by Fr.Kevin Kelly
A few years ago I read a volume of plays by Gabriel Marcel. In a fascinating introduction to the volume Marcel remarks that in one of the plays the heroine eventually commits suicide and he comments on his own feeling of disappointment that this had to happen. He himself did not want this outcome but the momentum of the play had to run its own course and he felt helpless to prevent her suicide. I feel a little like that tonight. This talk has taken rather a different direction to what I had originally planned.
My original plan was along the following lines. First of all I intended to present a positive understanding of chastity. This meant that chastity wouId not be seen as avoiding doing certain things, as though we existed in a state of chastity and its maintenance involved pulling up the draw-bridge and keeping the enemy at bay. On the contrary, I wish to present chastity as a positive virtue. This would mean seeing it as an attitude that needs to grow and develop in us; an attitude which could best be described as “sexual integration”; and an attitude which reveals itself in “appropriate sexual behaviour”. To speak of chastity in this way is perfectly in keeping with the description of a chaste person which is offered by Guidon in his excellent book The Sexual Language (University of Ottowa Press, 1976): “A chaste person is a fully sexed person, one who is integrally sensual as a human person should be”. In other words he would call a chaste person one who is able to relate appropriately to other
sexual beings whether men or women. Consequently in its most basic meaning chastity is not an attitude of holding back and seeing others as a source of temptation to be resisted at all costs. Rather, chastity is an integral element in our interpersonal living so that we are continually growing by going out to others in relationship – and enriching others in the process. Chastity, therefore, concerns true self-giving in relationship.
The second part of my talk was intended to point out the implications of chastity understood in this way for married couples. An obvious example of this would be that when the second Vatican Council says that sexual love expressed in marriage must be chaste, it is not putting up a red warning light. On the contrary, it is issuing an invitation to the couple to use their sexuality fully as the language of their personal love for each other. In expanding this point I was intending to point out that there has been a radical change in the Church’s teaching in this respect. For most of the Church’s long life the tendency in its official teaching has been to view the intensity of shared joy in sexual intercourse as sinful and to brand it as lust. Until fairly recently it was held that for a married couple to make love together simply because they enjoyed it was a sin, though not a serious sin. It was even held that this intensity of joy in sexual intercourse was the occasion for transmitting original sin to posterity. In recent years we have moved light-years from that position. In fact, the language used to speak about sexual intercourse in marriage in the documents of Vatican II is very similar to that used about the Eucharist. In speaking about the Eucharist Vatican II stresses that it both signifies and promotes unity and communion. These two words “signify” and “promote” are to be found in section 49 of Gaudium et Spes where it is talking of sexual intercourse and married love:
“This love is uniquely expressed and perfected through the marital act. The actions within marriage by which the couple are united intimately and chastely (understand this in a positive sense – my comment) are noble and worthy ones. Expressed in a manner which is truly human these actions signify and promote that mutual self-giving by which spouses enrich each other with a joyful and a thankful will”.
A passage like that could not be found in St.Augustine; and he has been one of the main influences on the Church’s attitude towards sexuality down through the centuries.
That was the plan I had intended to follow. However, the more I thought about the title, “being human means being sexual”, the more I felt that a vitally important stage in the process was in danger of being by-passed. After all, in its most basic sense being sexual is not simply a matter of behaviour “behaving sexually”; nor is it a question of interpersonal relationships, important though these are; nor is it restricted to the marriage relationship. In its most basic sense being sexual means being a man or being a woman.
I make that statement without prejudice to a discussion of the question of homosexuality which must take place later in the course. Being sexual, therefore, means being a man or being a woman; it is at the level of being. That sounds a very innocuous statement as does the consequence which flows from it i.e. being human means being a man or being a woman. However, innocuous though it might sound, that is the statement which I would like to consider for the rest of this evening with particular reference to one aspect of it.
