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Julia BrumbaughSeptember 16, 2021
Sixth-century mosaic depicting holy women with offerings to the Virgin Mary in the Basilica of Saint Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy. (Wikimedia Commons)

Editor’s note: In a lecture at Fordham University in New York in 1996, Avery Dulles, S.J., addressed what he saw as the major objections to the apostolic letter of Pope John Paul II in 1994, “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis,” on the inadmissibility of women to the Catholic priesthood. The talk was published in Origins (Vol. 25, No. 45, dated May 2, 1996) as “Gender and Priesthood: Examining the Teaching” and was reprinted in America in 2001. To mark the 25th anniversary of this essay, America asked two scholars, Lucetta Scaraffia and Julia Brumbaugh, to respond. The full text of the Dulles essay can be found here.

This article is part of The Conversation with America Media, offering diverse perspectives on important issues in the life of the church. 

In his defense of “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis,” which declared that “the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful,” Avery Dulles, S.J., enumerated arguments for accepting the prohibition of women’s ordination as biblically, traditionally and theologically sound despite a range of serious theological objections. These arguments warrant revisiting, because the matters at stake speak to things at the heart of the question: sacraments, tradition and salvation.

Reading Dulles’s essay 25 years later, I am reminded of the reflection of the great Dominican ecclesiologist Cardinal Yves Congar: You can condemn a false answer, but not a real question. For Dulles, the question of women’s ordination had been asked and answered many times, and it has been answered definitely in the negative by the magisterium. But have the questions about women’s full participation in the life of the church really been answered? Has the question even been heard in all its dimensions?

Have the questions about women’s full participation in the life of the church really been answered? Has the question even been heard in all its dimensions?

The theological tension here is in the crux where the ancient practice of a male-only clergy—which existed in social and ecclesial contexts where women’s subordination and inferiority were largely assumed—now exists in a context where the church clearly teaches that women are not inferior or naturally subordinate to men. While at the surface the question about women’s ordination has been asked and answered, rarely has it been asked in this new context where women’s full human dignity is unreservedly affirmed and defended.

Doctrine and authority

In his essay, Dulles treats the history of women in the church as one in which the prevailing historical view that women are to be subordinated to men has not problematically shaped the practice of church structures down the centuries. Though he rejects sexism as an evil that must be resisted, in accord with the 20th- and 21st-century pastoral magisterium, he does not accept arguments that sexism has been entangled in the practice of ordination in ways that may have distorted it. Catholic scholars asking questions about women in the church have frequently argued that the church’s teaching about and treatment of women shows that the sin of sexism runs much deeper than Dulles acknowledges.

[Read Father Matt Malone’s introduction to this year’s special issue on women and the life of the church.]

In Dulles’s own theological legacy, there is ample evidence that questions like these, which interrogate the many contexts and motivations that shape our practices and teachings, are not only appropriate but proper to the theological task. For example, in 1976, in a talk titled “The Theologian and the Magisterium,” Dulles said:

It has become evident that those in positions of ecclesiastical power are naturally predisposed to accept ideas favorable to their own class interests. Popes and bishops, therefore, are inclined to speak in a way that enhances the authority of their office. The alert reader will take this into account when he interprets and evaluates official documents.

In that address, Dulles critiqued an understanding of doctrine and authority that reduced the role of theologians to expounding upon the teaching received from the bishops. In line with the practice of theology that informed the Second Vatican Council, Dulles argued that theologians are not merely the mouthpiece of the bishops and that they have a proper sphere of competence based on their work as scholars; indeed, he explores the idea that they form a magisterium that, together with the magisterium of pastors, works in “complementary and mutually corrective ways” to serve the church.

If the church, living in the power of the Holy Spirit and the memory of Jesus, awaits its fullness, then it is never enough to argue only from what has been done in the past.

To engage this dialogue between the magisterium of the church’s pastors and that of the church’s theologians is the work of the whole church, living in the power of the Holy Spirit. That Spirit is not received exclusively through the formal and institutional structures of the hierarchy but is given to the whole church and to each of the baptized. To affirm this reality requires an imagination that includes the Spirit working boldly within communities, arising in and transforming the hearts of ordinary people of faith and blowing throughout the whole world. This Spirit opens our hearts to ever greater and wider love, reveals our failures (past and present), makes possible true repentance and opens the way to a future yet to be realized. The Spirit and the Word co-create the church.

We live within the mystery of the Trinitarian God’s enfolding love and desire for our flourishing; and in every age we learn and grow, even as we stumble, fail, forget and learn again. Nourished by Scripture and the sacraments, by prayer and by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, but also by the abundance of created reality and by compassion and solidarity with and from our many neighbors, Christians are called again and again to be open to discerning the arrival of the reign of God, who is in our midst yesterday, today and forever.

If the church, living in the power of the Holy Spirit and the memory of Jesus, awaits its fullness, then it is never enough to argue only from what has been done in the past. The full pastoral and theological project must ask: What is Christ in the Spirit doing now? What is God calling us to be now and in the future?

