The following was written in 2009 on my old blog Agostinal Reflections. It’s been revised to account for dead links in the original, and to record changes in my own stance toward the issue at hand.
For the record, my purpose here is not to discuss the side-issues mentioned such as Anglican Orders or the 1968 Ordinal. I simply mention them for background on other points under consideration.
WARNING! THIS ARTICLE IS REALLY LONG AND POSSIBLY REALLY BORING! DON’T SAY I DIDN’T WARN YOU!!!!!!!!
The other day I promised to talk about women’s ordination in a separate blog post, well here it is! What I say here is merely by way of reflection, in particular my belief that both sides of the debate have tackled this issue in the wrong manner, and that I believe dialogue should be pursued and encouraged along the proper lines and within the proper context.
That being said – and the very fact that I need make such a disclaimer speaks a sad commentary on the state of the religious mentality – I’ll begin by saying this is a somewhat recurring topic in some of my online hangouts, and was the subject of an all-night debate amongst the board of one of my current multi-denominational ministry as well. But, in light of the nature and type of “evidence” available for both sides of the debate, how are we, really, to approach the subject of ordaining women?
We know that Jesus came to earth as a man. We know that all the Apostles were men. We know that the Apostles chose men as their successors. We know that the Church, both Latin and Greek, has insisted upon the ordination only of men to Sacred Orders (the exception being deaconesses in the East; it’s still debated over a deaconess’ ordination was just an appointment or truly sacramental), and has consistently condemned the opposing opinion. But the New Testament and the Church both teach that Jesus preached a Gospel based on equality, not on oppression or segregation. Obviously, we find ourselves in a paradox, so what are we to make of this situation?
In the first place, it might be necessary to describe how the Sacrament of Holy Orders works.
I. SACRAMENTAL CHARACTER
Just like Baptism and Confirmation, the Sacrament of Order, when validly administered, imprints an indelible mark (called a sacramental character) upon the soul of the recipient. This theme finds its seed in the Second Epistle of St. Paul to Timothy: “For which cause I admonish thee that thou stir up the grace of God which is in thee by the imposition of my hands.” (2 Tim 1:6/DRV) It is here that we see the laying on (or imposition) of hands places a kind of grace inside the person upon whom the hands are laid.
This theme is further worked out in St. Augustine, in his Epistle Against Parmenianus: “And as the baptized person, if he depart from the unity of the Church, does not thereby lose the sacrament of baptism, so also he who is ordained, if he depart from the unity of the Church, does not lose the sacrament of conferring baptism. For neither sacrament may be wronged. . . For as those who return to the Church, if they had been baptized before their secession, are not rebaptized, so those who return, having been ordained before their secession, are certainly not ordained again; but either they again exercise their former ministry, if the interests of the Church require it, or if they do not exercise it, at any rate they retain the sacrament of their ordination; and hence it is, that when hands are laid on them, to mark their reconciliation, they are not ranked with the laity.” (Book I, Chapter 1).
This is the basis of what is called the “Augustinian Doctrine,” and is the view held by the Catholic and (to a greater or lesser extent) Anglican Churches, which holds that the Sacraments administered by schismatics or even heretics are every bit as valid as if they were administered by a Catholic, provided that the proper form, matter, and intent are retained. This is also the foundation of the distinction between “validity” and “liceity” in Western sacramentology, and at odds with that of the Eastern Churches, who generally follow the “Cyprianic Doctrine” which essentially teaches that validity cannot happen without liceity. Also, the Augustinian Doctrine has a number of interesting practical consequences when applied to the sacramental rites (also called “occasional services”) of other denominations, and I intend to explore them in later articles. For now, however, I will simply refer the reader to Chapter 5 of Badertscher’s Measure of a Bishop for more information.
