Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Women Priests: Copying The System Isn't Really Changing The System

For me personally this ceremony just puts a band aid an a much deeper dysfunction.

Every once in awhile I come across a editorial or a comment which seems to speak precisely to my own thinking, or puts in a nut shell thoughts I have meandered towards from twenty different directions.  The following excerpt is from a response written to Jamie Manson's latest NCR article.  It is one such findThe author of the comment  is Tony Equale and you can read the entire comment at his blog.  But don't stop with just this commentary, Tony has other wonderful thoughts about some other very basic, but usually unexamined, concepts and assumptions.

...."I claim that the institution of the “sacramental” priesthood as we know it in our times, is a greco-roman elitist innovation that did not exist until well into the 2nd century, a hundred years after the founding of the church.  It was designed precisely to eliminate christian egalitarianism, create a hieratic caste, mystify the ordinary people and concentrate power in the hands of the upper class.  It represented the unwarranted transformation of a legitimate ministerial role — the presbyter — into an ontological caste that did not previously exist in the christian scheme of things, and certainly not in the mind of Jesus.  It was an essential step in bending christianity to the cultural requirements of the class-based society run by the Roman Empire.  It makes the people themselves complicit in their own impotence by making it seem impossible for a christian group to have the eucharist unless it be performed exclusively by the magical hands of a representative of the (upper class) bishop. (One can see this phenomenon really playing out in the defenders of Fr Euteneuer and other clerical abusers.)

The earliest accounts of the life of christian communities portray a fellowship where fixed caste status for the clergy grounded in ritual alchemy, was not in evidence.  Likewise, infrastructure (buildings) if they existed, were a secondary feature of the community.  It’s not insignificant that the two phenomena seem to have arisen together, suggesting that “buildings,” i.e., property and wealth became a factor requiring the creation of new “sacramental structures” that would insure that control stayed in the proper hands.  These developments were exactly what made christianity an attractive choice as the “new” Religion of the empire.  An egalitarian group of slaves and tent-makers operating out of homes and storefronts just would not do for “divine Rome.”

By the 4th century, with the elevation of christianity to the status of State Religion of the Roman Empire, the connection between church property and the Roman upper class was such a conspicuous part of ecclesiastical reality that we see Constantine himself sending his legions in 316 to restore North African church buildings to their “rightful” bishops.  What made this restoration so shocking, besides the use of imperial force, was that the “rightful” bishops were in most cases the same men who had “handed over” (traditores) the (sacred) books to the Roman authorities during the persecution of Diocletian, causing the “people” (afterwards called “Donatists”) to refuse to receive them back as their bishops.  But Constantine had made a huge transfer of basilicas, temples and other buildings to christianity from the Roman polythesitic religions, and he would not abide having “his” imperial church buildings taken over by a mob of disobedient nobodies.  Every facet of the empire was run by obedience to the Roman authorities. The Empire’s new Church would be no different.  Precedent had to be set.

“Ordination” functioned in this context to insure a mystified control of the Church and its sacramental life by the upper classes.  This is the “priesthood” that the RCWP is banging on the door to enter … rather than to eliminate in order to return the eucharist to the fellowship of equals.  How can we support an elitist anachronism in the name of gender equality?  It’s time, I think, to stop talking about the church and the “ecclesistical careers” that have been denied women, and begin talking about the kind of living community that Jesus encouraged his followers to form. (This has been the core question for me about women's ordination. My answer has always been that removing the core elitism is more essential than gender or orientation inequalities.)

Just look at the ludicrous scenarios described in the Manson article.  Imagine, mature adult christians, so mesmerized by the Roman sect’s absurd claims about apostolic fidelity being bound to mechanical legal ritual that they are ordained in the middle of rivers in order to avoid the reach of episcopal jurisdictions!  This is not rebellion.  It is a crass submission to the legalistic mystifications that have been developed to soli­di­fy power in the hands of those in control.  It is to be complicit in the elevation of caste superiority into a christian category in utter contradiction of the egalitarianism preached by Jesus. (To be honest, it was the idea that women needed to be ordained in the middle of a river to somehow circumvent parts of the canonical strictures in order to perform another canonically illegal act that soured me on the whole ordination issue.  There was something seriously wrong with that picture.)


