A Concise Account of Why Women Are Not OrdainedDEACON DOUGLAS MCMANAMAN
I don’t recall his source, but Thomist scholar Dr. F. F. Centore used to point out to us that according to Aquinas, women make better saints than men.
And back in the early 80s, I recall reading Butler's Lives of the Saints and being struck by just how much female saints outnumber male saints; I believe it is by about two thirds. And one cannot read the Latin Fathers for a reasonable stretch without coming across the notion that the Church is a woman. She is the bride of Christ and the Mother of Christians. As St. Augustine comments on the wedding at Cana: "The Lord, on being invited, came to the marriage. What wonder if He came to that house to a marriage, having come into this world to a marriage? For, indeed, if He came not to a marriage, He has not here a bride" (Trac. in Io. VIII).
The more a person is familiar with the fundamentals of Catholic theology, the more obvious it is that if priesthood had primarily to do with the talents and gifts of individual persons, women would be priests. To lead a school in the capacity of a principal or to assume public office has everything to do with the abilities, the talents, and the gifts of the individual person aspiring towards such positions (such as court judge or Member of Parliament). That is why there are female principals, judges, and political leaders, many of whom are superior to many of their male counterparts. And who would doubt that there are women who could in all likelihood preach a far more inspiring homily than does the average male priest today, or offer more practical and prudent counselling to couples going through marital difficulties? Why then are there not women priests?
The obvious answer is that priesthood does not primarily have to do with the talents and gifts of the individual priest. If a priest does not know that at the time of his ordination, he will learn that difficult truth shortly thereafter. If he refuses to take in the lesson, his days as a priest are numbered and he will inevitably leave the priesthood. For his priesthood has nothing to do with him.
Priesthood is the second greatest gift that every priest has received. Like his first greatest gift, namely faith, it is sheer gift, gratuitously given without having earned it or deserved it in the slightest. It is all about Christ, not about him. Christ is priest, and a priest is one who offers sacrifice. What is unique about Christ's priesthood is that he is both priest and victim, and the meaning of the ministerial priesthood is entirely concentrated in the priesthood of Christ, which in turn is concentrated upon his offering of himself on Calvary. It all goes back to Good Friday. Let me explain.
Every sacrament is a composite of both sign and word. Every sign that is sublimated by the sacrament already has a natural sign value. For example, the natural sign used in Baptism is water. The reason is that water is a natural sign of purity, cleansing, life, and death. We use water to clean ourselves and other things, and living things need water in order to survive and grow, and too much water kills; it is the most powerful and destructive force in nature. Water is thus the most apt sign to signify the imparting of the supernatural life of grace, supernatural cleansing and purification, and a spiritual dying to the old Adam and a rising in Christ. The words that render Baptism a valid sacrament are, "I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." Should a person have been baptized with milk, or vegetable oil, etc., the baptism would be considered invalid. This is not because milk and vegetable oil are inferior substances. Rather, they are not natural signs of cleansing, life and death. Milk naturally signifies nourishment, and oil naturally signifies wealth and strength. In fact, that is precisely why oil is the natural sign used in the sacrament of Confirmation, which is a confirming or strengthening of the graces received in Baptism. If a bishop were to anoint a child with acrylic paint, the sacrament would not be imparted.
The natural signs used in the Sacrament of the Eucharist are bread and wine, because these two substances have a universal significance. Visit any liquor store and the international division of the layout strikes one immediately: Italian, French, California, Ontario, etc. Every culture also has its bread: Italian, French, Portuguese, German, Middle East, etc. In other words, bread and wine are universal signs of nourishment. And the Church is ‘katholikos' (kata-holos) or universal, that is, of all nations. The New Covenant is an International Covenant, not a national one as was the Old Covenant. That is why the sacrament of the new covenant, the Eucharist, must employ signs that have an international significance, because the Eucharist is the food that sustains the universal Church and spiritually nourishes every believer who receives it. The reason this is so is that the Eucharist is no longer bread and wine. It is the substance of Christ's body and blood.
When the priest pronounces the words: "This is my body", at that point the substance of bread changes into the substance of Christ's body, while the accidents of the bread (quantity, place, posture, and its affective qualities such as colour, taste, odour, etc.,) remain the same. When he says: "This is my blood", at that very instant the substance of wine changes into the substance of Christ's blood, while the accidents of the wine (quantity, place, posture, and its affective qualities such as colour, taste, odour, etc.,) remain the same. That is why it looks like bread and tastes like bread. But the substance is something else entirely. For substance is really distinct from its attributes, which regularly change while the substance remains the same. Thus, it is logically possible for God to reverse the order if He so chooses, and Catholics believe that God works the miracle of transubstantiation every time Mass is said, by changing the substances, but leaving their accidental modes of being intact.
But if we pay attention to the words of consecration, we notice that there is more to this than what we've covered so far: "This is my body, which will be given up for you…This is my blood, the blood of the New and everlasting covenant, which will be shed for you and for all so that sins may be forgiven." The words of consecration are sacrificial. We receive the body of Christ that was given up for us two thousand years ago and the blood that was shed for us at the same time. Christ was only sacrificed once, but the body that we are given is the same body that was given up for us on Good Friday. That sacrifice is mysteriously and miraculously perpetuated throughout history wherever Mass is said, and so it is no exaggeration to say that to be present at an ordinary Mass is to be just as present at the foot of the cross as Mary and John were two thousand years ago. That is what is meant by the expression "the sacrifice of the Mass".
So what does this have to do with the ordination of women? A woman is a sign of creation and of the Church redeemed. A man is not. He cannot conceive new life within himself, nurture it for nine months and give birth to it. The Church is both bride and mother. Christ is bridegroom: "But the time will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast" (Mt 9, 16). The Church receives his word, his baptism, and his blood, and she generates sons and daughters of God in Baptism as a result of her union with him. But it was the bridegroom who gave himself up for his bride, the Church: "Men may offer to a bride every sort of earthly ornament, — gold, silver, precious stones, houses, slaves, estates, farms, — but will any give his own blood?" (Trac. in Io. VIII).
The image of a woman saying Mass obscures the fundamental symbolism of the priesthood; just as using wine to baptize a child would obscure what is taking place sacramentally in baptism. For the Mass is the sacrifice of Calvary re-presented in the here and now. The priest is acting not in his own person (in persona propria), but in persona Christi. Christ is the priest making the offering and the victim being offered, because the Mass is the sacrifice of the cross. It was not the Church, the bride of Christ, who gave herself up for him. But that is precisely what is being said when a woman, a sign of creation redeemed, takes bread in her hands and says: "Take this all of you and eat it, this is my body which will be given up for you".
That is why the Church maintains that she has no power to validly ordain women any more than she has the power to baptize a child with wine or oil, or validly anoint a person with acrylic paint or holy water. It has nothing to do with grades of perfection or an alleged superiority of men over women. It has everything to do with the sacramental symbolism of the priesthood. Those who have little difficulty with this are the ones who seem to have an appreciation for the importance and central place of symbol and ritual in the development, expression and communication of a culture.
Deacon Douglas McManaman. "A Concise Account of Why Women Are Not Ordained." CERC (November 2009).
Printed with permission of Deacon Douglas McManaman.
Copyright © 2009 Douglas McManaman
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