Back to our talk about the sacramental character of Order, this theme is further worked out by St. Thomas Aquinas, who resumes Augustine’s analogy of the sacramental character to the mark soldiers received in the Empire (Summa, III, Q. 63, art. 1), that a kind of spiritual power is derived from the sacramental character (art. 2), and that the character cannot be “blotted from the soul” (art. 5). After St. Thomas’ death, the Angelic Doctor’s friend, Fra Rinaldo da Piperno compiled the Saint’s thoughts into the Supplement of the Summa, in which it is asserted that heretics and schismatics continue to have valid sacraments, again provided that the form, matter, and intent are the same as in the Catholic Church (Supplement to the Summa, Q. 38, Art. 2)
As referring to Order, the Council of Trent wraps this up nicely in its Twenty-Third Session, stating simply: “But, forasmuch as in the sacrament of Order, as also in Baptism and Confirmation, a character is imprinted, which can neither be effaced nor taken away; the holy Synod with reason condemns the opinion of those, who assert that the priests of the New Testament have only a temporary power; and that those who have once been rightly ordained, can again become laymen, if they do not exercise the ministry of the word of God.” (XXIII, Chapter 4). The fourth Canon of this same Session reiterates this statement on the sacramental character of Order, and anathematizes anybody (i.e., Protestants) who says otherwise.
II. APPLYING THIS TO WOMEN
So much for the Sacramental Character. But now that we have explained what this character is, it becomes necessary to put this doctrine into a practical application, in this case the debate over women’s ordination.
In the Protestant world, most of whose sects have embraced the ordination of women, this application is easy. Protestantism as a whole rejects the idea of a sacramental character, along with the concept that Holy Orders is a sacrament in the first place. To them, we are all made priests the moment we emerge from the baptismal font, and therefore it’s merely a question of gender discrimination. This idea is as old as Luther, who, in his To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Concerning the Reform of the Christian State, speaks to the subject unequivocally: “The first wall built by the Romanists is the distinction between the clergy and the laity. It is pure invention that pope, bishop, priests, and monks are called the spiritual estate while princes, lords, artisans and peasants are called the temporal estate. This is indeed a piece of deceit and hypocrisy. . . Whoever comes out of the water of baptism can boast that he is already a consecrated priest, bishop, and pope, although of course it is not seemly that just anybody should exercise such office.”
Now, since no Protestant body (with possible small exceptions, those individual ministers who have sought Orders in the Independent Catholic and Independent Sacramental Movements) cares much about the question of “valid” Orders or a character of Order to maintain, this move becomes a theoretically easy one for them.
For Catholics, however, the question is not so easy, because we do have a Sacrament of Order to protect, and the powers that derive therefrom: transubstantiation, absolution; for the episcopate confirmation and ordination. If this sacrament, therefore, is improperly administered, then we know that the character is not conferred. If the character is not conferred, then the “ordained” doesn’t have the power to provide the sacraments to the faithful. If this problem becomes widespread, then the Church can potentially be left without true priests or true sacraments.
This is exactly what Leo XIII described to have happened in the Anglican Church, whose Orders he declared invalid owing to defects of form and intention from 1552 until at least 1662 (by which time he claims the validly-ordained clergy had died out), and what Traditionalists claim is presently happening in the Novus Ordo Church since 1968 (whose Ordinal for bishops, they claim, is equally invalid; personally I find a lot of these anti-Novus Ordo conclusions tend to be shaky at best and based on fabricated claims at worst).
And so, the real question pertaining to this subject should not be one of history or women’s equality (which is the way the debate’s been framed by both the supporters and detractors of women’s ordination), because these questions center on the people and the politics of the people, without respect to the substance of the sacrament itself. Rather, the question should deal only with the substance of the sacrament itself, and hence we are left asking: IS THE SACRAMENTAL CHARACTER OF ORDER CAPABLE OF BEING IMPRINTED ONTO THE SOUL OF A WOMAN?
