How the inferiority of women was overturned

How the inferiority of women was overturned in the 20th century

Opening ritual: Repeat the opening ritual of visualizing the circle of women that await you. Silently acknowledge, “I am not alone. My co-learners (name each of them slowly, visualizing them as you do so) are out there wondering and waiting to see what I will do and say during this session. I anticipate interacting with them as I go forward.”

The learning circle is now open.

9.1 Rejecting the ‘tradition’ that blames and subordinates women

This final lesson summarizes what we have seen in the previous lessons and sketches a picture of hope that women will become empowered to take a full and active role in all sectors of society and in all the churches, mosques, and synagogues as well. It is divided into three parts:

  • Case #1 How prejudice against Jews was overturned
  • Case #2 How prejudice against female doctors was overturned
  • Case #3 How multiple prejudices against women were overturned in the 1983 Roman Catholic revision of Canon Law

A word about ‘prejudice’

In traditional human societies, men have dominated women, socially, intellectually, and politically. Women are still the underdogs in many countries and in many professions. Prejudices against women continue to be perpetuated by social ‘myths’, by cultural practices, and by political structures.

Though there may be a genetic basis for some gender roles, the origin of male dominance should be sought in historical developments. The mythological perceptions and cultural practices that accompany male predominance are underscored by a powerful “myth” of male dominance that can be documented even today.

Prejudices are an important tool whereby social ‘myths’ and perceptions are sustained. The characteristic features of social prejudice have now been extensively studied. They apply very much to the age-old attitudes regarding women found in our society and in our churches.

Case #1 How prejudice against Jews was overturned

Three boundaries are very clear. The first is that Jesus was personally committed to Judaism and that he trained his disciples to interpret and to do Torah in the anticipation of the kingdom of God that was ready to break into history. At no point did Jesus or his first disciples renounce their Judaism in favor of establishing a new religion. If the Jesus movement had consistently retained this legacy of Jesus, it would undoubtedly have remained a sub‑group within Judaism to this very day. But it did not.

This brings us to the second clear boundary. By the mid-second century, Gentile‑dominated segments of the Jesus movement retained their self‑definition as “the true Israel” while, at the same time, rejecting all forms of Judaism that were not absorbed into their own movement. History after this, Jacob Neusner reminds us, was marked by the intimacy and the bitterness characteristic of a “family quarrel”:

We have ample evidence for characterizing as a family quarrel the relationship between the two great religious traditions of the West. Only brothers can hate so deeply, yet accept and tolerate so impassively, as have Judaic and Christian brethren both hated, and yet taken for granted the presence of, one another. [Jacob Neusner, “The Jewish‑Christian Argument in the First Century: Different People Talking About Different Things to Different People,” Religious Studies and Theology 6/1‑2 (1986) 9.]

The most malicious libel against the Jews was the doctrine of “blood guilt.” According to this doctrine, the Jewish people as a whole were responsible for killing Jesus. The key “foundation” for this doctrine was found in the Gopel of Matthew:

When Pilate [wishing to find a way to release Jesus] saw that he could not prevail at all, but rather that a tumult was rising [among the Jews], he took water and washed his hands and said, “I am innocent of the blood of this just person. You see to it.” And all the [Jewish] people answered and said, “His blood be upon us and on our children.” (Matt 27:24–25)

Of the proposed interpretations for Matthew 27:25, the anti-Jewish interpretation is the oldest and most frequently cited. This view says the Jewish people are permanently guilty and condemned in the eyes of God for their murder of Jesus Christ. As such, the cry of “His blood be upon us” means that the Jewish crowd in Jerusalem admitted full guilt for killing the Lord Jesus Christ and thereby invoked God’s curse upon themselves and their descendants until the end of time.

This interpretation first surfaced in the writings of the church fathers in the third century, and it became universally accepted by the Middle Ages. The result, among other things, was the slanderous accusation that all Jews everywhere for all time were guilty of being “Christ killers” and “murderers of God.”

