Latest Vatican document is final straw for women

Mary Condren, The Irish Times, July, 2010.

ANALYSIS: The Vatican must no longer be granted immunity from equality legislation, in the name of liberty, equality, and even the Gospel, writes MARY CONDREN

THE VATICAN’S recent Normae de Gravioribus Delictis document prescribes automatic excommunication for anyone involved in the ordination of a woman. In according greater penalties to those who “attempted” women’s ordination than to clerics who abused children, it has further shocked many loyal Irish Catholics, prompting them to inquire about the theological reasons why the Roman Catholic Church objects to women’s ordination.

A Vatican document issued in 1976 set out some of these arguments clearly.

1. That incarnation took place in the male sex and therefore women were excluded from the priesthood

Logically, this means that women should be excluded from baptism as well, since it is an ancient teaching of the church that “whatever has not become incarnate cannot be redeemed”. If the church insists here that “God became man” means God became male, then it cannot simultaneously argue that in liturgical language “man” means both male and female.

2. That no women were ordained in the New Testament

Jesus did not ordain anyone. Ordination as we know it today did not take place at all in the New Testament, and took another 300 years when Christianity and empire merged.

3. The practice of the church has a normative character in the fact of conferring priestly ordination only on men, it is a question of an unbroken tradition throughout the history of the church

This is the argument from tradition whose logic is as follows: If something wrong goes on for five years it might be mortal sin; if it goes on for 10 years it becomes venial sin; if it goes on for 2,000 years it is no longer considered wrong, but tradition.

The argument from tradition was also used against freedom from slavery, and many other issues in the history of the church.

4. When Christ’s role in the Eucharist is to be expressed sacramentally, there would not be this “natural resemblance” which must exist between Christ and his minister if the role of Christ were not taken by a man; in such a case it would be difficult to see in the minister the image of Christ

The church appears to be saying what feminists have suspected all along: that the image of Christ cannot be seen in a woman. Does this not make nonsense of the whole of Christian moral theology, which is based on the fact that we must “see Christ in the image of our neighbour, man or woman”?

What are the theological criteria for deciding between what is authentic Christian theology and mere phallic worship?

Over the years, many other arguments have been put forward to exclude women from ordination. Thomas Aquinas, for instance, could find no theological reason for such exclusion, but eventually concluded that women, like slaves, could not “signify eminence”, and, therefore, could not become priests. (Mary Robinson, Mary McAleese?)

Others sought to argue for women’s subordination in the realm of nature, but by 1976, even the Vatican knew better than to go down that road. In reality, they invented new arguments, and the one regarding Jesus’s “maleness” was considered by many distinguished Catholic theologians to be “approaching heresy”.

Before the Vatican issued the document, it had asked the pontifical biblical commission to explore the biblical reasons for excluding women. Seventeen out of 17 members concluded that they could fine none. To their great credit, several members resigned in protest at the use the Vatican had made of their work.

The 1976 document was a watershed for many women who had sought to serve the church and had begun theological and ministerial studies to that end. Some persisted and, at least in Ireland, remained mostly impoverished and marginalised.

Others despaired of remaining in perpetual opposition, and began to explore the deep seated psychological, anthropological and political reasons for the Vatican’s stance.

They looked, for instance, to Scandinavia where, since the late 1960s, women had been ordained. However, a “let-out” clause allowed those male clerics who disapproved to maintain “clean dioceses”, “clean parishes”, and even “clean vestments”, ie those that an ordained female body had yet to defile.

But the clerics continued their deliberations. What would happen if a pregnant woman came to be ordained? If her foetus turned out to be a male child, would apostolic succession automatically pass on to him? Would funeral or Eucharistic rites “take” if a woman priest happened to be menstruating?

The arguments raged until a cartoon appeared in the national newspapers. A male cleric was depicted asking the Lord whether he should resign. The Lord replied: “Think of your salary my son.”

Where equality legislation has been passed throughout the world, the Vatican has been granted immunity. But this latest document is the last straw.

In many impoverished countries, in the name of religious freedom, such misogynist attitudes legitimise violent practices toward women and children. All such immunity must now be withdrawn, in the name of liberty, equality, and even the Gospel.

Dr Mary Condren lectures at the Centre for Gender and Women’s Studies in TCD, and is director of the Institute for Feminism and Religion. www.instituteforfeminismandreligion.org