Being Human Means Being a Man or Being a Woman
All of us would accept that being human means being a man or being a woman. The Church also accepts this in her official teaching. For instance, Gaudium et Spes is very strong in its condemnation of any form of discrimination, including sex discrimination. It even chooses out the example of sex discrimination to make its point. It states that all discrimination must be “overcome and wiped out as contrary to God’s will”. (No.29) and then it continues:
“It must still be regretted that fundamental personal rights are not yet being universally honoured. Such is the case of a woman who is denied the right and freedom to choose a husband, to embrace a state of life, or to acquire an education or cultural benefits equal to those recognized for men”.
That is a very clear statement and it is one which we would all endorse. As Christians we are all opposed to sex discrimination. We recognize the fundamental equality of all human persons, men and women.
But do we?
One of the points about discrimination is that it is usually based on prejudice and prejudice is something that is often unconscious. It influences the way we act and feel and react and relate – but we are not aware that we are being influenced by it. That is why discrimination not only denies the rights of those being discriminated against – it also means that those oppressing them are likewise unfree. They are slaves to their own prejudices. They are blind to what they are doing and why they are doing it.
During the international women.’s year, 1975, Pope Paul referred to the emerging consciousness of women about their full dignity as human persons and spoke of this as one of the “signs of the times”. This emerging consciousness involves becoming aware of the subtle ways in which the full dignity of women as human persons it not given due recognition (either by themselves or by others).
An obvious example of this is the social expectations with regard to sex roles. A psychology periodical recently described a study, now classic, done a few years ago in which 79 people, all professionals in the field of psychology and its allied disciplines, were interviewed and given three questions to answer. These questions were: Give a description of the healthy adult male, the healthy adult female and thirdly the healthy adult. The result was that the healthy adult male was described as someone active, adventurous, achievement-orientated, rational, logical and independent. The healthy adult female was described as passive, non-adventurous, non-achievement-orientated, less self-confident, emotional, dependent and illogical. You can probably guess what description was given of the healthy adult. It was simply a repetition of all the characteristics of the healthy adult male.
This is an amusing but tragic example of the way social expectations can have a deep influence. Clearly, they influence education whether at home or in the school. A similar incident is recounted in which a number of young children, boys and girls, are interviewed. First of all the girls are asked: “If you were a boy what would you like to become when you grow up?”. They all mention things like a Doctor, and Astronaut and so on. Then the boys were asked “If you were a girl what would you like to be when you grow up?”. There was a silence and eventually one of the boys said: “I guess I would just be nothing”.
Parallel to social expectations are the expectations about women’s role in marriage and in the family. A few years ago a friend of mine who teaches in a large girl’s comprehensive school told me about an incident that occurred there. She was working on domestic economy with the girls and was trying to emphasise that in a family where there is a good sound relationship, responsibility should be shared at all levels including the financial level.
In other words, both husband and wife should share knowledge and responsibility for all money coming into the home. The girls in her class resisted this idea and said: “We do not believe that a husband should tell his wife how much he earns as long as he gives her enough for housekeeping each week. That is all that should be done”. About three weeks later this same teacher invited a young married couple to speak to her girls about how they organised their marriage. Almost immediately the girls asked the husband whether he told his wife how much he earned. When he confessed that he did not tell her they attacked him strongly and maintained that his wife had every right to share full financial responsibilities in the home! Obviously, those girls had previously been conditioned for a role in marriage which was one of submission and subordination.
It would be easy to draw similar examples from the image of woman portrayed in the mass-media and also from the male domination in patterns of language Even the social customs of politeness can have behind them a kind of “woman on the pedestal” view which, in the end, can also be very dehumanising.
However, the basic point is that if we accept with Pope Paul that this emerging consciousness of woman about her full dignity as a human person is one of the signs of the times, then we need to try to tune into this emerging consciousness. And when I say “we” I mean all of us. I am not just referring to the men. All of us, both men and women, need to tune into this emerging consciousness.
