"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Monday, November 12, 2007

Oops, they did it again...

Well, once again a few Catholic women have got themselves "ordained" as priests, this time in St. Louis yesterday. Archbishop Raymond Burke, my favorite American hierarch, has issued the usual threat of excommunication, and for all I know has already carried it out. He's the sort who would. Now every time a similar event occurs, people ask me to comment. Last year I did, once, at the now-defunct version of Fr. Al Kimel's blog Pontifications. But usually I don't. Is it news anymore that an alternative church is forming which consists of people who very much want to be Catholics but very much do not want to obey the duly constituted authority of the Catholic Church about matters of faith? We've seen that movie before, e.g. in the formation of the Anglican Communion. And the remakes only get wackier over time. So why am I commenting now?

What piqued my interest was the irony of the ordination ceremony's being hosted by a Jewish synagogue. The rabbi thereof, Susan Talve, is an intriguing character. I first learned about her from a men's-rights activist I know who has been the object of her tender feminist mercies before. The woman obviously has no respect for Jewish tradition, let alone Catholic. But she was at least ecumenical. Her cooperation with the Archdiocese about such matters as immigration and care for the poor had been exemplary. But she apparently considers good relations worth sacrificing for the sake of the Womanpriest cause. You might ask why one should be surprised given, e.g., that the Anglican Communion sacrificed any prospect of corporate reunion with the Catholic or Orthodox churches over this very same issue. The answer would appear simple: in the eyes of WO advocates round the world, it's all just a simple matter of justice. Women should not be denied their right to the priesthood, just as immigrants and the poor should not be denied their rights. God is an equal-opportunity employer, and his current executive staff ought to recognize that. Simple, right? Wrong. At issue is the very nature of priesthood itself. And in this case, the Satanic perversion thereof hearkens back to the one contested by the OT restriction of the Levitical priesthood to males. Hence the Jewish angle in St. Louis.

In the ancient world, the Israelites were exceptional in having an all-male priesthood. Many of the religious cults surrounding them had priestesses; some utilized ritual prostitution. The Canaanites, the Greeks, the Romans—all had priestesses. In the eyes of faithful Jews, priestesses were a pagan abomination; the Old Testament was actually rather countercultural on this point; and today, those Christian bodies which can plausibly claim apostolic succession are similarly countercultural. Now once the Second Temple was destroyed, the priestly class could no longer perform its functions; religious leadership devolved strictly to the rabbis. One would think it would then have been conceivable for women to be "ordained" as rabbis; but that never happened until the 20th century, and it is not going to happen in Orthodox Judaism. If you want female rabbis, you go Reform or maybe not-so-conservative Conservative; in other words, you go the Jewish version of liberal Protestant. Susan Talve is a perfect illustration of that; and within Christianity, it is among the various permutations of liberal Protestantism that you get women's ordination. None of these people accept either the Catholic doctrine of the priesthood or, more generally, the authority claimed by the Catholic Church. Why, then, do Talve and other supporters of the two new Womanpriests, who themselves no more accept the authority in question than their supporters, seem to buy the premise that these women are "Catholic through-and-through?"

That phrase comes from Ben Witherington, Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Asbury Theological Seminary and well-known Evangelical author. Unlike Talve, he carries some intellectual weight. And his line on WO is pretty much standard, middle-of-the-road evangelical. Thus:

If one has an overwhelmingly OT vision of ministry, informed largely by Leviticus, then it is understandable that one would argue-- 'ministry involves priesthood, in the OT only men could be priests, ergo, no women can be ordained to such a post'. I understand this logic perfectly well, my problem is that it is a logic grounded in the old covenant, and not in the new covenant where we have a very different vision and praxis of ministry.

For one thing, in the NT ministers are not priests offering sacrifices, and they are not called priests. The only priesthood in the NT is the high priesthood of Christ in heaven (see Hebrews) which is said to eclipse and make obsolescent all OT priesthoods, including the Levitical one. It is hard to escape that this is the core message of the discourse found in Heb. 3-10. The only other priesthood mentioned in the NT is the priesthood of all believers (see 1 Peter), and I do mean all believers. What Peter is talking about there is that all Christians have an obligation to intercede for others and to offer true worship to God, and as Paul was to say, to present themselves as living sacrifices to God (Rom. 12). What Peter is not talking about is a class of clergy between Christ the high priest and us, the laity. In fact the whole clergy--laity distinction is not found in the NT. The LAOS is the whole people of God, whether they are ministers or not. There is a sense then in which we are all laity, and we are all priests. What the NT does not authorize is a new class of priests, much less an all male priesthood to lead the Christian flocks.

Taken on its own terms, that makes a certain kind of sense. For if all believers are priests in the sense specified, in such wise that there are no priests in the Church as distinct from laity, then "ministry" is merely a range of services to the laos that some members of the laos are "called and gifted" to perform. There is no basis for restricting ministry in that sense to men alone even on the premise that priesthood in the older, more limited sense is, or was, for men alone. Not even the Catholic Church restricts ministry in that sense to men alone, which is why it can be that, arguably, the bulk of ministry in that sense is performed by women even in the Catholic Church. But the sense all that makes only sets the stage for the larger nonsense.

Even supposing the standard evangelical view makes sense in its own terms, it makes no sense in those terms to say that anybody, and therefore women, can be "ordained" to the priesthood. If there is no priesthood beyond the priesthood of believers, then to be "ordained" is simply to be commissioned by the community of believers to do godly things for that community in its name. To be thus ordained is not to share in the high priesthood of Christ in any way in which believers in general do not. Jews, and hence Reform Jews, do not even believe in the high priesthood of Christ at all. How, then, is it even possible for people like Ben Witherington and Susan Talve to think it's such a good idea for Catholic women to be "ordained" to the Catholic priesthood? They don't even think there is a priesthood in the sense that such women claim to aspire to.

In Witherington's case, it gets wackier still. Of the synagogue venue for the ordination, he says:

Yet in some ways this was a very appropriate place for such an ordination to transpire, since these womens' vision of ministry is right out of the Hebrew Bible-- they want to be priests, offering the sacrifice, in this case the sacrifice of the mass.

This is so silly that my jaw drops. Susan Talve is not a priest; her synagogue is not a temple and contains no altar; she does not see her function as that of priest; and as a Reform Jew, she does not believe a cultic priesthood is in any way necessary for the welfare of God's people. Moreover, Witherington's own theology rejects the very idea of a cultic priesthood for Christians. Yet he sees a Reform synagogue as an even possibly "appropriate place" for Catholic women to be "ordained" to a cultic priesthood he considers fraudulent? What reduces otherwise intelligent people to such nonsense?

The only possible answer is that they, like the Womanpriests themselves, are less interested in making sense than in undermining the historic, irreformable Catholic doctrine of the sacerdotal priesthood in general. There could hardly be better evidence for the claim that women's ordination in the Catholic Church does precisely that.
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