Review of Sara Butler's "The Catholic Priesthood and Women"

I have written positively of Sara Butler’s “The Catholic Priesthood and Women” and cannot recommend it highly enough for all who truly want to undertand the Catholic Church’s stance on this issue.

But there is a good review (with some criticism) by Monica Migliorino Miller on the First Things Blog.

The criticism is mainly over the distinction between “fundamental reasons” and “theological reasons”. She does not deny the distinction (which I personally think is one of the strong points of Butler’s analysis), but believes that “there is more of an overlap between these two approaches to the doctrine than Butler admits.”

Butler brings the focus back to the “fundamental reasons,” which is necessary, considering how they are neglected in the debate. The fact remains, however, that the “fundamental reasons” alone have trouble convincing—and must be followed very quickly by the “theological reasons.”

One extremely good point that Miller makes is that emphasising the “fundamental reasons” without the “theological explanation” of these reasons may lead one to conclude that the will of Christ is “arbitrary”.

The “fundamental reasons” in Inter Insigniores begin with a statement that the Church does not believe she has the authority to admit women to the ministerial priesthood. The Church is bound to follow an original gesture of Christ when he established the sacrament of Holy Orders. This is at once a christological and an ecclesiological issue.

When Christ called only men to the company of the Twelve, we are confronted by the will of Christ himself. The apostles themselves were faithful to the expression of Christ’s will. The all-male priesthood begins with Christ, is continued by the apostles and is part of the unbroken tradition of the Church. As the document explains, “The Church intends to remain faithful to the type of ordained ministry willed by the Lord Jesus Christ and carefully maintained by the apostles.”

Many who reject these reasons argue that Christ’s manner of acting, his will indeed, was subject to the historical conditions of the times. In other words, Christ was not free to act any differently than he did, as he was under cultural constraints to deny women liturgical leadership in the Church. But now that times have changed, the Church is free to abandon a practice that discriminates against women.

Butler points out that Inter Insigniores and Ordinatio Sacerdotalis both insist on Christ’s sovereign freedom in his choice of male apostles. And this is an enormously important point. Indeed, much of the legitimacy of the “fundamental reasons” is based on the fact that, not only did Christ act in a certain way, thus setting up a permanent norm, but that Christ acted in freedom. History does not constrain him, culture is not a barrier, history is not a force that may dictate to Christ his choices. Christ is the Lord of history, he is the Lord of his Church.

Behind the “fundamental reasons” is a christological one, and while the Church’s documents insist on Christ’s freedom, it is the theologian’s task to explain why this is important. Butler does not provide this much-needed explanation. What is at stake is the very person of Christ—the divine Logos—in a gesture by which the constitution of the entire new covenant depends. If we follow the arguments of the dissenters, we are forced to conclude that in the very founding of the Church Christ (perhaps innocently) was guilty of an act of injustice to half of the human race. This, of course, is untenable.

Point taken. However, one good thing about the distinction between fundamental reasons and theological explanations is that theological explanations (which have varied over the centuries) may be discussed, disputed, newly recognised and even finally rejected (eg. as was the theological arguement that women cannot be priests because they are of a lower order of human being). The fundamental reasons, however, do not change and cannot be disputed or rejected.

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