On May 22, 1994, Pope John Paul II issued the apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, in which he closed down the debate on the ordination of women to the priesthood. It was the feast of St. Rita, the patroness of impossible cases, a great woman of faith and fidelity to God’s law and a lover of the cross of Jesus Christ.
I was living in New Zealand in those days, and was able to witness the reaction to the apostolic letter launched by some disgruntled feminists. A leader of such a group of women unhappy with the Pope’s teaching was Dr. Anna Holmes, well-known in the Diocese of Christchurch.
Her views seemed to encapsulate those of most feminists who call themselves “Catholic.”
She stated that “when the Church began, the family Jesus gathered about Him included women and men as equal members. Membership was open to all who ‘hear the word of God and keep it,’ which was to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves. . . . The Church continued as a ‘family of equals’ until it moved to Rome. . . . Women were involved in the early Church in preaching, teaching, and ministry [but were] gradually excluded and confined out of their public roles.”
The result was a “sense of anger, frustration, abandonment . . . [because of] Church relationships which are hierarchical, oppressive, and wrong.”
I think these statements sum up in a very relevant way the thinking of feminists of both genders (possibly also of those of the so-called transgender type, if they ever think about such matters). But the simple question is: Is this true? Were women in the early Church indeed “involved in preaching, teaching, and ministry”? Or are the views of Dr. Holmes and those of her persuasion simply mythical untruths, which will confuse and therefore deceive those who are ignorant and immature in the faith?
At the Mass before the conclave that elected him Pope, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger stated that “Catholics cannot remain immature in the faith, as they risk being tossed about here and there by any new doctrinal wind.” And with the issue of women’s ordination, it is precisely what we see among many: ignorance, immaturity in the faith.
Dr. Holmes and those of her persuasion oppose the hierarchical nature of the Church, and prefer a society of equals. Of course, it is their opinion, not my problem, because an opinion is something like a brain, everybody has got one — or at least most people do. So we must ask this elementary question: How did Jesus establish His Church? As a society of equals, where authority emerges from the people via democratic means? Or as a hierarchy, based upon the calling to the sacramental priesthood?
Let’s face it, friends: It is one way or the other. It cannot be both. It is either a monarchy or a republic. Authority either comes through election by the people because it is a human right to be a priest or a bishop; or it is a calling from God, discerned by the existing priesthood of the Church.
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Let us investigate this matter, beginning with Sacred Scripture. In the Old Testament, Israel was the People of God. It began as a theocracy — God was their King, exercising His government through the prophets He sent — and it was immensely superior to any monarchy, where the king is a mere man. But the Israelites became politically correct, and wanted a king for themselves, just like all the pagan nations around them. God called Saul, of the tribe of Benjamin. Saul was not elected by a majority vote.
In the New Testament, a new Israel of God (Gal. 6:16) was formed by Jesus, who said that He had come not to abolish, but to fulfill, to bring to perfection (Matt. 5:17). Hence the Church of Jesus Christ is the pillar and mainstay of the Truth (1 Tim. 3:15).
Now, what did He come to fulfill? Of course, we are restricting our study here to the format chosen by Jesus to establish His Church, that is, whether it was a democratic society of equals or a hierarchical society based upon a divine calling to the priesthood.
First of all, Jesus made it very clear the origin of the apostolic calling: “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit” (John 15:16).
Likewise, God the Father chose Abraham, and freely so, and Abraham did not take the initiative to choose God. Abraham was the patriarch, chosen by God, not elected by the people. From him the people of Israel issued in due course through the generations of his offspring.
Israel was God’s firstborn son: “Israel is my firstborn son, and I say to you, let my son go that he may serve me” (Exodus 4:22). Although God gave to Israel His preference, He also loved the other nations, as in “Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage” (Isaiah 19:25). But “Praise the Lord, O Jerusalem! Praise your God, O Zion!…He declared His words to Jacob, His statutes and ordinances to Israel. He has not dealt thus with any other nation, they do not know His ordinances. Praise the Lord!” (Psalm 147:19-20).
Israel was definitely at the top of the list of God’s love and preference! Yes, definitely there was no society of equals among the peoples of the earth in God’s sight. Israel was privileged.
But before we proceed, let us define this important word: privilege. According to the Oxford Dictionary, it is a right, an advantage, or an immunity, belonging to a person, a class, or an office. Privilege comes from the Latin privus, private, and lex, or legis, law: a law that applies to a private situation, a person, a class, an office, or a people, as in the case of Israel.
Even within the twelve tribes of Israel, the Levites had a privilege. They received no land of their own as the other eleven tribes did, because “the Lord is their inheritance, as He promised them….The first fruits of your grain, of your wine and of your oil, and the first of the fleece of your sheep, you shall give him [the Levitical priest]. For the Lord your God has chosen him out of all your tribes, to stand and minister in the name of the Lord, him and his sons forever” (Deut. 18:1-5).
Because they were the priestly tribe without a land of their own, Levites received the privilege to live by the lands of other tribes. Moreover, only they and their sons — not their daughters — were allowed to “stand and minister in the name of the Lord.” No males of all the other eleven tribes were ever allowed even to burn incense in the Temple: only the Levites. They did not choose God; God freely chose them. It was God’s will that there was no society of equals in the Old Testament.
Next article: Was there a society of equals in the New Testament?
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Raymond de Souza is director of the Evangelization and Apologetics Office of the Winona Diocese, Minn.; EWTN program host; regional coordinator for Portuguese-speaking countries for Human Life International (HLI); president of the Sacred Heart Institute, and a member of the Sovereign, Military, and Hospitaller Order of the Knights of Malta. Web site: www.RaymonddeSouza.com.