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Ignored opportunities for women in canon law

Ignored opportunities for women in canon law

by Ida Raming (bibliography)

from Theology Digest 42:3 (Fall, 1995) pp. 235-238; earlier published as “Ungenutzte Chancen für Frauen im Kirchenrecht: Widersprüche im CIC/1983 und ihre Konsequenzen,” Orientierung: Katholische Blätter für weltanschauliche Information 58:6 (March 31, 1994) pp. 68-70; here republished with permission of the author and publisher.

In canon 204 para. 1 and canon 208 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law basic norms are provided for “the people of God” as they choose a life’s vocation. The basic principle of these canons is the equality of all of God’s people. However canon 1024 limits the ministerial priesthood to baptised males. How, asks Ida Raming, are we to understand this contradiction? Is canon 1024 theologica/ly justifiable? What does “canonically suitable” (c. 1026) mean ? Are we not to respect God’s Spirit which “allots to each one as he/she chooses” (1 Cor 11:12)?

Editors’ note: When Ordinatio sacerdotalis was published over a year ago it raised questions about the nature of ministry in the church. The following article which was part of that discussion was written before the Responsum of November 18, 1995 from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Vatican II (1962-65) advised the creation of new legal norms that would conform with the Council’s resolutions. Pope John XXIII provided the initial impetus (1959) for the reform of the 1917 code of canon law, and numerous Council documents were also very important, above all the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium). This document developed an ecclesiology which—despite all limitations— proceeded from the idea of the community of all believers as the “people of God.”

Therefore, the chosen People of God is one: “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph. 4:5). As members, they share a common dignity from their rebirth in Christ. They have the same filial grace and the same vocation to perfection. They possess in common one salvation, one hope, and one undivided charity. Hence, there is in Christ and in the Church no inequality on the basis of race or nationality, social condition or sex, because “there is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor freeman; there is neither male nor female. For you are all ‘one’ in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28, Greek text; cf. Col. 3:11). (LG 32).

The express acknowledgement here of the fundamental equality of all of God’s people—above and beyond all distinctions—has found expression in the 1983 code in canons 204 and 208. Canon 204, 1 contains the Council’s statement concerning the common priesthood of all believers, and emphasizes their call in relationship to the church’s mission.

The Christian faithful are those who, inasmuch as they have been incorporated in Christ through baptism, have been constituted as the people of God; for this reason since they have become sharers in Christ's priestly, prophetic and royal office in their own manner, they are called to exercise the mission which God has entrusted to the Church to fulfill in the world, in accord with the condition proper to each one.

Canon 208 emphasizes the similarity of all believers on the basis of their “rebirth in Christ.”

In virtue of their rebirth in Christ there exists amongst all the Christian faithful a true equality with regard to dignity and the activity whereby all cooperate in the building up of the Body of Christ in accord with each one's own condition and function.

A comparison of canon 208 and the text cited above fiom Lumen Gentium shows that canon 208 lacks the words , “Hence, there is .... no inequality on the basis of race or nationality, social condition or sex ....” However, the words were in part of the early formulations (1971) of the Lex Ecclesiae Fundamentalis (LEF). But later versions of the (LEF) (1976) omitted them. The majority of the members of the canon law reform commision (which had no female representatives) rejected the words without explanation. Why? Was it, asks R.Puza, because the commission wanted “to cement the unequal treatment of the sexes in canon law?”

Canons 204, 1 and 208 deal with basic legal norms that apply to all members of “God's people”. They function as guiding principles for the interpretation of the rest of the canons. In accord with Vatican II and Lumen Gentium’s image of the church as the “people of God” the thought of the equality of all members stands in the foreground. Thus, one needs to question whether existing inequalities can be reconciled with the principle of equality and, if they cannot, they need to be abolished.

The priciple of the fundamental equality of all believers (c.208) is the basis for the individual rights of all church members (cc. 212, 2, 3; 213-220). These rights flow from people's dignity as “children of God.” These canons circumscribe a spiritual freedom which guarantees the individual believer the right to actively participate in the church's mission: “All the christian faithful have the right to be free from any kind of coercion in choosing a state in life” (c.219). The right “in choosing a state in life” in this canon is comparable to the general human right of choosing a profession in the “profane” realm. But what ecclesial “states in life” are presumed in this law? They are: married or clerical, consecrated or apostolic life, e.g., orders.