The very phrase “emerging consciousness” implies that we are coming out of the state of human consciousness in which it was not fully accepted either in theory or in practice that being a woman is as full a way of being a human person as being a man is. In fact, it seems to me that one of the consequences of this under-developed human consciousness has been the impoverishment of the full human reality of being a man. After all, if our human sexuality highlights the truth that as human persons we are relational beings – i.e. we grow and enrich ourselves and others through interpersonal communication – it would seem obvious that man is also under-developed as long as he relates to woman as superior to inferior, rather than as equal human persons, each with special riches to share with the other.
The second Vatican Council is calling us to an examination of conscience and that applies to us not just as individuals but also as a Church. Part of this examination of conscience is the question: “Are we committed to human liberation?”. The Bishops’ Synod, when it met in Rome in 1971, said that this was essential to the call of preaching the Gospel: “The mission of preaching the Gospel dictates at the present time that we should dedicate ourselves to the liberation of man (sic!) even in his present existence in the world”. It made this an integral part of the Church’s mission for the redemption of the human race. But to carry out this mission we, the Church, have to believe in our own Redemption, our own Liberation. Only if we experience freedom, can we convincingly offer hope of Redemption and Liberation to others. Therefore it is worthwhile spending time on an examination of conscience within our own family, the Church, in order to see whether in the Church women are truly free to be themselves as human persons – or whether there is sex discrimination within the Church with the result that all of us, men and women, are less than the human persons God is calling us to be. To make this examination very concrete, I would like to focus on a controversial issue which is very much to the fore currently – can women be ordained Priests?
“No” to women priests: a symbol of the status of women in the Church?
Can women be ordained Priests? There are a variety of reactions to that question. Some people say: “The day that happens, I am leaving the Church”. Others have no objection and cannot see the force of the arguments against the ordination of women. Some women actually feel a call to be a priest, others say they would never go near a woman priest.
Some or all of these reactions may be found represented among us this evening. However, some of you may have no strong feelings at all on the subject but maybe wondering why I should be talking about women priests in a course entitled “love and marriage”. Why should a talk entitled “being human means being sexual” be turned into a talk on the issue of women priests? In my defence I would reply that the attitude which gets unearthed when we discuss the ordination of women is part and parcel of a wider attitude underlying all those other areas of life in which only now is a new and deeper consciousness of personal worth beginning to emerge among women. I would dare to suggest that this attitude is a cancerous growth within the basically healthy body of Christian tradition. In what follows I am doing no more than offering my own considered opinion, an opinion formed from reading, study, reflection and listening to women in whom this new consciousness is emerging. The suggestion I am putting forward is that the issue of the ordination of women priests can be looked on as a symbol of the status of women in the Church. As long as we cannot accept the ordination of women, we as a Church are communicating through symbol that women are not fully human persons sharing equal dignity with men.
Delving into the memory of the Church
In order to face this issue squarely, we need to go back into history. This going back in history is not unlike the process in psychoanalysis in which a person thinks back to early childhood in order to discover the origin of certain attitudes which may be preventing or impeding full personal development. History is the memory of the Church, a memory which affects us much more deeply than we realise.
Being human means being sexual
I would venture to suggest that with respect to the full and complete acceptance of women in the Church there is urgent need for a profound healing of memories; and women are in need of this healing just as much as men are.
What could there be about women which would exclude them from being ordained priests? One recent writer, after a very extensive survey of the major writings in the first six centuries of the Church, concludes that the writings of the early Church considered women to be “weak, fickle, light-headed, of mediocre intelligence”, (R. Gryson, The Ministry of Women in the early Church, Liturgical Press, USA 1976, Page 113). Naturally all the writers were men – Bishops, Priests, Canonists and Theologians. I would dare to say that even today not a few Bishops, Priests, Canonists and Theologians behave as though they still have this attitude, although they would not admit it publicly and might not even be aware of it themselves. However, that is not the deepest scar in the memory of the Church. After all, even some ardent femanists today might be prepared to admit that there could have been some factual truth in some of those descriptions at that time; but that would have had nothing to do with the reality of being a woman but was simply the effect of a cultural, social and educational system which denied women the possibility of full personal development.
