Resources for more on the question
The following is a selection of resources, both in print and online, provided by Sr. Sara Butler at the St. Thérèse of Lisieux Lecture November 8.
• Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration on the Question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood (Inter insigniores), 1976. To read, go to www.vatican.va and look under “Roman Curia,” Congregations, Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, Documents.
• Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Letter on Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone (Ordinatio sacerdotalis), 1994. Also found on the Vatican’s Web site; look under “Supreme Pontiffs,” John Paul II, Apostolic Letters.
• Sr. Sara Butler, Catholic Priesthood and Women: A Guide to the Teaching of the Church.
• Sr. Sara Butler, “Women’s Ordination: Is It Still an Issue?” (Terence Cardinal Cooke lecture); access through www.archny.org, go to St. Joseph’s Seminary, then “faculty,” then Butler.
• Benedict Ashley, Justice in the Church: Gender and Participation. See Appendix 1 for complete answers to the usual questions.
• Guy Mansini, “On Affirming a Dominican Intention of a Male Priesthood,” The Thomist 61:2 (April 1997): 301-316. This article shows how one can discover, after the fact, an intention implicit in the Lord’s choice of men and not women to belong to the Twelve.
MADISON -- In a full hour-long talk, with questions following, Sr. Sara Butler addressed attendees of the St. Thérèse of Lisieux Lecture November 8 on the topic of women’s ordination.
The topic has been of concern for decades and in recent years has gotten much notice through a rise in Protestant women ministers, the secular media, and advocates for women clergy in the Catholic Church. The matter has been framed as a question from the feminist critique, Sister Sara said, but that focus is not the best way of approach for an understanding in the Catholic Church.
“They think it’s a matter of civil rights,” she said. “People are wondering what exactly is the obstacle.”
In her talk, Sister Sara, who acknowledged herself to have been in favor of women’s ordination for many years, outlined the arguments for it: from the arguments in Scripture, particularly the Pauline texts, having a suspected bias against women, to the idea of “full participation” and Jesus’ example in allowing women into his circle. From some Protestant perspectives, they can find no “theological obstacle” to ordaining women.
“They’ve cast themselves as civil rights advocates,” she said of groups such as Roman Catholic Womenpriests. “They regard this as a matter of justice, as if they have a right to ordination.”
The nature of the priesthood
So why is it, then, that the Catholic Church declares, as Pope John Paul II did in his 1994 apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, that the Church has no authority to change the teaching that priestly ordination is reserved to men, and that this belief must be “definitively held”?
The answer, given by both Popes Paul VI and John Paul II and explained in a 1976 declaration from the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith (CDF), is in the nature of the priesthood in the Catholic Church.
“They’re not talking about women or their characteristics or what they’re capable of,” Sister Sara said. In the CDF declaration specifically, they acknowledged the infliction of prejudice and unfairness in traditional explanations. “But we’re not using those arguments; we’re setting those aside. We’re not relying on outmoded opinions of women.”
Instead, the CDF gave four “Fundamental Reasons”:
• Constant tradition in the Church: The firm conviction, a few heretics aside, has been upheld throughout the centuries.
• The example of Christ: Jesus showed himself to be free from tradition, she said; he could have chosen a woman as an Apostle, but he didn’t — and not because Jesus was historically conditioned, or burdened by conventions. He chose, instead, 12 men.
• The practice of the Apostles: During the first generation, the only ones instituted by the laying on of hands were men; though women were active in ministry, they were not ordained.
• The normative character of Church practice: Despite the different traditions in the East and the West, the practice of male-only clergy was uniform, unchanged by sociocultural norms.
Beyond the fundamental
Only once we have understood the nature of the sacrament of Holy Orders in the Catholic Church can we then go beyond to the theological reasons, Sister Sara said: to the understanding of the covenant as a nuptial mystery, of the priest as a sacramental sign of Christ as Head and Bridegroom of the Church, and the nature and constitution of the Church in which the doctrine of the priesthood is presupposed.
It’s not a question of rights, but of different vocations, Sister Sara said. It’s a question of the gift Christ has instituted in the Church.
“Just as the Church cannot change the Sacrament of the Eucharist from bread and wine to chips and beer, this is not something that we thought of, but that we are given,” she said. “This is the doctrine of the Church.”
CD copies of the audio from Sr. Sara Butler’s talk are available from the Diocese of Madison upon request.