Imago Dei

TERRANCE A. SWEENEY

November 27, 1992|By TERRANCE A. SWEENEY

Los Angeles. -- History will record November 1992 as a watershed month in the emotionally charged issue of women's ordination to the priesthood. Two weeks ago, the Church of England approved a General Synod resolution that allows women to become priests. Last week, the U.S. National Conference of Catholic Bishops voted to reject a proposed pastoral letter that advocated the continued exclusion of women from the priesthood. These are major victories for women's roles in church ministry.

The intense debates in London and in Washington encapsulated centuries of questioning, alienation and hopes. Though many rejoiced in the Church of England ruling, others saw it as the most divisive since the Reformation, one that will, said the Rev. Peter Geldard, ''pit diocese against diocese, parish against parish, parishioner against parishioner.'' Immediately after the vote, the Vatican issued a statement calling the decision a ''new and grave obstacle'' to unity between the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches.

Before the American bishops voted on the women's pastoral, Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland of Milwaukee warned that approving it could ignite a reaction in the church as devastating as that caused by ''Humanae Vitae,'' the 1968 papal encyclical forbidding artificial birth control. The pastoral, he said, ''would add another tremendous crisis to the church. We would lose another generation, especially another generation of very wonderful women.''

But in defense of the continued exclusion of women from ordination, Bishop Austin B. Vaughan of New York said: ''I believe the doctrine is unchangeable, which means [that] if the world lasts to [the year] 2000 or 20,000 or 20 million, there will still be a Catholic Church and it will have an all-male clergy. A woman priest is as impossible as for me to have a baby.''

Bishop Vaughan, in his own words, was echoing the Vatican rationale for excluding women from the priesthood: ''Christ was and remains a man. The priest, in the exercise of his ministry, does not act in his own name: he represents Christ, who acts through him.'' In short, because Christ was a man, only a man can be a priest. Priestly ordination is seen as the church's confirmation of a person's response to Christ's call to service, particularly as a sacramental minister to the Christian community.

As these arguments over the exclusion of women from ordination increase, we might do well to listen to what contemporary historians and scripture scholars are saying about the origins of Christian ministry.

In the Bible, there is nothing to suggest that Jesus served as a priest in the temple, nor is there evidence to prove that he ''ordained'' the apostles or anyone else to found a new religion centered around sacramental ministry and cultic worship. The ministry that Jesus inspired did not focus on rites and prayers, but on those actions that most opened the human heart to faith and love -- such actions as feeding the hungry, healing the sick, forgiving trespasses, proclaiming the good news of God's kingdom.

The Flemish Jesuit theologian Piet Fransen and others have concluded that ministry in the church is ''not a matter of doctrine but of ecclesiastical economy.''

As to the far deeper question of whether women can image Christ and the divine, the Bible says that women and men are created in the image of God, who is wisdom, life and love. God's image in human form is revealed when men and women live lives grounded in wisdom and love.

To assert that women cannot image the divine is to radically undermine God's revelation in human creation. Jesus taught that faith and love, not gender and bloodline, reveal God. He said, ''Who are my mother and sisters and brothers? Those who hear the word of God and keep it.'' Through their faith and love, Christian women and men reveal Jesus and the one Jesus calls ''Abba.'' It's ironic to hear American bishops invoking God's will against women's ordination three weeks after five American nuns in Liberia were martyred for living their faith.

To continue to exclude women from the priesthood because of their gender denigrates the divinely created dignity of women and undermines the very credibility of the church's sacraments.

Without women fully participating with their hearts and lives and wisdom in the church's sacramental ministry, the Catholic priesthood can never fully reflect the person of Christ or God's love.

Father Sweeney resigned from the Jesuit order in 1986 under Vatican pressure to suppress his studies of bishops' attitudes on women priests and married clergy. He wrote this commentary for the Los Angeles Times

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