Paul Woodbury

A Guide to the Teaching of the Church
by Sara Butler MSBT

(Hillenbrand Books, 2007, 122pp, $37.95. Available from Freedom Publishing)

Despite Pope John Paul II's dir- ective in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (1994) that debate on the possibility of women priests should cease since the Church had no authority from Christ in this regard, the issue continues to be raised.

A case in point is a recent petition doing the rounds of parishes throughout Australia, which carries the name of Paul Collins and others of like mind, and includes the recommendation in part four: 'Encourage a wide-ranging discussion of the role of women in ministry and in the authority structures of the Church, including the question of women's ordination'.

Most likely, these petitioners have not yet read a new book on this subject, The Catholic Priesthood and Women, which is perhaps the clearest, most concise and most persuasive account of the Church's position yet to be published.

Powerful book

What makes this book especially powerful is that its author, Sister Sara Butler, as she informs us in her introduction, was earlier a supporter of the movement for women's ordination to the priesthood. She writes that she concurred with 'the conclusion of a Task Force of the Catholic Theological Society of America (1978), which I chaired, that the available evidence favoured the admission of women to priestly ordination ...'.

It was only gradually that she came to understand the basis for the Church's position, which she now totally supports.

Sister Sara is therefore well placed to set out the case for the Church's doctrine of the priesthood while understanding from first hand the objections of those who continue to question the Church's position.

The Catholic Priesthood and Women resulted from questions asked of the author by seminarians in Chicago and New York.

As Chicago's Cardinal Francis George says in his endorsement of Sara Butler's book, 'If this book is well used, it will change the presently sterile discussion of who can be ordained to the Catholic priesthood'.

Dr Butler's analysis of the objections to the Church's position is systematic as is her logical and surgical rebuttal of these.

While the author notes the obvious fact that women should not be repressed nor denied equal rights as human beings, this, she says, is a separate issue as it relates to their innate dignity, as individuals created in the image and likeness of God. But this does not entail an absolute sameness of functions for men and women.

Dr Butler here discusses John Paul II's theology of the body, which she says 'contributed to her re- thinking the issue of women's ordination.'

John Paul II noted that in the Old Testament, from the time of the prophets onwards, God's compassionate love for his chosen people was depicted as that of the Bridegroom of Israel. This nuptial mystery reached its culmination when Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, established the new covenant in His blood. John Paul II reminds us that Christ so loved the Church that he 'lay down his life' for Her. He did this 'in the very consecration of himself to the Father, by dying and offering himself up as a sacrifice, which brings life to his Bride.'

'Was there ever a greater romance?' suggests Christopher West, a commentator on The Theology of the Body, in reference to this image of Christ as a bridegroom.

That the priesthood takes on this symbolism is only one of the many solid reasons Sr Butler advances as to why the Church has no authority to ordain women.

She also addresses the main arguments expressed against the Church's teaching.

One of these is that Christ did not explicitly state that women could not be admitted to ordination. However, she points out that Christ's intention is supported by a number of converging indicators. For example, during the first centuries of Christianity all attempts to introduce a female priesthood were rejected as contrary to the mind of Christ.

As Paul VI wrote in his 1976 document on a male-only priesthood, Inter Insigniores, 'a purely historical exegesis of the texts cannot suffice' to establish Christ's will on the matter. 'Sacred Tradition', he said, 'must also be consulted in the matter.'

Christ's identity

The author also takes on the claim that the risen Christ transcends the maleness of his earthly sojourn and that 'the Christ' now includes all who are his own, all baptised people sharing in his 'Christhood'. A priest, therefore need not be male in representing Christ. In other words Christ is seen as 'a multi-person and therefore without a specific gender'.

She comments that the objectors confuse the actual identity of Christ by driving a wedge between the historical Christ and the risen Christ. There seems to be a suggestion that Jesus, having died, is gone from history while only 'The Christ', an impersonal (and multi-personal) figure, remains, with some doubt as to whether Jesus and the risen 'Christ' are the same person. In effect, the bodily resurrection of Jesus and his humanity are called into question.

Dr Butler also examines the priesthood's sacramental aspect. Just as bread and wine are essential to the integrity of the Eucharist, so is maleness to the sacrament of Orders. This is appreciated by the Eastern Orthodox churches as well as the Catholic - but not by the post-Reformation churches which now accept women priests or ministers.

The Catholic Priesthood and Women is essential reading for all wishing to understand the basis of the Church's seemingly difficult teachings - particularly those who doubt them.

Paul Woodbury is a Melbourne writer.

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