Symposium speaker: Christ’s will, example determine all-male priesthood

| Susan Klemond | May 4, 2017 | 9 Comments

Sister Sara Butler

Catholic and Protestant disagreement over women’s ordination has less to do with the churches’ views of women’s status than their differences dating back to the Reformation. The sticking point: whether ordained ministry is a sacrament instituted by Christ, as the Catholic Church teaches, or a church-developed ecclesiastical rite, as many Protestants maintain, Sister Sara Butler said at her April 26 lecture, “The Catholic Priesthood as Sacramental Reality: Women’s Ordination in Ecumenical Perspective.” The Siena Symposium at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul sponsored the talk.

“Contrary to popular opinion, the Catholic Church’s tradition of reserving priestly ordination to men ultimately depends not on some distinctive view of the status of women or the complementarity of the sexes, but on the distinctive understanding of the priesthood and of holy orders, the sacrament that hands it on,” said Sister Sara, a member of the Missionary Servants of the Most Blessed Trinity in Philadelphia.

In exposing the roots of a major issue in ecumenical dialogue, Sister Sara explained to more than 100 clergy, seminarians and laypeople the Catholic and Protestant teachings on ordained ministry. She said the Catholic teaching of holy orders as an unchangeable sacramental sign takes precedence over arguments based on equality of the sexes.

A professor emerita of systematic theology at Mundelein Seminary in Mundelein, Illinois, Sister Sara is known for her work advancing the understanding of the Church’s all-male priesthood and in ecumenism. She has served as a consultant to the U.S. bishops, at synods and on pontifical councils and congregations.

Bishop Andrew Cozzens presented Sister Sara with the Siena Symposium’s 2017 Humanitarian Leadership Award. The Siena Symposium is an interdisciplinary faculty group founded at St. Thomas in 2003 seeking to develop the new feminism called for by St. John Paul II.

Siena Symposium co-founder and director, and St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity professor Deborah Savage described Sister Sara as “a noted theologian and widely recognized expert on the topic of the Catholic understanding of the priesthood.”

Sister Sara, who previously supported women’s ordination before researching Church teaching on holy orders while involved in ecumenical work, said Catholic priests and many Protestant ministers have similar functions, but interpret the origins and foundations of their ministerial practices differently.

Catholic doctrine on holy orders is grounded in Gospel and tradition-based teaching that Christ willed an all-male priesthood because he selected and consecrated a discrete band of apostles to be the Church’s first leaders, she said. This is despite scriptural evidence that Christ had many other followers of both sexes and that his association with women went beyond the accepted norm of his day.

Evidence that the apostles ordained only men and that the Church has consistently continued this practice for 2,000 years further supports the all-male priesthood, Sister Sara said.

The Protestant reformers denied that holy orders was a sacrament instituted by Christ. They also believed the commission given to the Twelve Apostles was meant for the entire community.

Contemporary Protestant theologians question whether appointment of the Twelve Apostles is relevant and maintain that an ordained ministry emerged gradually, Sister Sara explained. Many have concluded that Christ didn’t institute a special ministerial priesthood or intend that it be passed on exclusively by the apostles through the Holy Spirit in a sacrament of holy orders.

The Catholic Church teaches that Christ conferred on the apostles a special priesthood, passed on through holy orders, that enables priests to serve in the person of Christ, Sister Sara said.

“It hands on the gift or confers a spiritual power that equips the priest to do and say what he could never do on his own,” she said. “Holy orders configures him to Christ as his ambassador and a steward of the mysteries so that he can carry out the Lord’s own ministry among the rest of the baptized.”

The Catholic Church has no authority to ordain women because it can’t alter the sacramental sign Christ gave in his example of choosing only male apostles, which is supported by the unbroken tradition of ordaining men and conferring holy orders, she added.

Common objections to women’s ordination — including those relying on New Testament passages routinely cited to explain an all-male priesthood or theological arguments concerning the complementarity of the sexes — can’t be resolved without addressing the tradition tracing the priesthood to its institution by Christ, Sister Sara said.

St. Thomas senior Liz Maslow, 21, said she doesn’t hear many arguments about Jesus founding the priesthood and its importance. “It was really fascinating to see how [Sister Sara] laid that out for [us as] if someone were to ask that kind of question,” she said.

Despite differences on women’s ordination, Catholics and Protestants have identified in dialogue 15 faith elements held in common that point to a sacramental understanding of the Eucharist and holy orders, Sister Sara said.

“The Catholic Church brings to this discussion something different, something beyond this,” she said. “She brings her confidence that in calling the Twelve Apostles, Christ established a New Testament priesthood and her confident faith that Christ is present and active in the Church by means of it.”

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Category: Faith and Culture