On Women’s Ordination
Michael Novak’s article Women, Ordination, and Angels (April) represents the essence of your fine journal. We sometimes need prompting to think about the thorny issues facing the Church, and Mr. Novak’s article made me do precisely that. His piece and many others in First Things contain an underlying theme: What, if anything, is ailing the Church and organized religion in our time? The question of ordination of women, while provocative, may not be the central issue. The degeneration of curricula at various seminaries and schools of theology may be the reason that the Church no longer attracts the best and brightest of each generation. The free-to-be-you-and-me ethos is not spiritually inspiring. And attending courses in Pro-Active Listening filled with trendy psychobabble hardly constitutes an intellectual challenge. This sort of thing does, however, create an atmosphere to encourage the proliferation of sociopaths, con artists, and incompetents. These of course have always been with us (we’ve all read Tartuffe) but I suspect their number is increasing . . . .
It has occurred to me that at any one time on this planet there is only a tiny percentage of human beings with the right stuff, spiritually, worthy of the priesthood. Some of these might be women. After all is said and done, what the Church wants, really, is a few good souls with moral courage who are able to meet the difficult, wondrous, mysterious challenge that is being part of the priesthood . . . .
Do I think women should be in the priesthood? I don’t know. A woman who would become a priest for feminist, as opposed to religious, reasons is every bit as ignoble as those men who went into the priesthood only to escape the draft.
Mr. Novak’s writing has made me think more deeply about the issue than anything I have ever read . . . .
I deeply appreciated Mr. Novak’s beautifully written article and had hoped to find some reason therein to accept his statements regarding a male-only priesthood. However, Mr. Novak writes from his academic understanding and undoubtedly from his own experience. The difficulty with that point of view is that it falls so pitifully short of understanding the needs of women . . . . Most pitiful of all is Mr. Novak’s need to [polemicize] against feminism rather than asking how it came about.
In 1986, I completed a Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology at Antioch University in Santa Barbara, California. During my training I had a three-year internship with the Rape Crisis Center. I also co-facilitated a survivor group at Calm House for adults abused as children. In both contexts, I was astounded to encounter woman after woman who had been abused by fathers, uncles, grandfathers, priests, and pastors . . . . I knew that I had to find language to communicate to these young women a love that existed in a father that would never abuse them . . . .
There is a group called WOMEN-CHURCH which met in Albuquerque, New Mexico this spring. I did not attend. There was dancing, offerings to the Goddess, whoever that is, lesbian ceremonies, and various rituals that broken women participated in because the male church has not had the health, the foresight, or just plain love to extend a hand to women so the hurt can begin to be healed. I don’t participate because Jesus is nowhere in sight and I know from my own personal experience that He is the way, truth, and life.
Broken women need women priests . . . women priests who know Jesus, not goddesses and resurrected pagan excuses for ritualized foolishness. Men are too toxic for the badly damaged woman. Women need to see Jesus in other women . . . .
Mr. Novak says that the priesthood is a profound mystery. I couldn’t agree more. It is as much privilege as penance. I personally don’t believe that women deserve this particular penance, but I do believe that Christ in His wisdom is creating women priests to minister to women. I hope that men lose their huge attachment to this male tradition and find enough heart to invite women into a needed ministry.
Please accept herewith a footnote to Michael Novak’s most interesting and informative article. Not least among the fleshly attributes of human beings is genetic makeup. It is well known that men carry both the X (feminine) and Y (masculine) chromosomes, whereas women carry only the X. So in a certain sense a man represents both male and female, but a woman does not. The myth of Adam’s rib will not work the other way: Adam could not be created from Eve’s rib. It seems to me that the biological facts stress the importance of a male God, a male Savior, and a male priesthood . . . .
Robert C. Tompkins
I was disappointed in Michael Novak’s rambling and sometimes obscure article against women’s ordination. I remember his writings from the late 1960s, when he seemed to be on the cutting edge of reform and renewal. Now he seems to be on the blunt edge of tradition and stagnation.
As I understood his article, he seemed to make three major arguments against women’s ordination. First, he seemed to be saying that gender differentiation is built into God’s revelation to humans and His continuing presence in the eucharistic sacrifice. Furthermore, a male redeemer and priesthood has a greater appeal to and a leavening effect upon men than would be the case if Christ and priests were female. However, this is really a nonargument. As Novak himself points out, God could not appear as a Person; He had to be either male or female. Had He been incarnated as a woman, the same case could have been made in reverse, thus rendering a gender-specific priesthood necessary. It is far more parsimonious to view the relationship of Christ and His Church as husband and wife as metaphorical, couched in language that would be easily grasped. In addition, the supposedly masculine appeal of a male redeemer and male priests isn’t really a theological argument at all; it is merely sociological. In any event, it doesn’t seem to have worked. In many parts of the world Christianity is seen as a religion for women and children.
Mr. Novak’s second argument seems to be that if women’s ordination were desirable, it would already have been done. This logic would foreclose all change; by the same reasoning, the ending of the Friday fast (which likewise had centuries of tradition behind it) should not have been made.
His third argument seems to be that if women were to be ordained now, it would imply that the Catholic Church has been sexist and oppressive all along. The implications of this are quite simply incredible! Should any organization (or person) be afraid to admit an error? Should the Church have continued its condemnation of Galileo on the grounds that admitting the earth revolved around the sun would cause people to lose faith in its teachings? Institutions and individuals demonstrate a greater maturity and integrity by admitting error than by stubbornly clinging to an outdated epistemology.