I'm not unaware that the Roman Catholic Women's Priest movement state on their website that they seek an end to the abuses of patriarchal clerical power.  But what they don't state is that they seek to end the inherent flaws in the hierarchical system for which they desire to be a part.  Jesus was very explicit, in both deed and action, as to what kind of spiritual leadership he desired--an upside down pyramid in which power resided not in His servant priests, but in the community of believers.  Spiritual power would flow from the community to the servant leader--an upside down pyramid or a funnel.
Of course that kind of power distribution model is anathema to patriarchal systems which are essentially based on the microcosmic model of the male led family.  Jesus is even quoted as saying "Call no man father.", and yet here we are with a whole hierarchy of levels of childless fathers and scads of spiritual children desperately willing to defend the most abusive of these 'special' men.  Did Jesus teach that we should do so?  I don't recall that He did.  I do seem to recall that when Peter got all upset with just how far Jesus intended to take His notions of servant priesthood, Jesus called Peter Satan.

One of the lessons I take from the ongoing revolution in the Middle East is that once people have moved beyond a system, they will not mess around with reforming the system from with in.  That's especially true if the system is to be perpetuated by dictatorial papa's chosen son.  There's something about that whole notion of dictatorship by male blood line that seems to have finally run it's course in the Middle East.  If that's true, it would leave Roman Catholicism as the last major global organization that emulates the whole 'father to son' scenario.  I'm sure the Vatican is computing that thought themselves and not taking much joy from it.  They may even come to the conclusion that assimilating some changes to the clerical system, odious as they may be, is a wise move at this particular time.   If the Anglican/Episcopal Church shows anything, it's that for people who have moved into notions of a more mature adult spirituality, adding women and married priests to the old paternal/parental clerical system is not going to cut it.

I've also been following the Catholic stories coming from the US, Ireland and Germany.  In the US we have more stories of clerical authority gone amok.  In Ireland we have a story about clerical authority doing some serious repentance for having gone amok, and in Germany we have an exploding reformation movement designed to prevent clerical authority from going amok in the future.  Maybe it's time we seriously looked at the idea that our notions of clerical authority are just plain amok and do what Jesus actually taught us to do: Use the reverse pyramid scheme and find some servant leaders. 


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Actually, in the original statement on the RCWP website, there was a significant paragraph acknowledging most of these arguments. Unfortunately, the statement has since been removed (which in itself is revealing), so I must paraphrase from memory. Essentially, it stated that many of their community did not hold with the argument of 'apostolic succession' nor any necessity of being 'validly ordained' by a bishop supposedly in that line of succession. However, for reasons of political expediency, they felt the need to ensure their ordinations would be viewed as "valid" by the hierarchs in the Vatican. Once acceptance of women priests at the altar became more commonplace, however, it would then become possible to step away from the necessity of adhering to the whole 'line of succession' theory. This paraphrase is much more long winded than the original statement on their website, and I read it more than once because I thought it so interesting. The statement wasn't saying most of their community's women agreed with the statement, only that a significant number did. "Valid ordinations within the line of succession," was a political tactic, nothing more. The statement has now been removed (or buried where I can't find it.) However, I think it is significant that during Eucharistic celebrations of RCWPs, they insist that the entire community recite the words of consecration over the bread and wine - thereby dispelling the illusion that the presider - female or not - has some ontological power not shared by the rest of the community. For these reasons, I continue to see the RCWP's movement as a step forward, simply because it shatters the image of male exclusivity and makes it seem quite commonplace and fitting to have women presiders at the altar. But it is only a first, partial, incomplete breakthrough.