The third clear boundary is also very clear. In the early 1960s, the antagonisms fueled by this family quarrel were, for the first time, rigorously reexamined because the smoke of the burning children of Auschwitz was in their nostrils. Nearly all churches renounced the doctrine of “blood guilt” and affirmed that Jesus “lived and died as a practicing Jew” (thereby making it impossible for Christians to hate Jews and Judaism without at the same time hating Jesus).

Against the backdrop of my religious upbringing that was infected with anti-Judaism, you can imagine the shock I felt in 1965 when the bishops of Vatican II completely abandoned the eighteen hundred year old tradition of “blood guilt.” Their exact words were the following:

True, authorities of the Jews and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Jesus; still, what happened in his Passion cannot be blamed upon all the Jews then living, without distinction, nor upon the Jews of today ( Nostra Aetate 4 ).

The genius of this solution is that it carefully acknowledges that there was some Jewish involvement in the death of Jesus without deciding just who and how much. What continues to stun me, however, is that the bishops completely bypassed my own expectation that the bishops would decide to forgive the Jews on the basis of Jesus’ own anguished prayer on the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Nor did the bishops try to convince us that Jesus died for all our sins, and, as a result, “all our sins” and not just “Jewish sins” had to be accounted for as bringing about the horrible death of Jesus.

The Unfinished Agenda: Whether the failure of Eve passes on to all women

While the defective theology defining the subordination to woman has been nearly everywhere overturned within the churches, the interpretation of “the fall” still remains as the unexamined and overwhelmingly popular meaning of Gen 2-3 that appears in bible commentaries and in church sermons. This characterizing of all women as untrustworthy (and not just Eve) entirely subverts Paul’s authentic thought and practice:

Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman [wife?] to teach or to have authority over a man [her husband?]; she is to keep silent [as her husband instructs her]. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor (1 Tim 2:11‑14).

In this course, we have seen how every generation has expanded upon and further libeled the character of women on the grounds that such libel was somehow permitted since it represents the definitive judgment of God found in the Sacred Scriptures. This tradition represents a dangerous flaw in scriptural interpretation and a serious miscarriage of justice against all women that needs to be publicly acknowledged and repented.

Exploratory Questions 9.1
9.1a How does 1 Tim 2:11‑14 represent a dangerous flaw in scriptural interpretation and a serious miscarriage of justice against all women?
9.1b How might the leadership of the various churches “publically acknowledged and repented” in this case? [Recall how your church leaders publically acknowledged their flawed doctrine of blood guilt and repented for the Christian crimes against the Jews.]
9.1c Did Jesus hold the view that God cannot forgive any sins until he dies on the cross? Provide evidence.

When it comes to the traditional interpretation of Gen 2-3, we must say:

  • that blaming all women for the actions of one woman (Eve) has no more validity than the blaming of all Jews for the death of Jesus on the basis of Matt 27:24–25;
  • that blaming Eve (or Adam and Eve jointly) for all the evils in the world has no more validity than does the Greek myth of Pandora that falsely portrayed the origins and nature of womanhood;
  • that the notion that God could not forgive any sins prior to the death of his beloved Son, Jesus Christ, is a flawed anti-Jewish doctrine that runs contrary to the theology and the experience of Jews (e.g., Yom Kippur) and contrary to the ample testimony within the Hebrew Scriptures (=OT) and the parables of Jesus to the effect that God is always ready to pardon the repentant sinner (e.g., David’s forgiveness in 2 Sam 12:13, Ps 25:11, 32:1-2, 51 & the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:11-32); [When you have more time, click here for full details–“The Return of Humility and Truth in Terms of the Forgiveness of Sins Without Jesus”]
  • that characterizing “the sin” of Adam and Eve as somehow so grievous as to be unforgivable has no validity or warrant within Gen 2-3;
  • that the image of the divine Parent as hardening his heart against his children due to a single fault committed before their eyes were opened presents an abusive sort of parenting that is unworthy of God.