I appreciate Mr. Novak’s attempt to find theological reasons for the continuation of the all-male priesthood. I just don’t think he has done it. His reasons in the end seem to be sociological and political, with a theological veneer.
E. Thomas Dowd
Mr. Novak doesn’t have fundamental theological reasons for his argument that women shouldn’t be ordained, though one could agree with many of his lesser points. The Catholic Church has already shown a willingness to introduce departures from precedent and its own traditions-for example in its elevation of Mary-for which the New Testament presents scant evidence. So that isn’t the problem. The fact is that Novak in particular and the Roman Catholic Church in general have a cultural and social preference against women pastors . . . .
Yes, there will continue to be genetic differences between men and women, but this is no theological justification for withholding ordination from either men or women. And while the genetic and cultural argument is being made, you might just as well argue that blacks or Asians should be denied ordination because Jesus didn’t have any of them as his disciples . . . .
Michael Novak’s article attempts to suggest reasons why women should not be ordained priests. His reasons create more difficulties for an already volatile issue. Some of the problems are:
(1) As Mr. Novak makes clear, being Spirit, God has no gender and is properly spoken of neither as male nor as female. And yet, Scripture and Tradition use gender-specific words to speak of, about, and to the Almighty. Why? Because God is the ineffable reality which can never be completely grasped by finite human speech. Religious/liturgical language is a language of symbol and metaphor that makes it possible to express the reality and presence of God, discuss God in an intelligible manner, and finally, voice the praise and gratitude of the Church.
Mr. Novak confuses God with the metaphors about God, and then proceeds to identify God with the metaphors. Once in this trap, God becomes anthropomorphized. The assertion then follows that there are male characteristics in God, which contradicts Mr. Novak’s own observation that there is no gender in God.
God is eternal and unchanging, yet the symbols, language, and metaphors used by the Church to express God are subject to the vicissitudes of history and culture. The symbols, language, and metaphors used to voice the mystery which is God will change as history and culture continue to change . . . .
(2) Mr. Novak restricts his discussion to the question of admission of women to the office of priest (and presumably, a fortiori, the office of bishop). This restriction is necessary, for in Catholic sacramental theology women may, at present, administer two sacraments. In marriage, the man and the woman are the ministers of the sacrament. In the case of an emergency, a woman may baptize, as St. Thomas argues in his Summa . The office of deacon is not mentioned in Mr. Novak’s article, nor in the Declaration on Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood of October 15, 1976, issued by the Sacred Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. This silence would signify serious debate as to whether women should be ordained to the office of deacon, an integral part of Holy Orders. It is worth noting that the Orthodox Churches have addressed the question of women and ordination. The office of the Ecumenical Patriarchate issued the Conclusions of the Inter-Orthodox Consultation of Women and the Question of Ordination in 1988. This document, while stating the impossibility of ordaining women to the priesthood, calls for the revival of the apostolic order of deaconesses, which was never altogether abandoned in the Orthodox Church though it has tended to fall into disuse.
(3) Mr. Novak does not use the term in persona Christi , but he alludes to it time and time again. This phrase is at the heart of the Declaration’s rationale against women in the priesthood. The Declaration states that the priest, acting in persona Christi when speaking the words of consecration, must be in the very image of Christ, bearing a natural resemblance to Christ, who was and remains a male. This phrase deserves some attention. St. Thomas uses the phrase several times in discussing the minister of the Holy Eucharist. The question posed by St. Thomas is: How is the sacrament effected? Response: by the person of Christ present in the minister. Thomas uses in persona Christi in terms of instrument causality, i.e., God, the principal agent, uses a minister as an instrument to produce the effect of the sacrament.
St. Thomas explicitly poses the question whether the female sex is an impediment to the reception of the Holy Orders. A woman may not receive the sacrament of Holy Orders because a female fails to signify the eminence of degree necessary for Orders (emphasis added). Thomas understood well that the priest was a sign of Christ. But for Thomas, a woman could not be a priest because she could not be recognized as one who could exercise jurisdiction over a man.
This obscure and little known phrase in persona Christi , seldom used in nineteen countries, is used with great frequency in the last two decades. The current usage, however, occurs with a major shift in use and interpretation. Thomas’ use of a term to describe sacramental causality has been taken to require, in the priest speaking the words of consecration, a physical imaging of Christ. This transition remains unexamined and unexplained. Some critical reflection would be helpful in the use of this phrase.
(4) That Jesus was a male is not in question. The question is: Is there a necessary and constitutive character of Jesus as a male in his role as revealer of the kingdom of God or as savior? Mr Novak’s literalization of metaphors apparently leads him to respond in the affirmative. For example, does the teaching of Jesus that God is our Father tell us of male characteristics in God, or is the revelation of God as Father, or more precisely, Abba (Romans 8:15), an attempt to use our language to assist our comprehension of the intimate and overwhelming love of God in a manner we can understand? Mr. Novak’s article simply fuels the feminist argument that Christianity is a patriarchial religion, seeing God as a male and therefore assuming that the human male is superior and the human female subordinate to the male. The question then arises as to whether this is consistent with Christian theology and Christian anthropology. What is certain is that the debate will continue.
(The Rev.) Michael Wakefield
Holy Family Church
South Pasadena, CA
Michael Novak’s piece on ordaining women was good but could have been better. As an M.Div. student at Asbury Theological Seminary, I am in a distinct minority in my reluctance to affirm women’s ordination. I have encountered the argument, If a man represents Christ better than a woman, why don’t we require ministers to be Jewish carpenters? Wouldn’t they represent Christ best of all? Mr. Novak’s distinction between that which is essential and circumstantial to humanity was very helpful.
Mr. Novak’s concern about angelism is also well taken. As a recent issue of Christianity Today describes, angels are in. This faddish interest in angels is often accompanied by a blurring of distinctions between what is human and what is divine.
But it is at this point, I think, that Mr. Novak missed the most powerful argument against women’s ordination. Women should not be priests or preachers because the image of a feminine God, which is the necessary result, is much more likely to lend itself to paganized worship and religion. The modern renascence of angelism shows us that the ancient biblical emphasis on transcendence requires undeviating affirmation. Pagan forms of religion are seductive. How alluring to believe we can manipulate the gods, the forces of the universe. How piquant the notion that all that is god is human, and all that is human is god. What freedom from restrictive authority and absolute ethics . . . .
How does a feminine view of God lend itself to this mythic worldview? If God is viewed in the female gender, the biblical distinctions between humanity and God are necessarily blurred. God as a male creates the world by his power. He fashions humans from the dust of the earth. God as a woman gives birth to the cosmos by copulation, and demands a consort. If God gave birth to us, and is our Mother, then we lived in her loins for a time. We are her children in a way that makes us god-like, a pagan apotheosis. This is the stuff of myth, a worldview that is alive and well.
Certainly we deny all nonsense about God being genetically male. These problems are endemic to human speech, and are the result of very limited options. But if we are to hold on to biblical religion, we do well lovingly to deny the priestess and her god. I say this being committed with my whole soul to all that promotes the welfare of women. I am a feminist of sorts. But how interesting it is that the denominations that are frenetic about women’s ordination are also unable to stem the rising tide of syncretism.
I write to congratulate Michael Novak for his cogently argued, indeed definitive, demonstration that ordination of women as priests would be theologically heretical and disastrously dangerous for the entire future of the Church. Mr. Novak, however, only comes close to articulating what I think is the most important single argument in this regard, namely what might be called the iconicity of the priesthood, although the concept is certainly implied in his article. A thorough presentation of this idea might start with St. John of Damascus’ great Defense of the Holy Icons . St. John (?675-749) was arguing against the Iconoclasts who had insisted on the removal of icons from the churches. He actually describes Christ Himself as an icon (image) of the Father: The Son of the Father is the first natural and precisely similar image of the invisible God, for He reveals the Father in His own person . . . . The Son is the natural image of the Father, precisely similar to the Father in every way . . . .
It follows that the priest is a living icon of Christ, the first priest, who embodies the essential elements of Christ’s incarnate humanity in all its precious specificity, including of course maleness . . . .
. . . If I understand my life as a Catholic woman correctly, my central goal is to draw ever more close to God and to ever more perfectly carry out His will. If I am making any progress, I should notice how compelling God is in this approach. With every step, I should be more acutely aware that the only reasons I can even think about making this approach are His generosity and incomprehensible goodness. It has nothing to do with any adornments that I have succeeded in adding to myself.
Our earthly notions of self-enhancement, such as adding to our credentials-either as a man or as a woman-the sacramental mark of the priesthood, are not necessary. What God wishes from us, and the only thing that we have the ability to give to Him, is [the obedience of] our free will. The blessedness that we hope to enjoy with God in eternity will radiate from Him, not from some value added that we fancy ourselves as being able to display.
For a priest, the value added is not as an achievement, sought after and acquired by him, but that this priesthood was God’s will for him, and that, bending to that will, he carried out this vocation to the best of his ability.
Constance M. Manning
Michael Novak claims that Jesus’ maleness, coupled with male trinitarian imagery, signals that Jesus’ gender must be constitutive in the life and ministry of the Church. At one point Mr. Novak properly notes that God is genderless. What he fails to see, however, is that by making such a big deal of Jesus’ gender and by taking trinitarian God-talk beyond metaphor, he has in fact imported gender distinction into the Godhead.
But this move is surely as mistaken as feminists who import female sexuality into a God(dess) who births Creation. This would also make it precious difficult to maintain the teaching that both males and females image God with neither gender looking more or less like God than the other.
And anyway, nowhere in the Bible is Jesus’ gender made an issue, not even in those two or three women must be silent passages. While, as Novak says, gender is essential and not accidental to human existence, the Bible goes out of its way to emphasize that when it comes to being in Christ, gender is in fact accidental. Presumably, therefore, Jesus’ gender was likewise accidental in the effecting of that salvation.
Thus, traditional atonement doctrine finds no saving significance in the maleness of Jesus but only in his being vere homo . To suggest that the atonement turns mostly on male human flesh is to say something that Scripture nowhere hints at. To assert that it is principally male flesh and blood in the Eucharist scandalously suggests that there is something about maleness that effected atonement in a way spilled female blood could not have. Indeed, how would Mr. Novak’s argument look if one added that the Host represents male, Caucasian flesh?
Throughout his essay Mr. Novak properly asserts that if women are to become ministers or priests, then we need cogent theological arguments to make this change. Unhappily Novak’s article not only fails to mount significant theological points, it even runs roughshod over traditional doctrines on God, humanity, and the atonement.
(The Rev.) Scott Hoezee
Second Christian Reformed Church
I enjoy your publication very much, but I must respectfully object to Michael Novak’s Women, Ordination, and Angels. No complaint with Mr. Novak’s intentions or the interesting theological points he eloquently makes, but in my opinion he misses the only real reason for male priests or ministers: God said so (e.g., 1 Timothy 2:12).
Perhaps this is so obvious that it’s not worth mentioning. Except that today it is common to think of the church as a democracy or debate club and not what it really is, a monarchy whose King demands complete obedience.
I appreciate that Mr. Novak wants to persuade gently, and there is wisdom in his approach, but he undermines his own arguments with statements like, God does continue to lead and to guide His Church by the path of theological debate, reflection, and intellectual inquiry. He did so regarding various doctrines bearing on the role of one woman, the Mother of God, to name but one example, as in the doctrines of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption.
Appealing to these controversial doctrines, which are not grounded in Scripture nor accepted by the church universal, Mr. Novak gives unwitting aid to those who want to redefine Christianity to today’s norms . . . .
Mt. Vernon, OH
Michael Novak’s Women, Ordination, and Angels develops well from its premises; unfortunately, I find its premises to be flawed.
Mr. Novak identifies examples of women of God but denies that they can serve as priests, representatives of Christ. By demonstrating the significance of a history of andromorphic revelation and a physical incarnation he thus opposes the feminist position. (I am always suspicious of statements of the feminist position if only because there is no single feminist position.)
His statement of this position, however, which asserts that whether a priest is male or female makes no difference; gender is simply irrelevant, is somewhat of a straw man and does not do justice to those who favor the ordination of women. Clearly gender makes a difference but it is faulty to conclude that it disables one gender from mediating the presence of God. There are racial and other differences that might arise here, but we still ordain non-Jews (and non-carpenters) . . . .
Mr. Novak’s response to this argument is that gender is of the essence of being human whereas race or profession is only an accident of culture or circumstance. Whether race is any less central to one’s humanity than gender is questionable, but, more importantly, Mr. Novak has improperly equated the importance of elements of human identity (gender, race, profession) with how they have been formed. Yes, gender is certainly central to one’s definition of one’s self but it is no less accidental than race or profession; indeed, gender is entirely dependent on which sperm, among millions, happens to be in the right place at the right time . . . .
Michael Novak has done an excellent job of laying the theological foundations for an all-male Catholic priesthood. But if we really wish to get theological about God’s alleged male chauvinism, we could do worse than to recur to the original creative intent. God who made you without you, wrote Augustine, cannot consummate his love for you without you. It’s not enough to analyze the nature of the Christian priesthood; rather, we must ask in the service of what relationship God established the instrumental priesthood.
The initiative in what God hopes will become a bilateral relationship is strictly and unremittingly divine. God loves us into existence without our bidding, only so that we may assent to his unendingly enriching our being. For nothing less is meant by our being the conscious and freely welcoming objective of divine love. God thus seeks to ravish us with the super-exuberant excess of his prodigal self-giving. Now that unconditional, gratuitous reality of God’s constitutive love surely makes him our suitor par excellence. Man or woman, we all, vis-a-vis God, play a receptive, expectant, feminine role. God is the only active one.
If God is thus all-male in his romancing us, won’t he most fittingly appoint only men to be his official, earthly refractors and representatives? Wholly inadequate though these men be, to the extent that they actualize both the engifted divine life and the genuine content of their native masculinity, won’t they better betoken the divine courtship than women ever could? That’s not to derogate femininity”on the contrary. In the game of creation and salvation, all of us succeed as Christians only to the extent that we femininely conform to our non-originating status and let God do his transforming thing. The whole suspense is whether we’ll be receptive to the divine overtures. The additional burden laid on priests with ordination is that these mere men are also called to reflect, in however diminished and unworthy a manner, God’s loving energy and enterprise in humanity’s regard. Once one thus understands this specifically priestly role, no one in his right mind would take it upon himself to play God to humanity. Priests are much more to be pitied and prayed for than to be envied. Christ so loved his mother, all women, and all men not called to orders that he spared them the added burden of officially mediating God to humanity . . . .
I found Michael Novak’s article interesting and challenging, but not always convincing. I agree that gender is important, but for different reasons than he does. His statement, Made in His image as we are, it is through complementarity as male and female that we piece together such fragments of His reality as we are vouchsafed to know, brings into focus one reason why the Church needs women priests. The all-male presence at the altar leaves out the female dimension, and so only partially mirrors the divine. It is my view that in Christ is the fullness of male and female without distinction. All are one in Christ (Galatians 3:27-28). We see the so-called male traits manifested in His courage, strength, and power, and the so-called female traits in His compassion, gentleness, and meekness. We know that men and women show varying degrees of overlapping male and female traits, and Christ, the perfect man and true God, contained in His male nature the divine source of both . . . .
Bay Head, NJ
Thanks to Michael Novak for an interesting and enlightening treatise on the question of ordination of women in the Catholic Church. His exposition of why in human terms the ordination of women must be considered, at least for now, unacceptable is extremely persuasive, but I think he falters miserably in his attempt to create a theology against the proposition that women should be ordained priests . . . .
I agree with Mr. Novak that the Catholic Church cannot be trendy or abandon its position because of social pressure or indeed because of the fundamental equality of the sexes before God. The Church has a mission from Christ Himself to go and teach all nations. If one pictures the world today with Arabs, Hindus, and Chinese alone, it has a huge number of people who do not accept female equality, and to those people a male and female priesthood would surely be a serious obstacle. Actually, I don’t think we have to go that far afield. Men in general do not like to take instruction from anyone and particularly from women.
Like it or not, that’s the way the world is, and I think the Church would be wrong to take the step of ordaining women at the risk of its mission. It is wronger still for those of us who are the heirs of almost 2,000 years of Christianity to insist that personal aims and goals be promoted without regard to tradition and, more profoundly, to sociological and psychological realities, some of which are today being ignored in the secular life of this country, possibly to its peril.
Where Mr. Novak errs, I think, is in extending the use of logic to explain the ways of the Lord, from which one must conclude that God, if not an Englishman, is surely male. While Mr. Novak correctly denies this at one point, he marches straight into the error of stating in fact that the self-revelation of God in the doctrine of the Trinity is male Father, male Son, and male Holy Spirit. However, to be equally logical Mr. Novak must answer the question: If mankind is created in the image and likeness of God and is created male and female, where is the female in God? I am certainly not a student of theology, but it seems to me that the concept of maleness (and femaleness) is one of limitation and God cannot by definition be ascribed any such limitation . . . .
Therefore, while I am persuaded that, at least as of today, women should not be ordained, I think Mr. Novak’s theology is just plain wrong.
Katherine M. Griffin
San Francisco, CA
Michael Novak is correct that a genuinely theological approach has been lacking in the debates over the ordination of women to the priesthood or ordained ministry. After several decades of discussion the argument against the ordination of women rests primarily on statements from the Scriptures and the cumulative witness of tradition. These are weighty considerations, yet Christian theology has seldom been satisfied with unjustified law. The inquiring mind, as Mr. Novak observes, is restless until it comes to understand why . Mr. Novak, however, is too interested in scoring points in the cultural wars to advance the theological discussion. His views, especially on maleness in the Christian doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation, are ill-advised and shortsighted.
Mr. Novak believes that the ordination of males to the priesthood can be deduced from fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith. Under the conditions of human flesh and actual history, it is a more accurate sign of the interior life of the Trinity, of the Incarnation, and of the relation of Christ to His people if the priest is clearly differentiated and selected as a male rather than as a female . . . . Because Christians speak of the first and second persons of the Trinity as Father and Son, so the argument goes, a male priesthood is a sign of the life of the Trinity. This is sheer speculation without foundation in Christian tradition. In the creed when we confess that the Son was begotten from the Father before all ages, the term Son has nothing to do with maleness, or even with being human. The metaphor of Father and Son is a way of speaking of the eternal generation of the Son from the Father. The terms signify a relation that exists within God ( opera ad intra ), and as the church fathers remind us, when speaking of God, father no more signifies male than mother would female, for there is neither male nor female in God (Gregory of Nyssa).
Similar difficulties arise with respect to the doctrine of the Incarnation which, according to Mr. Novak, has implications for the priesthood. Here the matter is a bit more complicated because Christ was a male, and it is essential to the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation (as Mr. Novak rightly recognizes) to assert that uncompromisingly. Any effort to fudge this point easily slips into gnosticism. But it is quite another matter to see Christ’s maleness as evidence of divine intention regarding the priesthood, or to assert that gender differentiation in the Incarnation was part of God’s deliberate will.
Mr. Novak cites Philippians 2, God . . . humbled Himself, becoming man (the text actually reads Christ Jesus . . . being found in the form of a man, humbled himself . . . ), to argue that in the Incarnation God had to choose whether to become male or female and he chose male. Philippians 2, in this reading, teaches that gender differentiation is significant for the self-revelation of God in history. But that is to misuse the text. Mr. Novak surely knows that the term translated man ( anthropos ) does not mean male. The contrast Paul draws is not between becoming male or female, but between God and man, i.e., remaining in the form of God and becoming man. Philippians 2 must be read, as it has been read in Christian tradition, with John 1: And the Word became flesh . . .
Here as elsewhere Mr. Novak, surprisingly for a philosopher, is fond of post hoc ergo propter hoc arguments. He writes: He could have come in female flesh but did not, or he could have overawed humanity, but did not. On this basis Novak claims to discern the divine intention. Because God becomes flesh in a male human being, and because the apostles were all male, a male priesthood was part of the divine plan. The choice [to ordain only men] was made from all eternity. Perhaps, but how can we know? It is not, I think, pedantic to insist that only when the Scriptures actually speak of God’s intention (e.g., God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world [Ephesians 1:4]) can we claim to know God’s intention.
It is worth recalling that other Christian thinkers have discerned God’s intention quite differently. There is a very ancient, and very orthodox, Christian tradition (reflected in the Cappadocians, Maximus the Confessor, et al.) that the division of humankind into male and female (male and female he made them) is not part of the divine plan. Since God is not defined by gender, they argued, when the Scripture says that human beings were created in God’s image, that cannot include gender. St. Maximus writes: Christ frees the whole of nature from the attributes of male and female, which are in no way dependent . . . on the divine purpose concerning the generation of man [ anthropos ]. It thus becomes clear that, according to this divine purpose, man was not intended to be divided into the categories of male and female, as is now the case; and that by acquiring perfect knowledge of the inner principles according to which he exists he may transcend this division. Whether one agrees with this view or not, it is apparent that God’s intentions are not as self-evident as Mr. Novak believes.
Some of Mr. Novak’s other opinions are even more speculative than those on the Trinity and the Incarnation. He mentions the election of Israel to show that God is not egalitarian in dealing with human beings. God singled out one people, he writes, and gave them a unique role in the history of salvation, and in every generation God elects His own. Then he asks: If this is true of our salvation, why should it be surprising regarding the priesthood? This is not an argument. We know of the election of Israel and of Christians on the basis of explicit passages in the Scriptures that say as much. There are no such passages in the Scriptures about the priesthood; consequently, we have no warrant to apply the doctrine of election to this area of Christian life. The Scriptures mention the election of individual persons as prophets and apostles, Jeremiah or St. Paul, but that is another matter entirely. And of course it must be remembered that God did on occasion call women to be prophets, witness Deborah.
Finally, although Mr. Novak wants to take the Incarnation with complete seriousness, and insists that Christianity is a religion for embodied persons, people who occupy space and whose lives extend over time, his approach to Christian teaching and practice is thoroughly unhistorical. We have learned a few things about early Christian history over the last two hundred years, one of which is that the priesthood did not come into the world full-blown. Like many other things that Christians hold dear, the traditional Christian ministry is the result of decades, even generations, of development. Only in the course of time and a period of testing did it take the form that we recognize. I say this not to assert that all things are relative, as though we cannot say anything definite about the priesthood. I only wish to emphasize that debate about the character of the Christian ministry cannot proceed as though the office of priest or bishop has no history. It does not advance the discussion to justify the traditional practice by appeals to timeless notions of divine intention without consideration of the nature of the office and its history.
Robert L. Wilken
University of Virginia
Michael Novak replies:
Many thanks to Charlotte Smith, Robert C. Tompkins, Joel Allen, Jonathan Chaves, Constance M. Manning, Dennis Helming, Eleanor Merrick, and Katherine M. Griffin for the degree of support they express for my arguments, for the kindness of the manner in which they disagree on some points, and for helpful additions or corrections.
Jan Curtis, E. Thomas Dowd, Kurt Hoeksema, Michael Wakefield, Scott Hoezee, Robert Ditmars, Colin Rowat, and Robert L. Wilken, however, raise a number of sharp objections, mostly rather less cutting than I had anticipated. To all, my thanks for posing good questions. To reply to everything would require nearly another article.
If Thomas Dowd thinks that my intelligence and heart are now on the blunt edge of tradition and stagnation, he should be disabused by the letter of Robert Ditmars.
To Mr. Ditmars: Rome itself has pointed to fundamental theological reasons for its interpretation of Christ’s teaching; it has by no means rested its case on naked authority.
Jan Curtis perfectly exemplifies the sort of heart and good faith that are, with other signs, the marks of Christ’s indwelling in every believer; may her work prosper. For counselling those she singles out for her apostolate, other women may indeed have a privileged role to play. But part of the wound she describes, it would seem, requires reconciliation between male and female.
Several correspondents fail to grasp the argument I am making about God’s use (in Scripture) of metaphors rooted in gender (Father, Son, etc.). That these metaphors do not characterize God, Who is neither male nor female, and that these metaphors are used to meet human necessities, are two commonplaces fixed firmly in my mind. From these ( contra Robert Wilken), I deduce nothing. But they do set my mind to wondering. Why did God make gender? What does gender tell us about how to approach our Maker?
God does not have gender, but when humans are taught by God to address Him as Father rather than as Mother, something significant about ourselves and our best approach to God may be at stake. Approaching God as we have been instructed to do by God may also be significant across the ages-and even more significant today, precisely because (in some places) it rubs against the modern grain.
From agreement on that (if any) to reasons for the male priesthood is another long leap. The most I argue for is fittingness or congruence. I do not pretend to be privy to God’s unrevealed intentions.
Professor Wilken should be assured that, while I am not a historian (I depend on such as he), an argument like mine addresses the dilemma that we all face under today’s pressure for a development of doctrine that may be false or may be true. We have to choose during our brief lifetime which side of the argument to support, not knowing how the story will come out. For the reasons stated (the speculations if you will, a sense of fittingness), I have made my choice.
I could be wrong; but there is comfort in standing with Peter.
To Test or Not to Test
Elizabeth Kristol’s article on prenatal testing (Picture Perfect: The Politics of Prenatal Testing, April) made much of adverse psychological sequelae to late-second-trimester abortions, but she overlooked the sequelae to birth of a seriously defective child. At least prenatal testing allows a woman or a couple the opportunity to make a reasoned choice about the future of her/their family. Is ignorance really preferable to knowledge?
Aspen Hill, MD
Elizabeth Kristol gives excellent treatment to the moral questions associated with prenatal testing. The pressures she describes are all too real. In 1991, while I was pregnant with my daughter, Helen, I was urged to undergo routine prenatal tests, which (as I am a young woman) consisted of an Alphafetoprotein screening at seventeen weeks gestation.
When discussing the procedure with my husband and me, the medical staff never used the word abortion. They stressed the peace of mind that the test would bring, since almost all are normal. They then explained how most abnormal results turn out to be normal but require further testing. This ordeal is supposed to bring couples peace of mind?
