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The Roman Catholic Church and the Ministry of Women

Jacques Musset

translated by Sara MacVane

The official position of the Catholic Church disallows to women all positions of ordained ministry: pope, bishop, priest, and deacon, which are open to men. To many Christians, and to many non-Christians as well, this prohibition seems deeply unjust, and the arguments used to support it are more scandalous still, since they claim to express divine sanction. These arguments are found in the Declaration of the Sacred Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith of 15 October 1976, approved by Pope Paul VI and affirmed by his successors. Pope Francis has gone only so far as to open up the question of women in the diaconate.

Three justifications are offered for refusing to ordain women. The first is tradition: “The Catholic Church has never allowed women to be ordained as priests or bishops.” The second justification refers to Christ himself: “Jesus did not call any woman to be one of the 12 apostles and in this he was certainly not simply conforming to the mores of his time, because his attitude toward women was very different to that of his time and indeed marks a willful and courageous break from that.” Added to this is the question of gender: The priest is said to stand in persona Christi, that is to represent the person of Christ, who was, of course, a man. The final argument rests on the Church’s authority to decide which things may allow for change and which things must rest forever as they have always been. “When the Church decides that certain changes are not acceptable, this decision is tied to Christ’s own conduct. Despite appearances, the Church’s position is not an archaism, but a sign of faithfulness.” The Church establishes its position as normative and claims that it corresponds to God’s design for his Church. So the conclusion is that it will never be possible for women to be ordained.

However, there are individuals and groups within the Catholic Church which disagree with this official position. I myself am among them, and indeed have been for a long time. However ancient a particular practice may be, its historical age does not make it automatically acceptable, because all institutions evolve over time, as they adapt to the culture and to events. The Church, which includes the Catholic Church, has not avoided this universal truth. Jesus’ choice of 12 male apostles is no longer a valid argument for excluding women from ordained ministry. Wasn’t his choice simply relative to the position of men in that time? The argument that according to Catholic theology a priest can only be male because he acts in ministry in person Christi doesn’t hold water. This understanding of the priesthood is out-dated and very partial. It is nothing more than one idea of the priesthood in Western theology. To preside at the Eucharist is not to take Jesus’ place; it is rather to invite the community “to do this in remembrance of Jesus” by breaking the bread and sharing the wine and to live by the spirit which animates the gathering. What does it matter if the person who presides is a man or a woman? Anglicans and Protestants understand this very well. We should recognize that a theology of in persona Christi tends to render the person of the priest sacred and encourages papal, episcopal, and priestly clericalism. To affirm that the pope constitutes a supreme authority by virtue of a mandate from God and can therefore pronounce a definitive truth is simply not historically valid. Indeed the history f the church tells us that the Pope has often been wrong.

All these arguments with which I have been in agreement for a long time, lead me to believe that the position of the Catholic Church is behind the times. Her positions are based on a fundamentalist interpretation of the Gospels. The Church has used the words given to Jesus after the Resurrection to justify its own theology of ministers over many centuries and to sanctify its individual ministers. I simply do not agree with this biased reading of the texts. Luther and the reformists were right to de-sanctify ministers in an enlightened reading of the New Testament, even though they also failed to allow women ministers for a long time. Today, more than ever, when equality of women and men is recognized in the West, the position of women in the Catholic Church is one of discrimination. If this is going to change, we need to completely reform our conception of God, of Christ, and of humankind in the modern world, because that is where it must all begin.

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À propos Gilles

a été pasteur à Amsterdam et en Région parisienne. Il s’est toujours intéressé à la présence de l’Évangile aux marges de l’Église. Il anime depuis 17 ans le site Internet Protestants dans la ville.

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