To make certain that these destructive patterns of reading Gen 2-3 do not return, it would be helpful to return to the original understanding:

Ecstacy of Eve upon digesting the knowledge of good and evilSome of the early Church Fathers (Irenaeus, Origen) regarded Adam and Eve as literally children growing up in their Parent’s Garden. Being children, the fruit of the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Gen 2:17) was naturally inaccessible to them; so, God planted this tree in the middle of the Garden because he definitely wanted them to eat of it when he discerned that they were ready. As often happens, however, children rush ahead and seize adult ways prematurely. Their parents are secretly pleased that their children are becoming like them. They are disappointed that their childen grew up so fast. They are upset that they were absent when Eve first ate the fruit and her eyes were opened. What a moment!

According to Origen, Eve’s initiative merely represents, in part, the well-known case that girls mature earlier than boys. The serpent in this narrative is not what will later be identified as Satan in disguise (Wis 2:24; Rev 20:2) but the wisdom figure of ancient cultures. The serpent, accordingly, reveals quite rightly to Eve that by touching the fruit, she will not die—on the contrary, “God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened [so as to discern good and evil], and you will be like God” (Gen 3:5). They ate and “the eyes of both were opened” (Gen 3:7)—just as the serpent revealed.

The fact that they notice, for the first time, that they are naked only demonstrates that they are indeed seeing with adult eyes (and have lost the innocence of childhood). Then, once God discovers what has happened, he does not curse them. How could he? Rather, God says (with a quiet pride), “See, the man [lit., “earthling”] has become like one of us, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:22). God is angry at the serpent because She herself wanted to offer Eve the fruit of the tree that She deliberately planted in the middle of the Garden. God wanted to be there when Eve’s eyes were first opened. This is the same impulse that we have as parents today!

God excludes Eve and Adam from the Garden lest they might also eat of the tree of life and live forever. In so doing, God, acting like a good father, gets Adam ready for the curses of farming, and Eve is prepared for the curses of childbearing. They, themselves, are never cursed. Gen 2-3 makes no reference to “sin” or to “unforgiveness” in this whole narrative. In truth, this is so because Adam and Eve are being prepared to enter into the adult world wherein their Parent will no longer do everything for them. Just before they leave, “the LORD God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them” (Gen 3:22) so they wouldn’t catch cold on the journey that stretched out before them. This little detail demonstrates that God is not angry at them, he is not kicking them out of his house. Rather, he is preparing them for the arduous life outside the Garden.

In this narrative, Eve is the primal explorer and the truth seeker. She will go (with the help of the serpent) to where no earthling has gone before! And, having had her eyes opened, she lovingly offers to share her momentous discovery with her beloved companion, Adam (and potentially with all their children [=us] as well). The Gen 2-3 account is thus the primal story of the discovery and the transmission of the “original blessing” that the Divine Parent planted so tenderly and so carefully “in the middle of the garden” (Gen 3:3). In this original story, therefore, there is no fall from grace, no demonic temptation, and no release of evil into the world. Just the contrary!

Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves. –Jesus, Matt10:16

Case #2 How prejudice against female doctors was overturned

Children growing up today cannot ever remember an era when all the doctors were men and all the nurses were women. Now one finds male nurses and women doctors everywhere. One sees them on television all the time. Thus, my granddaughter does not hesitate to play “doctor” when her dolls gets sick, whereas, in her mother’s generation, the girls could only have thought of themselves as “nurses.” Thus the imaginative horizons of both women and men have become more fluid, more adventuresome, and more comfortable with setting aside the tradition of “separate domains” in medical care.

During World War II, the government broke down the barriers that allowed women to work on the assembly lines, and plans were in place that would have given women access to be trained as doctors as well. During the war, female nurses served in Europe. All the military doctors were men. When the war ended, women in premed programs were told they were no longer needed and that their duty was to make room for the men returning from the front.

Meanwhile, within the profession itself, most male doctors fought, tooth and nail, to maintain their “calling” as “only suitable for men.” An instructive passage in Hedda Garza’s book, Women in Medicine, gives us a picture of this time in history:

By 1955, a new low point had been reached. Many medical schools that had welcomed women during the war no longer had a single female student. Now that women were no longer needed, polls were published to justify the sudden change. In 1949 and 1957, hospital chiefs of staff and male physicians gave familiar answers to the questionnaires asking them their opinions of female doctors. Many of them commented that women doctors were “emotionally unstable,” “talk too much,” and “get pregnant”! One dean actually declared that he preferred a third-rate man to a first-rate woman doctor. [parallel fears in 2008]

When I asked [Dr.] Ellen [Killebrew] about her experiences in premed, she relayed that she frequently had to endure dreary, misogynist attitudes. Among the most painful memories she recalled was being accused of cheating on her biochemistry exam because no woman was expected to excel as she had. Male students raided her dorm room looking for evidence to support their accusations—which were, of course, false.