What is most striking is that even after I informed the nurse that we would not consider killing our baby for any reason, she still urged the test as a way of preparing for a disabled child. In the end I submitted to the test, though I wondered why. The results were normal and I gave birth to a healthy baby girl.
How does one prepare to give birth to a child with a disability such as Down’s Syndrome? It seems to me that such knowledge would cause nothing but stress and grief (which doctors could manipulate to encourage abortion), culminating in a birth experience that focused not on the beautiful new life but on the emotions of the parents. Would we anticipate her birth with joy? Would we love our unborn child, knowing she would be disabled? In times of financial and emotional weakness, would we be able to keep from secretly wishing we had aborted her? I’d like to be able to say with confidence that we would have, but then, I know that we are far from perfect.
All parents experience doubts about their ability to raise a child successfully, to love unconditionally, and to sacrifice supremely, but is it really helpful to the parents and fair to the infant to bring about these feelings before the child is even born? In a moment of extreme weakness and selfishness, we could have despaired greatly and taken the (seemingly) easy way”the way of death. I believe some people in the medical establishment know that and count on it. But then, to those who see no inherent value in human life, the death of a defective baby is a net gain to society . . . .
We never know what we are capable of until we are called upon to do it. When given the opportunity to choose, we will often take the easier path. And while parents used to exist to meet the needs of their children, children now seem increasingly to exist to satisfy their needy parents as they search for fulfillment through the experience of parenting. This is but one way in which the rhetoric of choice is whittling away at time-honored notions of honor, duty, and sacrifice. Choice as the ultimate goal for the individual destroys families, offering up children, the elderly, and the sick as the cost of self-fulfillment, self-knowledge, and self-love . . . .
Having borne, in recent years, four children at an advanced maternal age, I am well-acquainted with the politics of prenatal testing, as surveyed by Elizabeth Kristol.
I’ve had my quota of sonograms, including one pressed upon me in late pregnancy for the purpose of determining birth weight, a thing it is notoriously poor at doing. (My projected 9 lb.-plus baby weighed in at a trim 7 lbs. 11 oz.) I submitted to the AFP blood test once, out of sheer bewilderment, though it accomplished little more than to leave a hole in my arm and pocketbook. The lab, devoted exclusively to genetic testing, was lavishly appointed.
Amniocentesis I cheerfully refused and was rewarded with sniffs and forms to sign to the effect that I had been advised of this and that. There was little comprehension that parents prepared to accept their child unconditionally are the least likely to take their doctor to court for undiagnosed genetic defects.
We have, praise God, four normal, albeit whiney, children, and are constantly rewarded to know that we would have pursued enough grace to accept them in whatever state they came. Our society, regrettably, would discourage us from this very thing, of embracing our neediest members, so that ultimately our greatest opportunity to be Christ-like is stolen from us.
South Miami, FL
Homosexuality and Family Values
Linda Chavez’s Homosexuality and the Moral Order (April) falls into the all-too-common genre of articles which postulate that homosexuality is a threat to family values. The phrase is supposed to define itself. Often, as does she, the author lumps in some other threats, i.e., incest and adultery. But rarely is there an attempt to be more specific about how homosexuality is equated with these two obvious violations of either vowed fidelity or moral and legal responsibility of the adult for the child’s well-being. Somehow a sibling or child who enters into a same-sex relationship, or avers a same-sex orientation, is equal in opprobrium to those who cheat on or take advantage of a loved one. But the correlation is drawn without specific argumentation in support of inclusion within this laundry list of threats.
I find it particularly odd that the traditional family structure is so fragile that the mere existence of an alternative form of family, such as the same-sex couple, or the extended chosen family network, is a threat to its very continuation. What has happened to the power of love and commitment among siblings and between parent and child as a bonding force? Experience teaches that, if this traditional structure is weakened because of a member’s lesbianism or homosexuality, it is done so because of rejection of the homosexual member by the heterosexual majority , and not vice versa. It is not the homosexual who generally rends the family structure, but the heterosexual members. Is it therefore right or fair to place the blame on the victim rather than the victimizers?
Another situation described by Ms. Chavez would be exceedingly laughable if it were not so cruel, i.e., her denigration of the overly emphasized shortcomings of many male homosexuals and their promiscuous lifestyle. This lifestyle that she finds so very pernicious is all that she and like-minded supporters will allow. With all of the social structures that have been established to solidify, recognize, support, and maintain traditional marriages, the failure rate of heterosexual marriages is phenomenally high. Who knows how many of the surviving marriages are simply shams, with either or both parties participating in extramarital sexual assignations? Is it any wonder that same-sex relationships which enjoy none of the respectable social-support systems, including legal and ecclesiastical recognition and encouragement, have a track record that is no more successful? The recent uncovering of the high school Spur Posse in a suburb of Los Angeles drastically weakens the larger society’s shibboleth of homosexual promiscuity being exponentially worse than that of heterosexuals. Ms. Chavez’s cynical construct of homosexuality as properly defined by behavior and her subsequent unwillingness to legitimate that behavior is nothing more than a thinly veiled method of setting up relationships, already buffeted on all sides, for failure.
The mind boggles at her contention that a danger of socially tolerated homosexuality is that [a] great many people will decide that fidelity and child-rearing require too much sacrifice and denial and will simply abandon both duties when they have been stripped of the special honor with which our traditional moral code invests them. It is this fear . . . that makes so many of us indisposed to eliminate yet another sexual taboo. If she worries that people will leap into homosexuality because of an unwillingness to accept the burdens of marital fidelity and child-rearing, she obviously has a naive understanding of the burdens of accepting one’s homosexuality with its consequent and all-pervasive social disadvantages.
