Theological Thursday (II)

Women’s Ordination & the Catholic Faith

As a Catholic with a master’s degree in theology, and responsibility for the instruction of high school students, today’s article in the local newspaper forced me to address the controversy surrounding women’s ordination. 

It is a topic that requires more than a little subtlety, and is by no means a simple matter of “social justice” or “gender equality”.   What the linked article doesn’t tell you is the background of some of the women undergoing the upcoming illicit “ordination”.  One is actually a convert from another Christian denomination, having come to Catholicism in mid-life.  This fact in itself is certainly not prohibitive of service within the Catholic church, but it should evoke a concern for the integrity of Catholic teaching that might come from her.  Is she knowledgeable in Catholic belief and tradition, or is her theology more representative of her birth tradition?

 Anyone  familiar with the rigorous and lengthy process of seminary education knows it requires 6-9 years of formation prior to ordination.  That training includes over 100 credit hours of graduate study in theology and philosophy, at least one year of field education under the guidance of a more experienced priest, and a daunting battery of psychological evaluations and spiritual direction.   The convert I mentioned before received a single year of instruction, and most of that in a correspondence course.  Is such a paltry level of training all that we really want or need from our pastors and priests?  Would you feel confident leaving your questions of faith and the religious instruction of your children in the hands of a novice? 

Or have our standards and respect for the office of priest (and what it represents–Jesus Christ) fallen so far we are willing to excuse her inadequate education merely for the sake of her gender?  In the name of “equality” are we now willing to allow ordinations that would never be permitted by the bishops even if the recipients were men?   

Perhaps at its root, the issue of female ordination, like “gay marriage”,  has more to do with our culture’s mistaken understanding of the difference between  “rights” and  “desires”.  Between what we truly “need” and what we merely “want”.   I may “want” to be a husband and a father–I may even believe with all my heart that God has called me to be those things.  But that soul-deep desire does not give me a right to grab the next attractive, single girl off the street and force her to marry me.   If any type of marriage is a “civil right”, then I’m perfectly justified in demanding some woman somewhere marry me.   Marriage is a gift and a blessing, and one that many people are never offered a chance to enjoy.  It is one I fear I may never know. 

Similarly, I do not believe ordination–whether of females or males–to be a “right”.  As a man I certainly do not feel I have a right to be ordained.  Ordination is a great gift–an honor to serve the Lord in a particular way.  

In one sense, it is a gift all baptized Catholics already enjoy (as we are called “priest, prophet, and king” during our baptism into Christ).  As a campus minister, I’ve had kids come to me during reconciliation services and pour out their souls and sins to me as though I were a priest.  I’ve told them I can’t confer absolution as a priest can, but that I can pray with and for them, and plead with the Father for the forgiveness of both our sins.  I urge them to make use of the sacrament of confession anyway, and explain the difference between it and what we’ve just done.  This example is one of many ways I get to exercise the general priesthood possessed by every baptized Catholic, and illustrative evidence that there are all sorts of ways to live “as a priestly people” without possessing the seal of ordination. 

I feel sympathy for the women who want to serve others, God, and the Catholic church.   Their desire to give of themselves is commendable.  I staunchly affirm the need for female perspectives to enlighten schools, councils, and positions of leadership within the church (and yes, I find the sudden recent change of canon law forbidding conferral of the position of cardinal to women to be…questionable).  But are there not already thousands of gratifying ways they can be carrying out service?  Why is this one such an issue to some that they would rather possess it or abandon the Body of Christ? 

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