  3. Forgot to mention that I loved Tony Equale's article and heartily endorse his last statement:

    You want to celebrate the eucharist? By all means, do it! But don’t tie it to being ordained a “priest.” And that goes for us all!

  4. Colleen, I have a question. I know you've mentioned before about the harm that can be done with the abuse of spiritual authority and I wholeheartedly agree with you. And I understand the allure of small private gatherings in which the faithful meet in ritual with the Divine. BUT my problem is: How does one know or even have an idea if the gathering I'm attending is spiritually safe? It strikes me as a way to get some of the more abusive practices embedded as well - if not better than the current system. I'm thinking in particular of the Jim Jones types and how much damage they can do.

    Never having had any direct experience of my own, all I know about the abusive cults comes from popular news media. And in my experience there are a large number of people who just refuse to think for themselves - putting them and their children [the really tragic part in my mind] in harm's way.

    It seems to me you are proposing a huge change in humans in general. I don't see a clear path to get there from here.

  5. As usual, you've delivered another interesting and thought-provoking article. Thank you.

    I've spent a good part of the day writing a lengthy reply only to realise the need for brevity (this is your blog, not mine) and that it would do better as a whole post.

    In sum, however, the thought is as follows:

    Equale's conclusion that the priesthood has been turned into a hieratic order designed to concentrate power with the side effect of marginalizing the laity is fundamentally correct. He's just off by 1500+ years.

    It is in the mists of the 20th century, not the 2nd, that this 'elitist innovation' occurs. A more complete exposition of this thought is here.

  6. T'pel your question is really the core of the issue. Even as I was writing this post I thought about some of the Evangelical leaders I have met who should never have been put in front of a group of people.

    Discernment both by the community and a certifying body of some sort would be one way of determining a person's sincerity. In Native traditions the elder generations of members of medicine societies usually have a great deal of input into who is advanced into leadership roles. It's sort of a case of spiritual gifts recognizing spiritual gifts. Although in their case they also participate in a wider spiritual culture in which they actually see energy around people and that gives them an indication of who might be ammenable to their more intensive training and concepts. What's interesting about this is they identify people who might not have any inclination at all to participate in any medicine societies or ceremonials, so it's not a guaranteed kind of thing, just an indicator. What is guaranteed is if they don't see the energy/spiritual connections around a person they won't get very far in any kind of training.

    I've often wondered how much different the Roman Catholic system would be if we had people capable of the same kind of spiritual discernment. I'm pretty sure the early Church worked on some sort of similar system where it was a combination of community and elder approval based on some kind of practical spiritual discernment. You can see this kind of thing most easily in some of Paul's letters.

  7. Jayden, I noticed that too when I looked through their site last night and couldn't find the statement you are referencing. I thought that was kind of strange and wondered if they weren't backing off their original stance.

  8. All my adult life, I have been a member of a Catholic Community in the Twin Cities now known as The Spirit of St. Stephen Catholic Community. This is a community that was formed at the request of the archbishop of shortly after Vatican II. Over 40 years, our worship has evolved and adapted in response to the "signs of the times" Back in the eighties, we did experiment with a form of liturgy that included women on the alter with the priest. We never publicized what we were doing - we just did it. When, the then bishop got wind that another parish was doing the same he kicked the offending priest out of the diacese. Our response as a parish to this development was to have EVERYONE stand up to the alter and have ANYONE participate verbally in the Eucharistic Prayer. A few years ago, our current bishop requested that we either worship according to the rubrics of the Roman Missel of worship some place else. We chose to worship some place else. So on the day of departure we took our banner and our rudements of worship and processed proudly off to another location near by. We still worship the same way - unemcumbered with the need for a particular presider or diacesan imprimatur. All worship needs are met on a volunteer basis and there is never loss for helpers in the liturgy. The Eucharistic Prayer is utterly spontainious and heartfelt. You never know who is going to say what next, yet it always gets said well by a voice somewhere in the essembly. So full of trust, so egalitarian,so refreshing - always...

