The atrocity in Normandy, France this week has proved a good example of the wisdom of Jesus’ keeping the priesthood for men. This is a controversial statement nowadays so I thought I’d explain firstly the evidence to show that Jesus chose only men to be priests and then explain how we can see in this current climate the necessity for that. Obviously there are going to those that not only reject the truth of the Church, but of the reality of God. However for brevity those are all debates for another time and perhaps another place.
The Catholic Position On Priesthood
In the catechism its stated;
The Lord Jesus chose men (viri) to form the college of the twelve apostles, and the apostles did the same when they chose collaborators to succeed them in their ministry….The Church recognizes herself to be bound by this choice made by the Lord himself. For this reason the ordination of women is not possible.
For Catholics the priesthood was instituted at the same time as the Eucharist at the Last Supper. At this meal only men were present; in fact even out of all the men it was only the selected apostles that were there. It is therefore understood by the Church that the particular understanding of priesthood that we’re discussing here, as opposed to a general one that all Christians (and it can be said Jews) engage in, isn’t universal. It’s a specific calling to some and directed at a sex – the same sex shared by Jesus.
What Is Equality Anyway?
In the current political understanding of equality this is tantamount to heresy. After all arguments for equality now encompasses treating everyone at turn either;
a) to ensure that there is equality of outcome in all roles, even if that means changing standards of entry to certain roles to suite the biological differences between the sexes, or perceived disadvantages as a result of prejudice (see the physical standards of entry required for armed services, or all women short lists for MP selection),
b) to have different but equal access to facilities or association based on biological differences, but which can be accessed by members of the opposite biological sex if they identify as that sex (see the current bathroom saga or the opening of female sports to those born male, but identifying as female)
c) to be treated as their identified gender whilst maintaining access to facilities which are available for those of the original, biological gender (see ‘women’ who have had operations to replicate the biological sex of men, but who are then able to access IVF treatments to enable them to function biologically as women).
Therefore the complaint that Jesus treated the sexes differently can be seen as a heresy – but is it a secular or religious heresy?
Jesus In Contrast to His Culutural Expectations
Jesus treated women, shockingly to his disciples and the observers of the day (though the Old Testament has many passages respecting women) differently from the social norms of the day and therefore highlights the dignity of women. For example as opposed to the social customs of the day Jesus;
a) taught women, which was against the standards of the time. In fact when Martha asks Jesus to stop teaching her sister Mary and tell her to aid her in the preparations for the disciples entertainment Jesus says clearly that Mary had chosen the better part and that it wouldn’t be taken from her (Luke 10: 38-42).
b) Jesus not only taught women, but He revealed Himself as the Messiah to one – and an ‘unclean’ one at that! A Samaritan woman who was living with a man who wasn’t her husband and who had had several other unorthodox relationships nonetheless. This, it’s stated in the Bible, was shocking to the disciples as not only did Jews not associate with Samaritans, but they didn’t associate in public places with women who were not their relatives. (John 4)
c) As His treatment of the Samaritan woman showed Jesus held women to the same standard morally as men, whilst demonstrating the same level of mercy. It was Jesus after all that taught men that having lust for women in their hearts was as bad as adultery at a time when, despite Job living up to this understanding and demonstrating the expectation of God in The Old Testament to do so, Moses’ allowance for men to divorce their wives for any reason was followed. Also, men were being held to a different standard as regards adultery as well as other demonstrations of real inequality in this patriarchal society. In contrast Jesus forbids men to divorce their wives and doesn’t condemn the woman caught in adultery (but tells her to go and sin no more).
d) Jesus, although showing mercy for genuine sin, didn’t see women as being inherently sinful or unclean due to their biology. When the woman who had suffered from bleeding from her womb touched Jesus in the hopes of being cured, He doesn’t admonish her but praises her faith. This was at a time when women weren’t even allowed in public when they were ‘unclean’ and being touched by a woman on her period was seen as contaminating.
e) Just like His revelation to a woman about who He was, the risen Jesus was met by women and they were encouraged to tell the disciples i.e. teach them of his resurrection.
So Would Jesus Want Women To Be Priests?
Some would argue that this demonstrates Jesus intended for women to be priests; but their absence from the last supper would challenge this assumption. The argument that’s normally presented in response is that Jesus didn’t do so because of the social constraints (particularly Jewish constraints – there were priestesses in other religions) at the time. However the very evidence that can be used to demonstrate that Jesus saw womanhood as having dignity and respect undermines that argument I think. After all, why would Jesus challenge all these preconceptions to then submit unjust bigotry? It wouldn’t be a consistent approach and therefore would lead to confusion when He had come to bring clarity. It would also suggest that He who was without sin, well, sinned.
It would appear then that there is a logical position for Jesus’ not ordaining women. Why would Jesus, whilst treating women as equal, treated them differently?
The obvious answer, currently being rejected, is that there are differences between the sexes and that these differences demand different expectations of roles and actions, but that the respect attributed to these roles should be equal.
In terms of the priesthood this would seem, even for those who would agree with this position, as being irrational. After all, many who would point to the armed services as an example to demonstrate that the general physical differences between the sexes points to this conclusion as being based in reason. By contrast a priest stood in front of the alter and offering it to God would seem a very poor example of why this distinction would be necessary. After all, what physical difference would justify the distinction?
