Ordination of Women and Abuses of Priests Print
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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