In May 1994, Pope John Paul II issued his apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis. It is, as far as Vatican documents go, very short. It deals with one specific issue, namely the Church’s ban on the admission of women to the ministerial priesthood, a ban first articulated in the 1976 Vatican declaration Inter Insigniores and upheld by Pope John Paul II. He clearly stated: “Wherefore, in order that all doubt be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk. 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.” With these words, the Holy Father intended to end the debate regarding women priests.
In October 1995, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then prefect for the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, made a response to a question that was submitted to the Vatican on the doctrinal status of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis. The official Vatican response, given through Ratzinger, was that the ban on women priests was “taught infallibly by the Church.” While the doctrine is settled, much debate, misunderstanding, and, in some quarters, deep resentment continues over the Church’s insistence upon an all-male priesthood. As a Catholic, theologian, and university professor, I know that many Catholics continue to reject Catholic teaching on the all-male priesthood and certainly cannot articulate the Church’s reasons for the teaching, much less defend it.
The Catholic Priesthood and Women is a defense and an interpretation of the Church’s doctrine. It attempts to provide a new generation of young Catholics and, most especially, seminarians with an understanding of the Church’s teaching and give them a “theological orientation to the topic that engages the chief objections.” Its author, Sister Sara Butler, MSBT, is a well-respected theologian who taught at Mundelein Seminary and currently holds a position at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Dunwoodie, New York. She openly confesses in the book’s introduction that for many years she supported the ordination of women. She credits John Paul II’s “theology of the body” and “his response to the feminist critique in the apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem (1988)” for her change of heart on this matter.
Her work, divided into seven chapters, is a concise treatment of the subject. While Butler is a scholar, this book can be read and appreciated by those who are not trained theologians. The book provides a summary of the primary Vatican documents regarding women’s ordination, with an explanation of objections and responses to these arguments. However, the primary focus of the book is a lengthy consideration of what she terms the “fundamental reasons” versus the “theological reasons” regarding the ban on women priests as she believes they are articulated in Inter Insigniores and Ordinatio Sacerdotalis.
Butler believes that those who advocate for women in the priesthood are too preoccupied with the theological arguments and do not sufficiently appreciate or understand the “fundamental reasons” for the Church’s position. Her insistence on this point is one of the book’s strengths. However, it should be noted that Inter Insigniores does not actually use the language of “fundamental reasons” and “theological reasons.” Instead the document explains the Church’s position and follows that explanation with theological arguments. I will show that there is more of an overlap between these two approaches to the doctrine than Butler admits.
The “fundamental reasons” in Inter Insigniores begin with a statement that the Church does not believe she has the authority to admit women to the ministerial priesthood. The Church is bound to follow an original gesture of Christ when he established the sacrament of Holy Orders. This is at once a christological and an ecclesiological issue. When Christ called only men to the company of the Twelve, we are confronted by the will of Christ himself. The apostles themselves were faithful to the expression of Christ’s will. The all-male priesthood begins with Christ, is continued by the apostles and is part of the unbroken tradition of the Church. As the document explains, “The Church intends to remain faithful to the type of ordained ministry willed by the Lord Jesus Christ and carefully maintained by the apostles.” Many who reject these reasons argue that Christ’s manner of acting, his will indeed, was subject to the historical conditions of the times. In other words, Christ was not free to act any differently than he did, as he was under cultural constraints to deny women liturgical leadership in the Church. But now that times have changed, the Church is free to abandon a practice that discriminates against women.
