What Jesus Says to the CDF

I have observed the misery of my people . . . ;
I have heard their cry. . . .
Indeed, I know their sufferings,
and I have come down to deliver them (Exod 3:7f).


6. What Jesus Might Say to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith When He Was Blamed for Permanently Excluding Women from Ordination

Dr. Aaron Milavec

Our brother and father, John Paul II, has strayed from the path of Jesus, his avowed master. Jesus uplifted the experience of women, accepted their fresh initiatives, and boldly confronted those men who tried to put them back in their place. Our brother, John Paul II, meanwhile has spoken prematurely on the issue of the exclusion of women from ordination (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis), and he has used the name and example of Jesus to reinforce this ban. In what follows, an attempt will be made to reexamine (a) the shaping of the judgment to exclude women from presbyterial ordination and (b) Jesus’ practice of upholding women’s experiences and initiatives.

The Shaping of the Judgment to Exclude Women

marthamaryThe issue of Jesus’ relation to women has come up again and again as both sides of the women’s ordination issue appeal to Jesus in order to give authority to their respective positions. With Catholics privately and publicly divided on this issue, it was inevitable that some bishops would press Rome for some sort of definitive solution lest official silence leave open a false hope on the part of many. Thus, Paul VI assigned the issue to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in 1975. The CDF, in turn, asked for a report from the Pontifical Biblical Commission (PBC) on this issue.

The PBC sent its final report to the CDF in June of 1976. The Commission’s report concluded that, on the basis of the Christian Scriptures alone, the issue cannot be decided “in a clear way and once and for all [time]” (96). This is so, the report declared, because “the New Testament never uses the technical term hiereus [“priest”] for the Christian ministry” (92). But, even beyond this, the “role of leadership in the [early church] communities . . . was always held by men in conformity with Jewish custom” (95). The PBC report, consequently, did not think that decisions made within the cultural conditions prevailing in the first century ought to automatically predetermine what the church might decide would be right and proper within altered cultural circumstances. Unfortunately, the CDF quietly shelved the PBC report and entirely ignored its findings when it came to producing its own judgment which, at things turned out, was the only report to be officially published. Thus, from the very beginning, the CDF saw fit to ignore the results of a very legitimate consultation and collaboration process which it had initiated. Here, again, the path of Peter was ignored.

The CDF issued its final report in October of 1976 under the title, On the Question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood. The CDF embraced significant segments of the analysis found within the PBC report; however, in contrast to the earlier report, the CDF unambiguously came to an negative conclusion: “[T]he Church, in fidelity to the example of the Lord, does not consider herself authorized to admit women to priestly ordination” (CDF: 4).

The CDF report is extraordinary in three ways:

1. The report openly acknowledges that the negative conclusion “will perhaps cause pain” (CDF: 5). In my reading of official church documents, this is the first time that I have found an expression of sensitivity directed towards those who will suffer because of a decision being made on their behalf. The report later makes mention that “some women feel they have a vocation to the priesthood” (CDF: 16). It is perhaps to these women and their supporters that the framers of the document acknowledge that their conclusion “will perhaps cause pain” (CDF: 5).

2. The CDF report never falls into the trap of supposing that either Jesus or his disciples thought of themselves as “priests.” Rather, the report consistently affirms that, even though Jesus’ “attitude toward women was quite different from that of his milieu” (CDF: 6), he did not, nonetheless, entrust “the apostolic charge” (CDF: 7) to any women, not even to his own mother. In like fashion, when considering the practice of the early church, the report correctly notes that the apostles had worked with certain women for the sake of the gospel; yet, “at no time was there a question of conferring ordination on these women” (CDF: 8). Here again, the CDF report never suggests that these early ordinations involve “priesthood” as such. Rather the surmise is that, if the “apostolic charge” of Jesus and the “ordinations” of the early church were reserved entirely to men, then it follows that the ordained ministry of the church today ought to follow the same practice.

3. The CDF report is also noteworthy in so far as it squarely acknowledges that, as culture changes, the practice of the church can and sometimes must change. The report openly acknowledges that some of the apostolic ordinances relative to women, as illustrated by the obligation of women to wear a veil on their heads (1 Cor 11:2-16), were culturally conditioned and accordingly have been changed. But then the report continues:

However, the Apostle’s forbidding of women “to speak” in the assemblies (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:34-35; 1 Timothy 2:12) is of a different nature, and exegetes define its meaning in this way: Paul in no way opposes the right, which he elsewhere recognizes as possessed by women, to prophesy in the assembly (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:5); the prohibition solely concerns the official function of teaching in the Christian assembly. For Saint Paul this prescription is bound up with the divine plan of creation (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:7; Genesis 2:18-24): it would be difficult to see in it the expression of a cultural fact (CDF: 9).