However, there is a much deeper scar in the Church’s memory. Evidence of this is found in Ambrosiaster’s commentary on first Corinthians. This is a very influential fourth century document:
“‘Women should keep silence in the Church’. In an earlier passage Paul has ordered that women should be veiled in Church. Now he explains that unless they are quiet and reserved, there is no purpose in their being veiled. For, if the image of God is man, and not woman, and if she is subject to man on account of natural law, how much more in Church should she be submissive… What does the law say? ‘Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you?’ This law is for the whole species. Therefore, Sarah called her husband Abraham, her ‘lord’… Although woman is one flesh with man, there are two reasons why she is, nevertheless, ordered.to be submissive: first, because she originated from man; and, secondly, because through her sin entered the world”.(quoted in Gryson, pages 92 – 93)
In his commentary on 1 Tim 2, 11-14, the same writer further expands these two reasons and spells out their implications:
“Women must not only dress modestly; but Paul also prescribes that she be refused authority and that she be subject to man, so that as well by her dress as by obedience she be under the power of man from whom she draws her origin… Since man was created first, Paul places him before woman; also since she was created after man and from him, he considers woman inferior. He adds yet another reason: it was not man that the devil deceived, but the woman, and man was duped by her intervening; therefore, no concessions should be made to her audacity, but instead since through her death entered the world, she ought to remain in submission”, (quoted in Gryson page 93).
What is happening here? The writer is not just attributing to women certain weaknesses which could easily be accounted for by lack of education! opport¬unities due to cultural and social factors. No, he is going much further than that. He is making a number of statements of much greater seriousness.
First of all, he is saying that only man is made in the image of God. Woman is not made in the image of God. She is only made in the image of man. That was clear in the first passage quoted. “… the image of God is man, not woman”. This is not just a temporary lapse since we find the writer making the same point even more forcefully in other parts of his writings. He even devotes a special part of one of his writings to examining this question and comes up with a very firm negative answer that woman is not made in the image of God:
“Man is the image of God: for it is written: ‘God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him’. For this reason Paul says: ‘A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God.’. On the other hand, he says: ‘Let a woman wear a veil*. Why? Because she is not the image of God. For this reason, Paul repeats: ‘I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men’..” (quoted in Gryson, page 94)
In fact, later in the same work Ambrosiaster argues against a false basis for saying that man is the image of God. That false basis would be man’s mandate from God to have dominion over all the animals. That cannot be the basic reason why man is the image of God since that would also be true of woman and, comments the writer, “it is obvious that woman is not the image of God”. Making the same point a few lines later he even goes so far as to say: “If it is true that man possesses the image of God in his domineering power, then woman would have to be recognized as the image of God, which is absurd. When it is clear that she is subject to the power of man and that she has no authority whatever, how can we say then that woman is the image of God?” (quoted in Gryson, page 95)
A second point that Ambrosiaster is making is that the order of nature, or natural law, demands that woman should be submissive to man since she is naturally inferior to man. This means that woman should not exercise authority over man. It also means that woman should not exercise a teaching role in the Church when this involves using teaching authority over men. A third point is his thesis that this natural inferiority of woman comes out clearly in the story of the Fall. It is woman who brings sin into the world through her weakness and her fickleness.
Am I making too much of this one writer? The reading I have done, though limited, would seem to suggest that Ambrosiaster is fairly representative of the thinking in the first six centuries of the Church in both East and West. He comes from the West but it is worth quoting a similar work from the East, the 4th Century Apostolic Constitutions. This has been described as the largest canonical and liturgical collection of antiquity. In one section the writer is dealing with the possibility of women administering the Sacrament .of Baptism:
“Now as to women’s baptizing, we let you know that there is no small peril to those that undertake it…-it is dangerous, or rather wicked and impious. For if the ‘man be the head of the woman’, and he be originally ordained for the priesthood, it is not just to abrogate the order I of creation… For the woman is the body of the man, taken from his side, and subject to him…”
The writer then goes on to stress that for a woman to baptize would be “contrary to nature”. He also says that if this had not ” been so, Jesus would have been baptized by his Mother, rather than by John the Baptist. But Jesus did not let this happen since “he knew the order of nature… being the Creator of nature”, (quotations from Gryson, pages 56-67)
Another Greek writer, Didymus the Blind, writes:
“Paul does not permit a woman to write books impudently, on her own authority, nor to teach in the assemblies, because, by doing so, she offends her head, man; for ‘the head of woman is man, and the head of man is Christ’.