Butler points out that Inter Insigniores and Ordinatio Sacerdotalis both insist on Christ’s sovereign freedom in his choice of male apostles. And this is an enormously important point. Indeed, much of the legitimacy of the “fundamental reasons” is based on the fact that, not only did Christ act in a certain way, thus setting up a permanent norm, but that Christ acted in freedom. History does not constrain him, culture is not a barrier, history is not a force that may dictate to Christ his choices. Christ is the Lord of history, he is the Lord of his Church. Behind the “fundamental reasons” is a christological one, and while the Church’s documents insist on Christ’s freedom, it is the theologian’s task to explain why this is important. Butler does not provide this much-needed explanation. What is at stake is the very person of Christ—the divine Logos—in a gesture by which the constitution of the entire new covenant depends. If we follow the arguments of the dissenters, we are forced to conclude that in the very founding of the Church Christ (perhaps innocently) was guilty of an act of injustice to half of the human race. This, of course, is untenable.
Butler’s book is helpful when it explains objections to the Church’s teaching and her responses to those objections. Occasionally, however, Butler’s responses lack a necessary depth. For example, in her response to the accusation that the Church’s exclusion of women to the priesthood is unjust, Butler states that no injustice exists so long as the Church does not prevent anyone from attaining personal holiness. Since the ordained priesthood is not required for personal sanctity, there is no room for complaint. Such responses cannot bear the weight of the complaint and leaves the reader (especially those who have difficulty with the ban on female priests) rather dry.
Sometimes the author relies on the pat, perfunctory, and expected answer. This is especially the case when Butler answers an objection by a heavy reliance on the argument that not ordaining women is the Church’s tradition. For example, one objection states that Christ called only Jews to be apostles, but the Church sees no problem in departing from that original gesture of the Lord. Butler responds by stating, “[W]hile there is no theological or canonical tradition concerning the admission or exclusion of Gentile converts from priestly functions, there is a tradition concerning the exclusion of women from priestly ordination.” Butler brings the focus back to the “fundamental reasons,” which is necessary, considering how they are neglected in the debate. The fact remains, however, that the “fundamental reasons” alone have trouble convincing—and must be followed very quickly by the “theological reasons.”
While Christ as the divine Logos acted in a sovereign manner in establishing the sacraments of the New Covenant, it is important to argue quickly that the will of Christ is not arbitrary. Butler rightly demonstrates that insofar as the protagonists of women’s ordination “call into question the ‘fundamental reasons’ themselves, the distinction between reasons and arguments serves no purpose for them.” Yet the theological reasons are absolutely necessary unless we are to accept that Christ’s will is arbitrary and shrouded in an unfathomable mystery that makes no sense to believers.
In some ways Butler’s book gives the impression that the Church’s ban on female priests does not depend on “theological arguments” for its validity. She emphasizes, for example, that even The Catechism of the Catholic Church, as it relies on Inter Insigniores, refers to the
ongoing role of the Twelve—carried out by their successors—in the life of the Church. This rather sober, ecclesiological formulation directs attention to the vocation and symbolism of the Twelve, and for its importance for the constitution of the Church. It is by way of Jesus’ choice of 12 men that we know his will for the apostolic ministry of bishops and priests. No other appeal is made. . . . It does not say that bishops and priests are chosen from among men in order to represent Jesus who is male—only that they must be men to represent in the midst of the Church the Twelve whom he chose and sent out to carry on his ministry.
Again, Butler desires to emphasize that the “Church’s living tradition provides the proper context for discovering Christ’s will. One could imagine that things might be arranged differently, but the ecclesial discernment is rooted in the concrete events of biblical revelation and is bound by fidelity to Christ’s manner of acting.”
This reviewer agrees with Butler’s insistence that the fundamental reasons need to be better appreciated. Yet in a book that seeks not only to interpret the Church’s “settled doctrine” but also to explain it, the theology cannot be far behind. Indeed, I do not believe that the so-called theological reasons as articulated, for example, in Inter Insigniores are as secondary to the “fundamental reasons” as this book’s argument assumes. It may be important to emphasize the distinction because, after all, certain arguments on women’s unfittingness for the priesthood put forth by the Fathers of the Church and great saints like Thomas Aquinas are insulting to women and are rightly abandoned by the Church and contemporary theologians. The theology of an all-male priesthood has to do with the complementary/nuptial meaning of human sexuality and Christ’s masculine identity as bridegroom to the Church—a marital I/Thou relation that forms the very order of the covenant of salvation itself.
