February 21, 2011
response to the Jamie Manson article in the NCR 2/15/2011
by Tony Equale
For many Catholics who are seeking church reform, the question of the ordination of women to the priesthood is a settled subject. How could there possibly be any disagreement? Women are working in every career choice open to men, including the police, and the army. Why not the priesthood? There is no reason.
I am not challenging women’s rights. I accept the principle of egalitarianism for all humankind, and of course that would apply to any role in any organization. But I would not want the defense of that principle to obscure what is at stake with Church reform. For me the question is not whether women should be priests in the Roman church, but whether in a christian community there should be any priests at all.
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.
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.
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.
In the late sixties Ivan Illich was something of a guru to a group of Catholic people in the New York area interested in serving the poor and in serious church reform. Many of us learned spanish and the principles of pastoral acculturation at his feet in Puerto Rico and in Mexico. On one occasion we shared with him our enthusiasm for a married deaconate and perhaps the ordination of married men as a first step in the larger reform of mandatory celibacy and the ordination of women. To our surprise he told us he did not agree. “Until clerical culture changes,” he said, “the only thing you will accomplish will be to draw this new group of unspoiled laypeople into a dysfunctional clerical culture, effectively adding to the unchristian stratifications within the church. You will just perpetuate something that should not exist.”
I hear in those words the very same counsel as offered by Mary Hunt and Elizabeth Schussler-Fiorenza, mentioned by Manson, that “Catholic women should think beyond ordination and seek a church that functions more like … ‘a discipleship of equals’.” The depth of reform that this would entail is truly beyond imagination … but only because of the hierarchy’s insistence on clinging to power and to the ideological (dogmatic) props that protect it. Otherwise, it’s not unimaginable at all. It’s time to stop begging them for what they will never give … and at any rate do not own. It is not theirs to give! To seek ordination under these circumstances is to buy into the very system that debases us.
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!