(By Mada Jurado and Cameron Doody)

Though it is never far from the front pages, the issue of women’s ordination returned to the headlines this past week with two calls in the space of two days from Pope Francis that women “participate more in areas of responsibility in the Church”.

– Pope’s call for more responsibility for women in Church “totally inadequate”: Scripture scholar John Wijngaards

In his prayer intention for October, and again at the Sunday Angelus, Francis stressed that in the Church “we must promote the integration of women, especially where important decisions are made”, but “without falling into forms of clericalism that diminish the lay charism”.

In other words: responsibility for women, yes, as long as that doesn’t involve the priesthood.

Well-known Scripture scholar John Wijngaards expressed his disappointment with the Pope’s call in a note on the website of the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research:

“The Pope wants women to have more leadership in the Church, but he restricts this to ‘lay’ functions such as administration, pastoral care. It is totally inadequate. When Jesus gave leadership to his Apostles, he gave spiritual power: to proclaim the message, baptise, forgive sins, preside at the Eucharist. Moreover, Church Law gives all real decision-making authority to ordained ministers”.

Why should it be “totally inadequate” that women be handed more responsibility in the Church while still being excluded from ordination? Why is the female priesthood so important?

Wijngaards answers both those questions in his brilliant new book What they don’t teach you in Catholic college: Women in the priesthood and the mind of Christ.

At a highly-accessible 213 pages, including copious references, index, author biography and three appendices bringing together all the recent papal ‘noes’ to female priests, a timeline of the women’s ordination movement and a rather problematic section on “the genetic basis of gender roles” (more on that below), it is a must-read for both supporters, and critics, of women in the priesthood.

– Could the Church’s (eventual) turn-around on slavery show the way it could reverse its subjugation of women?

In essence, Wijngaards argues in his latest volume that the exclusion of women from the Catholic priesthood is comparable to the abomination of slavery.

Sexism, like slavery, is a tremendous injustice and an offence against human dignity, according to any number of cultural codes. But unlike with sexism – or at least to date – the Church was able to reverse its historical support for slavery, using arguments Wijngaards believes can also help to overturn the traditional Catholic subjugation of women.

In 1866 Pope Pius IX declared: “It is not contrary to the natural and divine law for a slave to be sold, bought, exchanged or given”.

Less than a hundred years later, however, the Second Vatican Council taught: “All offences against human dignity: such as… arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery… the traffic in women and children… all these and the like are criminal, They poison civilisation… and militate against the honour of the Creator”.

How could the Church manage a 180-degree turn on slavery in the space of less than a century, and save theological face in the meantime?

– “Human rights” arguments, practical mission concerns not enough to argue for women priests?

Crucial in the first place to the erradication both of legalised slavery and of the Church’s support for the practice were what we might call the “human rights” objections to human indenture.

“No single person may be deprived of his [sic] liberty. Are these tribals not people like us? Do they not have rational souls? Are we not obliged to love them as we love ourselves?”, cried 16th-century friar and champion of the indigenous Bartolomé de las Casas in an appeal to the Spanish king to end slavery.

The words of the great Dominican social reformer echo in Wijngaards’ repeated claims that the exclusion of women from the priesthood is an “unconscionable, age-old injustice”.

But Wijngaards also accepts that arguing for the priesthood of women from ideas of equal rights is unlikely to persuade Church authorities, who continue to allege that women are already equal in the eyes of both God and the Church (p. 139).

In his appeal to the Spanish king, de las Casas also cried that slavery was inimical to evangelisation: “Our Christian religion is suitable for, and may be adapted to all the nations of the world, and all alike can receive it…”.

Wijngaards cites a number of first-hand sources to note that the ban on female ordination has the same effect of hindering the Church’s mission in places where clerics are few, and to argue that women deacons and priests would give millions more Catholics regular access to the sacraments, “significantly improve the Church’s pastoral care” and enable the Church “to reach out to people where men cannot” (chapter 12).