Limitations on women’s rights

This basic right to freely choose one's state in life (c.219) is essentially exercised for women in the church. Canon1024 says that despite baptism, confirmation, theological education and finally, despite a prevailing religious vocation, women are classified as legally incapable of ordination: “Only a baptized male validly receives sacred ordination.” Women, even if they believe and are baptized, are a priori excluded from the offices of deacon, priest and bishop. (All presume a sacramental ordination.)

But according to Christian Huber, c.219 is not based on the subjective right to ordination. It presumes that every believer has the same possibility to choose a definite state in life—including the clerical state. But c.1024 has radically eliminated this possibility for half of the faithful. The question concerning the rclationship between c.219 and c.1024 is not a matter of the possible violation of a subjective right, but threatens the preservation of all basic rights and the fundamental equality of all the faithful set down in c.208. If, then, all women are excluded from the possibility of choosing the clerical state, then c.1024 deals with a legal inequality on the basis of sex. The norm of c.1024 also militates against the fundamental right of c.219 that on the basis of c.208 must be valid equally for all believers. The implications of all this for the discussion of women’s ordination is not insignificant. It is not the critics of church praxis who are compelled to present an argument. Rather, the praxis itself needs theological justification.

In this connection Huber points to the enormous importance of the sacrament of ordination and the establishment of (clerical) service in church politics. Important decisions in the church are bound to offices that presume sacramental ordination. The limitation of the valid reception of ordination to men means at the same time that women cannot participate in all important church decisions at the highest level. The breakthrough, says Huber, of the principle of equality with respect to receiving ordination also has practical consequences for the church’s life, as well as for individual lives. The restriction of the sacrament of ordination to men (c.1024) runs counter to the equality of the faithful (c.208) established on the fundamental right of believers (c.219) and thus unconditionally needs valid theological grounding.


However, church leaders have not advanced a “compelling theological justification”—anything but. The theological attempt to establish or justify the exclusion of women from the sacrament of ordination and from (priestly) office proceeds from the superior position of men over women which is supported by biblical texts and texts from church tradition (patristics, Middle Ages). The historical conditionedness of these texts is not questioned. They are considered divine revelation. Thus, the prohibition against women’s ordination cannot continue without “misogynist theology.” As long as women are not admitted to all church offices, the violence, hatred of women and theological heresy will continue. Consequently, official magisterial pronouncements lose their binding claim (e.g., Inter insigniores [The Declaration On the Admission of Women to the Ministerial priesthood]) because it is men who exclusively presume competency to describe women’s “nature,” and thus delimit women’s sphere of ecclesial activity and develop a “theology” of men for women.

There are no valid theological grounds for excluding women from ordination. Women, as members of the “people of God,” must have the guaranteed right to freely choose their state in life (c.219), including the clerical state. On the basis of the principle of equality (c.208; LG, 32) women have a “structural claim” (not to be equated with a personal, subjective claim) to the priesthood. This means that women must have access to this office “under the same conditions and circumstances” as men. If men of the church “who have the power and the right to make decisions, forbid women access to the priesthood, they bear objective guilt” (D. Mieth). In the choice of a state in life the faithful respond as members of the church to their specific vocation and thus concretize their Christian vocation and participate in thc church’s mission. Thus the ecclesial community does not have the freedom to revoke the spiritual gifts and vocations that daily appear in its midst. On the contrary, it is to accept them (cf 1Cor 12:1-11, 12-25: 1Thes 5:19). The choice of a definite state in life also should not be “unjustifiably hindered” (Huber). According to c.233, 1, the entire Christian community has the “responsibility” to foster spiritual vocations “so that sufficient provision is made for the needs of the sacred ministry throughout the entire church.” In a special way the bishop is responsible for fostering spiritual vocations, above all for “priestly and missionary vocations” (c. 385). According to c.1026 no one “canonically suitable” should be prevented from receiving orders.

And what does “canonically suitable” mean? How is it recognized? The valid criterion is: religious vocation to the spiritual office, i.e., the free, religiously motivated desire to undertake what one is capable of, and what the church needs. But as long as the qualities we have mentioned (especially the spiritually motivated vocation to spiritual office) are denied women and they are prevented from holding responsible office in the church, and as long as they are consigned to the lay state contrary to the basic right to freely choose a life state, one does not heed either the human or personal dignity of women, nor respect the freedom of God whose Spirit “allots to each one as he/she chooses” ( 1Cor 12:1 1). By contrast, the one and only attitude demanded for the free operation of the Spirit’s divine power is respect. The official church bears the responsibility to see to it that the various God-given charisms can completely develop for the church’s edification.

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