  9. What about Elisabeth Shussler-Fiorenza's "discipleship of equals?" Where does that go when I (tongue thoroughly in cheek) "take my rightful place as a member of the divinity faculty at Harvard's HDS?"

    If hierarchic power structures are the problem, the Roman Catholic Church is not the only, or the chief, or even the worst example of such structures and the problems that go with them.

  10. Tony Equale certainly has the gift of posing radical questions and I am happy to see him in full voice. I had a challenging correspondence with him back in pre-blog days (c. 2000-1) and tried to defend a basic validity, though reinterpreted in line with critical hermeneutics, of dogmas and church structures.

  11. If there was no incarnation and there was no resurrection of Jesus (read Funk et al The Acts of Jesus and see if you come to a different conclusion than I have) then the Eucharistic celebration, the Mass, the Liturgy , the priesthood, women priests included, -- all of it is over. “-- the Council of Trent (1545-63) declared that "The same Christ who offered himself once in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross, is present and offered in an unbloody manner" in the Mass.” [The Catholic Mass By Scott P. Richert, About.com Guide.] So, if no Christ then no divine sacrifice. The faith and morals issue is being redefined in this evolutionary, transitional time, -- an incredible new historic era for our species. The very long-standing Axial Age appears to be coming to a close (read Loyal Rue’s Everybody’s Story, and Religion Is Not About God). This is one reason among others why I believe the Axial Age religion of Catholic Christianity (but not only Catholicism) is evolving (therefore reform is irrelevant) into a post-Axial Age faith phenomenon. Multidisciplinary reading is essential to understanding what is happening. Thanks for a productive blog!

  12. I think clericalism is dying a slow painful death and it is the priesthood of Baptism that is the important one. I agree with the Northern European theologians that believe when a group of people are gathered in prayer one or all (men or women) may be elected to offer the Eucharist. I think that small prayer groups but also groups who practice prayerful action are the important parts of the Church. My son and I go with a group every other Saturday to serve a pancake and scrambled egg breakfast from a roach coach in a very poor neighborhood. We have made some friends and gotten some understanding about life that we could have never gotten by only writing the checks for the food. dennis

  13. Marky funny comment. The difference I think is that Jesus asked for and taught a servant leadership. In my mind this means validity of spiritual authority comes from the bottom up. I do think it worth noting that in the old traditional days of universities, Fiorenza's tenure would be strictly at the hands of her students. Ah for the good ole days.

    Marie I found your articles on the old NCR Cafe thought provoking. I personally think we have a whole lot more to learn about the reality of human consciousness and it's capabilities before I'll ever say what occurs at Mass is dead and gone--because it's not.

    Dennis, I think the best thing I've done for my own spirituality is take the job I currently have. It's put me back in touch with actually living core Christian principles. Sometimes, like tonight, my heart breaks for someone we have in residence and I get a glimpse of the meaning of real existential suffering. I wish we had more to offer than meds.

  14. “I personally think we have a whole lot more to learn about the reality of human consciousness and it's capabilities before I'll ever say what occurs at Mass is dead and gone--because it's not.” That learning about human consciousness is our human evolutionary story! At this point in time it appears as far as I can figure out, that the advanced thinking and thinkers in a wide variety of disciplines seem to indicate that it is over, (but evolution does not turn on a dime) meaning that our faith in a Supreme Being and our conceptions of morality are developing and that takes time. Thomas Sheehan in his Revolution in the Church (online) says "Today, for example, one would be hard pressed to find a Catholic Biblical scholar who maintains that Jesus thought he was the divine Son of God who preexisted from all eternity as the second person of the Trinity before he became a human being.” But it takes an enormous amount of study to understand the change that is occurring and why it is changing. This is the phenomenon you speak of: ‘we have a whole lot more to learn about the reality of human consciousness’. At any rate my involvement is nearly over, given my age and stage. Others carry on. I play a bit part. Christianity had a beginning, was a highly influential religion, had its high and low periods, had its development by human minds over time, is a part of the grand phenomenon of other Axial Age religions, and will have its demise. But I believe that the Origin of our contingent being will give us and is giving us something new via the established evolutionary process. It is ‘out there’ but it’s up to us to find it. Our visionaries are our guides. Thank you and farewell, colkoch.

