Being true to the Holy SpiritREV. RAYMOND J. DE SOUZA
Why has the Catholic Church — along with the Orthodox — uninterruptedly reserved priestly ordination to men alone, right from the beginning?
The Archbishop of Kingston, Anthony Meagher, has made it clear that these are not Catholic ordinations, and cannot be considered as such. That's a serious matter for those involved. For those not directly involved, however, the occasion will likely provoke questions about the Catholic Church and the nature of the priesthood. It is well known that the Church does not ordain women as priests.
What is less well known is that the Church believes that she cannot ordain women. The Church does not have a policy on women's ordination that can be changed. Rather, she believes herself to be the recipient and guardian of a tradition, divinely promulgated, that she has no authority to change. There is a big difference.
The Church's position is not premised upon any belief that women lack the talents or skills which priests should have. Any priest knows that women make key contributions to the pastoral life of the parish, and to the broader life of the Church.
But being a priest is not primarily about what one can do. The priesthood is not a profession, not a career and not an occupation. It is a vocation and a mission, a call from God and a mandate to act in the name and person of Jesus Christ.
Why, then, has the Catholic Church — along with the Orthodox — uninterruptedly reserved priestly ordination to men alone, right from the beginning? It starts with what Jesus himself did, and what the apostles he chose continued to do. They broke down barriers of race, class and even the distinction between Jew and Gentile, but they never ordained women as priests.
To say that this was only a cultural choice is not possible, as if the Son of God was somehow limited by the culture of his time. To the contrary, Jesus continually up-ended the political and religious customs of his day, so much so that he was crucified for it. Had he wanted to ordain women, he would have.
"In calling only men as his Apostles, Christ acted in a completely free and sovereign manner," wrote the late John Paul II, when he definitively answered the question of women's ordination in 1994. "In doing so, he exercised the same freedom with which, in all his behavior, he emphasized the dignity and the vocation of women, without conforming to the prevailing customs and to the traditions sanctioned by the legislation of the time."
Why did he refrain from doing so? We cannot read the mind of Christ, but we know what he did, and what those closest to him did, and, in fact, what has been done continuously by the Church for two millennia. If we believe that the Holy Spirit guides the Church, it is simply not possible that over centuries which have seen many an empress and queen, the Church would retain male ordination merely as a changeable custom. Changeable customs invariably change. Only unchangeable doctrines endure so long.
All of that is contrary to the prevailing norms of our culture. That the past should condition the present, that tradition can be normative, that institutions are received not created, that men and women can have complementary but not identical roles — all this is considered backward, if not outright dangerous. So the teaching on the impossibility of women's ordination constitutes an understandable burden for many Catholics, to say nothing of non- Catholics.
Yet, the very countercultural nature of Catholic teaching on this point invites us to consider that what we have here is not of our own making. The Church — on this as on other doctrinal and moral points — does not understand herself to be creating policies, but teaching received truth. Perhaps she is wrong about the truth; Catholics believe she is not.
It would be easier of course to adjust to the mores of our time; but that is not what the Church is for. Christ's mission for his Church is not to adjust to the times, but to adjust the times themselves. If that leaves us scorned as being behind the times, that is the burden we have to bear. Perhaps we are behind the times — two thousand years behind, to be precise.
It is not easy to convince anyone that Catholic teaching on this is true; it flies in the face of our cultural pieties. But it should be understood that the Church believes it to be true, and is obliged to be faithful to what she has received from Christ. It's not a policy. It's our faith.
Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.
Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. He is the Editor-in-Chief of Convivium and a Cardus senior fellow, in addition to writing for the National Post and The Catholic Register. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.
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