationship. "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28). 

The exclusion of women from presiding at such a sacrifice of abandonment not only makes no sense; now that the issue has been joined their exclusion is a dramatic countersign of Eucharistic unity. The exclusive male president is an icon of disunity and rejection. Instead of witnessing to unity, intimacy and concord, the ritual bespeaks exclusivity. The same is obviously true of the exclusion of married persons. 

It is readily understandable why Christians of previous centuries found no problem with a male-only priesthood. The social order and the order of nature were dependent upon forces beyond human control. But today we no longer offer sacrifice to rid the world of the Black Death. Vatican II has taken the church from a classicist view of realityþone in which society and human nature are fixed and unchangingþto a historicist view which sees our human world as the product of human response and human creativity. The Eucharist, as sacrifice of abandonment, meshes perfectly with this newly emerging understanding. 

In short, if we are to be truly faithful to the beautiful and powerful heritage of Christ's Eucharist, we may not allow its continued distortion by symbols of exclusivity and restriction. 


Dr. Biechler, an emeritus professor of religion, is a member of ARCC's board of directors. He also holds a licentiate in canon law and is a longtime member of the Canon Law Society of America. 

E-mail Comments to Dr. Biechler

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Ingrid H. Shafer, Ph.D.
e-mail address: ihs@ionet.net
Posted 18 July 1999
Last updated 18 July 1999
Copyright © 1999 Ingrid H. Shafer
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