Pope Francis dances around a tough spot here. Many other commentators have expended ink, breath, and electronic space on the matter of ordaining women to holy orders. He begins by laying down matters that are a given.
First the equal dignity of women and men:
104. Demands that the legitimate rights of women be respected, based on the firm conviction that men and women are equal in dignity, present the Church with profound and challenging questions which cannot be lightly evaded.
This is an accurate assessment. We cannot dodge these issues–none of us. These questions are meant to be tackled and wrestled with. Avoidance is cowardly and sinful.
The reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the Spouse who gives himself in the Eucharist, is not a question open to discussion, but it can prove especially divisive if sacramental power is too closely identified with power in general.
And as we have known and seen, power is very much perceived as hand-in-glove with the ordained clergy. And in many leaders and their followers, when we speak of the sacramental nature of kingship (be it exercised in baptism or orders) we conflate that with power. Unfortunately, that power is often exercised in an ignorant and arbitrary way.
It must be remembered that when we speak of sacramental power “we are in the realm of function, not that of dignity or holiness”.[Christifideles Laici 51]
Exactly right. Ordination confers no additional holiness on a person. Be that deacon, priest, or bishop a man or, potentially, a woman. It is not a more direct path to the Lord, nor does it provide any particular advantage to one class of persons over another in God’s eyes. The regard (or lack thereof) is entirely of human manufacture.
The priesthood is one means. Not the only one, is what I read here:
The ministerial priesthood is one means employed by Jesus for the service of his people, yet our great dignity derives from baptism, which is accessible to all. The configuration of the priest to Christ the head – namely, as the principal source of grace – does not imply an exaltation which would set him above others. In the Church, functions “do not favor the superiority of some vis-à-vis the others”.[CONGREGATION FOR THE DOCTRINE OF THE FAITH, Declaration Inter Insigniores on the Question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood (15 October 1976): AAS 68 (1977) 115, cited in JOHN PAUL II, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles Laici (30 December 1988), note 190]
Mary outranks the bishops–this is something we’ve heard elsewhere:
Indeed, a woman, Mary, is more important than the bishops. Even when the function of ministerial priesthood is considered “hierarchical”, it must be remembered that “it is totally ordered to the holiness of Christ’s members”.[JOHN PAUL II, Mulieris Dignitatem 27]
The ministerial priesthood is directed not at the holiness of the caste, but exists to develop the sanctity of all the baptized. This is John Paul II, before it was Francis.
Its key and axis is not power understood as domination, but the power to administer the sacrament of the Eucharist; this is the origin of its authority, which is always a service to God’s people. This presents a great challenge for pastors and theologians, who are in a position to recognize more fully what this entails with regard to the possible role of women in decision-making in different areas of the Church’s life.
And indeed, people will be watching their pastors and theologians carefully over these next years. Will this thrust of Evangelii Gaudium bear fruit in terms of a renewal of what service means, of how power is exercised, and how women will contribute to the Church as leaders. And as people who are fully capable of facilitating holiness in others.
Pope Francis may be staying close to recent tradition on ordaining women, but he has a role to guide theologians and pastors–the two responsible groups–to synthesize a new and satisfactory approach that respects both tradition and the contributions of women.