The Catholic Thing
Ordination of Women and Abuses of Priests Print E-mail
By Hadley Arkes   
Tuesday, 15 March 2011

The complaint was pressed on me in January at a wedding in the exurbs of Pennsylvania. I was doing one of the readings and that office was shared also by an urbane woman of middle years, an accomplished artist, mother of three children in their twenties. She had been raised a Catholic, but she had detached herself from the Church. She was obviously generous and loving, and too decorous to set out for me the grounds of her defection from the Church. But at dinner something did break though, as a complaint and challenge. 

She recalled an article in the Guardian, the British publication, reporting on an announcement last July from the Vatican, a restatement of “grave crimes” in the Church. And what sparked her indignation was the news that, in this restatement of Catholic teaching, those people who engaged in the ordination of women were put on the same plane as priests who engaged in the sexual abuse of children.

The ordination of women was something she regarded as an eminently plausible and legitimate state of affairs. The argument cast up in resistance to women as priests she evidently regarded not only as wrong, but as a corrupted understanding, revealing a demeaning view of women.

I had not had the chance yet to see the documents that had drawn her ire, but my guess, as I told her, is that she was looking at the problem with a lens and an angle strikingly different from that of the Church. And in that guess, I think I was proved quite right. On July 15, the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith issued a restatement on grave crimes (gravioribus delictis). Fr. Lombardi, the head of the Vatican press office, sought to explain the restatement in a manner that should have put things in their rightful place. Zenit, the news agency concentrating on the Vatican, offered this account: “In addition to norms regarding priests who sexually abuse minors, the revision clarifies crimes against the Eucharist, the sacraments of confession and holy orders, and crimes against the faith.” 

       Subject to excommunication . . .

Anyone who pretended to ordain a woman as a priest, or any woman receiving that supposed ordination, would be subject to excommunication. The sexual abuse of children would also be regarded now as one of those grave crimes against the Church. But when the two offenses are brought together in this way, within the same scheme, the meaning should become plainer: The object is not to denigrate the concern for women; it is rather to put the wrong of sexual abuse on a higher plane of gravity, involving a deep wrong against the faith.

Looking with a different lens, one may not see that the ordaining of women is bound up with the meaning of the Eucharist and a “sacrament.” As Aquinas argued, the very point of a sacrament is that it is supposed to represent something real, that the quality of a sacrament is enhanced as it bears a closer, natural resemblance, to the thing being represented. And what is being represented here has a striking presence in the economy of nature as a man. The priest stands in place of Jesus.        

In this vein I did a piece once for Crisis magazine on “Jackie Robinson and the Ordination of Women.” It began with a trivia quiz: In the movie biographies of baseball stars, James Stewart played Monty Stratton of the White Sox, and Dan Dailey played Dizzy Dean. Who played Jackie Robinson? Answer: Jackie himself, for there were no black leading men in Hollywood in 1952. But Lena Horne was there. Why not do it in cross-gender as directors these days do Shakespeare? That could not be done, you see, because Jackie Robinson really was a male and there was a need to be faithful to the Jackie Robinson story.

Lest we forget, the matter of representation with the Eucharist is bound up as well with the logic of the Incarnation: If God came in human form, God could not have come as a hermaphrodite. “Male and female created He them.” God had to come as one thing or the other. 

But of course, within the scheme of the Church, no male stands higher than Mary. And as Cardinal Saper sought to explain in the 1970s (“On the Admission of Women to the Priesthood”) women such as Saint Clare and Saint Teresa of Avila were founders of new orders, and others, like Saint Catherine of Siena left writings so rich that these women have been elevated to doctors of the Church. And what this recognized was that there were simply different functions: the fact that men served as priests, in doing the kinds of things that Jesus would do in service, did not indicate that they bore some power of their own. Theirs was to be a derivative power, inviting the power truly wielded by another.

In New York, the new Archbishop, Timothy Dolan, caught the precise sense of the matter in the restatement from the Vatican: “The offenses listed – child abuse, use of child pornography, and abuse of a mentally disabled adult – now carry the weight of the most serious of crimes against the very heart of the Church.” It was not, again, that the place of women was being lowered. But rather, the deep infidelity of priests was being raised now, as a wrong that went to the core of Catholic teaching.

