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The Church's Practice in Continuity with New Testament Teaching by Albert Vanhoye

The Church's Practice in Continuity with New Testament Teaching

Albert Vanhoye, SJ
published in L'Osservatore Romano 10:10 ( March 1993):10-11.


In the declaration Inter Insigniores of October 1976, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith presented in a simple, precise, and nuanced way the New Testament data that could shed light on the question of the non-admission of women to the ministerial priesthood. This manner of presentation guarantees that sixteen years later the text retains its validity. On the other hand, it is also possible to complete it on some points, taking into account the most recent discussions. This article intends to do precisely that.

The text of the declaration does not appear one-sided; on the contrary, it covers the various aspects of the situation. On the one hand, it noted some essential facts: although Jesus appeared completely free of bias or prejudice regarding women, he "did not call any woman to become part of the Twelve" (Inter Insigniores, no. 2); after the resurrection, "the apostolic community remained faithful to the attitude of Jesus" (ibid., no. 3); later, although the spread of the Christian mission to the hellenistic world could have produced "within the apostolic Church a considerable evolution vis-a-vis the customs of Judaism, . . . at no time was there a question of conferring ordination on women" (ibid.). These facts have fundamental significance, in the sense that they are at the origin of the Church's constant tradition in East and West, which did not allow that women could validly receive priestly or episcopal ordination.

The declaration, however, unhesitatingly acknowledges that these facts, although fundamental, are not alone sufficient to resolve the question. The reason is that the New Testament does not consider the problem explicitly and hence does not provide us with any "immediate evidence" in the matter. No New Testament text, that is, expresses a prohibition of women being ordained. On the other hand, the later organization of ministries in the Church was the result of a long evolution that brought many changes unforeseeable at the time the New Testament was written. So it remains possible, humanly speaking, to imagine some further changes in the sacrament of orders too.

A careful ecclesial discernment is necessary, however. The reason is that, for such a change to be allowed, it is not enough for it to conform to the evolution of cultures and mentalities (let us remember that St. Paul urged Christians, "Do not conform yourself to this age" [Rom 12:2]), it is not enough for it to correspond to a certain idea of women's rights in a democratic society; it is first of all necessary for the Church to acknowledge the suggested change as an element of the homogeneous growth of Christ's body and not an injury inflicted on this body, or an abnormal, unhealthy development. Therefore, the declaration rightly concludes the discussion by saying: "In the final analysis it is the Church, through the voice of her magisterium, that, in these various domains, decides what can change and what must remain immutable" (Inter Insigniores, no. 4). In regard to the possible ordination of women, the discernment that the Church very carefully made had a negative outcome: "The Church, in fidelity to the example of the Lord, does not consider herself authorized to admit women to priestly ordination" (ibid., Introduction).


The declaration does not say much about "the example of the Lord." It merely observes that "Jesus did not entrust the apostolic charge to women." It would have been possible to give greater attention to Jesus' decision by recalling that, according to Luke, this decision was prepared for by a whole night in prayer (Lk 6:12) and so was done "through the Holy Spirit" (Acts 1:2), a fact that clearly excludes the possibility of the decision being determined by the customs and prejudices of the time. Mark states precisely that Jesus "summoned those whom he wanted" (Mk3:13). In the discourse after the Last Supper, one of Jesus' statements emphasizes that aspect of the event: "It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you" (Jn 15:16). These gospel data are in some way reflected in the passage from the Letter to the Hebrews that says in regard to the priesthood: "No one takes this honor upon himself but only when called by God" (Heb 5:4). All these observations represent a pressing appeal for the Church's magisterium to take cognizance of the extreme importance of this issue and to respect with complete fidelity the direction taken by Jesus, refusing to claim the power to change this direction, regardless of the pressure brought to bear or the arguments advanced

Nevertheless, it must be acknowledged that the position occupied by the Twelve in the Church has a unique form and, consequently, what is valid for the Twelve is not necessarily valid for other church ministries. In this regard the New Testament leaves many things unclear. For example, it does not specify how the "presbyters" we see associated with the Twelve in leading the Jerusalem Church were chosen and instituted (cf. Acts 15:2, 4, 6, 22). On the point at issue we nevertheless note a few facts:

1. When Judas had to be replaced after the ascension, Luke states that Peter expressly limited the choice to "men" (andres in Greek: Acts 1:21) who had accompanied Jesus during his public life, although some women at the time had stronger claims since they had been more faithful to Jesus than his male disciples, even on Calvary and at the tomb (Mt 27:55, 61; par.). The first to receive the proclamation of the resurrection, they also received the mission of passing the news on to the apostles themselves (Mt 28:6-7; par.). In spite of this, the possibility of choosing one of them was not considered. The names of two men who were never mentioned in the Gospel accounts were proposed (Acts 1:23).

2. Later, when the increased number of disciples caused problems in the community and required a more diversified organization of the ministry, the Twelve likewise invited "the community of the disciples" to select for the new task "seven men (andres) "(Acts 6:3), even though the problems concerned female groups, those of the widows (Acts 6:1). In this account the laying on of hands is mentioned (Acts 6:6) as the ordination gesture for a ministry. It meant—and still means—the bestowal of a spiritual power conferred by God.

