A Question of Rights
No Eucharistic Sacrifice if Women Excluded
By James E. Biechler
ARCC's "Charter of Rights"
is simply wrong when it states that "all Catholics, regardless of...sex...have
the right to exercise all ministries in the Church for which they are adequately
prepared" (Right No. 16). The pope has made it very clear that Christ has
excluded women from the office of priest. The female sex and the Catholic
priesthood are simply incompatible.
þLAM, Naples, FL
Yours is a statement rather
then a question. I suppose this is appropriate for a Catholic who is persuaded
that the pope is correct in his opinion. For such a person a "question"
about this is a dogmatic impossibility. But for most Catholicsþand
this would include bishops, priests, and theologiansþnot only may
such a question be formulated, they have already answered it for themselves.
They see no incompatibility between their Catholic faith and women priests.
Fifty years ago you would
have to look far and wide to find any Catholicþor even any Christian,
for that matterþseriously suggesting the ordination of women. It
wasn't a question. What has happened in the interim to change this state
of affairs in the Catholic church?
The first thing which comes
to mind is the changing status of women throughout the Christian world.
This change has its roots in the Christian sense of the natural equality
of men and women and the inherent freedom of the human person. Granted,
Christians did not succeed in building societies which embodied these truths;
in fact, society is still a long way from their realization.
But the readiness of Catholics
to accept women priests is the result not only of the changing social status
of women. Since the Second Vatican Council Catholics have a different understanding
of the Eucharist than they had before the council. Before the council,
the Mass was seen as a propitiatory sacrificeþwhat anthropologists
call a prophylactic sacrificeþa ritual designed to ward off damnation,
appease an offended God, and win social and natural benefits from the Almighty.
his notion of sacrifice meshed with a conception of priesthood similar
to that of the Jewish and Graeco-Roman cultures. Here sacrifice was almost
exclusively patriarchal because its primary purpose was the protection
of the family, tribe and race, and success in agriculture and war. Prophylactic
sacrifice protected family and society by assuring that the divine beings
responsible for the construction of the social and natural orders would
offer protection, and the evil spirits who might work against them were
placated or warded off.
Christians naturally carried
these practices with them when thinking of priesthood and sacrifice. Prophylactic
sacrifice was given some New Testament legitimation by the Letter to the
Hebrews, which related the priesthood of Christ to that of the temple,
without, however, mentioning priests other than Christ. Elsewhere the New
Testament refers to all the followers of Christ as a "royal priesthood."
We no longer understand the
Eucharist as a prophylactic sacrifice. Because we now understand that the
social order is a product of human making we do not approach the spirit
world for its maintenance. The same is true of our understanding of agriculture,
and natural processes. These matters are in our hands and are our responsibility.
Especially since Vatican
II sanctioned liturgical participation and lay responsibility we have come
to understand the Eucharist not as prophylactic sacrifice but as sacrifice
of abandonment. In this kind of sacrifice the members of the community
sacrifice themselves in an act of self-abandonment to the whole. It corresponds
to Jesus's actions at the Last Supper when he washed the feet of the disciples,
when he told them they were his friends, not servants.
The objective of the sacrifice
of abandonment is the intensification of community by the mutual self-giving
of all. In this way, all are priests, all share the priesthood of Christ
in the act of self-immolation. The result is the neutralization of hostilities,
the erasure of boundaries and obstacles to love and relationship. "There
is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no
longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians
The exclusion of women from
presiding at such a sacrifice of abandonment not only makes no sense; now
that the issue has been joined their exclusion is a dramatic countersign
of Eucharistic unity. The exclusive male president is an icon of disunity
and rejection. Instead of witnessing to unity, intimacy and concord, the
ritual bespeaks exclusivity. The same is obviously true of the exclusion
of married persons.
It is readily understandable
why Christians of previous centuries found no problem with a male-only
priesthood. The social order and the order of nature were dependent upon
forces beyond human control. But today we no longer offer sacrifice to
rid the world of the Black Death. Vatican II has taken the church from
a classicist view of realityþone in which society and human nature
are fixed and unchangingþto a historicist view which sees our human
world as the product of human response and human creativity. The Eucharist,
as sacrifice of abandonment, meshes perfectly with this newly emerging
In short, if we are to be
truly faithful to the beautiful and powerful heritage of Christ's Eucharist,
we may not allow its continued distortion by symbols of exclusivity and
Dr. Biechler, an emeritus
professor of religion, is a member of ARCC's board of directors. He also
holds a licentiate in canon law and is a longtime member of the Canon Law
Society of America.
Comments to Dr. Biechler