In effect, therefore, the report identifies the exclusion by Paul of women from “the official function of teaching” as not culturally determined but as theologically necessary due to “the divine plan of creation.” When the report considers Jesus’ exclusion of women from “the apostolic charge,” the same distinction sounds through. The report even goes so far as to say that no one can prove that Jesus’ exclusion of women was culturally determined precisely because Jesus was known to have opposed other “prejudices” regarding women:

No one himself has ever proved–and it is clearly impossible to prove–that this attitude [of Jesus] is inspired only by social and cultural reasons. As we have seen, an examination of the Gospels shows on the contrary that Jesus broke with the prejudices of his time, by widely contravening the discrimination practiced with regard to women. One therefore cannot maintain that, by not calling women to enter the group of Apostles, Jesus was simply being guided by reasons of expediency (CDF: 9).

In sum, while the CDF report is remarkably sensitive to modern scholarship and to the pain it might cause; nonetheless, it’s bottom line is that “Christ chose `those he wanted’ (Mark 3:13)” (CDF: 16). Accordingly, if the Roman Catholic Church continues to choose only men for the priestly ministry, she continues to do so, not because of any prejudice against women shaped by patriarchal patterns of culture, but solely because she is faithful to Jesus Christ.

Jesus’ Practice of Upholding Women’ Experiences 

While the CDF report is exemplary, it does fail to note three distinctive aspects of Jesus’ interaction with women which provide points of departure for resolving the issue of women’s ordination within the modern church. I will treat each in turn:

1. The Synoptics summarize Jesus’ ministry by saying, “He went throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues” (Mark 1:39 and par.). Consider the situation of Jesus teaching in the synagogues of Galilee. Are we to imagine that Jesus was exclusively surrounded my men or were their women in the synagogues as well who sat quietly and attentively behind the men? If these women were there, did Jesus ever take them into account? It would be impossible to decide this on the basis of any direct evidence. On the basis of indirect evidence, however, much can be decided.

What indirect evidence? To begin with, examine the experience implied in the parables of Jesus. When you do so, you will note that some of the parables of Jesus directly speak to the experiences of men. For example:

The Sower (Mark 4:3-8, Matthew 13:3-8, Luke 8:5-8)
The Wicked Husbandman (Mark 12:1-11, Matthew 21:33-44, Luke 20:9-18)
The Doorkeeper (Mark 13:33-37, Luke 12:35-38)
The Fisherman’s Net (Matthew 13:47-50)
The Lost Sheep (Matthew 18:12-14, Luke 15:4-7)

These five parables appeal to the tasks and experiences which traditional Jewish society associated exclusively with men. Women could observe men doing these things; but, by and large, they normally would not be expected to relate to these tasks since, in the normal course of events, they would rarely, if ever, have a chance to perform them.

On the other hand, Jesus has a set of parables which specifically featured the experience of women. These would be the following:

The Yeast (Matthew 13:33, Luke 13:20f)
The Ten Maidens (Matthew 25:1-13)
The Lost Coin (Luke 15:5-10)
The Unjust Judge (Luke 18:1-8)

Here again, men could be expected to have observed women kneading yeast into dough and have witnessed the bride’s maids going out with lamps to welcome the groom and his friends. However, it could be assumed that men would not be expected to relate to these roles since they would never have an occasion to assume such roles themselves.

10 virginsIn reading the evidence here, one must keep traditional Jewish society in mind. In contemporary society, some men do take pride in making loaves of bread from scratch. In the world of Jesus, however, the grinding of grain, the kneading of dough, and the baking of bread were the daily chores of women. In contemporary society, men and women usually arrive together at the church for a wedding. After the wedding, they go together to the reception. No one has to wait. Within traditional societies, however, the bride and her female attendants sometimes waited for hours in her home while the friends of the groom took their merry old time assembling at the groom’s home for a “bachelor’s party” before walking together to the bride’s house where the wedding was to take place. What does it say about Jesus that he would not only notice that the women were kept waiting but, as in the case of his parable, kept waiting for such a long time that many fell asleep and their lamps went out? The men, it must be remembered, were having a “bachelor’s party” and, in their merry- making, not expected to be attentive to the women who were waiting with the bride.

