The Holy Spirit and the Ordination of Women
Fr. William Messenger
To say that the discussion over women's ordination has been frustrating, understates the intensity of the discourse. While the debate has always been a challenging one, it took a turn for the worse when Pope John Paul II said that the discussions about the ordination of women were to stop. That statement was almost harmless because everyone knows that discussions do not end by decree--even of the pope. Not only did the discourse continue, it reached new levels of theology and insight. Then came the almost unbelievable declaration by Cardinal Ratzinger that the teaching carried the weight of infallibility. I must confess that took me beyond frustration. Not seeming to realize that these are not the days of illiterate peasants looking to the clergy for permission about what they may or may not think, Cardinal Ratzinger's declaration was perceived as an attempted abuse of power unparalleled in the modern church.
So the discussions took yet another turn with theologian after theologian articulating why the teaching is not infallible. Maybe, as some have suggested, it was just a last desperate effort to forestall the inevitable. But for the ordination of women to be inevitable, we must go one better than the Vatican. My purpose in this paper is twofold. First to discuss one of the premises of Pope John Paul's argument, and second to link the ordination of women to the scriptures themselves.
First of all, the pope's conclusion about the ordination of women rests on a faulty premise. He states that the Church has no authority to do what Jesus did not do. In failing to recognize that there is a marked difference between doing what Jesus specifically forbade and doing what he simply neglected to do, the pope has put himself in the awkward and unenviable position of trying to prove a negative. He does not succeed. The Word of God is living, eternal and dynamic in every age. Precisely because we are not fundamentalists, we interpret this Word according to our traditions and the needs of each generation of believers. We do not contravene the commands of Jesus. Yet, since Jesus did not specifically address all questions and issues, we continually seek to divine the deeper and ever-unfolding meaning of revelation. What's more, we do so by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Now, however, it would seem that the pope wants to discount the Spirit and nearly two thousand years of church history. A couple examples might serve. Jesus never declared matrimony a sacrament, yet the Church has. Jesus never spoke of infallibility, but the First Vatican Council did. Jesus never proclaims that there is a trinity of persons in God, but all authentic Christians so believe. While not intending to be comprehensive, this brief list indicates that the Church does do and state what Jesus himself did not. So how do our traditions and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit bear upon the question of ordaining women?
It is my contention that the Holy Spirit has already answered the question about the ordination of women and that the Spirit has spoken in the affirmative. After all, of everything that consumes a priest's ministry, what is paramount? The answer lies in what arguably may be the single greatest contribution of Vatican II to the Catholic world--the restoration of the Word of God to center stage in the life of the Church. Specifically in relation to the ministry of priests we discover that the primary role of the priest is to proclaim the Good News. As stated in the Second Vatican Council's Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests: "priests, as co-workers with their bishops, have as their primary duty the proclamation of the gospel of God to all"(par 4).
I have no doubt that the bishops of the council did not intend to open ordination to women, nor did they comprehend fully what their documents would portend for the future. Then again, most of the Scriptures were not written with the intent that they be collected into a canon which would lay the foundation for Christian belief. That is how the Spirit works and what is meant by inspiration. While no one claims that the documents of the Second Vatican Council are equal to the revealed Word, they are, in fact, part of the fulfillment of the promise of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel: "the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send in my name, will instruct you in everything, and remind you of all that I told you"(Jn 14, 26). A little further, Jesus continues, "When he comes, however, being the Spirit of truth he will guide you to all truth. He will not speak on his own, but will speak only what he hears, and will announce to you the things to come. In doing this he will give glory to me, because he will have received from me what he will announce to you"(Jn 16, 13-14). How tragic that we cannot hear the Spirit as well as the Spirit hears Jesus! Still, how does this indicate that the Spirit has announced the ordination of women? To understand the impact of the Second Vatican Council's pronouncement, we need to return to the Fourth Gospel.
