This week Archbishop Luis Ladaria, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, issued (another) definitive statement on the reservation of priestly ordination to men alone. In doing so he rightly noted that continued speculation about the possibility of women priests in some quarters was “of serious concern” and “creates serious confusion among the faithful.”
The ongoing discussion of, or agitation for, women’s ordination seems to be an exercise in never taking no for an answer, even when that answer is the unbroken practice of the Church for millennia and is definitively reaffirmed by the popes, including St. John Paul II and Francis.
Even as Archbishop Ladaria patiently underscored that as a “tenenda” teaching — one which is to be held by all the faithful — a male-only priesthood was simply not up for discussion, now or ever, one could detect soft rejection in how it was reported. Some media outlets, even ostensibly Catholic ones, insist that the teaching was “called definitive” rather than “is definitive.” It is a subtle qualification, but one which seeks to relativize the empirical; what is called definitive today might be called something else tomorrow.
The question/non-question of women’s ordination feels like it has been around forever, and refuses to go away. In reality it is a very modern issue. For almost two thousand years an all male priesthood was a given. It went undisputed even after the Reformation, which saw whole swathes of Christendom depart from basic sacramental truth and practice. Why then has it become such a fixture on the ecclesiastical landscape?
The movement for women’s ordination is rooted in the cultural revolution of the second half of the twentieth century. It is a strand of classical feminism, for which the stumbling block remains access to power. But the exclusion from power, if we must see it that way, applies to all the laypeople — men and women — who make up the vast majority of the Church.
As a lay man, I feel no particular disenfranchisement because of this. Nor do I feel that the simple fact of being a man gives me some smug internal consolation that “I could if I wanted to.” I no more feel I could have been a priest had I wanted to than I can make myself a father. That I am neither a father nor a priest does not challenge my identity as a man, nor does my inability to make myself either. I am who and what God made me, with my own dignity and vocation.
Sadly, you do not have to look far in the world to see people for whom identity as a man or a woman is a profound source of existential crisis. The unwillingness of some thinkers, both in and out of the Church, to move past a stance of “no means not yet” in relation to women’s ordination, and the focus on the priesthood as a sine qua non measure of equal dignity, represents a missed opportunity for the common expression and celebration of the real dignity and power of authentic womanhood and masculinity, both of which are under direct attack by the transgender movement.
The subversion of the basic facts of who we are is real. One isn’t even supposed to speak of the “fact” of being a man or a woman anymore.
Men and women are different. It should not be a controversial statement, but it is. In the world of gender fluidity nothing is certain, not even who you are. It is no surprise, then, if we end up with a generation of isolated existentialists. The Church has something to say to these people and it desperately needs to be heard.
There is no doubt about the created order or the essential dignity of men and women. Genesis tells us that “male and female he created them” and he knew what he was doing. Even from a more secularist perspective, the traditional feminist movement has always held the essential difference between men and women as not just a biological fact but an existential reality to be celebrated, even if there was a balance to be redressed.
An interesting side effect of the transgender movement is that Catholics and classical feminists suddenly find themselves fighting from the same corner. If they started speaking together on the real and inherent dignity of men and women, it would be a powerful force for sanity and good in our world.
Since Vatican Council II, the Church has made great strides in articulating the priestly vocation as a particular ministry of service, and not one of domination. Laypeople cannot “exercise” the power of governance, no. But they can “cooperate” in its exercise. At the local level, this means serving as ecclesiastical judges, as chancellors of dioceses, and so on. At the highest levels, more roles are opening up, even in the curia: last year Pope Francis appointed two women to senior positions at the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life.
As this becomes more commonplace, it is to be hoped that the myopic focus of a few on women’s ordination will fall away, leaving Archbishop Ladaria, and even some of those he is currently correcting, free to focus their efforts where they can do the most good.
The transgender movement is leaving an increasing number of casualties in its wake. The best treatment that can be offered them is the truth that God made them who they are, loves them as they are, and knew what he was doing.
Ed Condon is a canon lawyer working for tribunals in a number of dioceses. On Twitter he is @canonlawyered. The opinions experessed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Catholic News Agency.