In 1960, just one year after Ellen completed her premedical training, Jefferson Medical College in Pennsylvania finally opened its doors to women, becoming the last medical school in the United States forced to do so. Still, at her medical school interviews, Ellen was asked why she wanted to “take a man’s place.” She was queried as to whether or not she had thought about having a family and, consequently, of dropping out of medical school.

In 1962, while Ellen attended New Jersey College of Medicine, historian Frederick Rudolph congratulated male colleges like Yale and Harvard for “preserving the liberal inheritance of Western Civilization in the United States by protecting it from debilitating, feminizing, corrupting influences which shaped its career where coeducation prevailed.” (www)

Do women doctors practice medicine differently from their male counterparts? Not always. Yet, over the years, behavioral studies have demonstrated that female doctors have transformed the profession and have delivered a gentler and kinder form of health care:

With women becoming doctors in ever-increasing numbers, medicine is generally becoming more patient friendly, treatment is improving and malpractice suits may become less common, experts say.

But, they add, the feminization of medicine is helping to lower physician salaries, encourage part-time doctoring and exacerbate a looming shortage of physicians.

The change in the medical field has been swift and dramatic. Since 1975 the percentage of female doctors has nearly tripled, from 9 percent to 25 percent. And the wave is far from cresting: 38 percent of doctors under age 44 are women, and half the students in U.S. medical schools are women, a change that is expected to intensify. (www)

Exploratory Questions 9.2
9.2a The growth of female doctors in the U.S.A. has grown steadily from less than 1% in 1960 to 25% today. Would you expect to find the same figures for men entering the nursing profession? Why or why not? [Need a hint, click here.]
9.2b Women doctors in the 60s and 70s were entirely trained by men and forced to conform to male-orientated professional standards if they were to become certified. With time, however, women doctors brought noticeable change: “medicine is generally becoming more patient friendly, treatment is improving and malpractice suits may become less common.” Why is this? What is your own local experience on this point.
9.2c As women are increasingly trained as ministers and are hired by parishes, do you imagine that they will replicate the style of male ministers or do you imagine that they will “feminize” parish ministry in ways parallel to what has happened in the medical profession? Explain. [If you have some direct experience here with women’s ministries in the parish setting, please share your own personal observations.]

Case #3 How prejudices against women were overturned in the 1983 Roman Catholic revision of Canon Law

Over the years, the traditions of the Church regarding women have been changing. In the first century, the followers of Jesus (and Paul) brought to women a dignity and a promise of full inclusion that was equal or superior to what they were finding within secular society. This superiority remained as long as house-churches were the norm since, in this atmosphere, women could move and express themselves freely due to their superior numbers and due to the fact that members regarded each other as “sisters and brothers” of their common Father in heaven (Lesson Six). Once the Christian churches moved from the private space of the home to the public space of the Roman meeting place (the cathedra), the roles open to women were progressively curtailed.
For purposes of simplicity, let’s look at some of the forms of gender inequality that became the way of life within the church during the late Middle Age. To catch a glimpse of the special restrictions that were applied to women as women, consider the special prohibitions governing women that found their way into official Church law (Corpus Iuris Canonici) in 1234 C.E. and remained a vital part of Catholic practice all the way until 1916. Here is a sample of the prohibitions (click to see details):

The one small consolation that lies behind this list of special restrictions is the realization (a) that every one of these rules originated because women at one time were doing these things and (b) that, at some point in the 20th century, the climate within the church changed in the direction of permitting what had formerly been prohibited.

