“The Lord always employs the best material to do His work.” –Charles Guiteau, explaining why God had chosen him to assassinate President James Garfield*
Garfield had begun his journey from Washington to Williamstown, Massachusetts, to attend his 25th class reunion. Guiteau shot Garfield as he entered the train station. As I myself intend to travel to Williamstown for my 25th Williams-College reunion this summer, I take this to heart.
But, as I reflect on my youthful vocational discernment, so long ago, I know that God does not, in fact, necessarily employ the best. After all, St. Paul told us priests that we carry the treasure in earthen vessels.
Yesterday the Washington Post made one of our seminarians briefly famous. Last week, the question of what kind of candidates the Church may lawfully ordain erupted into a controversy at Princeton Seminary. The next Roman Synod will treat the subject of “vocational discernment.”
Seems like it’s time to re-read Inter Insigniores…
Our Holy Mother, the Catholic Church, finds Herself in an interesting position when it comes to the doctrine of Holy Orders. On the one hand, She has way-more people than any other Christian communion; any ecumenism without the Catholics looks like a farce. On the other hand, She blithely continues on Her merry way, ordaining only men to priesthood, year in and year out, springtime after springtime–thereby leaving Herself in the reprobate backwater of unreformed patriarchies.
How can we understand this?
Pope Paul VI and his Anglican counterpart, Archbishop of Canterbury Donald Coggan, exchanged letters on the subject of women’s ordination. A few years later, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith explained the Pope’s assertion that the Church has no authority to ordain the ladies. (That explanation begins with the Latin words Inter Insigniores.)
Pope John Paul II also exchanged illuminating letters with his Archbishop-of-Canterbury counterpart, Robert Runcie, on the same subject.
The sacred priesthood of the New Covenant is a sacrament. Not an elected office of temporal government. Yes, to preside at Mass also means governing the people in the exercise of religion. But the authority vested in the priest cannot involve any material benefits for himself. He teaches and leads the people in order to help them get to heaven–and hopefully arrive there himself as well.
We can only understand the priesthood in the Church, therefore, as a sacrament of God. Specifically the sacrament of Christ the Head of the Body, offering Himself in sacrifice, making Himself present in all times and places through the Holy Mass.
If we think of the priesthood in any other way, we certainly won’t understand it at all, much less grasp why God never calls women to it. If we think of the priesthood like Charles Guiteau thought of his ‘vocation’ to kill President Garfield–that is, that God certainly chose the best to serve as His instrument–then we will never come close to understanding anything about the priestly vocation.
Okay, yes: the powers-that-be in the Church must screen applicants somewhat. Seminaries prefer men with certain minimal aptitudes. Like being able to read. And having some rudimentary social skills.
But the most-important pre-requisite for ordination and success as a priest is a “professional skill” that no Fortune-500 company would ever seek. A priest really needs only three items on his resume: 1. Can read. 2. Not a total a-hole. 3. Believes. The pre-eminent “skill” of the priest is: Faith. Believing what the Catholic Church believes. A Bumbler Who Believes–that is how I, for one, understand my exalted pastoral office.
So we must understand the priesthood as a sacrament, not as a distinction of any kind of excellence, as measured by the criteria of the world. The priest is not “better.” The priest sacramentally represents Christ, in a distinct way.
Inter Insigniores humbly but unapologetically reasons like this: Jesus chose only men to occupy the priestly office. He chose twelve men.
Now, did He choose only men because He acted solely in accord with the conventions of His age and society? Would He have chosen some lady Apostles, if He had done His work in a freer, more feminist time and place?
Well, since He did many free and feminist things, it would seem that the answer to that question is No. And, for over 1900 years, the Church throughout the world, operating in all the various cultures, has never ordained women as priests.
Therefore, it’s impossible.
But! we say: Don’t we know better now that men and women are equal?! Better than they knew in the year AD 33, or 1033, or even 1976?
Walter Cardinal Kasper addressed the Anglican House of Bishops in 2006, begging them, for the sake of ecumenism, not to vote in favor of ordaining women as bishops. The Cardinal asked his audience to remember that, just as we now think we know better than our forefathers about many things, generations yet to come will someday look back, and consider how we think, and chuckle.
Christ’s Body certainly comprises male and female. By taking on human nature, the Word made flesh redeemed the whole human race, not just His fellow men. We all stand on equal footing before the Father, as the beloved sons and daughters of His household. We must not fall into the trap of over-stating our case on the Leave-It-to-Beaver conservative side. I certainly don’t believe in women priests, but I would be super-stoked if one of the young ladies in this year’s St. Andrew’s or St. Gerard’s confirmation class grew up to become President of the United States.
The crucial thing we must grasp, the crucial distinction that makes Inter Insigniores and the “backwardness” of our Church make sense is: At Mass, the priest represents Christ the Bridegroom of the Church. Everything distinctive about the priestly ministry stems from this fundamental fact. The Church has no authority to put a woman in the place of Jesus the Bridegroom, as He embraces His Bride, and gives Her His Body, for the salvation of the world.
* Quoted in a book you will love reading, Destiny of the Republic, by Candice Millard