The Gospel writers implicitly recognize that Jesus told Kingdom parables using experiences which were sometimes proper to women and sometimes proper to men. This evidence indirectly testifies that Jesus wished the Kingdom to be intelligible to both women and men. Within the synagogue, therefore, it can be presumed that Jesus occasionally directly addressed those women who sat behind the men and who were, in most cases, entirely lost sight of by the men who sat around Jesus. Jesus, however, did not lose sight of them–even if he was not able to actually see them. On the contrary, Jesus was sufficiently interested and sympathetic to women as women that he deliberately framed his teaching so as to hold up their proper experiences as precious and as vehicles for understanding the message of God.

The inclusivity of Jesus’ teaching style has much to offer today’s church. Many male pastors preach and teach well; yet, up to this point Our brother and father, John Paul II, might do well, therefore, to hold up before those who are charged with teaching and preaching the image of Jesus on the point. If presbyteral and episcopal ordination is to be confined to men alone, then, needless to say, the inclusive practice of Jesus must challenge the present propensity of men to emotionally and psychologically circumscribe their modes of teaching and organizing within exclusively male models. Thus, in a church where women are systematically excluded from ordained ministry, the ordained men have much to repent and much to amend if they are to hold Jesus as their example.

2. When Jesus spoke over the heads of the men surrounding him, he was also presenting before men his determination to hold up and honor the experience of women. This uncharacteristic sympathy toward women undoubtedly gave Jesus a reputation which circulated among the women in the courtyards of Galilee. As a result, women felt the urge to approach this teacher and prophet with a courage and a determination which they did not express toward other rabbis in their day. Think, for instance, of the woman who had “suffered from a hemorrhage for twelve years” (Matt 9:20, Mark 5:25). Such a women would be ritually impure and, as a result, prohibited from touching anyone or being touched (see Lev 15:20). Hence, she suffered from being denied the embrace of husband, of children, of friends. Moreover, unlike the dying girl of twelve who has a father to plead her cause, this woman has no father, no brother, no son who is sufficiently sympathetic to bring her case to the attention of Jesus. Driven by desperation, therefore, she leaves her home for the first time in twelve years and risks seeking to escape notice by “touch[ing] the fringe of his garments” (Matt 9:20). She knows full well that her condition is widely known and, if anyone of her family or neighbors spotted her, they would soundly shame her with a tongue-lashing that she would not soon forget. Jesus, meanwhile, does not disappoint her. In fact, he draws attention to her and confirms her initiative saying, “Your faith has saved/healed you” (Matt 9:22).

Jesus’ Practice of Upholding Women’s Initiatives

At still other points, Jesus deliberately shames the men in favoring of standing up for the initiatives taken by women. Consider the case narrated by Luke wherein a male dinner party is interrupted by “a woman who is wayward in the city” (Luke 7:37 literal tr.)–a polite euphemism for a prostitute. Now that one of “these women” has barged into his home; Simon immediate thought must have been to have her removed quickly and quietly without disturbing his dinner guests. Given the fact that the men are “reclining” (7:36 RSV mistranslates this as “sat”) at table, the supposition might be that Simon is moderately well to do and that this is something of a formal dinner in Jesus’ honor. Jesus, instead of honoring his host, then precedes to shame him in favor of praising the initiative of the interloper. Men, especially in traditional societies, are expected to ban together and protect the status and reputation of other men–especially their benefactors. Not so, in the case of Jesus. He defends the outsider. The sole woman who has no voice, no standing, no dignity is uplifted as acting more honorably and hospitably than his host.

Given all the self-righteous anger that Christians have poured out upon prostitutes over the centuries, it seems incredible that Jesus never said a single harsh word to a prostitute nor, as in the case of this woman here, does he presume to be able to say, “Go, and do not sin again.” The harsh reality is that, in Jesus’ day, many women were caught up in prostitution and, given the existing social structures, their choices were either to sell their bodies to men or to allow themselves and those that depended upon them (e.g., underage children) to starve. It’s not a pretty picture. But, then again, Jesus had to face up to the real evil existing in his day. And the real evil was not this women. She herself was victim of a system largely created to serve the interests of men.

