Do Man-Made Laws Trump the Authority of Jesus? Reflecting on the Meaning of Humility, Priestly Service, and the Issue of Women’s Ordination by Michele Stopera Freyhauf
Maundy Thursday – the imitation of Jesus’ act of service and submission is re-created. Controversy surrounds the “disciples” – must they be all men? Are women allowed? Who steps into Jesus’ role? Men, women, or both? Why, when it comes to imitating the act of humility and priestly service (rooted in our baptismal call), does a distinction of gender need to made at all?
As I progressed towards the intersection, I looked up to witness a grand procession of men dressed in white albs with stoles that often contained subtle hints of gold, worn in a manner to distinguish their role as priests and deacons. They moved slowly down the sidewalk entering the Cathedral to begin their celebration of the Chrism Mass – a celebration of priesthood and priestly service within the Diocese where all priests and deacons gather to celebrate and re-affirm their commitment to ministry and service to the Church. It is also during this Mass that the oils used in sacramental celebrations, used by each church, are blessed by the Bishop.
As I continued to watch, I could not help but search the processional line for those with a hair color other than gray. I wanted to see how many young priests were in that processional line. What I found was no surprise - an aging group of men with the sporadic appearance of younger priests. The numbers stood as a staunch reminder that we, as a Church, may be faced with a severe shortage of priests in the future. Something already known and planned for by the Diocese in its campaign to consolidate and close parishes.
Another sad observation was put on public display - the absolute absence of women.
It seems fitting that this articles appears on Maundy Thursday, the day where the Church bears witness to the humility of Jesus who washed the dirty feet of his disciples (John 13:1-17), displaying an example of what service and ministry in the Church looks like. In fact, it is at the end of this story that the disciples are given the specific instruction to imitate what Jesus just did for them:
” If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master, nor is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him.” (John 13:14-16, NASB).
If you examine the biblical text, it is not the first time an act of washing feet was performed. Mary humbled herself in service and ministry to wash and anoint Jesus’ feet with perfume. Despite the protests of Judas, Jesus allowed Mary to perform this selfless act of washing his feet and anointing him (John 12). Another reference of this act occurs when Jesus is talking to Simon and says, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for me feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair” (Luke 7:44).
Mary and the woman acted instinctively, boldly, and lovingly. Jesus imitated their act of hospitality, humility, and service. He permitted not one, but two woman to serve and minister – to engage in priestly activity and role. Linking these two stories together, a question about the women and their actions emerge – Did the acts of these women inspire Jesus’ selfless act of service? This issue is so important today when discussing the role of women in the Church and their ability to take on leadership/priestly positions. Witnessing an aged and slowly shrinking line of priests and deacons process into the Cathedral certainly reflects a need that has the potential to be dire if the issue of ordination is not addressed. It also displays a patriarchal interpretation of ministry and discipleship that exclude women – something that contrary to what Jesus did. This prompted my question – Do man-made laws trump the authority of Jesus?
To look at this question, I will explore the Church teaching and issues relating to the ban to permit the ordination of women. Today, Maundy Thursday, Jesus’ act of service and humility is imitated by ordained men around the world. Controversy surrounds the role of the “disciples” – must they be all men? Are women allowed? Who steps into Jesus’ role? Men or women or both? Why, when it comes to imitating the act of humility and priestly service (rooted in our baptism), does a distinction of gender need to made at all? The short answer is, because the hierarchy in the church made this distinction.
Two main documents address the issue of excluding women due to their biological sex – “Inter Insigniores” issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Pope Paul VI (Oct. 15, 1976) and “Ordinatio Sacredotalis” by Pope John Paul II (May 22, 1994). These two documents use the “iconic argument” and the “argument from authority.” Hannah Mecaskey describes the “iconic argument,” as being “based on the embodied person of Christ, Jesus” who, while on earth, was biologically male.” Pope John Paul II asserts ministerial priesthood as “the sacramental representation of Christ” however another question must be asked – why does biology matter? Galatians 3:28 states that in Christ all lines of gender, race, and class are erased. Christ, as we refer to Jesus post-resurrection, does not embody gender. This passage means, according to Letha Scanzoni and Nancy Hardesty, in All We’re Meant to Be, “all social distinctions between men and women should [be] erased in the Church” (72).
The assertion of the issue of authority is rooted in Church teaching that states the Church does not have the authority to ordain women because the priesthood, initiated at the last supper, was vested in the apostles with Jesus, who were only men. First, it is improbable that no women were there. Jesus was always around women and if no names can be found, it cannot be concluded with absolute certainty that they were not there. Their status in society was secondary and if their name was mentioned in the text, then we know immediately that she (they) was very important and probably leaders within the community. Moreover, the upper room where the Last Supper was celebrated was in the house belonging to Mary, the mother of John Mark. We also know that Jesus had disciples that were women: 1) Mary of Bethany, 2) Mary Magdalene, 3) Susanna, and 4) Joanna.
Aida Besanion Spencer, in Beyond the Church: Women Called to Ministry, brings up another important point -“if Jesus’ choice of twelve male [Jewish] disciples signifies that females should not be leaders in the Church, then, consistently, his choice also signifies that Gentiles should not be leaders in the Church” (45). In other words, if Gentiles are permitted to be ordained leaders in the Church, then women should also be allowed.
The other issue of this argument is lack of guidance in the New Testament regarding the ordination of women. Once again this argument is flawed. Women in the early church were in leadership positions – leading the early church communities who met in private homes. Women would be the hostess and presiders at the Eucharistic celebration. Besides the female disciples mentioned above, also listed in the New Testament are Junia (Apostle), Prisca (Leader with higher authority than her husband because she is always listed first), Chloe (Leader), and Phoebe (Deacon). Precedent exists for women’s ordination, a precedent set forth by Jesus in scripture.
Rosemary Radford Ruether in “The Liberation of Christology from Patriarchy” points out a couple of basic antiquated concepts that need addressed (140). Women, according to Ruether, need to assert their humanity and the right to the redemption in Christ. “Patriarchal ideology” demoted women to subservient and inferior status, implying that women lacked intellect and leadership and should be ruled by men. It also categorically excludes women from redemption as well as Christ’s representation of women. Women are taking a stance to contest these categories. By changing the language we hear to be inclusive and by contextualizing and updating antiquated nuances that still seep through our doctrines and church teaching, we as a church community, will be able to answer more fully the call to priesthood and priestly service in a manner consistent with our baptismal promises and gifts.
Michele Stopera Freyhauf is currently at the University of Akron doing post-graduate work in the area of the History of Religion, Women, and Sexuality. She has a Master of Arts Degree from John Carroll University in Theology and Religious Studies and is an Adjunct Professor in Religious Studies at Ursuline College. Her full bio is on the main contributor’s page or at http://johncarroll.academia.edu/MicheleFreyhauf . Michele can be followed on twitter at @MSFreyhauf.