III. PROPONENTS OF WOMEN’S ORDINATION
Yet this, not surprisingly, is the one thing that neither side of the debate is discussing. For their part, the supporters of women’s ordination are generally linked with “Second Wave” feminism on the one hand, and the “Spirit of Vatican II” on the other, seeking the abolition of Catholic theology and praxis as they existed before the Council. Their focus is on the Church and whatever notion of “social justice” they happen to favor, rejecting the notion of an indelible character imprinted by the sacraments. To them ordination is community-centered, and an ordination (in their eyes) is valid as long as is it conferred in the context of a “faith community.” Ordination has nothing to do with authority (as Dr. Fresen makes abundantly clear), and nothing to do with sacramentality, but solely to do with community. These women and men are all about the people, with a sacramental teaching that appears more Zwinglian or even Rationalist in nature (i.e. symbolic, community-oriented) than the Catholic belief in Sacraments as visible channels of invisible grace.
The proponents of women’s ordination also resort to the historical claim that there were female priests and bishops in the Early Church, and rely on pictures in the catacombs to prove it, claiming that they clearly depict women with their hands in the “orans” position or at table offering Mass. For my part, I have looked at these paintings and honestly cannot tell whether the “celebrant” in them is a woman or a man, nor is there any clear indication whether the assembly is that of a Mass or of a common meal. Hence I can only say the evidence in question is inconclusive.
The same with their reference to “Episcopa Theodora,” as they give too much assumption to the idea that Theodora was a bishop in her own right and not merely the wife of a bishop (as the title was commonly used to mean), and expend a great deal of energy trying to disprove the more common meaning. Yet for them, at no time is it acceptable to admit traditional Catholic teaching about an indelible character imprinted on the soul.
IV. OPPONENTS OF WOMEN’S ORDINATION
Though we could (and should) expect better from those claiming to defend the traditional viewpoint, it’s become clear that the opponents of women’s ordination haven’t done much better. Instead, they too resort to the historical argument, saying that women’s ordination is impossible because it was not present by the example of Christ, or of the Apostles, or of the consistent practice of the Church. While I believe that this is a valid line of reasoning in the attempt to reach a conclusion, I do not believe that such a line of reasoning is enough to support an infallible pronouncement (for all you neo-“conservatives” about to jump me for that, read how Papal Infallibility was officially defined at Vatican I first – the Pope is not allowed to make things up as he goes along!).
No, the only question regarding whether the ordination of women is valid pertains to whether a woman can truly receive the sacramental character. Just because it’s never happened before doesn’t automatically mean it’s impossible. And even if it may have happened before doesn’t necessarily mean it is possible, either. Any approach to this debate which does not take the character into account is a disservice to the sacrament at best, and rank heresy at worst. Period.
V. WHAT SHOULD WE BE LOOKING FOR?
Well, my friends, this is where the question gets tricky. Having looked through St. Paul’s prohibition on women to speak in church (a matter of discipline, not doctrine), his prohibition on women becoming bishops (rooted in the story of the Fall, not in whether women can also receive “grace by the imposition of hands”), and so on, I can see where the debate becomes impossible to solve. Since the Ancients never saw the issue of women’s ordination as one worthy of serious discussion (but rather to be condemned out-of-hand for whatever reason felt good at the time), we really have no clear indication – one way or the other – of whether women could validly receive the character of ordination. Unfortunately, we only have repetitions of the prejudices of the time, and this serves only to put us right back to the place where we started: sitting on our thumbs with nothing to go on. It doesn’t help that the extremists on both sides can come off as a bunch of crazies.
It would be easy to dismiss the proponents of women’s ordination as a bunch of kooks, and even easier still to dismiss the women who offer themselves to be ordained as even kookier types whose only real goal is the politicization of the Altar. From what I’ve seen of the radical movements along these lines, there would be a very bad taste left in our mouth indeed since they abandon traditional Catholic theology in the name of novelty and the aforesaid politicization, more or less embracing an ideological agenda.