(1 Cor 11, 3)
The reason for this silence imposed on women is obvious.Women’s teaching in the beginning caused considerable havoc to the human race; for the Apostle writes: ‘It is .not the man who was deceived, but the woman’.”
’(‘quoted in Gryson, page 77)
That is going back deep into the memory of the Church. We can appreciate how this memory developed by way of reflection on certain parts of the Pauline Epistles –
1 Cor 14, 34-35 “As in all the churches of the saints, women are to remain quiet at meetings, since they have no permission to speak; they must keep in the background as the Law itself lays down. If they have any questions to ask, they should ask their husbands at home: it does not seem right for a woman to raise her voice at meetings”.
1 Tim 2, 11-15 “During instruction, a woman should be quiet and respectful. I am not giving permission for a woman to teach or to tell a man what to do. A woman might not speak, because Adam was found first and Eve after-wards, and it was not Adam who was led astray but the woman who was led astray and fell into sin. Nevertheless, she will be saved by childbearing, provided she lives a modest life and is constant in faith and love and holiness”.
1 Cor 11, 2-16 re woman wearing veil.
v. 3 “What I want you to understand is that Christ is the head of every man, man is the head of woman, and God is the head of Christ”.
v.7-10″A man should certainly not cover his head, since he is the image of God and reflects God’s glory; but woman is the reflection of man’s glory. For man did not come from woman; no, woman came from man; and man was not created for the sake of woman, but woman was created for the sake of man. That is the argument for women’s covering their heads with a symbol of the authority over them…
(cf. also Eph 5, 21-33 esp vv. 22 – 24)
The attitude in the early Church, therefore, seems to have been that, though women were accepted as human persons, they were not regarded as being fully human in the way men were. In fact, this view even affected the way they understood the process of generation. Under the influence of Aristotle, such a major figure in Christian tradition as St-Thomas actually looked on woman as a defective man. He admitted that woman was created by God but this was precisely because she was needed for human procreation. So the reason for her specific existence was purely functional. But when it came to seeing how an individual woman came to be born, St Thomas seems to have attributed this to some kind of defect in nature. For instance, he would say that all the active power lies in the male seed and so if everything goes according to plan a man should be born from this male seed. But sometimes a woman is born – and this can only be because either the seed was defective or there was something lacking in the material supplied by the seed-bed (i.e.the woman) or else because there was a damp south wind blowing. (Remember that St Thomas like his contempories thought that the elements affected the processes of human biology and generation) (cf. Summa Theologica, I, 92, 1 and l).
It is interesting to note that in the same section St Thomas supports a view about woman which is also found in St Augustine: namely, that there seems to have been no good purpose why God made woman other than for procreation, since in everything else man is much better – and especially in that aspect of life which St Thomas considered supreme i.e. rational discernment. He even states categorically that woman is by nature subordinate to man “since the power of rational discernment is by nature stronger in man”. (S.T. 1,92, 1 and 2)
It is worth offering a free translation of the relevant passage in Augustine:
“If woman has not been made for helping man by bearing children, what other kind of help can she give?
– not manual labour, since another man is much better help than a woman.