Mark’s Gospel also includes the story of a women anointing Jesus during a meal at Simon’s house. Mark’s narrative, however, is recast in an entirely different direction. In Mark’s narrative, it is the disciples of Jesus who become the antagonists of the woman. Jesus, in this case, openly shames them while honoring the single, voiceless woman whom he stands up for. The objection to the women in Mark’s account has nothing to do with her reputation as a wayward woman or with her “touching” Jesus but focuses on her disregard of the poor which she demonstrates by her extravagance. As a result, “some” disciples (unnamed in Mark) “reproached her” verbally (14:5). Jesus immediately jumps to her defense by shaming the mistaken priorities of the disciples. Even beyond this, Mark is here clearly signaling to his readers that this nameless woman rightly anticipates the death of Jesus while the disciples have repeatedly hardened their hearts to it (Mark 8:32, 9:32, 10:32-37).

How rare it is to hear ordained men in the church upbraiding their fellow men in favor of the initiatives of women. Yet, this is precisely what Jesus did. A church, therefore, which would continue to reserve the role of preaching and presiding to men must reflect upon how willing and able they are to stand up for women (and all other underclasses of persons). If they cannot and do not, then what legitimacy can they have as continuing and as exemplifying the ministry of Jesus. Moreover, ordained men will need to overcome their shame and self-protectiveness by keeping quiet when women are being abused sexually, economically, socially. The active concern of Catholics regarding protection of the unborn is laudable; yet, quite frequently, the tactics used further victimize the victims and, in the real course of things, entirely avoid confronting the sins of men. More women are beaten and sexually abused by their husbands every month exceeds the total number of women who have abortions in a year; yet, the public outcry within church circles against male abuse is noticeable muted. Here again, one might suspect that an all-male clergy has lost touch with the example of Jesus.

marthamary3. In our third instance, Luke presents Jesus as mediating a dispute between two women, Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-42). Martha is presented as the one who “received him into her house” (Luke 10:38). Mary is introduced as her “sister” who “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching” (Luke 10:39). Herein the conflict erupts. Martha is fuming in the kitchen because Mary has abandoned the traditional woman’s role of occupying herself with preparing the food for her male guests. Without any invitation from Jesus, she has seemingly taken her place sitting among the men around Jesus. So what could Martha do to remedy this situation? Seemingly, given her seniority over her sister, she could simply order Mary to give her a hand. But she doesn’t. She prefers to take her complaint to Jesus and to chew him out! “Lord, do you not care . . . ?” (10:40) In this drama, Martha typifies the traditional woman who routinely takes charge when no man is present but, as soon as a suitable man appears, she honors him with the role of setting her household in order. And, in this case, Martha is also clearly upset with Jesus because he, after all, is the source of her problem in so far as he has allowed Mary to engage in Torah discussion with him and the other men. Here again, therefore, Martha’s expectation is that, once Jesus is alerted to the unfair burden being placed on Martha, Jesus will set things right by promptly put Mary back “into her rightful place.”

Then the surprise comes! Jesus takes the side of the woman who has neglected the requirements of hospitality and neglected to come to the assistance of another woman in distress. As an astute pastor, Jesus acknowledges that Martha is “anxious and troubled,” but this does not move him to resolve the situation by sending Mary (or even a few of the men?) into the kitchen. Rather, he sets forth a daring new principle: “Mary has chosen the good/better portion which shall not be taken from her” (10:42; see also 8:18).

Nowhere in the Gospel accounts do we come across Jesus making general pronouncements about women: “Women ought to do this. . . . Women ought not to do that. . . .” Even in the case of the tension between Martha and Mary, Jesus does not fall into the trap of supposing that he ought to impose one solution upon all women for all time. Instead, Martha is allowed to continue, with honor, in the traditional role she has cut out for herself; yet, she has to learn to do this, at least for the moment, without Mary as her helpmate. As for Mary, one cannot help but note that Jesus is not presented as having invited Mary to sit at his feet in the first place. She does this by herself. He simply accepts her initiative.

If this narrative offers some insight into the internal affairs of Luke’s community, it would have to be in the direction of signaling that the men in change do not have a pastoral plan which covers all cases and all contingencies. Part of the “good news” is that women are free to take the initiative without seeking prior approval from the men who are in charge. Madonna Kolbenschlag admirably develops this same theme on the basis of Luke’s portrait of another Mary, that of the mother of Jesus (Kiss Sleeping Beauty Goodby, pp. 82-88). On the other hand, the Martha and Mary narrative offers every reason for the men in charge to honor those women who are quite content with staying within their traditional roles without having to crush the spirit of the visionaries.