Reflective Questions 9.3
9.3a Is there any particular prohibition that catches your eye? Why so?
9.3b Relative to receiving communion in the “naked” hand, why do you suppose that the clergy in charge felt that women had to be restricted from receiving communion in the hand while the men could continue to do so?
traditional head-covering worn by women in the early 60s9.3c Why was veiling so important for women “when receiving communion”? [Note: Do you recall that, in the early 60s, nearly all women continued to wear hats or kerchiefs on their heads when entering the church? Then, as the liturgical renewal got under way in the late 60s, this custom quietly disappeared without anyone making any sort of official decree or fuss in either direction. What do you make of that!?]

The renewal following upon Vatican II

The liturgical renewal following the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) resulted in a transformation of what we know today as worship. Formerly it was normal to come to church to hear “the priest say his Mass” in Latin while the people recited their rosary or silently read from their own prayer books in English. After Vatican II, the Sunday liturgy was again seen as the worship of the entire congregation praying together in their native tongue with the priest functioning as their “celebrant.” This was a momentous change. The Eucharist was again, after fifteen hundred years, being offered by the entire body of believers and not just by the priest who did everything on behalf of the people.

In 1972 Pope Paul VI issued the Motu Proprio entitled Ministeria quaedam which made the following changes to Canon Law:

  • What up to now had been called “minor orders” were henceforth to be called ministries.
  • Ministries may be assigned to lay [i.e., non-ordained] Christians; hence, they are no longer to be considered as reserved to canidates for the ordained priesthood.
  • Two ministries, adapted to present-day needs, are to be preserved in the whole Latin Church, namely, those of reader and acolyte.

What Paul VI did in his motu proprio was to dismantle a clerical system in which all ministries were reserved to the ordained clergy. Suddenly, “lay ministries” appeared. At the very moment of their appearance, however, a curious prohibition was imposed:

  • In accordance with the ancient tradition of the Church, institution to the ministries of reader [lector] and acolyte [server] is reserved to men.

How lay ministries gradually began to include some women

The exclusion of women as lectors/readers in 1972 was indeed unusual in view of the fact that many churches throughout the world had already become accustomed to having both women and men functioning in this capacity. It was also a small step backward in so far as the 1970 Roman Missal had already decreed: “The conference of bishops may grant that when there is no man present capable of carrying out the reader’s function, a suitable woman, standing outside the sanctuary, may proclaim the readings preceding the gospel” (General Instruction, n 66).

Reflection 9.4
9.4 What significance do you give to the 1970 appointment of women as readers if and only if “there is no man present capable” and she reads “standing outside the sanctuary”? What might have prompted such restrictions? Does one have here an instance of “sexual discrimination”?

Thirty years later, much had changed. The 2000 Roman Missal brings forward the revised norm for lectors: “The liturgical functions which are not proper to the priest or the deacon . . . may be entrusted to suitable laity chosen by the pastor or rector of the church through a liturgical blessing or a temporary deputation. The function of altar servers is regulated by norms established by the Bishop for his diocese” (General Instruction, n 9.). Here one discovers that the “laity” (both women and men of faith) are perceived as capable and trained to perform these functions. Note also that these update and gender inclusive norms apply to both liturgical readers and altar servers.

How the absolute prohibition regarding women in the sanctuary was set aside in favor of an inclusive norm

Even the absolute prohibition regarding women in the sanctuary was gradually set aside on the grounds of the inclusive character of the rights and responsibilities of the faithful. Even during the period when the Vatican seemed adamant about keeping women away from the altar, pastoral practice had already implemented and successfully argued for an inclusive norm that was more in keeping with the Gospels and with the decrees of Vatican II. The U.S. bishops, for example, argued that priority ought to be given to the “proper place” for liturgical readings and that it was inappropriate to have “separate places outside the sanctuary” designated for female readers.

In like fashion, during this same period when the Latin Mass of the priest was being replaced by the renewed vernacular Eucharist of the people of God, many pastors judged that this liturgical renewal called for an integration of the tradional altar servers to include young girls, older women, and older men. Here is a picture of the altar servers surrounding their trainer at St. Patrick’s Church in 2006.