– not for the sake of company if a man is feeling lonely because another man is much better company and you can have a much more worthwhile conversation with a man than with a woman
– not even for the sake of having people in society who
are by nature submissive to men and who will obey orders – men have shown they can do that just as well as women if order in society demands it
So honestly, I do not know what is the point of God’s making woman if it is not for the sake of bearing children”.
cf. S. Aug on his Comm on Gen (De Gen. ad litt, IX n.5 CSEL,XXXVill (1)
I have concentrated mainly on the early centuries of the Church but there would be no difficulty in tracing the effects of this trend through the long centuries of the Church’s life right up to the present day. An obvious example would be seen in the development of various congregations of Religious Sisters. In many instances congregations which were set up to minister to the poor in some way ended up behind bars in enclosure. An interesting example which I would like opportunity to learn more about is the case of Mary Ward. She was actually imprisoned because she tried to form a congregation of female Jesuits. William Harrison, Archpriest of the English Mission, wrote to Gregory XV in 1621 asking that they be dissolved since they were doing work “unfitting for women”. In fact, they were teaching girls Latin and other secular subjects. The arguments listed by Harrison against Mary Ward and her congregation make fascinating reading. They include the following charges:
1. Taking part in organized Apostolate;
2. The need to beware of women since by nature they are “soft, fickle, deceitful, inconstant, erroneous, always desiring novelty, liable to a thousand dangers”.;
3. They claim too much authority and even speak publicly about spiritual matters;
4. They would teach scandal by apostolic visiting and travelling too freely. Some contemporary critics referred to them scornfully as the “galloping girls”.
St. Teresa of Avila was similarly hampered by anti-feminine prejudice. Some of her male clerical critics warned her that she would do well to follow St. Paul1s advice to women and stay at home. Her reaction is found in Spiritual Relations, XIX (cf. Complete Works, trans Allison Peers, vol I, page 344):
“The Lord said to her: Tell them they are not to be guided by one part of the Scriptures alone, but to look at others. Ask them if they suppose they will be able to tie my hands”.
It has been customary for women to be excluded from any form of liturgical ministry. Altar girls were unheard of and even women readers began their existence outside the sanctuary. In the ordering of new ministries in the Church, women are expressly excluded, even from the ministries of reader and acolyte. Officially, their exercise of these ministries is no more than tolerated on an “extraordinary” basis.
It is not surprising that similar anti-feminine attitudes have coloured Church law down through the centuries and are still found in the present Code of Canon Law (1917). In 1976 a statement issued by an official symposium of the Canon Law Society of America acknowledged this and pin¬pointed numerous areas of Church life in which Canon Law subordinates women to men (either on protective or on paternalistic grounds) and also in which it actually discriminates against women. For instance, women are excluded from jurisdiction and also from administrative and judicial posts.
It seems undeniable that the scar of not really facing the full personhood of women is scored deeply into the Church’s memory. I would like to close this talk by suggesting that it seems to be still at work in a partially disguised form in the recent Vatican Declaration of the Question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood issued on 15 October 1976.
The recent Vatican Declaration on the Question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood
This declaration gives a clear NO to this question. The basic reason it gives would be summarized as follows:
– Christ did not make women priests even though he defied his own culture by having women among his close followers;
– Tradition has always taken a firm stand against women priests;
– So the Church cannot go against this practice.
It then offers an argument not so much to prove its point but to show its reasonableness and its theological consistency.
Sacraments are signs, so the sign value of the elements making up the sacrament lies at the heart of the sacrament. But the essence of the priesthood lies in the fact that the priest acts ‘in persona Christi’. Therefore, it is essential that the priest be a man, since the sign value would not work if a woman were a priest. Although the declaration appeals to St Thomas in its use of this argument, in actual fact it is a completely new argument and the appeal to St Thomas is quite misleading. It is true that he stresses the sign-value of the sacrament and concludes from this that a woman cannot be a priest – but the sign value he is referring to is man’s natural superiority over woman. Since by nature woman is in a state of subjection to man, she cannot be the symbol of pre-eminence which is involved in the priesthood. The Vatican Declaration would hardly accept that argument of St Thomas. It does have the decency to admit with regard to some of the earlier arguments that “modern thought would have difficulty in admitting or would even, rightly reject”.