I would like to examine two scenes in this Gospel--scenes of interaction between Jesus and women. The first is the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at Jacob's well; an exchange which occurs early on in Jesus' ministry(Jn 4). After asking for a drink of water to begin the dialogue, Jesus explains that he is in possession of living water capable of quenching thirst forever. Upon eliciting the desired response from the woman, Jesus tells her to "Go, call your husband and then come back here"(4, 16). Admittedly that is a rather subtle exhortation to proclaim the Good News. What must be remembered here, however, is that it is precisely the "Good News" that is at stake. Jesus sends her to call her husband so that he, too, can share in this gospel. The ensuing discussion about the validity of her marriage serves as further illustration of the truth of Jesus' word and in the woman's eyes indicates that Jesus is the Messiah. In response, this Samaritan woman not only proclaims the Good News to the townspeople, by doing so she becomes the first person to take the Good News to non-Jews. The import of this scene is that "Many Samaritans from that town believed in him on the strength of the woman's word of testimony: 'He told me everything I ever did'"(4, 39). Ultimately, of course, as a result of the woman's proclamation the people have the opportunity to encounter Jesus for themselves. Her willingness to preach about him enabled the gospel to grow: "As they told the woman: 'No longer does our faith depend on your story. We have heard for ourselves, and we know that this really is the Savior of the World'"(4, 42). Is that not what it means to proclaim the Word?
While this story of the woman at the well might be open to a variety of interpretations, the second scene I wish to visit is far more pointed and irrefutable. It is the encounter between Jesus and Mary Magdalene after his resurrection.
Other people have noted that Mary was the first person to whom Jesus appeared after being raised from the dead. That fact in and of itself, while interesting and possibly indicating a more significant role for women, does not contribute to the ordination issue. What is beyond argument, however, and pointedly addresses ordination is the dialogue between Jesus and Mary which culminates: "go to my brothers and tell them, 'I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God'"(20, 17). Surely no one harbors any doubt that this is "Good News"! The resurrection of Jesus is the heart of the Christian message. As Paul says in his First Letter to the Corinthians: "if Christ was not raised, your faith is worthless. You are still in your sins, and those who have fallen asleep in Christ are the deadest of the dead. If our hopes in Christ are limited to this life only, we are the most pitiable of men"(15, 17-19). What Jesus sends Mary Magdalene to proclaim is the core of Christian belief. It is precisely what the council Fathers understood and decreed to be the primary work of the priest.
I recognize what Scripture scholars and other writers have been quick to note, namely that Jesus did not ordain anyone--not as we know ordination. But if the council Fathers are correct in their reflections on priesthood, then Jesus clearly chose women as well as men to do that work. What a sense of humor our God has! The church's teaching on priesthood undermines the church's teaching on the ordination of women. And how much more frustrating it must be then, for Catholic women who hear God's call in a deaf church.
A final word might be said about the office of Apostle. Although strictly speaking a direct link between apostle and priest is not needed for this discussion, it may prove somewhat enlightening. In the New Testament there are a number of people who are referred to as "Apostles". There is even some evidence that a first generation Christian woman named Junia was one so designated (cf Romans 16, 7). Depending on what translation is used, Paul is somewhat ambiguous about applying the title to Junia, and while Mary Magdalene is never called an apostle, there surely can be no doubt that in fact she is. Two classic criteria for the title of Apostle are 1) witness of the Resurrection and 2) the charge of proclamation imposed by Christ. As recorded in the Fourth Gospel, Mary Magdalene was a witness of the Resurrection, and as I have demonstrated she was clearly charged by Jesus to proclaim the Good News. When I speak of Mary Magdalene as an apostle, I am, of course, not confusing that title with "The Twelve" for she was not one of them. Then again neither was Paul one of the Twelve, yet we call him an apostle. One reason is that he, like Mary, fits the criteria. Another is that he himself claimed the title. Would that Mary Magdalene had been so bold! Nonetheless, an apostle she was. Reiterating that Jesus did not ordain anyone, the question arises: Is it conceivable that having called a woman to be an apostle--far more significant than the role of priest--Jesus would not also extend to women the call to priesthood?
I do not entertain the expectation that the Vatican will soon change its position on the ordination of women. But change it will. It must. For it is the Vatican's position, not Jesus'. Whatever deep-seated fears and anxieties rail against full equality for women probably await another day, another pope, before they are quelled. Through it all we are a church that is guaranteed truth by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. The same Spirit that inspired the writing of the Scriptures and the decrees of the Second Vatican Council. That Spirit has spoken. When will we learn to listen?
(Fr. William Messenger is a priest in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles)