Time to ordain women! This comment, probably echoed numerous times in the past weeks, was attached to a grim Facebook post reflecting on the multilayered sex scandal in the Catholic Church. It seems to me, to the contrary, that along with the inevitable anger, revulsion and sorrow, we should be feeling nothing but gratitude for the Church’s prohibition against the ordination of women.
I have to confess to having been largely uninterested in this question in the course of my life. Briefly, in grade school, wondering why it took the boys in my class so long to memorize the Latin responses so that they could serve at Mass, I thought that my sex would handle the whole job much more competently. I recall that Juli Loesch once wrote a piece on this subject arguing, as I recall, that only men needed to become priests, seeing that the virtues they were supposed to model upon taking orders were much more easily achieved by women and thus would produce little more than a shrug if manifested in a woman. Combined with my skepticism that Christ had been constrained by the mores of his times to ordain only men, Loesch’s explanation suited me. I am a philosopher, not a theologian, and a firm believer that the traditions of the Church protect its members from an array of fads and foolishness. As long as holiness, martyrdom, and sainthood remained equal opportunity positions, I couldn’t work up much indignation about the restriction of orders to men, or much curiosity about the reasons.
However, as I have at last found out, there is no inquiry into the nature of “holiness” where one will not meet the question of orders, and vice versa. Thomas Aquinas’ Secunda secundae is a case in point. He carefully and repeatedly draws a bright line between the interior and invisible hierarchy of perfection, available to all Christians through growth in charity, and the exterior and visible hierarchy of perfection established through vows to the evangelical counsels, which religious take, and through the conferring of orders. This teaching is present in John Paul II’s distinction between the Petrine and Marian dimensions of the Church: its invisible structure “full of grace,” its visible hierarchy, guarantors of revelation and the sacraments. Nevertheless, the priority of the invisible over the visible hierarchy is clear: if Peter is the rock, Mary is the womb of the Church. More importantly, you can’t get to heaven merely through membership in the visible hierarchy. The doom paintings in medieval churches, showing terrified bishops and monks being led off to hell, reminded worshippers that final judgment was for everyone. Thomas Aquinas argues that the only hierarchy that matters in heaven is the one established by merit, not by gender or any other category.
Women are the visible sign of the invisible hierarchy of merit: they are irreducibly “lay,” using that term, not as signifying those unmoved by religion versus those who are, or those not taking perpetual vows versus those who do, but as those who are not ordainable versus those who are. The male sex is never irreducibly “lay.” Take for example, a wonderful priest in a parish of the Diocese of Tyler, where I occasionally attend Mass. He is a paradigm “late vocation”: before entering the seminary he was married with children and an ophthalmologist. If the current crisis wipes out 25 percent of the priests in the US, the Church could ordain all conditions of males. After all, men in the 17th century were ordained with no more preparation than the weekend retreats conducted by St. Vincent de Paul and his Congregation of the Mission, as the Tridentine requirements for the seminary training of ordinands kicked in.
Women are thus freed for the prophetic role that can only belong to “outsiders.” They can never be candidates for the men’s club. “Women are able to pose questions that men are unable to understand,” as the Catholic Women’s Forum’s letter to Pope Francis puts it, demanding answers to questions concerning his knowledge of sexual misconduct by his bishops, etc. They are able to take the lead in uncovering the corruption which is coming to light, as lawyer Sharon Bourassa did in spearheading Christifidelis’ investigation into the cesspool of the Archdiocese of Miami in 2005. In the volume Woman as Prophet in the Home and the World, edited by Dr. Mary Lemmons, it is clear that “prophetic femininity,” grounded in the bodily capacity for nurturing life, is the underutilized, even marginalized, power that the Church has to save itself from the scandal that threatens to bring down the Church in the US. This is not to say that women cannot sin grievously in ways which wound the Body of Christ, as is obvious in the scandals of Catholic orphanages and Magdalene laundries. But women cannot ascend to power in the Church through their sins, as it has become obvious that priests and bishops do.
St. Catherine of Siena, my patron saint, has been invoked often and rightly as a voice against clerical corruption and clerical sloth in the present crisis. Irreducibly lay and implacable, she did not wait to be asked. Neither, it seems, have her contemporary sisters. One of the early initiatives, The Siena Project, whose purpose “is to make it easy for any member of the Catholic faithful to send letters urging our bishops to enact meaningful reforms,” is spearheaded by Miriel Reneau, mother and Ph.D. candidate. Dr. Janet Smith, speaking recently, was uncompromising in her advice to bishops: stop taking cover in your unwillingness to deal in “rumors” and “get the evidence.” Perhaps the long-heralded “Age of the Laity” has finally arrived.