Learning is liberating. Once Mary begins to hear Torah for herself “at the feet of Jesus” and then begins to acquire the art of applying it to her own life, she establishes herself as an equal with the men. She can never go back to her former position of trusting that the men in her life entirely know and understand all those things (which were formerly beyond her grasp). More importantly, she can never go back to thinking that she need only obediently submit to masculine direction to assure herself that she is entirely in harmony with what God would have her be and have her do. If every Jewish man gained his independence and his stature before men and before God by virtue of learning to read and to interpret Torah for himself, why should this same rule not apply also to some women as well?

The beauty of this first-century Gospel story is that it aptly reflects the frustration and distress of 20th century women as they pioneer new roles in their communities and in their churches. The wisdom that Jesus brings to us is that we ought to honor and respect the legitimate freedom of choice exercised by both Martha and Mary without demanding of him that he should set down a teaching which defines women’s roles for all times and for all places. When faced with the request to reprimand Mary (and those who act like her within the church), he ends up commending Mary’s choice of having taken a visionary role without giving Martha the satisfaction of forcing Mary to acknowledge the error of her ways. If Catholics had followed the teaching of our Divine Master and had made allowances for exceptional women to function within men’s roles, then, when there is a snowstorm and Fr. X is not able to arrive to say Mass for a convent of Sisters, one of the gifted women would have been ready to act as his substitute. And, in the case of hospital patients who unexpectedly show signs of dying, there need be no frantic efforts to bring in a priest for the Last Rites for there would be nurses already at hand who had the gift and the training to administer the Rites for those dying. And, in the case of diocesan priests who knew themselves called by God to both ministry and intimacy, the bishops would have made it possible for those who were being torn apart by two different “divine callings” to provide the church with the “exceptional service” of married priests.


In the end, some may blame Jesus for not having gone far enough. He upheld their proper experiences in his teaching. He openly received their initiatives and backed down those men bent upon getting them to conform to social norms. Yet, in the end, he did not send the women out two by two to preach, heal, and exorcise with the men.

Anyone who takes the time to think about the condition of women at the time of Jesus would have to admit that the Gospels represent what could be called “a quiet revolution.” It would have been disastrous pastoral practice for Jesus to have called some women to join the men he was training and doubly disastrous to have sent these women out in pairs to do public preaching. Jesus had to make allowances for the settled instincts of his contemporaries and not act in ways that would have been roundly condemned as shamefully irresponsible.

What Jewish father, for instance, could have responsibly given over his daughter to be a disciple of Jesus when this would have entailed habitual association with men who were not blood relatives? And what women, even supposing she had somehow received training in Torah, could have expected to gain a hearing by addressing Jewish men in the public sphere? For such conduct, women would have been verbally abused and, if they continued, pelted with stones. Such conduct was entirely unbecoming of a woman in Jesus’ society!

In retrospect, therefore, one must allow that even Jesus had to exercise a certain pastorally motivated restraint. Not everything was possible or necessary. Jesus must have known this. Thus, he sought to encourage and defend women who were themselves inspired to stretch the socially determined and religiously sanctioned norms of his society. As for the giving women the apostolic charge, however, this was not a possible option within his society. Within the Hellenistic society of Paul, however, such an option was a possibility (as will be shown in the forthcoming posting).

Looking back, therefore, the CDF report prepared by our brother Cardinal Ratzinger is admirable in what it does say about Jesus working against the social prejudices of his day. The report, however, fails to go far enough or deep enough when it comes to analyzing why Jesus would have broken some barriers and not others. More importantly, the report passes over is silence the practice of the Divine Master of uplifting the experience of women in his teaching and preaching of the Kingdom–as aspect of Jesus’ ministry which invites reflection and action by those who teach and preach the Gospel in his name today. Finally, the report passes over in silence those occasions when Jesus risked his own reputation among men by standing up for the powerless and the voiceless who took initiatives which exceeded the cultural norms in his day. Here again, this aspect of Jesus’ ministry invites reflection and action on the part of our brothers, John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger, whose whole lives are dedicated to walking in the footsteps of their Divine Master.


colorlnAdditional Resources

Father John Shea Challenges Cardinal O’Mally
to provide a credible explanation for the exclusion of women

Father Roy Bourgeois on Women’s Ordination
video (50 min.) of 2012 lecture at Claremont Graduate School

Church Excommunicates Father Roy Bourgeois
Editor, Tikkun Magazine


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