Pope Dodges Thorny Questions about Women's Ministry in the New Testament

Not that I blame him, of course. There is, after all, a time and a place for everything, and last Wednesday’s weekly audience was perhaps not the place for this discussion.

After mentioning the daughters of Philip, who “prophecied”–an act which he defines as “the faculty to speak publicly under the action of the Holy Spirit”–he goes on to elablorate:

We owe to St. Paul a more ample documentation on woman’s dignity and ecclesial role. He begins with the fundamental principle, according to which, for the baptized “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28), that is, all united in the same nature, though each one with specific functions (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:27-30).

The Apostle admits as something normal that woman can “prophesy” in the Christian community (1 Corinthians 11:5), that is, pronounce herself openly under the influence of the Holy Spirit, on the condition that it is for the edification of the community and in a dignified manner. Therefore, the famous exhortation “the women should keep silence in the churches” must be relativized (1 Corinthians 14:34).

The much-discussed problem on the relationship between the first phrase — women can prophesy in church — and the other — they cannot speak — that is, the relationship between these two indications which are seemingly contradictory, we leave for the exegetes. It is not something that must be discussed here.

He skirts around another tricky passages too, that of Phoebe the “deacon” or “minister”:

In other passages, the Apostle mentions a certain Phoebe whom he calls “diakonos” of the church of Cenchreae, the small port city east of Corinth (cf. Romans 16:1-2). Although at that time the title still did not have a specific ministerial value of a hierarchical character, it expresses a genuine exercise of responsibility on the part of this woman in favor of that Christian community.

There will be many who will read the transcript of this audience and eagerly desire that the Holy Father will find a “time and a place” for the discussion of these points somewhere in the future. My Lutheran friends, who have been wrestling with just these biblical passages in the last couple of decades, would be very interested, because it is upon the interpretation of such scriptural passages that they will make their decision about the ordination of women.

For the Catholic Church, the refusal to ordain women has always and continues to be the example of Jesus in choosing only men to constitute “The Twelve”. Thus it is membership in the twelve and not the title “apostle” which the Church counts as foundational as the pattern for the priesthood. Twice in the same paragraph, the Pope emphatically underlines the Church’s “obvious” position on this:

Of course, as we know, Jesus chose 12 men among his disciples as fathers of the new Israel “to be with him, and to be sent out to preach” (Mark 3:14-15). This fact is obvious but, in addition to the Twelve, pillars of the Church, fathers of the new People of God, many women were also chosen and numbered among the disciples.

Women to whom the Church may have given the title “apostle”, such as Mary Magdalene “the apostle to the apostles” (a title the pope discusses) and the “apostle” Junia (Rom 16:7, whom he doesn’t discuss), do not stand as patterns for the priesthood, but for a special role of Christian witness.

Nevertheless, this Audience highlights the many, many Christian women upon whom the development of the infant Church to a great extent depended.

Most notable is his brief discussion of the Virgin Mary:

who with her faith and maternal endeavor collaborated in a unique way in our redemption

. That looks to me like an endorsement of the title “Co-Redemptrix”. How do you read it?

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3 Responses to Pope Dodges Thorny Questions about Women's Ministry in the New Testament

  1. Sharon says:

    Check out any diocesean office and parish and you will most likely find a gender imbalance. Guess which sex is in the minority?

    The Junias is a male saint in the Greek Orthodox Church.

  2. LYL says:

    I thought “Co-redemptorix” had been rejected?

  3. Schütz says:

    Sharon, thanks for visiting; yes, in Western tradition Junia is Junias also (and so he is in KJV and RSV translations), but apparently the best modern textual scholarship has decided otherwise and Junias has undergone a sex change. Of course, this is grist to the mill of the proponents of women’s ordination, since the text appears to call Junia/s an “apostle” (although it really only says that s/he was “among the apostles”). From this they then extrapolate that if Junia was an apostle, then women could be apostles too, so why not priests? But, as pointed out, while the Church and the Pope acknowledge that apostlic witness was not limited to men (the Magdalene is unashamedly called the “apostle to the apostles” in Catholic tradition, though not in Scripture), the doctrine of male priesthood only depends upon the fact that Jesus chose all males to form the “Twelve”. In fact, the Pope explicitly calls the latter “Fathers” of the people of God. Of course, you probably put your finger on the reason why Junia didn’t get a mention–to do so would have been the equivalent of a papal endorsement of the modern textual critics over against the received text of the New Testament.

    Louise, I don’t think that “Co-Redemptrix” has ever been explicity repudiated. In fact, it has tacitly been accepted and allowed. What seems to have been rejected (despite a push from some American conservative Catholics) is any notion that the doctrine could be infallibly defined either in the immediate or distant future. The reason for this appears to be solely the desire to avoid the same ecumenical furore that greeted the definition of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption. Nevertheless, such ecumenical niceties have not stood in the way of this Pope doing what he thinks is right (eg. the dropping of the misnomer “Patriarch of the West” for the Pope–an act that implicity rejected the Eastern Orthodox interpretation of his place and role in the Ekklesia). In any case, were this doctrine ever to be defined, it would have to be done so carefully as to reassure our Protestant dialogue partners that we are not a) making Mary out to be a (demi-)goddess, or b) promoting a full blown version of Pelagianism in which we human beings were able to save ourselves. As I read it, the doctrine that Mary is “Co-Redemptrix” means only that she was involved in the history of our redemption in a way that was more than simply a “vessel” through whom the Christ entered this world. It takes seriously and promotes the fact that as a human being, God respected her freedom and dignity, and that in conceiving and giving birth to and mothering Jesus she intimately connected to him in both her body and soul.

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