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence at Amherst College. His most recent book is Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law

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Comments (7)Add Comment
written by Bill, March 15, 2011
A fine article, Dr. Arkes, as we have come to expect. You gave us a clue in the first paragraph when you relate that you and this lady both served as readers at the wedding Mass.
She could argue that once I am in the sanctuary, it is an easy move to be behind the altar. The Tridentine Mass reflects the Church before it lost Its mind. Only male priests and male acolytes are allowed in the sanctuary. There are no lectors, extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist, permanent deacons, etc. either male or female. Fuzzy rules engender fuzzy thinking. They caused this woman to leave the Church thus putting her soul (and others!) in enormous danger.
written by Dan Deeny, March 15, 2011
Excellent article. Clear explanation and good information. Why this lady left the Church is also interesting. Why leave an institution that contains Bernini, Mozart, Dante, etc.?
written by Graham Combs, March 15, 2011
Ok, I'm going to ask a question that perhaps only a convert of recent vintage -- and thus shallow knowledge -- would ask. Why was someone who has left the Church and, perhaps, rejected her teachings reading from Scripture at Mass? Should not those readings come from soneone who is devout, who goes to confession and takes holy communion? Who recites the Nicene Creed with belief? Who does not believe, for example, that the Sacrament of Marriage is no more than a side dish on the cultural menu of the day? Or who believes that the mass is no more than, as the priest in Brian Moore's novel CATHOLICS says, "a pious ritual?" By the way, Cardinal Ratzinger in SALT OF THE EARTH quotes a radical feminist Catholic academic who writes that women should NOT WANT TO BE PRIESTS because Holy Orders is just that -- putting yourself under the authority, the order, of the episcopacy, of the Church. And a liberated woman should never do that. The Holy Father notes the irrefutable logic and consistancy in her view.
written by EssemSF, March 16, 2011
I spent some time studying in Rome many years ago. The Italianate culture of the Church there, the famous Romanita, was not one that valued AngloSaxon sincerity; it responded with unpitying if sometimes feline clarity to challenges against authority. Unless the culture there has changed, it would not surprise me if the juxtaposition of the two issues was conscious. And if there was not some pleasure taken at consequent feminist umbrage.
written by mark a. escobar, March 17, 2011
Over the years our Catholic institution has struggled to face a hornet's nest of issues and abuses. They have been widened by other political events. These are the basis for a tremendous number of connections to our civilization in today's renaissance of sorts. The trend creates the same pattern that forms division and corruption. And no single silver bullet can get rid of them as humanity continues to stumble and commit sins. Let us continue praying for our Mother Church. Our mission is to articulate the legacy that Jesus has given to his apostles. Our sense of being and doing profile embraces in general the totality of being called to fulfill our vocation in this call.
written by John II, March 19, 2011
Mr. Arkes's main point has been summed up again and again by orthodox Catholic theologians (of both "genders," by the way), so that the misunderstanding of the self-styled feminists is starting to seem willful. Just as a man can do many things a woman can do, so women generally can do almost everything men can do. But they cannot be bridegrooms. As John Paul II put it, the Church simply doesn't have the authority to ordain women.

At the core of the shallow feminist demands for ordination is a shallow understanding of the faith, which supposes with any number of Protestant denominations that the Eucharist is nothing other than a symbol. If you believe in women's ordination, you are not a Catholic.
written by Liz, March 19, 2011
Mr. Combs: Your question has been ignored - however, I will humbly attempt to answer it. It is because of liberal leanings in the church that the likes of this woman, Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden, Kerry, the Kennedys, et al., have been allowed to actively participate in the Church, receive Communion and spout their own "teachings" since they know better. Unfortunately many of our priests and bishops, by doing nothing, encourage this. Their argument often is that charity and kindness should rule; they picture God as some warm fuzzy that loves unconditionally and would never, ever punish His children. They forget that while God is truly Love, he is also Justice ... and mercy. They are doing these people no favor and are enabling their bad behavior.
Again it is the thought that we all know better than God and His Church. Check out Canon 915 and then think about how many people you know are in violation. No we should not judge but we should be aware.

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