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Ordination, Equality, and Natural Law

The Catholic and secular press have been making much over the case of the Rev. Roy Bourgeois, a Maryknoll priest who has incurred an excommunication for participating in the simulated “ordination” of women. He is now in the early stages of being removed from his religious order, and from priestly life and ministry.  In some circles, of course, he is being hailed as a hero, an activist for civil rights and women’s equality.

But Father Bourgeois is no such thing.  About women’s ordination, he is simply wrong. His error is a common one in our American culture, and in the broader postmodern culture of positivism in which we live today.  Father Bourgeois and his supporters have confused equality in dignity with equality in function.

This runs counter to sheer common sense. For instance, it seems fun to be a mother –difficult, sure, but more important than any other job in the human community.  The pressure is relentless, the hours are long, and the pay stinks.  But the benefits are tremendous.  A child, whether scared, hurting, or delighted runs to his mother before anyone else.  Moms and kids share rituals, and intimacies, and jokes that Dad doesn’t get to be a part of.  Plus, every so often, a young man – no longer a child – will tattoo “Mom” on his bicep, an honor Dad never shares.

Yes, motherhood is a noble vocation, and, it seems to me, a deeply rewarding one. But God made me a man, and so, no matter what I become in my life, no matter how hard I work at it, I won’t ever be a mother. And, I’m okay with that.

To become a mother is inconsistent with the very nature of my being.  God made me with certain capacities, and possibilities, and potentialities, and all of them combined cannot add up to motherhood.

Likewise, the Church believes, holds, and maintains, that my wife, and all other women, cannot be ordained priests for the simple reason that the priest represents Christ, a man, and the Church has no authority to ordain women.  Christ Himself, in choosing his apostles, did not do so either.

God made my wife, talented though she is, with certain capacities and potentialities, and none of them involve ordination.  This is no slight against my wife – the Blessed Mother, the greatest saint in human history, was not ordained to ministry either.

Bourgeois Left and womenpriests

All this forms the basic shape of Catholic doctrine about the priesthood, and, for the Church, the inability to ordain a woman is as evident, and unchangeable, as my inability to become a mother.  Neither situation reflects a defect in our character, or an oppressive assertion of one person over the other. They simply reflect the way things are.

Natural law defines the distinction between genders in the functions of parenthood, even on a biological level.  Divine law, through the Magisterium of the Church, defines, by gender, and by many other factors, distinctions in ministerial roles and functions.

Natural and divine law, said St. Thomas Aquinas, reflect the “imprint of divine light on our very being.”  Law, in other words, whether divine or natural, teaches us, shapes us, and molds us in the image of the Trinity.

That Christians are called to distinct kinds of Christian service, some ordained, some not, reflects that we are made for community – the natural and supernatural community of the Church, and ultimately, participation in the divine community of the Blessed Trinity.

The Trinity itself is composed of three persons, who are distinct though equal in dignity. The second person of the Trinity, the Son, became incarnate.  That Christ’s role in the economy of salvation can be distinguished from the Father’s, or the Spirit’s, does not make him more or less divine.  It means, simply, that the Trinity is three distinct persons, sharing one divine nature.

In contemporary American culture, we seem to dislike distinctions that involve different functions, as if they were some sort of sin against the dogmas of democracy. Thus, a man, we think, can become a “mother.”  Two men, or two women, can become “husband and wife.”  Marriage can be permanent or temporary. Gender can be selected from an ever-expanding menu of options.  We live in a world of self-definition, which rejects natural law, and ultimately, rejects authentic human equality.

Natural law and divine law give us a deep sense of what is just.  Through them and common sense, we recognize that men and women are not the same and cannot always do the same things or serve the same functions.  This doesn’t make law unjust.  In fact, law emphasizes that man is made for an eternity in the love of community.   We mirror this community when each of us fulfills the unique role intended specifically for in the Church and the world.

No amount of advocacy or agitation can change divine precepts.  Ultimately, divine precepts can only change us.  May the mercy of God, expressed through his divine law, change the hearts of Father Bourgeois, his supporters, and our woefully confused country about the true meaning of “equality.”

J.D. Flynn, formerly a canon lawyer in Lincoln, Nebraska, is editor-in-chief of Catholic News Agency, a division of EWTN.