Women’s Ordination: is it a matter of “civil rights”? by Sr. Sara Butler, MSBT
A Catholic woman from Chicago, Judy Beaumont, was “ordained” to the priesthood recently in Fort Myers, Florida. She joins some124 other women who claim to have been validly ordained as priests and bishops in the Catholic Church. These women belong to the “Roman Catholic WomenPriests” movement, and their “ordinations” have taken place in many parts of the U.S. and beyond since 2002. The media continue to regard these attempted ordinations as newsworthy; the candidates are presented as stout-hearted women defying male authority to answer their call, even if it means (and it does) that they will incur automatic excommunication.
Bishop Bridget Mary Meehan, who ordained Miss Beaumont, explained to Time Magazine (September, 2010), “We’re the Rosa Parks of the Catholic Church.” This sound-bite is often repeated, for its appeal to the logic of the “civil rights” movement is readily grasped. Rosa Parks protested an unjust law by refusing to move when asked to give up her seat for a white man on a bus in Montgomery. “Women priests” protest what they regard as an unjust law in the Church by publicly attempting to receive the sacrament of Holy Orders that the Church reserves to men. They acknowledge that their ordinations are illicit, that is, in violation of church law (canon 1024), but they claim to stand “in the prophetic tradition of holy obedience to the Spirit’s call.” (RCWP-USA website) The media, sympathetic to their plight, tends to celebrate their defiance as evidence of moral courage in the face of injustice.
How might a Catholic theologian evaluate this claim? First, we should notice that the Roman Catholic Womenpriests and their associates frame their protest in terms of breaking a law, an unjust law that prohibits them from exercising their rights. Does every Catholic have a right to be ordained? No, no one in the Catholic Church has a right to be ordained. As the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith asserts in its 1976 Declaration “Inter insigniores” Regarding the Question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood (no. 6), “Baptism does not confer any personal title to public ministry in the Church.” The vocation must come from God and be confirmed by the Church’s pastors, and the pastors admit to priestly ordination only men who give evidence of having received a call from God. (See the Catechism of the Catholic Church §1578)
Now the women in this movement clearly believe that they have received a call from God that is confirmed by members of the communities they serve. They believe that they are unfairly prevented from responding to this vocation only by a law that the Church can and, in fact, must change. Is that the case? No, the law in question pertains to a doctrine. The reservation of priestly ordination to men is not simply a matter of discipline; it is a matter of doctrine, a doctrine that the Church has no authority to change. Blessed John Paul II makes this explicit in his apostolic letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis (May 24, 1994), no. 4. He acknowledges that in some places “the Church’s judgment that women are not to be admitted to ordination is considered to have merely disciplinary force.” But this is not the case. On the contrary, he asserts, the reservation of priestly ordination to men is “a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution.” He refers here to the belief that this constant tradition of sacramental practice is rooted in the will of Christ who chose only men to belong to the Twelve. (See the Catechism of the Catholic Church §1577.) He goes on to declare “that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women.”
Second, although the “women priests” admit that their “ordinations” were illicit, since they broke Church law, they nevertheless claim they were valid, that is, objectively effective. They argue that they have been validly ordained because (1) the women “bishops” who ordained them were themselves ordained by a male bishop in apostolic succession and in communion with the Holy See, and (2) the proper sacramental rite was used. How might a Catholic theologian evaluate this claim? As regards (1), it is impossible to assess the truth of the male bishop’s apostolic “credentials” since he wishes to remain anonymous, but even if he has impeccable credentials it does not mean that the women he ordained were made Catholic bishops capable of handing on the priestly office to others. As regards (2), it is likely that the proper sacramental rite (form and matter) was used, i.e., that the minister invoked the Holy Spirit and laid hands on the ordinands. But this is not enough! Validity requires not only that the minister be qualified to ordain and that the proper rite be used. It also requires the proper candidate or “subject.” For a valid ordination to the priesthood or episcopate, the subject must be a baptized male.
Advocates for the priestly ordination of women, like John Wijngaards, often overlook this. (Defenders of the Church’s teaching, in fact, often mistakenly identify the male candidate for ordination as the “matter” of the sacrament. But that is another topic.) The valid celebration of a sacrament requires not only the proper form and matter and the proper minister (with the right intention); it also requires the proper subject or candidate. Validity has to do with the objective efficacy of the rite. An invalid sacrament has no effect; nothing “happens.” For example, an unbaptized person who attempts to receive Confirmation does not receive the sacramental character or the grace of the sacrament. Another example is this: two women cannot receive the sacrament of Marriage. The proper subjects of this sacrament are one man and one woman because marriage is a sacramental sign of the relationship between Christ and the Church.
The sacramental sign of Holy Orders includes the priest himself; he is the subject of the rite, and thereafter, because he has received it, in actions that demand the character of ordination, he acts in the person of Christ the head and bridegroom of the Church. A woman—no matter how learned and holy—cannot, because of her sex, signify Christ in this relationship to the Church. The magisterium appeals to this line of theological reasoning to explain the meaning of the constant tradition of reserving priestly ordination to men. (Inter insigniores, no. 5)The Church has no authority to change something that belongs to the substance of the sacrament.
There is, then, no real analogy with the situation of Rosa Parks. The “ordinations” conferred on “Roman Catholic Womenpriests” are not only illicit but also invalid. These women have no right to be ordained, and they have not only “broken a law,” they have rejected a doctrine that pertains to the constitution of the Church. Catholic women who attempt to receive priestly ordination are not Catholic priests and bishops; they cannot consecrate the Eucharist, they cannot absolve sinners. They may call themselves “Roman Catholic” priests, but this is false advertising. They have separated themselves from the Catholic Church and have formed an independent sect.