In some areas, however, the choice of altar servers (acolytes) continued to be reserved for those young men who might aspire to consider a priestly vocation. This blog by Lilly A. Thorns gives forceful expression to this latter tradition:

With a shortage of priestly vocations, allowing women and girls to serve on the altar is counter to the cause. It ought to be an ‘all boys’ club. Of course, this practice has been sanctioned by Rome, as we can see in Redemptionis Sacramentum (2004). Here we find one paragraph which starts out well and ends on a most regrettable note.

[47.] It is altogether laudable to maintain the noble custom by which boys or youths, customarily termed servers, provide service of the altar after the manner of acolytes, and receive catechises [i.e., training] regarding their function in accordance with their power of comprehension. Nor should it be forgotten that a great number of sacred ministers [priests] over the course of the centuries have come from among boys such as these. . . . Girls or women may also be admitted to this service of the altar, at the discretion of the diocesan Bishop and in observance of the established norms.

This was yielding to what is politically correct, another victory for feminism, and has not been in the best interest of vocations. It is disturbing to have girls and women serving as acolytes. This sort of statement from the Vatican sends mixed messages. We hear more and more from the laity how women ought to be allowed to be priests, then there wouldn’t be a priest shortage. To allow girls to join the boys up on the altar gives a false impression that we will someday see them as priests. The Catholic church will never allow that, if the Church ever did allow for the ordination of women, we would be Protestant. (www)

Exploratory Questions 9.5
9.5a Lilly sees female altar servers as undercutting the recruitment of priests. Do you agree? Why or why not? Why are there so few candidates for ordination today?
9.5b Lilly accuses the Vatican of sending “mixed messages” to women. Do you agree? Why or why not?
9.5c To what Christian denomination do you belong? Has there been resistance to woman ministers within your denomination? Please describe it.

Women as the special distributors of communion

As part of the liturgical renewal, nearly all the members of the congregation began to receive communion whereas, formerly, only a few came forward. Now special lay ministers were authorized to assist the celebrant in the distribution of communion (esp. when both consecrated bread and wine were to be distributed). Thus, the 1969 Vatican instruction, Fidei custos (“On special ministers to administer communion“), makes this provision: “A woman of outstanding piety may be chosen in cases of necessity, that is, whenever another fit person [male?] cannot be found.”[Documents on the Liturgy, (Minnesota, Liturgical Press, 1982) 643.]

This Vatican directive caused immense confusion and evoked much discussion–as you can imagine. Who is this “fit person”? As a result, the Vatican directive was largely ignored because no one knew exactly what it meant.

The Vatican Congregation of the Rites inexplicably waited four years before it clarified its original meaning as follows: “The fit person referred to … will be designated according to the order of this listing (which may be changed at the prudent discretion of the local Ordinary [i.e., bishop]): reader, major seminarian, man religious, woman religious, catechist, one of the faithful–a man or a woman.”[Documents on the Liturgy, (Minnesota, Liturgical Press, 1982) 651.] And, now that everyone understood exactly what was required of them, the Vatican directive was still widely ignored.

Why so? Two reasons:

  1. Liturgical practice in the U.S.A. had already progressed in the direction of choosing eucharistic ministers without any sexual bias (even though the clear intent of Fidei custos was to impose some sort of sexual preference). Since this was the operative norm and since this practice had the approval, in most cases, of the local bishop, there was no reason to back-pedal.
  2. Likewise, it was totally impractical to imagine that any given parish would dismiss its existing “eucharistic ministers” and to designate and train a whole new set based upon the complex hierarchy specified by the Vatican.

Thus, most pastors routinely ignored the new Vatican clarification as an embarrassment and as an entirely unworkable solution. Only a few bishops decided that it was worth the effort to impose penalties upon parishes that were non-compliant.

Situations of non-compliance with Vatican directives

Wide-spread non-compliance has the effect of nullifying a law. This recognition has a firm basis in Canon Law and in some Civil Law as well. John Gratian, the father of Canon Law, formuated this in the following terms:

Laws are instituted when they are promulgated and they are confirmed when they are approved by the practices of those who use them. (www)

In effect, non-compliance was seen as the normal route whereby subjects could nullify unsuitable laws imposed upon them by their ecclesiastical superiors. According to Gratian, a suitable law must “be moral, just, possible, in accord with nature, in keeping with the custom of the homeland, suitable to the place and time, necessary, useful, clear so that it not mask something unsuitable, not for private benefit, but conceived for the common utility of the citizens.” Laws that fail to have these qualities were not worthy of confirmation; hence, it was incumbent upon the faithful to disregard them. Americans might be prone to see this as an instance of “checks and balances.”