The metaphor of the bridegroom and bride as an image of the divine-human encounter is ancient. But it is and remains a metaphor.

We live in a historical moment where, led by the Holy Spirit, the recognition of the full equality of women is dawning. There is so much work to be done to untangle sexism from our ideas and ways of being human together. For this work, we need the memory of Jesus’ friendship and intimacy with women, including his trust of Mary Magdalene to be the first to receive and bear witness to his resurrection. We need to listen deeply to each other for how sexism has harmed and limited everyone. And we need our imaginations to be open to the Holy Spirit so we can become, together, a church where sexism—and the corresponding reality of women’s subordination—is unthinkable.

Equality, complementarity and subordination

Bringing this commitment to imagine a church healed of all sexism, I turn to the metaphor at the center of the theological answer offered by Dulles (and others) for restricting ordination to men. Defenders of an all-male clergy insist that women and men stand together before God and that unjust discrimination against women must be fought and overcome. Women are not excluded from ordination because of sexism, they argue, but because of the nature of the Eucharist itself. The priest, Dulles argues, not only conveys the words of the Eucharist as a messenger, but stands in persona Christi—an icon of Christ himself, the bridegroom, turned toward his bride, the church, in love. Only a male person, Dulles writes, can fittingly be this icon.

This explanation stumbles for two reasons. It takes a beautiful biblical metaphor and constrains it by making it literal. Further, it reinscribes the subordination of women and the superiority of men, even as the broader tradition has taught with increasing clarity the full equality of all human beings before God.

Metaphorical language and God

In the famous phrase of St. Augustine of Hippo, “If you have understood, then what you have understood is not God” (“si comprehendis non est Deus”). The image Dulles and others use to demonstrate that the restriction of ordination to men is fitting is that of Christ the bridegroom turned toward the church, his bride, which is a metaphor. Jesus was never a bridegroom. He was no one’s lover. This is not a problem to be overcome, but the condition of humanity speaking of God. We reach, but we do not grasp. No image, icon or metaphor; no human word, even the most ancient and revered, bypasses this limitation.

The metaphor of the bridegroom and bride as an image of the divine-human encounter is ancient. The prophet Hosea uses it, and many interpretations of the Song of Songs cast God or Christ as the bridegroom and the church or human beloved as the bride. We find the image in Ephesians and across the medieval European monastic tradition. Pope John Paul II favored it in his speaking and writing about women, marriage and the church. This metaphor powerfully illuminates the intimacy, passionate love and longing that characterizes God’s love for God’s people, Christ’s love for the church and the human need for God. But it is and remains a metaphor.

Christian history and tradition is full to bursting with women who are luminous with the light of Christ. The great company of saints bears witness to this.

Metaphorical language works in the movement between similarity and difference for the purpose of seeing something in a new way. Christian tradition uses the metaphor of lovers to explore the longing the human soul has for God and the desire of God for us. Yet, as Susan Ross has argued in America (“Can God Be a Bride?”) and elsewhere, this metaphor relies on an image of male and female relations in which the female person is profoundly subordinated to the male; the bridegroom gives and the bride receives. In a theology of the divine-human relationship, it is right to imagine the creature as utterly dependent on the Creator for her life. For example, in his sermons on the Song of Songs, St. Bernard of Clairvaux explored this image of lover and beloved. He understood that Christ was the lover who called, and the human being was the beloved who responded.

The point here is that the rich metaphor of the bridegroom and bride resonates because it breaks open our imaginations in fresh ways. God is not far from us but disarmingly near. God seeks us, calling our names. The depth of our longing will be more than answered by our Creator. It does not mean that God is a man and human beings are all women, and it does not mean that women and men have separate natures (whereas God and human beings do).

Illuminating a mystery

The argument that men can be an icon of Christ in the Eucharist and women cannot because of their different natures comes dangerously close to dividing men and women from each other and separating women from Christ, whose “male” nature women do not share. If we take this image literally—as prescribing reality concretely instead of illuminating, fragmentarily, a mystery—we might imagine that women and men are on different sides of some great divide. In a wider history that teaches women’s subordination and in a culture where women’s work and dignity is often undervalued or denied, this danger is real. Yet such a separation that would put women outside the saving embrace of the incarnation is, and has always been, contrary to the faith.

With St. Paul, and in faith, women can and do say: “I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me; insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me” (Gal 2:19). The bodies of women are part of the body of Christ. Christian history and tradition is full to bursting with women who are luminous with the light of Christ. The great company of saints bears witness to this.

Christ, through the Holy Spirit, is in this moment healing our broken hearts and accompanying us as we struggle to undo the legacies of sexism (among the many other evils we must resist). For theology and practice of ordination and ministry to be credible, then the work Dulles endeavored to do—to understand more deeply the mystery of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist—must continue. But that work must illustrate at every turn the full humanity of every person. Arguments that fail to interrogate the ways the Christian tradition has been distorted by sin or that rely on images that reinforce women’s subordination are inadequate to the evangelical work to which we are all called.

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