Do Women Have a Role in the Liturgy and in the Church?

When I was at the Gregorian in Rome, I had a female professor who was convinced that there had to be women present at the Last Supper, and as such, could be considered to have been ordained priest along with the rest of the disciples. What was her argument? “Well, you honestly think a bunch of men were going to put on a dinner, serve it, and clean up after it by themselves!” I don’t know enough about Near Eastern archeology to ascertain whether she has a point or not, but it did certainly get a rise out of the seminarians! As a dogmatic theologian, I tend to depart, not from scriptural texts, but dogmatic definitions. So, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, in which Blessed John Paul II wrote that the Church does not have the authority to ordain women, suffices for me. The perennial teaching authority of the Church has made it very clear that women have never been validly ordained priests. The same authority has also made it clear that the difference between the ministerial and the common priesthood is not one of degree but of kind. The two are completely different.

Some people conclude from this, that the liturgy then, is closed to half of the human race. They offer this as proof that the Catholic Church is anti-woman, and that the Church is stuck in an outmoded patriarchal system that harbors a fundamental injustice at its very core. This is a very serious charge, and in an age in which equality has degenerated into egalitarianism, many young people, formed in universities that are “Catholic in name only”, have decided that the Catholic Church has erred. It is simply not enough to repeat the classical doctrine of the Church as formulated in Ordinatio sacerdotalis; we must put forth reasons why that teaching is actually in accord with the Gospel.

Now, here we are not going to solve that problem. But we do want to examine certain aspects of it so as to attempt to answer some of the more controverted problems of it.

It is important to discern what it means for a baptized Christian to participate in the liturgy? Two things must be brought to mind. First, Baptism confers on its recipient a potestas, a sacred power, to participate in the Mass. While a very etiquette-conscious Zoroastrian friend may come to Mass with us and sing, stand and kneel at all the proper times, he cannot be said properly to participate in the liturgy. Why? Baptism makes the individual part of the Body of Christ, and it is the Christ who in the liturgy re-presents Himself, offering Himself up in sacrifice to the Father. Because we are grafted onto the Christ who is both sacrifice and victim, priest and offering, we are also grafted into that mystery. Second, in the Body of Christ there are many members: there is the Head, and then there are the other members who cannot function without the Head. Ordination to the priesthood confers on its recipient a potestas, a sacred power, to offer the Mass as Christ the Head, and not as the members of Christ’s body.

There are thus two different sacred powers associated with two different sacraments which were instituted by Christ for the salvation of souls. But they both are intimately related to the sacrificial offering and priesthood of Christ, although in ways irreducible one to the other. These two distinct powers mark the difference between the ministerial priesthood of Christ the Head conferred by Ordination and the common priesthood of the members of Christ’s Body conferred by Baptism. Just as Christ’s Body and Head are distinct, but cannot live one without the other, so too the priesthood and the laity are distinct and cannot live one without the other.

Note that in none of this discussion has the difference between the two types of priesthood been described in terms of function. The difference is not functional, but sacramental. Furthermore the two are not parallel to each other as adversaries, but mutually complementary to such a degree as to be impossible one without the other. Thus we understand why Blessed John Henry Newman, when asked what he thought of the laity, responded, “We’d look foolish without them!” Just as a head would look foolish without a body.

If the Mass is the sacramental re-presentation of the self-offering of Jesus Christ to the Father, the sacramental distinction between ministerial and common priesthood is logical. But once we begin to see the Mass as a sacrifice of praise given by a community to God, it is hard not to transform our idea of the priesthood from a sacramental one to a functional one. Once the functional trumps the sacramental, the ministerial priest becomes one elected among the assembly of the faithful who presides over them by gathering them together and organizing their common prayer. The common priest is then one who participates in any way in such a common prayer. Then the question arises: if the priesthood (common or ministerial) is merely a question of function, Who decides who fulfills those functions?

Note that here the sacramental reference to Baptism and Ordination is removed. Participation in the liturgy is no longer: 1) according to the mode proper to a sacred power received by a sacrament, 2) a mystical participation in the redemptive act of Christ’s sacrifice. Instead, participation is: 1) a mere being part of a common prayer by self-selection in to the community that celebrates that prayer, 2) an earthly participation in an act of praise to God.

This Advent 2011, in the English speaking words we will hear for the first time in our own language the priest saying, Pray, brethren, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God, the Almighty Father. Up until now, we have heard since 1969, Pray, that our sacrifice may be acceptable to God, the Almighty Father. I could be wrong, but I think that this sentence alone will raise a lot of questions. First, isn’t “mine and yours” ours anyway? Isn’t it just easier to say ours in English? Second, is this sacrifice somehow no longer mine, or at least as it was in the same way as it was from 1969 to 2011?

We should not underestimate the capacity for misunderstanding and bad feeling here. It is entirely conceivable that some may interpret that the priest presider-celebrant, may be seen to deliberately distance himself from his people by such an awkward phrase. Some may then conclude that this is just another example of clericalism and “turning back the clock” to a time when priests were on a pedestal from which they have fallen in disgrace.

Also think of how the people will see the priest when he says this prayer. Until the post-Vatican II reforms, the priest said, in Latin, the same thing which will be said again from 2011 on: “my and yours.” He turned to the people and said that, and then turned right back around to the altar. In doing so, he visually reminded people that they had a part in the sacrifice as well, according to their Baptism, and then he asked them to unite themselves to that sacrifice in that way as he then turned away from the people towards the Cross, the visual cue to the sacrifice that he would then participate in according to his Ordination. In 2011, in many places, the priest will say “my and yours” and continue to face the people, with the Altar actually becoming a visual barrier between his priesthood and the people’s, with the Cross, the visual cue to the sacrifice, barely or nowhere to be seen.

So, although we are returning to the pre-Vatican II verbiage, although in English instead of Latin, in many places we are not returning to the pre-Vatican II position of the celebrant at the altar. I fear that this will create an ambiguity of meaning. If one has an essentially sacramental notion of the Sacrifice of the Mass and of the ministerial and common priesthood, the orientation of the Mass is always to the Cross by that very fact, although that fact is very eloquently symbolized by priest and people all facing the Cross together. But if one has transformed the meaning of the Mass to a common prayer in which function is the only differentiating factor, then “my and yours” sets up an intolerable division. Likewise, if one has transformed the meaning of the Mass to a common prayer in which the presider only has the function to organize the prayers of the assembly, the phenomenon of the presider turning away from the people he has been called by them to preside with is seen as rude and meaningless.

So what does this have to do with women? When we read why some Catholic support women’s ordination, it is crucial to understand what they mean by several things: 1) what is the Mass? 2) what does it mean to participate in the Mass? 3) what does it mean to be a priest? It is entirely conceivable that there are supporters of women’s ordination who hold the orthodox answers to those three questions: 1) Mass is the re-presentation of the sacrifice of Christ to His Father, 2) participation in the Mass is according to the mode of the sacred power given by sacraments received, and 3) the ministerial priesthood is of essence, and not degree, different than the common priesthood.

But for many supporters of women’s ordination, the answers to those three questions are entirely different: 1) the Mass is a common prayer of those who have self-selected to join in it, 2) participate means to be a part of that common prayer, 3) we are all priests.

Varying answers to those questions have actually split the proponents of women’s ordination into two camps. In the first, ordination is sought as a way to correct a perceived injustice and confer a power on those who to whom it has been denied. In the second, as feminist theologian Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza brilliantly put it, “Ordination is subordination and that’s exactly what we don’t want.”

As to the first, it must be noted that, if participation in the ministerial and common priesthood is a sacramental relationship with Christ, the only relationship of justice in the Mass in between God and human beings. How do we render justice to God by our worship and our life, not how do we render justice to other human beings, which, although it is am important question of Christian life, as nothing to do with the Mass itself. Second, the power of Baptism and Ordination is not a juridical power which priests and laypeople exercise to the benefit or the detriment of Church and society. The power of Baptism and Ordination is a capacity to worship. That capacity to worship puts both ministerial and common priesthood into a double relationship: of ordination to God, as the power orders them to union with God, and subordination, as the power also must make them servants to the God experienced in the Mass.

Both camps of women’s ordination supporters then, are at odds with the classical teaching of the Church, not because they think that women should be priests, but because their understanding of priesthood, Mass and power is completely different than that of the Church.

One of the things that Schussler Fiorenza correctly identified was the subordination aspect of the ministerial priesthood. Just as Christ the Head was both Priest and Victim, and offered Himself up entirely for all (although it would only be the many in whom that offering would be fruitful), the ministerial priest must offer himself up entirely for all as well, as Priest and Victim after the imitation of Christ. Because the liturgy is principally the action of Christ, the priest then cannot in any way not be subordinate to Christ. The way in which the Church calls for the liturgy to be celebrated sub-ordinates the Priest to the action of Christ in the liturgy. His “my” in “my and yours” is not a “my” belonging to himself. The “my” belongs entirely to Christ, and that sacrifice in its ritual form must be accomplished according to the “my” of Christ spoken through His Church, not “my” arbitrary feelings of the way the Mass should be celebrated.

The ad orientem position of the celebrant at the Mass also underscores the fact that “my” does not belong to the individual ministerial priest, but to Christ. The priest faces the Cross, the visual cue of the sacrifice, which is inseparably connected to the Altar, the place of sacrifice, when Christ is re-presenting the sacrifice through the Mass. Facing the people during the sacrifice displaces the visual cue to the sacrifice and then makes the place of sacrifice into a barrier between the “my” of the priest and the real “My” which refers to the sacrifice on the Altar.

One may argue that the Church could in theory preserve the classical understanding of the Mass, the priesthood, and ad orientem celebration and still ordain women. But the Church has already “definitively” taught that she has no right to do so. So what is the role of women in the common priesthood of the faithful during the liturgy?

First of all, the radical gender equality among Christians is a truth for the common priesthood of the baptized. The fact that women are not ordained to the ministerial priesthood does not take away from equality among the members of the Church, Christ’s Body. As such, it is crucial for the laity to understand what it means when the priest asks them: offer “your” sacrifice to the Almighty Father.
Here is where we can profit from an insight of Hans Urs Von Balthasar. He wrote that that there are two ministries within the Church: the Petrine and the Marian. The Petrine can we can associate with the ministerial priesthood of Ordination. The Marian we can associate with the common priesthood of Baptism. One of the arguments opponents of women’s ordinations often put forward is this: If Jesus intended to ordain women as priests, why would He not have chosen His Mother, Mary, especially as she was sinless? The counter-argument, that Jesus was conditioned by the patriarchal society of His time, is unacceptable because it dismisses Christ’s divinity (in which case, why have any discussion at all?), and because the Ancient Near East was very familiar with priestesses of many types.

Behind that question, however, is an assumption: that people should be chosen for the priesthood because of their moral worth. Their dignity for ordination comes from the fact that they have qualities which others recognize which fit them for the functions of the priesthood. It is a functionalist, and not a sacramental, vision of the ministerial priesthood. So when women are told that they cannot be priests, some ask whether the Church by excluding them is saying that they are somehow unworthy of the dignity to undertake the functions of a priest. But, as we have seen, the classical Catholic teaching is that moral worth, talent or qualities is not a reason to ordain someone. If it were, then the Twelve would not have been chosen! The Church chooses some people, among celibate men who have been formed in a particular way, to be ordained to the priesthood.

But if Mary was not a ministerial priest, then can she be said to even belong to the common priesthood? Apart from the theological question of whether Mary was baptized, we can say that she offered her own sacrifice in union with that of Christ. The sacrifice she offered was the continual obedience of her life to the Word of God and her close union in prayer and love with her Son. She exercised a priesthood of sacrifice, sacrificing herself in love, prayers and works of mercy; she was a victim for love, not holding back even her own Son for love; she was a sacrifice, giving up herself entirely over to the Triune God to do with her according to the Divine Will. Mary participated in the liturgy, in the Mass, because she offered the sacrifice of her life in union with the Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross.

When the priest turns to the people and asks them to offer their sacrifice, theirs is a true sacrifice, they do participate in the sacrifice of Christ. But it is not the same sacrifice as the one by which Christ offers Himself to His Father. But the sacrifice, victimhood and priesthood of the laity is nonetheless a real one. And it is real to the extent that it is really united with the Sacrifice of Christ which gives it meaning.

After Vatican II, the priesthood of the laity has been seen not so much in sacramental terms of a power to offer the sacrifice of their lives in union with the Sacrifice of Christ. It has been seen in functional terms, and so we have seen the laity assuming what they felt to be heretofore the rights of the ministerial priesthood. It is important to realize that many of the laity have done this because the clergy themselves confused the sacramental distinction with a functional one. Especially in the United States, many laity enthusiastically responded to the invitations of their priests to take on these functions. We should be reticent to criticize them for responding generously to an invitation. But we also need to redimension the participation of the laity and the clergy in the life of the Church so that it reflects the true nature of the Mass, the priesthood, and the sacramental rather than functional distinctions between them.

All of the above, however, is applicable to the laity. The common priesthood of the baptized offers the sacrifice of its life in union with that of Christ on the Cross. But what about women specifically? Are they merely just to be considered part of the non-ordained laity? Is there something special for them specifically, just as there is something specific for some men in the ministerial priesthood?
This is not an unimportant question. Especially given the long history of self-sacrifice of women for the Church and the liturgy, a history which has not been duly valued, celebrated, or thanked! Is there a special way in which women can participate in the liturgy? And is there such a way which is not bound to historically or culturally conditioned notions of masculinity and femininity?

Before offering a few thoughts on that subject, I would like to make an observation. One of the phenomena that contemporary women are grappling with now is how their struggle for equal rights in civil society has effected their specific notion of what it is to be a woman. So often, the goal was to prove how women could be equal to or better than a man. The problem was that, the reference point was always men. Now many women are trying to discover how they can be equal to men but still be who they are, women.

Does this have a counterpart in the liturgy? Often, women were pressed into service to show how they could be as competent in the same functions formerly performed by men in the liturgy. Many women have enthusiastically and competently discharged the duties of lector, extraordinary minister of Holy Communion, as well as many other non –liturgical functions within the Church. But often, the reference point was the male ministerial priesthood. For that reason, many began to ask, “If Mrs McGillacuddy can do X, Y, and Z as well as or better than Father O’Connor, then why not let her do it?” But if Mrs McGillacuddy is an orthodox Catholic, she has no desire to be ordained as a ministerial priest. So is the only way she can participate in the liturgy either as a non-gendered layperson performing functions once reserved to the male priesthood, on the one hand, or being a part of the all-woman Altar and Rosary Society washing and ironing the linens and doing the flowers, on the other?

An orthodox Catholic woman seems to have only such two alternatives. And often, when orthodox Catholics talk about what woman should do in church, it usually revolves around the answer to the question, “Should women cover their heads in church?” (Of course, St Paul already answered that question in the affirmative, and not because he was a misogynist!) The question becomes: how can women offer the sacrifice of their lives as women in union with the life of Christ, exercising the power of their Baptism to worship God? However they may answer that question, it does not exclude them from doing certain things (fulfilling certain roles at Mass, singing in the choir, teaching catechism, ironing linens) that all laity can do.

When we look at the women in the New Testament, we get an idea of what women’s participation in the life of the Church and the liturgy should look like. As equal members of the Body of Christ, they had no need of ordination to worship God, or to do the amazing things that they did. And those things were often more remarkable, and had more staying power, than what the Twelve did. The constant close attention of the women in the Gospel to Christ and to others, serving them and in doing so, serving Christ. It is entirely correct to say that a woman’s place in the Church is one of subordination, just as all disciples freely subordinate themselves to love God and all people. A woman’s place in the Church is to follow Christ, lavish her love without cost upon Him, serve the needs of the poor and the defenseless: in other words, a subordination to the law of love. In doing so, women can find that they are not indeed slaves to an outmoded patriarchal system drunk on abuses of power and justice, but friends of Christ. And there can be no greater freedom and noble role in the Church and world than that!

7 Replies to “Do Women Have a Role in the Liturgy and in the Church?”

  1. What a wonderfully clear and logical explanation. While the liturgy will continue to be a battleground, I have often thought Lumen Gentium has not been appropriately read, much less applied. The laity's role, both within liturgy and the church, still needs clarification, IMVHO.

  2. The problem here is that you are (adequately, really) addressing an argument for Women's Ordination which is inherently flawed. (The fact that many/most proponents of women's ordination hold the flawed view does not mean that it is the only or the best argument in favor- a point which causes me no end of consternation when interacting with pro-women's-ordination groups/people).

    Common Argument 1:
    It's about fairness and equality.
    Easy Orthodox Answer:
    Human fairness and God's laws are not the same.

    Common Argument 2:
    Any woman could be just as good at performing the duties of a priest.
    Easy Orthodox Answer:
    Fitness for duty is the issue. Priesthood is not a validation of a man's moral worth, mental aptitude, or physical capabilities.

    Common Argument 3:
    Power should be shared.
    Easy Orthodox Answer:
    a) Says who?
    b) The ministerial priesthood isn't about power.

    But none of those is really the point, even though the (admittedly tiresome) women's ordination proponents keep rehashing some version of them over and over.

    The real point is…

    What is the Church's explanation of a male-only priesthood? Besides the instruction of "no women," and the appeal to tradition, has the Church ever explicitly explained its thinking on the matter?

    Why, yes it has…
    The Christian priesthood is therefore of a sacramental nature: the priest is a sign, the supernatural effectiveness of which comes from the ordination received, but a sign that must be perceptible and which the faithful must be able to recognise with ease. The whole sacramental economy is in fact based upon natural signs, on symbols imprinted on the human psychology: 'Sacramental signs,' says St.Thomas,' represent what they signify by natural resemblance.' The same natural resemblance is required for persons as for things: 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. For Christ himself was and remains a man.

    Christ is of course the firstborn of all humanity, of women as well as men: the unity which he re-established after sin is such that there are no more distinctions between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, but all are one in Christ Jesus (Gal.3:28). Nevertheless, the incarnation of the Word took place according to the male sex: this is indeed a question of fact, and this fact, while not implying and alleged natural superiority of man over woman, cannot be disassociated from the economy of salvation: it is indeed in harmony with the entirety of God's plan as God himself has revealed it, and of which the mystery of the Covenant is the nucleus.

    Just so we're clear, then…
    The official teaching of the Catholic Church on this point is:
    a)Women are inherently less Christ-like than men.
    b)Of all the physical/temporal attributes of the human incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity, gender is more than any other (race, ethnicity, height, weight, eye color, hair length, blood type, handedness, etc)
    c)Even after taking into account the sheep/goat parable, it is okay to find it difficult to recognize Christ in a woman.

    The ordination or not of women needs to be understood in these terms. It is about Theology, not fairness. When the pro-women's-ordination groups understanding this, perhaps we will finally have a real conversation about what is really at stake.

  3. It's like learning science, when we understand the Mass more fully, we can discover the proper places of people and things that God has created. God created the whole universe in order, maybe we are constantly messing up and trying to destroy that natural order. Men and women are created equally in dignity, but have different roles to play both in Mass and outside the Mass. Both men and women can be like Christ in different ways in loving and sacrificing ourselves to God the Father.

  4. AS we know, many Catholics are confused about 'actual participation.' We truly participate in Holy Sacrifice of the Mass when we live our life as Christians with true charity and sacrifices as our Lord showed us and come to the Mass with humility to receive the graces pour out to us.

    Also many of us try to be Martha, but our Lord said Mary chose the better part; sit down and listen and receive His grace humbly. Being busy doesn't necessarily mean you are being more productive as our contemporary life style pushes us.

  5. While it is true that one cannot contest the "maleness" of Jesus, I find it difficult to believe that our salvation is contingent upon the "maleness" of the Risen Christ.

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