Some Theses in Connection with the Ordination of Women
By the Rev. Frans Josef van Beeck, S.J.
An Episcopal bishop (who shall remain unnamed here) misquoted van Beeck in the House of Bishops’ emergency meeting following the July 29, 1974 ordination of eleven women priests. This led the bishops to rule that the ordinations were invalid. Van Beeck wrote these theses in response to his being misquoted. He kindly gave me permission to publish this as a pamphlet.
By looking at clerical caste van Beeck helps us consider whether or not the church needs professional clergy. See theses 9 through 15 regarding the clerical caste. For instance #10: “One of the essential features of a caste is: excessive reliance on objective powers, masking a lack of real integration of the person.” And #13: “Ordained ministers who act in a caste-like fashion suffer from a social affliction, and hence require understanding, compassion, and forgiveness.”
If it is true that fear is an evil and control is the evil child of fear, #15 is helpful: “In and of itself the aspiration to power or the actual exercise of it has no standing in the Church viewed as the Temple of God in the Spirit, the Body of Christ, the Servant of God in Christ Jesus.”
– George Swanson
- The issue of the ordination of women to the diaconate, the priesthood, and the episcopate is primarily not a doctrinal, but a discretionary one. Far from relegating the issue to a secondary status, the discretionary nature of the issue puts it at the heart of what the Church is all about.
- None of the existing doctrinal justifications of the exclusion of women from Holy Orders are compelling; rather, they tend to appear, on closer hermeneutical inspection, to be nothing but doctrinal involutions of time-determined cultural habits.
- In particular, the justification of the exclusion of women from Holy Orders on the basis of the Christological argument (“By God’s own revealed will it takes a male to be the shepherd of the Church.”) is not just dubious, but downright close to heresy, since it places masculinity in a privileged position in the hypostatic union, contrary to the teaching of the Church, which has held, ever since the Cappadocians, that the Word assumed the human nature “without the individual characteristics.”
- The only doctrine that applies is the doctrine of God’s all-inclusive love, as implied, e.g., in the baptismal formula of the letter to the letter to the Galatians: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is (. . .) neither male nor female; For you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Gal. 3:28. Hence, all human persons can become the bearers of Christ’s person and of his ministries. But then, doctrine is not everything.
- Hence, the doctrinal arguments in favor of the exclusion of women from, or inclusion in, the ministry fail to convince. Therefore, if any reasons in favor of either are to be found, they will have to come from “agapeic” considerations. These will appear in the form of discretionary judgments born out of the desire to show concern for the weak and the wronged. An analogy is afforded by Paul’s treatment of the eating of meat offered to idols (1 Cor. 8:1-13; 10:23–11:1) in spite of his realization that “an idol has no real existence” (1 Cor. 8:1), the issue of women’s Orders, seen as an agapeic question, is part of the central concern of the Church.
- There are good reasons to claim that the very agape which, in the tradition, provided some compelling arguments in favor of the exclusion of women from the ordained ministry, now favors their inclusion. However, it is only possible to see this if the tradition is viewed, not as culpably unaware of the fact that women were the object of discrimination, but as invincibly ignorant on the score. To appreciate this, two other assumptions are necessary:
- (a) The long-standing discrimination against women, justified by philosophical, anthropological, and psychological theories, and shown in such degenerative phenomena as the Malleus Maleficarum and the ensuing witch-hunts, is a cultural prejudice, and, as such, a concrete example of social sin. Social sin is not less sinful for being social, nor does it engage human responsibility less for its going undetected for ages. Its victims, in this case, are both women and men.
- (b) The raising of the issue of discrimination against women in the world as well as in the Church is, theologically speaking, an instance of historical revelation, and, as such, the work of the Holy Spirit in the world as well as in the Church. A parallel example is afforded by the nineteenth-century revelation of the immorality of slavery.
- Discrimination against women has had profound consequences for the understanding and the practice of the ordained ministry. It has led to the ministry developing a clerical caste, the existence of which has been theologically rationalized, since the third century, by a mistaken appeal to the Old Testament priesthood, and by a (mostly tacit) reliance on the cultic sensibilities and structures of the late Roman Empire, the feudal society, and the monarchic state. The rationalist perception of the male as rationally and functionally superior is not blameless either.
- One of the essential features of a caste is: excessive reliance on objective powers, masking a lack of real integration of the person. Hence, the sacramental and preaching ministries, sanctioned by ordination, are often unsupported by personally undertaken “real” ministry. As a result, members of the clergy are frequently—and often only half-consciously—the prisoners of their caste.
- Hence, one should be no more in favor of men’s ordinations than women’s. In other words: women as well as men could jeopardize their integrity in aspiring to the ordained ministry.
- The recent process of erosion of the clerical caste must be welcomed, though not without glee.
- Ordained ministers who act in a caste-like fashion suffer from a social affliction, and hence require understanding, compassion, and forgiveness. They do not know what they do. What looks like the awkward exercise of naked power is often a cloak for the experience of acute personal insufficiency.
- Women who aspire to ordination in order to get where the power is suffer from the same social affliction, and hence require understanding, compassion, and forgiveness. What looks like raw ambition is often a cloak for the experience of acute frustration.
- In and of itself the aspiration to power or the actual exercise of it has no standing in the Church viewed as the Temple of God in the Spirit, the Body of Christ, the Servant of God in Christ Jesus. This is also true of the sacramental and preaching ministries, no matter how valid or authorized.
- Both ordained ministers and men and women aspiring to the ordained ministry must be encouraged, by hierarchy and faithful alike, to venture into the fears, doubts, and crudities of “real” ministry, so that they may also come to experience its rewards. These rewards are first and foremost the building of the Body of Christ as sinners and sufferers come to life, but also the discovery of the actual working of grace as an experienced reality in the process of one’s own integration into, and reconciliation with, the Body of Christ.
- Real ministry includes all the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, and “whatever is true, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, whatever is excellent, whatever is worthy or praise” (Phil. 4:8) done by apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers and others (Eph. 4:11).
- Putting the issue in terms of the “hyphenated priest” is fatal to the discussion and leads to a separation between the sacramental and the real ministries. Both mental health and an Incarnation inspired theology demand that the issue be put in terms of the “integrated priest.” Hence, encouraging women to engage in real ministry with the intention of keeping them out of the ordained ministry, and encouraging men to engage in sacramental ministry while making it difficult for them to engage in real ministry both offend against the reality of the Incarnation. Ordained ministry, therefore, is not fully Christian if is not supported by real ministry.
- Many Christians are not ready for real ministry extended to them by women. Some of them are not even ready for real ministry extended to them by men. The only way they will be delivered from the debilitating prejudice is by experiencing real ministry. The latter will have to reckon with the probability of rejection. The real minister who is rejected—if he or she does not turn self-righteous—is in excellent company.
- Many Christians are ready for real ministry by both men and women, and hence, they are largely ready for the ordained ministry by both women and men. This does not mean that men do not need support for their real ministry nor does it mean that women do not need support for their ordained ministry.
- It is part of the mission of the authorities in the Church to do the supporting, especially if the ministers meet with rejection.
- The issue of women’s Orders, if set in the context of agape, should not become an idealogy, especially when viewed against the background of the Church’s badly needed agapeic concern with war and hunger in the world, with national and international injustice, etc. Yet, no issue becomes unimportant because there are more important issues. The Father also cares for the flowers and the sparrows (and the whales).
- In the Roman Catholic Church it is psychologically hard to imagine that the admission of women to Holy Orders could be achieved without compulsory celibacy becoming optional celibacy.