St. John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotaliswas published almost exactly 20 years ago and the passing of that milestone dredged up more discussion in the liberal catholic media on the possibility that Pope Francis would open the door to ordaining women. This despite the fact that this letter should have been enough of a final word on the matter to close serious discussion. Moreover, Pope Francis himself recently responded to such ideas emphatically exclaiming that “women must not be clericalized, they must be valued!”
I have some strong personal feelings on this topic because for me researching this topic was the gateway to my appreciation and understanding of the Church’s wisdom and gift in faithfully upholding Christ’s will and teaching it consistently and clearly. It’s not easy in the face of prevailing world trends to be so steadfast, but the reasoning behind this letter and all its support material was convincing and effective in changing my entire high school essay’s thesis, which originally accused the Church of sexism and close-mindedness. I was surprised in my research to find that thesis to be shallow in the face of the deep theology of the sacraments, especially that of Holy Orders and the symbolism of genders in God’s salvific plan. I came to respect the wisdom that underlies the teachings of the Church that are taken to be infallible.
Without getting into all of those details, I do find, though, that not all arguments are equally strong. For instance, I am not a fan of the speculative argument in the 3rd part of the Apostolic Letter that had Christ wanted Women priests he would have ordained Mary, His Mother to be a priest. I think Mary, in her role as Theotokos was plenty enough of a unique role, whereas Jesus chooses bishops and priests among many average men. Not having included Mary Magdalene, the first true witness of the resurrection among those upon whom He commissioned before ascending could be a better indication of His will. And surely the Son of God, as revolutionary as he was about universal human dignity was not about to succumb to societal sexism on this point!
What further convinced me was the result of the Anglican foray into ordaining women priests. Such a practice then required backup male-priests in order to acquiesce to those who objected. Division ensued with any efficacy of Anglican sacraments conferred by female clerics in doubt. Yet even these days the various dioceses of the Church of England continued to approve the elevation of women to the episcopacy to more divided opinions, as if the Anglican Communion needs further division! The Catholic Church in our day certainly cannot afford to cast doubt upon the efficacy of its sacraments, and therefore is right to be cautious about changing the matter or form of any of its sacraments.
In fact, the Church must also safeguard its position on the dignity of women. So often the debate over who can be admitted to be the priesthood is centered on power, whereas Pope Francis is trying to reclaim the role of a priest as primarily a servant. One analogy that had stayed with me in my student years was the priest as a cafeteria dishwasher, who hears and absolves sins like they were dirty dishes from the caf. Mulieris Dignitatem, another Apostolic Letter by John Paul the Great, began the movement to rediscover a true New Feminism which recognizes the unique dignity of the female vocational options. Hence the reservation of the priesthood to men is not so much a glass ceiling as it is a solid floor, a safe foundation to prevent us from undervaluing and disrespecting women in an age of record abuse and objectification of them despite the promises of radical feminism.
On this day, 20 years and a week after the publication of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, at the end of a week which celebrates both the Solemnity of the Ascension where began the active priestly ministry of Christ’s apostles, and the Feast of the Visitation which celebrates Mary’s unique role as Theotokos and thus the model for Christian women universally, I lift up in prayer all who are seeking and pursuing their special vocations in the Lord’s service. I especially dedicate this to my friend Paul Jang Han Goo, a fellow Seattle techie who will be ordained a transitional deacon tonight in Vancouver, BC. God bless you as you begin your ordained ministry!