However, the stated reasons for a position are not always the real reasons which influence us. In saying this, I am not suggesting that the Declaration is deliberately trying to deceive its readers. But I am maintaining that unknowingly at times we try to maintain a position by using arguments which are not the real reason for our stand. We would be naive if we were too categorical in saying that the old male superiority argument against the ordination of women has lost its force. Among the few text-books which offer any argument against the ordination of women other than the Pauline Texts, Noldin’s manual of moral theology makes its position quite clear:
“The reason why a woman cannot receive holy orders is because the clerical state demands a certain superiority since it involves ruling the faithful; whereas a woman by her very nature is inferior to man and subject to him….” (Ill, n. 465,c)
Noldin is gallant enough to admit that an individual woman might in fact be more talented than a man. Incidentally, Noldin was the official moral theology in many, if not most, seminaries throughout the world until the mid-sixties.
Anyway, the reasons against the.ordination of women given in the Vatican Declaration are –
(1) Constant Tradition;
(2) Christ did not ordain women
There is no need to delay on the first argument. The Church’s practice down the centuries has been too closely linked with an attitude towards women which is surely now recognized as un-Christian. Such recognition is part of today’s “emerging consciousness”.
What about the second reason? Jesus did not choose any woman among his apostles. How do we interpret this? How far is the Church bound by this decision today? All kinds of interpretations have been offered. In the end we can do no more than speculate about the inner motivation of Christ. At that level, there is one thing we can say for certain: Christ did not take this decision because he himself considered woman to be inferior to man and less human than man. If we accept that, we are accepting as true that there is nothing about woman herself which makes her incapable of exercising both priestly ministry and jurisdictional authority in the Church.
This brings us back to the sign argument again. And here we have to face the question: Is the difference between man and woman of such deep significance that a woman cannot act in the person of Christ? My answer to that question would be as follows. To answer “yes” to that question would lay such an emphasis on the Maleness of Christ as to have serious repercussions for the basic good news of the Gospel. The Good News is not that the Word became Male, but that the Word became Flesh. It seems to me that this ‘sign argument is in danger of re-introducing through the back-door the Image theme again, i.e. Christ, precisely as Male, is the image or ikon of God. This would locate the Incarnation in the Maleness of Christ, rather than in his Humanity.
Signs matter. That is precisely why I would consider this question of the ordination of women as something important in the Church. We have seen that one of the “signs of the times” is the emerging consciousness among women of their full dignity as human persons. And we are living in a time of growing acceptance of this among men. I would suggest that the continuation of the Church’s stand that women are excluded from being priests is going to be more and more a counter sign. In today’s world with modern critical thought it cannot but be seen as one of the remaining vestiges of sex-discrimination.
The more women become educated and conscious of their full personal dignity, the more they will be forced into an intolerable position. Either they will repress their full personal dignity in the sphere of religion – yet how can this be done since Christianity is about personal dignity; or they will increasingly regard the Church as irrelevant to the realities of human life (imagine the impact on the Catholic Church if a massive lapsation were to occur among Catholic women!).
That would be my answer to those who might object – why the hurry? Why not let the role of women in the Church develop gradually? The subjection of woman to man in the Church is so deeply embedded in the Church’s memory that it needs radical surgery to heal it. In the present form of Church life, as long as women are refused ordination to priesthood, they are also barred from any real share in authority and effective decision-making in the Church. That is keeping the Church itself at a serious level of human under-development.
Being human means being sexual. What I have tried to do this evening is to apply that to the Church. As long as we do not exorcise the demon of sex discrimination from the Christian consciousness by some radical step like accepting the ordination of women, it seems to me that the Church will not be fully human since she will not be fully sexual. And such a Church will never be able to understand and share the full implications and riches of its teaching on love and marriage. As long as authority and ordained ministry remain a totally male preserve in the Church, there is a danger that the Church herself will not be fully alive. A fully alive Church must be a fully human Church, sharing the complementary riches of men and women at all levels of Christian mission.