The Church’s response can feel unsatisfactory; that is the belief that Jesus is present at the mass not only in the Eucharist, but in the priest himself as he offers the mass (or hears confession etc), and therefore as Jesus was male it requires a male priest. Also, as the examples of current, secular ideas about what equality means in reality show, current ideas of ‘gender’ and ‘sex’ add a dimension to the apparent inadequacy of this position.
Furthermore, along with Jesus being present through the priest, he is present in the assembled people at mass (and elsewhere) when they pray and sing – male and female alike, (Mt 18:20) and when the unordained fulfil the sacrament of baptism – male and female alike. This would seem to suggest a conflict with the position of a priest needing to be a male to offer the Eucharist.
The Priesthood As A Position Of Power?
This brings me back to the title of today’s post. To answer it we need to consider – why is the issue of women as priests considered so important? Matthew chapter 20: 20-28 springs to mind;
“Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him. “What is it you want?” he asked. She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.”
“You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?”
“We can,” they answered.
Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.”
When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
The mother wants her son’s, and one could say herself by reflection, to share in Jesus’ glory. At this moment in time this is all that can be seen. He’s performing miracles and extending this power to his disciples, preaching against the corruption of the Pharisees and the High Priests – He’s The Man! Wow! Who wouldn’t want to share with that?
Although women were accepted as deacons in the Early Church, they were also forbidden to teach in church. Nevertheless the calls for a female priesthood can be seen to have gathered a pace as a consequence of the liberation of women that started prior to the first world and, in particular, the society following on from the industrial revolution. However I would say these calls are based in some part to the same false perception as the Zebedee’s unnamed wife.
In the West Christianity itself is experienced as being powerful and the memory of the catacombs is far behind us, let alone society in general. The more recent periods of Christian persecution under secular authorities are denied; for example the Nazi oppression of Catholic priests in Poland are ignored and the secular nature of Nazism subverted, whilst the tenuous Christian links of that organisation are emphasised.
Other periods of interdenominational persecution are just seen as evidence of the ‘irrationality’ of religions. Now that religion has largely been left behind, at least in the West, the impression has come to pervade that peace will prevail.
The Priest As A Suffering Servant
The recent attack has left us in no doubt that, as Jesus response suggests, the role of a priest is a dangerous one and implies the sacrifice not just of his personal self for his flock but, when required, their lives too. All those present when Jesus instituted the Eucharist gave their lives for the priestly role; John’s survival, like the recent past, was the exception, not the rule.
This has been the experience for Christians in the Middle East and elsewhere throughout the world for some time now.
But Would This Sacrifice Be Necessary?
Not only has our society lost sight of the physical threat that Christians face, it has also lost sight of an objective, deontoligical morality which sees ethical positions as being unchanging in the face of new circumstances. The subjective morality of today has seeped into arguments espoused by those claiming to be Christian, who limit Jesus’ teachings to simply wanting us to be happy.
Jesus wants our happiness, yes. However this happiness can only ultimately come from doing good and, as every person who is acknowledged that ‘evil happens when good people do nothing’ must on one level know, to withstand evil one must sacrifice and therefore there must be in this world material and physical discomfort – even unto death.
If one accepts that Jesus is God, and the Eucharist is in reality Him, then it also follows that those who have taken the vow to represent Him on Earth in times of peace and prosperity cannot withdraw in times of peril. Even if to do so would make them really, really happy. Jesus must be made present – it is essential if evil is to be ultimately overcome.
The apostles, being human, fled in the face of danger at Jesus’ arrest. Although Peter attempts to stand and fight he is at a loss when Jesus removes this as an option. The response of him and the other as a result is to flee. The newly formed priesthood flees in the face of danger.
When Jesus meets with them after His resurrection He, lovingly, admonishes them. In particular Peter, who denied Jesus three times, is given the opportunity to redeem himself – Jesus asks him three times if he loves Him. When Peter responds yes, the reality of that yes is once again given to Peter. It is made clear to him that he will die, laying down his life for the flock that Jesus has entrusted to him.
When viewed in this way the distinction between men and women when it comes to the priesthood can be seen in a similar way as that between men and women in the military at present (althghough moves are afoot to change that at present). Men are called to sacrifice their lives in a public arena.
How Do Women Sacrifice?
Nevertheless the Apastolic Church also taught us that the role of women can be, at times, no less heroic. It was the women who stood, witnessing, at the foot of the cross; fulfilling their obligations of unordained priesthood that all Christians have as a resonsibility.
By not having the overt duty of being a priest women can focus their attention on the domestic church – care of their children, the elderly and disabled.
I am frustrated when women are depicted as being only capable of screaming during times of trouble by filmmakers, and even more so when feminists happily indulge this stereotype of a weak response in their desire for the prestige of the armed soldier. In my recent fears of the terror attacks I was left with the image of myself in a mass gathering my brood, a preschooler and a toddler, to safety. This can only be downgraded by those who haven’t had, or forgotten what it’s like, to herd small children around a supermarket, let alone a sudden and life threatening scenario. I have no doubt that my four year old would freeze, crying, rooted to the spot. Could I manage to carry them both? Imagine the scenario with a large family? One with elderly relatives or neighbours!
Women’s self sacrifice is quiet, but just as heroic.
Equal, but different.