Lastly, I vehemently protest the invidious implication of her statement that about one-third of recorded instances of child molestation involve male sodomy. The insinuation is that these despicable acts are being committed by homosexual males. There are no reliable statistics to support that implication. On the contrary, there are now decades of studies which have discovered that the overwhelmingly predominant perpetration of child molestation (as well as homosexual-style rape in prisons) is by the heterosexual male.
Linda Chavez replies:
Mr. McCrae’s vehement protests notwithstanding, literally dozens of studies of child molestation in the United States, Canada, England, and elsewhere reveal that from one-fifth to more than one-third of all cases involve boys who have been sodomized by an adult male. While there are studies that show that homosexuals are no more likely to molest children than heterosexuals are, many of these reach their conclusion by redefining molestation as a consensual act when it involves sodomy between an adult male and an adolescent boy. In Homosexual Behavior and Child Molestation: A Review of the Evidence ( Adolescence , Spring 1978), David E. Newton offered the comforting conclusion that since the average age of molested girls is in the range of six to eleven years but that of boys is in the twelve to fifteen year range, the boys were much more likely to be active and willing participant[s]. Another research team hoping to disprove any link between homosexuality and pedophilia noted that homosexuals convicted of child molestation seek out adolescents, but if these are unavailable at the moment, they will turn toward pre-adolescents. (P. Gebhard, et al., Sex Offenders , 1965)
It is interesting that Mr. McCrae cites the recent case of a group of promiscuous California teenagers who used sex in their initiation rites into their Spur Posse as evidence that the degree of heterosexual promiscuity is the same as male homosexual promiscuity. Indeed, one of the boys in the group claims to have had sex with sixty-seven different girls, another forty-four. But this level of promiscuity among heterosexual teenagers is shocking enough to warrant national television coverage, whereas more than 80 percent of all male homosexuals claim to have had more than fifty different partners in their lifetime, 28 percent claim 1,000 or more partners, and 79 percent claim that more than half of their partners were strangers ( Homosexualities: A Study of Diversity Among Men and Women , 1978).
The legitimation of sex for its own sake, with no procreative or transcendent purpose beyond pleasure, is at the heart of the homosexual movement. As homosexual writer Frank Browning admits, it is absurd to claim that sex is merely ancillary to the gay male agenda. I don’t fear that most people will leap into homosexuality if this taboo is lifted, but I do fear that the already tenuous link between sex and marriage-and thus the basis for the family-will be further weakened. Yes, Mr. McCrae, the traditional family is a fragile institution. One in five children is born out of wedlock in the U.S. currently; among blacks this figure is two out of three. Nor is this a uniquely American phenomenon. In sexually permissive Sweden, 52 percent of children are born out of wedlock; in Denmark, the figure is 46 percent. The fact that these countries have virtually no social taboos against homosexuality obviously doesn’t cause their high illegitimacy rates-but their permissive sexual attitudes, in fact, encourage both homosexuality and illegitimacy to flourish, to the detriment of the family.
I deeply appreciate your comments on my recent talk regarding euthanasia and Nazi medicine (Public Square, May).
One factual quibble: My story about how Dr. Karl Brandt first became sympathetic to euthanasia is taken not from his own testimony at Nuremberg but from an interview with a former medical colleague of his published in Volume I of Philippe Aziz’s book Doctors of Death (1976). Brandt said at Nuremberg that his only motive throughout the Nazi euthanasia campaign was pity for the incurable”but he did not go into autobiographical detail.
In my talk, I stressed that we must never make overly facile analogies to the Nazis or imply that the present well-meaning proponents of euthanasia are any kind of Nazis. But we must also keep our eyes open, so as not to repeat the mistakes of initially well-meaning people like Dr. Brandt.
For example, I recently attended a talk by the Legal Director of the American Civil Liberties Union, at which he defended the ACLU of Michigan lawsuit designed to have laws against assisted suicide declared unconstitutional. He said that while the suit explicitly refers only to competent adults, in fact incompetent patients have the same fundamental constitutional right to be killed as the competent do; if these patients have never asked for death, others will have to exercise their rights for them after guessing what they would have wanted. In one lawsuit, then, our country could authorize both voluntary and nonvoluntary euthanasia for debilitated patients-all in the name of individual freedom of choice.
Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities
National Conference of Catholic Bishops
I am a Catholic and a member of the Editorial Council of the Journal of Church and State , and was surprised and disappointed to see the Journal labelled anti-Catholic (Public Square, April). The Journal is committed to interdisciplinary, interfaith, and international discourse on current and historical issues of church and state, law and theology, and religion and public policy. Over the thirty-five years of its publication, the Journal has published a tremendous variety of articles. I invite your readers to read the Journal , where they will find precisely what has attracted them to First Things : a strong commitment to ecumenical dialogue and cooperation.
Angela C. Carmella
The Public Square section of the June-July issue stated that Crisis magazine is twenty-one years old. Crisis was launched in 1982. It also said that the homosexual subculture includes S clubs and M clubs. That should have read S&M clubs. Finally, St. Evelyn Waugh by George Weigel alluded to a person having lunch with Mrs. Day. Dorothy Day was always Dorothy or Miss Day, never Mrs. Day.