3. In the New Testament women never receive this laying on of hands. The cases mentioned concern, only men: Barnabas and Saul in Acts 13:3, when at the Holy Spirit's command they were sent on an apostolic mission, and Timothy, in 1 Tm 4:14 and 2 Tm 1:6, texts which speak of a "gift of grace (charisma) " conferred by this rite. Similarly, the texts that give directions for choosing presbyters (Ti 1:5-6} and the episkopos (I Tm 3:2} state clearly that it is a question of men (andres),


Anyone wanting to advocate a change contrary to the Church's constant tradition, despite these clear observations, cannot cite any explicit New Testament text, but only some details of uncertain and disputed interpretation (for example, the titles diakonos and prostatis given by St. Paul to a Christian woman in Rom 16:1-2). Others try to show that Jesus founded a community of "equals," in which absolutely no attention was paid to the difference between women and men. The assertion is then made that the Church soon began to depart from this ideal and the New Testament, although preserving some traces of the original orientation, now reflects the return to a "patriarchal" system that oppresses women.

As a vestige of the original orientation the sentence in Gal 3:28 is usually cited in which St. Paul says: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus." Far from ignoring this text, Inter Insigniores repeatedly underscores it, quite rightly noting, however, that "this passage does not concern ministries: it only affirms the universal calling to divine filiation, which is the same for all." Since feminist reasoning has paid little attention to this detail, it is appropriate here to reaffirm its correctness.

This is clearly seen when the text of Gal 3:28 just quoted is compared to that of 1 Cor 12:13, which says: "For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons." Some exegetes do not see any great difference between the passages; a feminist exegete even uses 1 Cor 12:13 to confirm the traditional, pre-Pauline nature of Gal 3:28. In reality, the perspectives of the two passages are radically different; while the phrasing of Gal 3:28 is repeatedly negative, that of 1 Cor 12:13 does not contain any negation. While Gal 3:28 denies the differences, 1 Cor 12:13 lets them stand. In fact, both the preceding and subsequent context asserts that they are necessary. The preceding verse actually points out that the body "has many parts" (12:12); the following verse says: "Now the body is not a single part, but many" (12:14). The apostle then strongly insists on the necessary diversification of the parts to ensure the different vital functions of the body.

Anyone wanting to interpret the meaning of these two texts correctly must pay the greatest attention to their different perspectives. The Letter to the Galatians discusses the foundation of Christian existence. On this basic level only one thing counts: faithful adherence to Christ. The "works of the law" do not matter, nor do individual differences, whether religious, social, or sexual in origin. United to Christ through faith, all are "one." On the other hand, the First Letter to the Corinthians considers another level, that of the various functions carried out in the Church, the body of Christ. At this secondary level, St. Paul affirms the necessity of the differences. Not everyone can be an apostle, not everyone prophets or teachers (cf. 1 Cor 12:29-30). These differences, established by God himself (12:28), are to be accepted by each person for the good of the whole body. They are the conditions for a life of effective charity. Egalitarian claims, however, cannot be reconciled with authentic charity because they are in accord neither with the divine disposition contained in creation (cf. 1 Cor 12:18) nor with the example of Christ in redemption (cf. Phil 2:6). Of course, all Christian men and women are equal in their fundamental dignity. "For through faith you are all children of God in Christ Jesus" (Gal 3:26). However, it does not follow that all have a claim to the same functions within the Church. As for the attempt made several years ago to base an egalitarian ism upon a "feminist theological reconstruction of Christian origins," it is unfortunately necessary to say that it is without theological validity because, instead of accepting the testimony of the New Testament, it adopts a "hermeneutics of suspicion" in regard to it. That is, in studying the writings of the New Testament, it takes as a point of departure the "suspicion" that their authors more or less consciously hid their egalitarian leaning, which was supposedly the tendency of Jesus and his first disciples. Consequently, they claim to reconstruct this "authentic" orientation through the unilateral use of some clues found in the texts, completing them with many conjectures, often directly contrary to other New Testament texts. Such a method is obviously not capable of providing the Church with a sure foundation for changing one of her traditions in such an important area. A reconstruction based on historical conjecture is completely out of place in this matter. The only valid foundation is perfect obedience to the word of God.


In summary, regarding the question of not admitting women to priestly ordination, I believe it is necessary to state that no new element of importance has been brought forward by New Testament exegesis in recent years. We must say again that the New Testament does not explicitly treat this problem. It would be anachronistic to expect it to furnish a solution. However, an unbiased study of the texts leads one to recognize that, on the one hand, the assigning of ministries is a very important fact in God's eyes, and that the Church's ancient tradition of not admitting women to ordination is in continuity with the data of the New Testament. On the other hand, the New Testament shows that the basic equality of all the baptized in no way requires that the functions entrusted to women in the Church should be identical to those entrusted to men. All are children of God (Gal 3:26) and all are called to "serve one another through love" (Gal 5:13). It is not important that the way of "serving one another" is not the same for everyone.

The only thing that matters is that man and woman should fulfill the service that is theirs "in love."

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