Sainthood? Okay.  Priesthood? No way!

If the Church can see its way clear to making saints out of dead women, why are live women still officially prohibited from being ordained as priests?

by Fred Jansohn

There are men who utter the phrase “Can’t live with ‘em; can’t live without ‘em” to describe their ambivalent relationships with women. By straining one’s ears one might also hear a similar refrain echoing around the walls of the male-dominated Vatican.

Still it is interesting to note that while the vast majority of the thousands who were canonised by the Church over the centuries are male; many, many females are represented as well.

If the Church can see its way clear to making saints out of dead women, why are live women still officially prohibited from being ordained as priests?

Of course the path to sainthood is not an easy one. The Church’s approach fairly bristles with legal hurdles, checks and balances and so it should. But what does it take to become a saint?

The procedure is now contained in a document called the Apostolic Constitution ‘Divinus Perfectionis Magister’ of Pope John Paul II dated January 25, 1983. In brief, a candidate must have been dead for at least five  years, to allow emotions to dissipate and encourage greater objectivity. A diocesan tribunal is then formed by the bishop of the diocese in which the person died. Witnesses are called to give evidence of the person’s character. At this point the deceased is called Servant of God.

The tribunal’s findings are gathered and forwarded to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints (CCS) in Rome. The CCS issues a public copy and the document undergoes rigorous scrutiny by a panel of theologians. If it clears this hurdle it is passed on to cardinals and bishops who are members of the CCS. If they think the cause has merit the results are handed to the Pope who authorises the CCS to draft the relevant decree. The decree is then publicly read.

A miracle is then required for the person to be elevated by further decree to the rank of Blessed — the beatification process. For canonisation, another miracle is required. With canonisation, the Blessed acquires the title of Saint. Needless to say the entire process can take decades, if not centuries.

While all previous popes of the 20th century combined canonised nearly 100 saints, during his pontificate the late John Paul II, accused sometimes of running a “saint factory”, canonised almost 500 saints, most of whom had been dead for centuries. He beatified more than 1300 people. Of those canonised, at least an estimated one third were women.

What then, one may ask, are the reasons underlying the Vatican’s persistent refusal of a place for women among the ranks of the living ordained?

Traditionally the reasons given cite the example of Christ in apparently only choosing men to be His Apostles (ignoring the overarching role played by Mary, His mother, not to speak of the emerging role of Mary Magdalen in the life of Christ); the fact that the practice was maintained by the Apostles after Christ’s resurrection; the practice of the Church over the centuries in imitating Christ’s example; the 1994 Letter of Pope John Paul II to the Faithful in which he wrote, the Church has no authority … to confer priestly ordination on women … this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful (albeit this statement lacked the seal of infallibility). These were followed by a series of pronouncements from the Vatican, all, in effect, confirming the Church’s conservative position and the secondary role to be played by women in the life of the faithful.

To be sure, those more sophisticated than I in the history and laws of the Church will see finer points of distinction but I cannot see how a human being whose existence is otherwise exemplary, one of true commitment to the Church, and a role model for the expression of Christian values, could be automatically excluded from consideration for ordination by virtue of the fact that the person does not happen to fit the criteria for being a male.

Some questions that beg to be asked, and doubtless have been asked, include: Would the Church consider as fit to be a priest a woman who had undergone a sex change operation? What steps does the Church take when it is clear a priest is unfit to continue in that role: someone who has assaulted children, murdered, stolen, broken vows of celibacy, obtained money by false pretences, or refuses to honour the vow of poverty…?

As trite as it is to say ... a man is born of a woman; women and men working in harmony together promote God’s plan for humankind. Thus men and women complement each other. The obvious gender differences are nothing but a superficial element in the argument against the ordination of women.

It does seem, though, that the Church places great store in these differences and has created an entire body of learning based largely on these differences. In recent times people have been excommunicated, or threatened with excommunication, where they disagreed with these teachings.

The Church promotes the idea that it has no authority to ordain women as priests, although it has managed to summon up the authority to exclude them performing the great rites of priesthood, according to a tortured line of reasoning whose roots lie essentially within a cultural paradigm. To the extent that Christ was a revolutionary figure, it is well known that He remained, in many respects, a person of His own time. If males tended to dominate Christ’s inner cabinet this will have had more to do with an adherence to cultural expectations of the roles ascribed to the genders than with Divine Providence. The point is implied in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) at paragraph 854 that reads in part:  (Missionary endeavour) must involve a process of inculturation if the Gospel is to take flesh in each people’s culture.

The process (of missionary endeavour) is continuous, even in those cultures where the Church is firmly established, and presupposes an on-going dialogue between faith and culture. If the moral and ethical standard of the individual is not compromised or prejudiced then, in my view, her or his position is to be judged by the cultural mores of the day. This confers an implicit duty on the Church to reflect on long-held tradition, and assess its relevance for different cultures and contemporary times.

There is no greater superiority in the male than the female for the role. Indeed Christ’s first successor, Peter, denied Him thrice; and Christ was betrayed by one of His own, Judas — hardly ringing endorsements for a male-only line of succession. Being ordained a priest is certainly no prospective award for good behaviour, or a marker that the individual has led, or will lead, an exemplary life. Those views, if they exist, are naïve in the extreme and beside the point. Surely it thus follows that each of the genders has as equal a right as the other to receive the sacrament of Holy Orders.

Arguments comparing the role of Christ with a bridegroom and the Church his bride, as another reason for the exclusion of women as priests, do not receive support from our Catechism. Nonetheless one would have to concede that the Catechism is heavily masculinised. However I would submit that relevant words need to be read in a broader sense, as having a more catholic application. For example “men” and “brotherhood” were words that in former times referred to society as a whole. If political correctness is the new weapon of exclusion then it defeats its own original purpose.

Who in all reason would take literally the observation in CCC’s Para. 855 that:

… divisions among Christians prevent the Church from realising … the fullness of catholicity of those of her sons who … are yet separated from full communion with her?

Bear this in mind when reading CCC Para.1598, which says, in part:

The Church confers the sacrament of Holy Orders on baptized men, whose suitability for the exercise of the ministry has been duly recognized.

Now, whether “men” should be taken literally, as in “male”, or figuratively as in the delineation of that part of mankind that has been baptized is a central and moot point.

Remember also CCC Para. 369 that reads:

         …Man and woman are both with one and the same dignity “in the image of God”.

And then exult in CCC Para. 1565:

Through the sacrament of Holy Orders priests share in the universal dimensions of the mission that Christ entrusted to the apostles.  (author’s emphasis in the above quotes)

Exclusion from the priesthood, as in the process to sainthood, should be based on the merits of each case and not on gender differences or tortured culturally based, and thus non-contemporary, lines of reasoning.

If a woman can be posthumously awarded the greatest honour the Church can bestow for having lived a virtuous life — sainthood — then she should not automatically be excluded from the rite of ordination in life or the right to share in the universal dimensions of Christ’s mission.

Fred Jansohn is a former lawyer turned qualified community services worker who is a case management coordinator in Surry Hills, Sydney.