In other words, the community to which the law is directed makes a judgment about the law’s intrinsic quality, and that in turn has an effect upon its obligatory force. Without the confirming usage of its subjects, the law remains incipient, and can eventually be considered abrogated. (www)

Reflective Questions 9.6
9.6a What significance do you give to Vatican clarification of the “fit canidates” for distributing communion, namely, “reader, major seminarian, man religious, woman religious, catechist, one of the faithful–a man or a woman”? What appears to be the hidden logic behind this detailed hierarchy of “fit persons”?
9.6b What sense do you make of the non-compliance with the 1969 Vatican instruction, Fidei custos?

The revision of Canon Law respecting eucharistic ministers

When the revisions of Canon Law were being prepared in the late 70s, there was little incentive to override the prevailing pastoral practice in favor of including a Vatican norm that had never been widely implemented. When the approved commentary on the new 1983 Code of Canon Law discussed problems surrounding the norms for choosing lay ministers for distributing communion, including the restriction of installation of these ministries to men only, the following observation was made:

The basis for this restriction [to men only] has been questioned throughout the process for revising the Code [of Canon Law]. These are truly lay ministries, are not intended as a step toward sacred orders, and the restriction to males appears as an unwarranted discrimination.

Reflective Question 9.7
9.7 The observation above is very instructive. The revision of Canon Law was being undertaken by carefully selected and qualified priests loyal to the Vatican. How does one explain, therefore, why the framers of the 1983 revised Code negated those Vatican norms that included “an unwarranted discrimination” against women?

Those revising Canon Law gave precedence to what Vatican II prescribed regarding the necessity of removing sexual discrimination from within the Church:

Vigorous and incisive pastoral action must be taken by all to overcome completely these forms of discrimination so that the image of God that shines in all human beings without exception may be fully respected.

As an expression of her mission, the Church must stand firmly against all forms of discrimination and abuse of women.

The declarations of Vatican II form a “constitution” for the Church. Every pope is pledged to uphold Vatican II, and any declaration of the papacy or of any Vatican Congregation or office subordinate to the papacy is expected to implement and to interpret the norms set out in the declarations of Vatican II. Any Vatican declaration that purports to openly overturn, in part or in its entirety, Vatican II would be, by its very nature, null and void.

As a result, the framers of 1983 Code of Canon Law took the non-discriminatory norms of Vatican II cited above as effectively negating the attempt by the Vatican Congregation of Rites to introduce criteria that would discriminate against women when it came time for choosing suitable candidates for the administration of communion: “These are truly lay ministries, are not intended as a step toward sacred orders, and the restriction to males appears as an unwarranted discrimination.” Thus, the framers of the new Code which is in force today, allowed lay people, including women, to be readers, altar servers, cantors, preachers, leaders of prayer services, extraordinary ministers of baptism and distributors of communion (Canon 230, §2-3). Notice that these new canons refer to “lay persons” and treat both women and men equally as regards these ministries:

Canon 230, §2. “Lay persons can fulfill the function of lector during liturgical actions by temporary deputation; likewise all lay persons can fulfill the functions of commentator or cantor or other functions, in accord with the norm of law.”

Canon 230, §3. “When the necessity of the Church warrants it and when ministers are lacking, lay persons, even if they are not lectors or acolytes, can also supply for certain of their offices, namely, to exercise the ministry of the word, to preside over liturgical prayers, to confer baptism, and to distribute Holy Communion in accord with the prescriptions of law.”

