This is the synopsis of a talk given by Professor Adrian Hastings to the meeting of the Catholic Women’s Ordination Leeds Group on 21 November 1999. For a detailed development of Professor Hastings’ thought on these and related issues see The Theology of a Protestant Catholic. (SCM Press, London 1990), and in particular Chapter 8: Should Women Be Ordained?’. In his introduction to this work Professor Hastings explains that he writes as “a Catholic theologian, yet – most certainly – a Protestant Catholic: protesting not only against the rigidities of late mediaeval Catholicism perpetuated in Ultramontanism …. but against far deeper rigidities within the whole central Christian tradition. “
Professor Hastings began by considering briefly the nature of the arguments raised by the Roman Catholic hierarchy against the ordination of women. As the debate on the ordination of women to the priesthood in the Church of England illustrated, arguments against ordaining women which claim to be founded in Scripture fail. Within the Roman Catholic Church no sound pastoral reasons why women should not be ordained can be advanced, and the only reason for ordaining priests is pastoral. The ordination of women to the priesthood of the Roman Catholic Church cannot, therefore, be seen to be contrary to Scripture or the pastoral needs of the Church.
We are left, therefore, with the position that the only basis for not ordaining women to the priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church Is the theological assertion that this is “not possible”. God in Jesus became a man, the argument goes, and so only a man can represent Christ at the altar.
But this argument, Professor Hastings emphasised, is actually disastrous for doctrine and the theology of the Church: because it involves upsetting a primary belief in order to protect a secondary tradition. The primary belief which. Professor Hastings asserts, is put into jeopardy by the Church’s argument that a woman cannot represent Christ is the incarnation itself and its purpose.
Tradition has a very important function in the Church, as in all communities and societies, Professor Hastings commented, but of its nature a tradition is “traditional”: it is prized for being what it always has been. But societies, communities and religions do, change, and the traditions which are part of them have also to change. It has been a strength of the Christian Church that its tradition has been flexible, that it has remained a living tradition passed from generation to generation, continuously affected by the passage of time and changes in circumstances yet enduringly significant. Within the tradition there is an absolutely central core of meaning that will always remain supremely relevant, but there are also many peripheral elements which reflect the culture of a particular age yet remain open to alteration. Christian experience over the centuries demonstrates an ongoing confidence in the Spirit living within the community, enabling new decisions to be taken and new patterns of ministry to be embarked on. The heart of the meaning within the tradition remains: the periphery of the tradition changes because the old periphery would actually be a disservice in new circumstances to that heart.
The ordination of women to the priesthood was not part of the Christian tradition for nineteen centuries and still has no part in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox communions. It would be a significant change in the tradition – but the essential question remains: would that change be to the periphery or the heart of the tradition?
It is the core of the tradition that, in presiding at the Eucharist and using, in the first person, the words of Christ – “This is my body. This is my blood” – the priest is explicitly representing Christ, is Christ’s living human symbol. But here a very important distinction has to be made: the distinction between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. The Jesus of history was an unmarried male Jew who spoke Aramaic, who had worked as a carpenter and who probably had a beard. The Roman Catholic Church does not recruit its priests solely from the ranks of bearded, Aramaic-speaking Jewish men under forty: those characteristics of the historical Jesus are not considered to be essential for a true ministerial representation of Christ. Why then is the argument that only a man can represent Christ seen to be more valid?
The Christian tradition is that God became man: et homo factus est. Homo, that is, human. It is an inclusive word embracing male and female. The Latin word for ‘man’ as male is vir. For the Church to be saying, in effect, et vir factus est, that God became MALE, is to undermine the doctrine of the incarnation. It also throws into question whether women have been redeemed at all. Only what is assumed is redeemed: therefore if what is crucial is God’s becoming vir rather than homo women are not redeemed. The all-important link between redemption and incarnation is broken.
If, however, in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ women as well as men are redeemed, and if women can be united with Christ in communion, then they, like men, can be icons of Christ, just as non-Jews can be icons of Christ. Moreover, it is the sharing with and in Christ in communion which has the greatest significance, not what the priest does.
So in order to defend an old tradition (the male priesthood) the Church is inventing a new theology which is antithetical to its main, as opposed to, its marginal, tradition. In what the Pope has been saying in order to justify a refusal to ordain women in recent years he can, therefore, be seen to have been driven into heresy.
To protect the central elements of the Church’s tradition, its doctrines and beliefs concerning the incarnation and redemption specifically, it has become essential that the Church should drop its insistence on a marginal aspect of tradition – the exclusion of women from the ordained priesthood. Rome’s attempts to block all consideration of women’s ordination has to be resisted out of loyalty to the Church’s central truths.
The debate concerning the ordination of women to the Roman Catholic priesthood has, therefore, the greatest significance for the very future of the Church.