But as de las Casas’ appeal fell on deaf ears, not even the practical benefits of having women in ordained ministry seems to be enough to convince the Church’s upper echelons of the need for female ordination, as the Pope’s refusal of women deacons at last October’s Amazon Synod showed.

And so we are left with the theological reasons for female ordination, but the good news is that these are where Wijngaards really shines.

– Jesus couldn’t have planned for everything. How can we discern his mind on issues that he never spoke to explicitly?

Jesus never directly challenged the institution of slavery of his day, and yet the Church finally came around to condemning the practice after encouraging it for nearly two thousand years. Wijngaards’ intuition is that that theological turn-around might hold clues as to how to dismantle the marginalisation of women that Christ apparently took for granted in his day and upon which acquiescence the Church has constructed its entire misogynistic complex.

But how would that dismantling operation proceed? In the first place, Wijngaards observed that like our societies today, the earliest Christian communities were shaped by “cultural prejudice and social myth” (chapter 3). The problem in the Church is that the Greco-Roman gender bias in which it was formed became solidified in canon law and in the teachings of saints such as Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure.

Like everyone else, “Jesus was very much hampered by the ‘social myth’ of the world in which he lived”, according to Wijngaards (p. 57). That is why Jesus chose twelve apostles to replace the twelve Israelite patriarchs, for example, or why he accepted traditional Jewish teaching on marriage and family (chapter 4).

But here is the crux of Wijngaards’ argument: just because Jesus did ‘x’ or ‘y’ in his day doesn’t mean that he wanted that to become the permanent rule in the future of the community he founded. But then the question becomes: how can we know what Jesus would have wanted for the future Church?

– Clues in the Gospels

In the first place, to discern the mind of Jesus on women priests, we have the Gospels, but as Wijngaards points out we first have to understand how to read those texts.

“God sometimes says more in Scripture by suggestions, hints and pointers than by flat statements”, Wijngaards recalls (p. 83; cf. p. 66), and that exegetical tool enables him to turn to the Gospel of Luke, in particular, to show that “many of Jesus’ words and actions seem to imply that he would be open to women’s greater participation in the ministry in the future” (p. 66).

Luke’s ‘Gospel of the Holy Spirit’ – the book of Acts – reflects a Church choosing new leaders not chosen by Jesus himself and going further than Christ did in his lifetime by reaching out to the Gentiles. From that starting point, all the Evangelist’s stories of notable women – Elizabeth, Anna, the widow of Naim, the housewife who lost her coin and the tenacious widow, not to mention Mary Magdalene, the Virgin and a whole host of others – appear in an altogether different light, as does Jesus’ tenderness in dealing with them (chapters 5-6).

In the Gospels, too, according to Wijngaards, we encounter Christ instituting a radically new priesthood based not now on sacrality as in ancient Judaism but instead on grace (chapter 7). Baptism, not ordination – and baptism open to both men and women – is what in essence confers Christ’s new priesthood, with the commission to teach, rule and offer sacrifice being contingent on that baptism and going along with the call to “sympathy, service and love” (p. 98). Virtues Wijngaards observes that women live out as much, if not more, than men.

Jesus recognised those qualities in women, too, and for that reason explicitly commissioned them at the Last Supper to preside at the Eucharist, Wijngaards recalls – despite what some Scripture scholars maintain (chapter 8).

– Arguments from the tradition and the “Catholic sense”

Along with the Gospels and Acts, later Church tradition also helps us grasp the mind of Christ on the place of women in the Church. As later historical practice on female ordination is clear, Wijngaards reminds us, providing a very helpful but again very accessible rundown on the tasks that thousands of women deacons performed in the Church for over a thousand years (chapter 9).

But as if his scriptural and historical analysis were not enough, Wijngaards also appeals to the theological idea of the sensus fidelium – the inerrant and infallible “sense of faith” the whole people of God hold in their hearts – to shore up his argument for women’s ordination (chapter 10).

For 16 centuries, he recalls, “Catholics venerated Mary, the mother of Jesus, as a priest” (pp. 122-25). Not even the Vatican crackdown on that devotion in 1927 has been enough to suppress the desire of the faithful for female priests, with 70% of Catholics in the US supporting women’s ordination, along with believers in the Netherlands (90%), France (83%), Spain (78%), Argentina (60%), Italy (59%) and Brazil (54%; pp. 118-19).

Those numbers speak for themselves.

– Jesus speaks today

“Blaming Jesus for the exclusion of women is not a valid excuse. Plain patriarchal prejudice has been the real culprit”, Wijngaards concludes (p. 143).

We close this review with a powerful speech the author puts on the lips of Jesus himself (p. 82):

What is all this discussion about women in the ministry? What makes you think I would turn them away from the sanctuary or from my altar? Have I not always stressed the real thing rather than the accidentals?

When I was in the house of Simon the Pharisee, did I not praise the sinful woman for exercising the ministry of the footwashing? It was not her status, nor her previous sins, but her love that counted in my eyes.

By her kiss of welcome, by washing my feet, by her gift of ointment, it was she who was my minister at that moment more than all the men who sat around.

Would I refuse any woman to be my minister who could serve my Body, the Church, in the same way: by breaking the bread, by pouring the water of baptism or anointing the sick?

Don’t you think I am happy that women in your time are at last given that position in society that is rightly theirs? Would I not recognise the real contribution a woman priest can make in the new world you are living in now?

– One final thought: the shadow of cissexism

If we had one criticism to make of Wijngaards’ otherwise brilliant book, it would be of his appendix on “[t]he genetic basis of gender roles”, in which he argues that “[m]en and women are different, both biologically and psychologically. There are inborn traits which predispose them to different tasks in the family. Although such differences should not be exaggerated, they are part and parcel of a person’s physical and mental make-up”.

“Man’s [sic] body is much better adapted to rough physical work”, Wijngaards continues; “woman [sic], on the other hand, possesses a body that is structured for motherhood”. He tries to point to psychological tests and even “studies of the human brain” to argue boys and men are inherently more aggressive, obstinate and violent, while girls and women are more affectionate, nurturing and interactive. According to Wijngaards, scientific studies of “224 economically primitive societies from all over the world” also show that men are predisposed to tasks like hunting and fishing and women to gathering and home-making.

The problem with this entire argument is that it assumes a gender binary – “male” and “female” – which has no basis in “reality”, but instead is a complete cultural construct. And unfortunately, Wijngaards’ cissexism is revealed when he criticises in his appendix “unisex clothing and trans-sexual [sic] hairstyles”.

Warning against people who “are so fanatical about equality of rights that seem anxious to minimise the differences between the sexes”, Wijngaards cautions that “it is doubtful whether a society with more masculine women and more feminine men will be a happier community in which to live”. “What’s more, the notion seems doomed to failure”, he adds, but these straight allies would strenously disagree.

Writing on the blog of the Women’s Ordination Conference, managing editor of the LGBT New Ways Ministry Robert Shine offered a powerful argument as to why “the movement for gender equity in the Catholic Church is vacuous if the reform and renewal sought does not include people whose gender are outside the Vatican’s favored male/female binary”.

Writing as a self-identified feminist Catholic, Shine continued:

“Resistance to a fully inclusive movement is not only the domain of trans-exclusive radical feminists (TERFs) or those who believe including non-binary folks erases women’s struggles, both of whom are problematically in our ranks. Exclusion is also the domain of those people, generally heterosexual and cisgender, who sideline LGBTQ equality as a ‘strategic’ matter. History warns us that oppressors exploit such divisions to weaken our movements”.

One can only hope, then, that Wijngaards takes note of the LGBTIQ+ critique of gender complementarity. The cause of radical equality in the Church needs his powerful voice to advocate for all.

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