  15. I have to admit it is with a profound sadness that I encounter these views which hope to essentially abolish the sacerdotal priesthood- which, for me, is intimately tied to a Eucharistic and incarnational faith. I see it as no barrier to equality at all. All genuine goods of the Church can be exploited for perverse human ends, and the gift of the priesthood is no exception. I feel no less of a Christian because I am unable to preside at the altar/ table. I feel profoundly more grateful that God has, in his wisdom, made me dependent on others (that I might not even like) in order to receive him.

    To say that any group of Christians could just gather in their home and offer the Eucharist together apart from any material, objective link to the visible Church is a final concession to a hopeless fragmentation of Christ's Body- a final concession to the "invisible, spiritual church entity"- a sacrament no longer mediated to us through history and tradition, but essentially available to the individual on his or her own terms. God mediated by human hands? Yes, still, but here only by the human hands of the present moment. Whereas the sacerdotal priesthood sacramentalizes the passing on of Christ, hand to hand, in the dimension of time.

    There was a stage in my own spiritual journey where I, considering myself part of the priesthood of believers, would offer my own eucharist in the privacy of my own prayer closet. The absurdity and isolation of this act eventually stirred my thoughts back towards a more orthodox Christianity.

    When Christ warned his apostles "the Son of Man is to be betrayed into the hands of sinners", I take this not only to be his handing over to the Romans- it is also Christ's divine life being handed over (read, tradere) into the blemished human hands of His Church. The scandal of Christian Revelation is that God surrenders his own life to human beings. Christ, the Father's tradition to man, becomes man's tradition to men, with all the woes and difficulties that this human and historical mediation will amount to.

    His Eucharistic life is necessarily constrained- held hostage even (in the worst of times), because this is the risk of a God who dared make himself dependent in time and on people. This is the principle of the sacramental life--- ***God's life is in human hands, to be given to people by people***. Christ, God's Word, to be spoken to people by people- the end of God actively involving Himself as the Divine Guide of a specific nation. Like a holy cancer, Christ must be spread until all the cells of Adam's Body are converted into his Own. This is our work to do.

    The inconvenient inverse of the radicalism of this gift is that we are not free to receive Him sacramentally outside of that Body to which he was deposited. If the human dimension of that Body were to lose its way, we can not undo the profound dependency of God on man. God has willed himself a helpless infant child clinging to his mother. And we ask "show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb!" Yet, there are no guarantees. A mother can be capricious and neglectful.

    Of course, God is not powerless. Those who abuse what he has given them will have all that much more to answer for when the time comes. But that he has made the life of his Christ a substance, if you will, to be dispensed and distributed by people for people, is to say he wishes we come to him through the human family- that the very act of coming to him is creating family, that coming to him draws us together not only in the community of "the now" but from every dimension, knitting the human movement of history into his Sacred Side.

    This, I believe, is the principle that the sacerdotal priesthood binds in visible and objective sign- a sacrament, if an inconvenient and frustrating one.

  16. There's a lot of food for thought in your post JD. I'm just not convinced that a sarcedotal priesthood is necessary for your paradigm. I say that because I got a comment on an old post I did on the Taize community and rereading it was a sort of inspirational moment for me.

    It made me wonder how much of the Catholic notion of priesthood is rooted in notions of catholic identity as opposed to what Jesus truly intended about servant leadership.


  17. Thanks. I'll take a look. I read this three posts recently that I'm certain you'll find very interesting: