By Rev. Msgr. Robert J. Batule.  Msgr. Batule is on the faculty of the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception in Huntington where he teaches systematic theology.

Last week in Newsday (July 7th), Robert Keeler, a Catholic and member of that newspaper’s editorial board, used his column to tip his hat to Fr. Roy Bourgeois. Those who had read Mr. Keeler’s piece or follow closely news in the Catholic Church recognize this priest as the one who participated a few years ago in an illicit “ordination” of a woman as a priest. Mr. Keeler lauds the priest for his so-called prophetic stance against the Church even as the cleric is about to be expelled from the Maryknoll Fathers and be laicized. Due to the fact that Mr. Keeler engages in advocacy journalism, that is, in this instance, for the priest and against the Catholic teaching on the priesthood at the same time, his column is deserving of a reply. For inasmuch as Mr. Keeler minimizes or denies the wrongfulness of what the priest has done, he also misstates Catholic teaching in a very public way.

Mr. Keeler begins by predicting that his granddaughters will likely see the ordination of women as Catholic priests before they die.  Some of the proponents of the ordination of women view it as inevitable even if Catholics are lagging behind or trail the field now. They look around and observe that other religions have women who occupy official positions within their polities. It is just a matter of time, they say, before the Catholic Church gives in and adopts more modern practices just like some other Western Christian denominations. 

We must be very cautious about the argument from progress. Clearly, it is tantalizing but it also presents a significant problem doctrinally. And we need not go any further than the New Testament to see the difficulty. In the Second Letter of Saint John, the sacred author warns against the heresy of Gnosticism. Gnostics are those who believe themselves to be in possession of an elite knowledge which saves them and to which others are not privy. We cannot overlook the terminology of Saint John here. “Anyone who is so ‘progressive’ as not to remain in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever remains in the teaching has the Father and the Son.” (2 Jn: 9) 

Among Gnostics, there is a strong spiritualizing tendency, so strong in fact that it denies the Incarnation. Again, Saint John is the one to help us appreciate the vital importance of this truth of faith. “[E]very spirit that acknowledges Jesus Christ come in the flesh belongs to God, and every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus does not belong to God.” (1 Jn 4:2-3) We cannot de-couple the Incarnation from Christianity and we cannot ignore the maleness of Jesus. Jesus is the New Adam (Rom 5:12-21; 1 Cor. 15:21-28; 45-49) and he gives life to a redeemed humanity, male and female. He redeems all of us as the Son revealing the Father (cf. Jn 14:7). Jesus uses that very name Father (Abba) himself (cf. Mk 14:36), He invites the disciples to address God as Father (cf. Lk 11:2) and refers to our heavenly Father who forgives our sins (cf. Matt 6:14). Fatherhood is not incidental to God; it is essential and intrinsic in an analogous sense. Who, then, is qualified to be that icon of God’s fatherhood? Men alone are qualified for this particular representation contends Fr. Benedict Ashley, O.P. in his book Justice in the Church: Gender and Participation (Catholic University of America Press, 1996). Not because men are superior persons, Ashley notes, but because of their capacity for exercising a spiritual fatherhood are they alone eligible for ordination as priests.

The spirit of progressivism may be good when it comes to science and technology, but it is a decidedly different matter when it comes to a doctrinal faith like Catholicism. We cannot, as it were, just substitute what is presumed to be a superior doctrine for an inferior one. Such sleight of hand doctrinal replacement could never pass for what we understand as genuine doctrinal development. Progress in religion, we are forced to conclude, is awfully hard to distinguish from a capitulation to the mood of the times.  Surely, then, Catholicism cannot follow this idea of progress – not at the risk of doctrinal evisceration, it cannot.

A favorite ploy of some critics of the Catholic teaching on the inadmissibility of women to orders is to try to make the issue one of injustice. Mr. Keeler cites Fr. Bourgeois’ own words – “I reached a point where, in conscience, I could not be silent on this issue of injustice in my church,” and attempts to show that objection to Catholic teaching on ordination is of a piece with the priest’s other concern of opposing the United States government’s allegedly unjust military policies. This is a popular kind of argumentation today, especially with its strongly emotional appeal that somehow a whole class of people has had its rights abridged or abrogated.

This train of thought fails to take account of the mystery of the Church. “She is a society different from other societies, original in her nature and in her structures (6).” We find this observation in Inter Insigniores (1976), a declaration on the admission of women to the ministerial priesthood from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. The document stipulates further that “[the Church] is not a simple government, comparable to the modes of authority found in states (6).” While the Church is indeed hierarchical and the priesthood is incontrovertibly an office, we ought not to think of the priestly ministry as a career slot off limits to women, analogous to the way some combat roles are still restricted to men in the armed services. The priesthood is not a job to which we apply, but a vocation. As such, it cannot be thought of as a right to which we can lay claim. “To consider the ministerial priesthood as a human right would be to misjudge its nature completely; baptism does not confer any personal title to public ministry in the Church (6).” (Inter Insigniores)

The fact that we do not all do the same thing in the Church should not introduce any doubt at all about our equality before God and others. In the Church, there is personal equality at the same time there is functional inequality. This is how we understand the ecclesiology of Saint Paul in the New Testament (1 Cor. 12:1-31). “The roles are distinct, and must not be confused; they do not favor the superiority of some vis-à-vis the others, nor do they provide an excuse for jealousy.” (Inter Insigniores, 6)

Conscience is always a very important feature in the lives of Catholics. Mr. Keeler is right to call attention to it, when, for instance, he comments: “For Catholics, a right conscience has to be an informed one, and that means listening to church teaching.” To be perfectly honest, though, it does not stop there, with listening to the Magisterium. Catholics must strive to make the Church’s teaching their own by assenting to it, an act which involves the mind and the will. This of course applies to papal teaching, of which the Second Vatican Council has the following to say: “[A] religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff. . . . [T]he judgments made by him are [to be] adhered to sincerely.” (Lumen Gentium, 25) It is thus surprising that Mr. Keeler would view Fr. Bourgeois’ rejection of papal teaching so blithely as when he writes in his column: “Roy Bourgeois looks at all this and differs from John Paul and Benedict.”

When we find Church teaching difficult to accept, we should seek the assistance of the Holy Spirit in prayer, we should consult with a spiritual director and we should study the matter exhaustively, having an earnest hope that we will soon be able to assimilate and appropriate that teaching. We definitely do not take it upon ourselves to initiate a deeply divisive act, blunting the unity of the Church. Fr. Bourgeois’ preaching at an attempted “ordination” and his assistance at an invalid celebration of the Eucharist were not like they were some breaches of liturgical etiquette. He willfully participated in the simulation of two sacraments and these gravely wrong acts bring a severe but necessary canonical penalty. Priests, it bears mentioning and repeating, are men of communion. They act for and with the Church, just as they act in persona Christi capitis (in the person of Christ the head). 

An ever distinctive characteristic of Catholicism is the authority assigned to Tradition. It is peculiar that Mr. Keeler does not seem to acknowledge this in his column. He adverts to the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s report on the ordination of women and the American Catholic Biblical Association’s report which both say that the scriptures do not bar women from ordination. It should be pointed out that the scriptures do not favor it, either. Mr. Keeler does invoke Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (1994), the apostolic letter of John Paul II but it is clear that he does not value it much. He, in fact, dismisses it as “patriarchy and sexism dressed up as doctrine.”

We recall what Vatican II teaches about the place of Tradition in our faith. “[I]t is not from Sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws certainty about everything which has been revealed . . . . [B]oth sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence.” (Dei Verbum, 9) Notwithstanding Mr. Keeler’s flippant remark about patriarchy and sexism masquerading as doctrine, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis expresses the Tradition by which our faith is communicated to us and is safeguarded. It is Tradition then which tells us not diffidently but confidently that women cannot be ordained Catholic priests. As if this confidence is not enough, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis dares also to proclaim that “the exclusion of women from the priesthood accords with God’s plan for his Church (1).”

Doctrine is not a public opinion poll but an apt formulation of what is true; the priesthood is a gift not a right; conscience engages the mind and will otherwise it must forfeit its name; revelation has one source but two expressions – these are but a few of the considerations which ought not to be overlooked when we hold forth on Catholic teaching in the public sphere. We would be wise not to jettison them if only to avoid mistaking the Church founded by Christ to make disciples and teach (cf. Matt 28:20) for an intellectual salon.