May 272007

I recently finished reading Catholic Priesthood and Women:
A Guide To The Teaching Of The Church
by Sr. Sara Butler, MSBT. When I had first read about this book I was intrigued by both the subject and the author and ordered it. Despite Ordinatio Sacerdotalis the issue of women’s ordination is still a hot button issue in the Church and it is still being discussed as if one day this doctrine will change. Thus I think it is an important issue to delve down deeper into and to understand more fully when discussing this topic with those who don’t hold to Church teaching on it.

In 1978 Sr. Butler chaired a task force on women’s ordination for the Catholic Theological Society of America which favored women’s ordination. It was only later when she worked with the Anglican-Roman Catholic Consultations and for the USCCB on a Pastoral letter for women’s concern that she realized that the CTSA’s previous critique was seriously flawed. In recent years she was appointed to the International Theological Commission and was involved in the recent document on the hope of salvation for infants who die with being baptized. That she had once held the opposite view makes this book even better since she is able to ably give the objections and then to give replies to them.

She starts off by giving a history of this issue. For most of the history of the Church there has been little doctrinal development on this issue since it has really never been a point of contention within the Church. There have been Church fathers who have addressed this issue at times mainly in response to heretical sects such as the Gnostic’s ordaining women. It is only in recent times that the magisterium has had to seriously address this issue. The first response was by Pope Paul VI in 1975 in a letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury. Dr. Goggan the Archbishop of Canterbury at the time had asked for papal counsel. The following year the Pope had directed the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to explain the tradition more fully which they did with Inter Insigniores. Up to the issuance of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis there were several references to women’s ordination in a couple of papal addresses and letters.

One of the major critiques of this doctrine has been that the tradition was greatly influenced by an outdated view of women and a flawed anthropology. The second chapter on the book addresses this and explains Church teaching on the status of women in society and the Church. There certainly has in the history of the Church been a flawed understanding of the role of women and there has been a lot of doctrinal development in this area, especially during and since Vatican II. In the 1917 code of Canon law there were some roles that male non-clergy could perform that women were barred from as designated in 33 canons. In the revised code there are now only three instances where the status of women and men is not precisely the same. Two concern rites and to which rite the child of a parents in two different rites belong to. The third concerns the lay ministries of lector and acolyte which since they were once part of minor orders and because of "venerable tradition" is reserved to males. The argument that the Church is using a flawed anthropology is itself flawed. The Church in reflecting more deeply on this issue has corrected itself in this area, yet it still teaches that the priesthood is only reserved to males.

Through the rest of the book she first takes a look at three common arguments used by those who dissent from Church teaching. In Summa – Sed Contra style after fairly giving those arguments she replies to those objections thoroughly. These sections of the book are highly valuable and really help you to understand what the Church teaches and why. She also writes in a way where I think that anybody who wants to look at the subject will benefit without being an academic or a theologian.

What I find interesting is that it was the Anglicans who first got the magisterium moving and that in many ways the objections to this teaching are really a Protestant view of the priesthood in the first place. If these arguments were correct they would prove too much. By using a dominant Protestant view on the role of ministers you end up with no priesthood in the first place. Other mistaken views of the priesthood see it as a form of power and the argument goes that women are excluded from this power structure within the Church. Their arguments would destroy settled Church teaching in the area of the ministerial priesthood making effectively the priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial priesthood the same thing. That Baptism is what can enter us into the ministerial priesthood. Again a Protestant idea and of course they mostly do not see Ordination to the Priesthood as a sacrament in the first place

She also make an important distinction in this book between the fundamental and theological reasons for the Church’s teaching. The fundamental reason is the Christ in his sovereign freedom only appointed men as Apostles and that the Apostles also only did the same. The Church’s teaching relies only on the fundamental reason and not the theological ones, yet the objections mainly attack the theological ones. The theological explanations can help us to understand why this is what Jesus did and I am sure that this is an area where there will be doctrinal development and we will have deeper theological reasons for this. There is a very good reason for why they do this because it is very difficult to directly attack the fundamental reason on a historical basis, though Sr. Butler does address a couple of arguments where this is done.

Towards the end of the book she addresses seven more objections and also answer these. She also looks at the doctrine using what is basically a theological smell test for the development of doctrine. She takes guidelines from the Council of Trent and others later developed by John Cardinal Newman’s Development of Doctrine. She show why women’s ordination does not pass muster in this context, especially since it would deny other settled doctrine.

At 112 pages this book is a very good treatment on the subject and I learned a great deal from it. At times you kind of wish that Jesus had appointed both men and women to the priesthood so that we wouldn’t have to put up with the nonsense of riverboat ordinations and the slander that the priesthood is an issue of rights and equality. As is always the case when you take the time to learn what the Church teaches and why you come to a greater appreciation of her. There is always a problem when people take their theology from society and not from Christ. After reading this book though I did find that I had a greater sympathy for women’s ordination advocates. Even though they are greatly mistaken I can see how in the context of society it can be greatly difficult to understand this teaching. The key though is for all of us to do our own part to more deeply understand this doctrine so that we can better explain it others.

I highly recommend this book to everybody.

  4 Responses to “Catholic Priesthood and Women”

  1. Thank you for the thoughtful review. It sounds like an intelligent, non-contentious treatment (a rarity these days) of an inherently contentious subject.

    I’m getting my own copy ASAP.

  2. “I did find that I had a greater sympathy for women’s ordination advocates. Even though they are greatly mistaken I can see how in the context of society it can be greatly difficult to understand this teaching.”

    How very true. The feminist movement has put women at a disadvantage in many ways. It might have to get worse before it gets better.

  3. […] the past I reviewed The Catholic Priesthood and Women: A Guide to the Teaching of the Church by Sr. Sarah Butler (Who once was for women’s ordination) In 1978, she headed a task force of the […]

  4. […] the past I reviewed The Catholic Priesthood and Women: A Guide to the Teaching of the Church by Sr. Sarah Butler (Who once was for women’s ordination) In 1978, she headed a task force of the […]

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