As important as the fundamental reasons are for the all-male priesthood, these reasons must be doctrinally based on something. In the chapter that deals specifically with these reasons, Butler recognizes that doctrinally the male gender of Christ and the Apostles “is not arbitrary, but significant.” Thus a close connection does exist between the fundamental reasons or Church doctrine and the theological reasons. I would argue that, indeed, the doctrine and the theology overlap and begin to merge into one another. This merger is rooted in the fact that the priest acts in persona Christi . This is not simply a theological argument. It is the doctrine of the Church. Acting in the person of Christ means to act in his role as head to the Church. Eucharistically, Christ cannot simply be identified with the Church. He is the head that causes the being of the Church. Christ’s gender is a sign of his headship—his masculinity is a sign of his difference-in-relation to his people.
Butler is correct when she points out that in the Incarnation the Logos “assumed our human nature.” She argues that the assumption of human nature is the primary focus of the Incarnation and not the male gender of Christ. She makes it appear, however, that Christ’s masculinity was a kind of divine flip of the coin, since Jesus, to be human, had to be “characterized by sex.” Since he chose to be male, this is now a “fact of history” and this fact becomes significant for the economy of salvation—as if this is something the Church is stuck with and must make sense of theologically. Yet there are trinitarian, christological, and metaphysical reasons for Christ’s incarnation as a male that Butler does not consider reasons that would help the book steer clear from making Christ’s male gender appear arbitrary.
Arbitrary or no, Christ’s male gender, as Butler recognizes, is constitutive of the economy of salvation. But this means we are not dealing any longer with merely theological reasons for the ban on women priests. After all, Christ’s male gender is as much a historical fact, as much a willful historical choice on the part of the Redeemer, as was his choice to call only men to be among the Twelve. Thus Christ’s having called only male human beings to be apostles, having called only male human beings to share in his priestly ministry, is preceded by the fact of his own masculinity in relation to the Church. Thus the “fundamental reasons” and the “theological reasons” are closely intertwined. If the Church believes she must remain faithful to an original gesture of Christ when he called only males to be apostles, she is even less free to dismiss the male gender of Christ in the economy of salvation upon which the meaning of that gesture depends. The ban on women priests is not simply a matter of the Church remaining true to a fact—Christ only chose men—but a matter of the Church remaining faithful to the fundamental truth of the relation between the order of redemption and the order of creation—an order the Church has no power to undo.
The strongest section in Butler’s book, perhaps a little ironically, is her discussion of the theological significance of Christ’s male gender as presented by John Paul II in Mulieris Dignitatem . Anyone looking for a good explanation of the all-male priesthood will find these pages very helpful. Towards the end, the book also provides quick summaries of and responses to the major arguments against the Church’s teaching. This section is a helpful reference tool. Moreover, Butler completes her book with a real contribution when, in chapter seven, she investigates the Church’s teaching on the all-male priesthood within John Henry Newman’s development of doctrine. It is interesting to note that here Butler concentrates on the theological reasons for the Church’s ban on women priests.
Catholics need to be well informed on the subject of this book if they are to offer a reasoned defense to a world that fails to appreciate sexual differences, much less the sacramental significance of those differences. Butler’s treatment of the Church’s ban on women priests, while not perfect, is a welcomed examination of a topic that still proves troubling to many. Considering her own personal intellectual transformation and her standing in the scholarly community, Butler’s book may have a positive influence on those who still find it difficult to accept the Church’s teaching on the all-male priesthood.
Monica Migliorino Miller, Ph.D., is associate professor of sacred theology at St. Mary’s College of Madonna University, Orchard Lake, Michigan, and author of Sexuality and Authority in the Catholic Church.