On the same vein, it would be just as easy to dismiss the opponents of women’s ordination as a bunch of old fuddy-duddies who fear change and, most of all, carry a grave fear of the empowerment of the so-called “fairer sex.” But the “fuddy-duddies” have at least one thing working in their favor: at least they’re not playing with historical revisionism.
Yet, in recent history there has been at least one known case of a woman, Ludmila Javorová, who was trained in the traditional manner (or as close as was possible in the Czech “Underground Church”), who was ordained in the Traditional Latin Rite by a validly consecrated Catholic Bishop, and who, in interviews, has shown that she understands Catholic Sacramental theology and Holy Obedience. When I’d first heard of her story in 2008, I was blown away, which caused me to research this woman as much as I could, and I was brought to rethink my entire position on the women’s ordination debate.
In the first place, it confirmed my belief that if there were more females who were properly trained, properly ordained, orthodox in belief, and who actually showed that they knew the meaning and duties of the priesthood, then their cause may be taken much more seriously by conservative, orthodox believers. In the second place, it got me out of my tendency to play into just the “historical” arguments; it widened my viewpoint and made me start asking that same question I’ve been asking throughout this article: “Is the sacramental character of Order capable of being imprinted upon the soul of a woman?”
Unfortunately, thanks to the cultural attitudes and prejudices of the Fathers, we’ll never know for sure unless Jesus comes down from the clouds someday and tells us point-blank, “I want this,” or “I don’t want this.” Until that day, anything we do is either erring on the side of caution (by not accepting it) or erring on the side of presumption (by accepting it). Even though I have no problem with the notion that it’s possible that the sacramental character of Order can be imprinted on the soul of a woman, the argument can be made that such an ordination would be doubtful at best, and invalid and a sacrilege (i.e. simulation) at worst. For if the ordination is invalid, and the woman in question goes and performs Mass, then it is still a laic at the Altar, and still a piece of bread thereupon.
In light of these facts, I’ve come to believe that dialogue should be encouraged and welcomed with an open mind and an open heart, and I will not decry the actions of another bishop of church which may occur in the course of following one’s own informed conscience.
VI. CHANGING POSITIONS
When I first wrote this article in 2009, I grouped myself with the opponents of women’s ordination because of the “doubtful at best” argument. In the course of the “multi-denominational” phase of my ministry I started to revisit that opinion, in no small part owing to fellowship with an “Evangelical Catholic” (i.e. High-Lutheran) synod which possessed apostolic succession from the Bertil Persson lineage, held to a conservative/center-right position, and ordained women on equal footing with men.
I later rescinded that opinion completely in 2014 – after posting multiple challenges to Facebook that were either weakly refuted or ignored (I actually wanted someone to convince me not to do it!) – publishing an episcopal decree that read in part:
In fact, the only question that matters is sacramentological: whether the sacrament of Order can validly be received by a woman?
My studies and critical inquiries have shown nothing to convince me that it cannot be so received, only that the possibility was roundly dismissed owing to contemporary cultural values. In fairness, there is also no evidence to indicate that it can be so received, either. What moves me in either direction is the argument towards justice and the equality of humankind as indicated in Galatians 3:28.
THIS DOES NOT MEAN I intend to ordain women straightaway. It does mean that I will not automatically turn away female candidates who are academically, psychologically, and morally fit for the office, and whose mission and vision are in line with our own.
If you agree on the main point, then take the win, say ‘thank you,’ and don’t quibble over details.
Meaning this is where I stand right now, though it’s likely a moot point. As a matter of practice I plan to confer Orders on nobody unless the candidate is exceptional in every way and I find it useful or necessary for that person to possess sacramental ministry. That’s the standard I’ve always followed, and it’s served me well.
My one prayer on the subject, though, is that one day we will all be able to get to the bottom of this debacle – the seriousness of which cannot be overstated – in a manner that is both faithful to Tradition and charitable to all.