Relative to the exclusion of women from the sanctuary, the framers of the 1983 Code made the following observations:

The 1917 Code [of Canon Law] restricted ministry at the altar to males (CIC 813). The revised Code does not retain that canon; in virtue of canon 6, §1 it ceases as Code law. However, canon 2 specifies that liturgical law remains in effect. The provisions of the General Instruction on the Roman Missal (no. 70) permit women to be appointed to ministries performed outside the sanctuary. They may also be permitted to perform some that are carried on inside the sanctuary; proclaiming the readings before the gospel is explicitly mentioned (no. 70) and distribution of the Eucharist is referred to, implicitly admitting women to the sanctuary (no. 68). Although a subsequent instruction indicated that women are not allowed to serve as altar servers [presumably because women cannot be admitted into the sanctuary], the Code no longer states this prohibition and the force of this later instruction ceases (CCLTC, p. 168).

Relative to discrimination based on sex, the framers of the 1983 revisions made the following observations:

There has been, however, a genuine effort in the 1983 Code to eradicate many expressions of sexual discrimination found in the former one [the 1917 edition]. For example, there is no longer discrimination on the basis of sex relative to domicile (c. 9.), transfer of rite (c. 112), precautions clerics are to take to protect continence (c. 277, §2), regulations concerning the confessional (c. 964) or the place of marriage (c. 1115) or burial (c. 1177). In cases of converts, polygamists and polyandrists are treated alike (c. 1148, §1). The law concerning religious applies equally to men and women unless the text or nature of the matter evidences otherwise (c. 606). The most notable exception is the regulation on papal cloister, which applies only to monasteries of nuns (c. 667, §3). Women may serve in tribunals even as judges (c. 1421, §2), may be authorized to preach in churches (c. 766), and may be called to exercise pastoral care of local communities (c. 517, §2). . . .

There remains, however, the exclusion of women from ordained ministry (c. 9.4), and therefore from the offices, functions, and ministries that are restricted to clerics. Not all of these entail an exercise of the power of orders. For example, only the ordained are capable of exercising the power of governance in the Church (c. 129, §1), and offices that entail the exercise of that power are restricted to clerics (c. 274, §1).

This does not exclude women from creative, active roles in the Church. To implement the new way of thinking characteristic of the revised Code will take time and effort, providing ample opportunity for all in the Church to explore the full implications of the canons on equality, obligations, and rights. There is need for further theological clarification of the relation between ordained ministry and the power of governance, especially in light of the restriction regarding women being ordained. It must also be admitted, however, that the continued discrimination, even based on theological arguments, may be discouraging to many in the Church (CCLTC, p. 141).

Exploratory Question 9.8
9.8a The ‘continued discrimination based on theological arguments’ undoubtedly refers to the CDF document, On the Question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood, known by its Latin title as Inter Insigniores, that you studied in Lesson Two. According to this document, no one in the Church can even think of ordaining women because Jesus gave us a permanent mandate that only men were to be appointed to the “apostolic ministry.” To date, however, four out of five theologians who have published journal articles on this document have found it defective in its use of Scripture, defective in its theological reasoning, and defective in its final conclusion. On the basis of its reception, therefore, what can/must one say as to whether this document has been received as deciding that the Church cannot ordain women?
9.8b In the case studies considered above, it was shown how, in a short fifty years, some thousand-year-old entrenched prohibitions routinely applied to women were swept away when it came to the appointment of readers, altar servers, and distributors of communion. Does this provide any wisdom relative to the internal struggle and the probable outcome of the issue of women’s ordination?
9.8c What is so sad is that, to begin with, the CDF pushed through a defective theology regarding the impossibility of ordaining women (1976 to present). Next, it put into place legislation that bans open discussion of the topic and excommunicates anyone taking part in unauthorized ordinations of women. Finally, local bishops are required to act against all Catholics who do not comply. Glace at the first five “Further Readings” below to guage the seriousness of this clash. Is there no resolution available on this issue other than a “clash of wills” and “the brutal use of raw power”? What can you do to help mitigate a situation where brother is turned against brother and sister turned against sister?


The participation of women [in ordained ministry] is more than an issue of justice. To the extent that we are open to women’s gifts, acknowledgment of our deep need for their strengths must follow–strengths that provide essential balance to those of men. ( Bishop Gerald Wiesner, 1997 Synod on the Americas)

When finished, take a break. Make some tea for yourself or take a five-minute walk or dance to your favorite music.

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