Book Review by Connie Aligada
The Priestly Office of Women: God’s Gift to a Renewed Church – Volume 2 in the series A History of Women and Ordination of Women – by Ida Raming. Edited and translated by Bernard Cooke and Gary Macy. The Scarecrow Press, Inc., Lanham, Maryland, Toronto, Oxford 2004.
This second English edition of Dr. Ida Raming’s classic study of the canon law background for the priestly office of women is based on her doctoral dissertation first published in German in 1973, three years before Rome’s first statement on the subject, known as “Inter Insigniores: Declaration on the Question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood,” published by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on October 15, 1976. Her research provides clear evidence that the Roman Catholic Church’s opposition to women’s ordination is based not on the work of professionally trained Scripture scholars accepted by their peers, nor on any comparable document composed by dogmatic theologians not working under Vatican supervision. The Church’s opposition to women’s ordination is based on a loose assemblage of tangential canons written in various times and places in church history.
These sources gathered in the Corpus Juris Canonci (which is the background for the Codex Juris Canonici, or code of Canon Law) were originally compiled and handed on in an atmosphere of psychologically immature gender discrimination. Some of these ancient sources were later discovered to be significant mis-copyings of originals, or even forgeries. For example, in a letter to Italian bishops, Pope Soter forbade the participation of women in liturgical functions as “blameworthy conduct to be fully censured”. The Italian bishops were ordered to put to an end such “pestilence.” This letter, however, is now known to be a forgery.
This discrimination continues today even to the point of criminalizing women’s ordinations which continue to take place since the first ordinations in 2002 on the Danube River. These ordinations were performed by a bishop or bishops in apostolic succession and in good standing with Rome. Subsequently, women have also been ordained as bishops in apostolic succession.
The recent General Decree, issued by Archbishop Angelo Amato, Secretary of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) entitled Regarding the crime of attempting sacred ordination of a woman states that “If he who has attempted to confer holy orders on a woman, or if the woman who has attempted to receive holy orders, is a member of the faithful… they will be punished with major excommunication.”
It is puzzling that the General Decree cites Canon 1378 of the Code of Canon Law as its authority for the excommunication of a priest when he acts against the prescript of Canon 977. The language of Canon 977 states the absolution of an accomplice in a sin against the sixth commandment (adultery) of the Decalogue is invalid except in danger of death. With this decree, the CDF will excommunicate both the ordaining bishop and the ordained woman priest.
Why do we not have a comparable document threatening to excommunicate priests who have sexually abused children and women? This current church teaching implies a wink and a nod toward clergy who rape women, but comes down exceedingly harsh on a bishop who ordains one. As Ida Raming notes, “Despite all reassurances of the equality of women (e.g. Mulieris Dignitatem) and despite the praise of the ‘genius of woman’, the history of discrimination against women in the Roman Catholic Church continues.”
Dr. Raming’s book needs to be read by those in the Roman Catholic Church that continue to support an erroneous view of women’s role in the church. She analyzes a number of sources (legal, patristic, and biblical) that have, over time, formed the basic arguments that the hierarchy has used (and continues to use) to discriminate against women based on gender. These sources, found in the canonical literature of the medieval period, are specifically correlated to Canon 968 of the Code of Canon Law that stipulates that only a baptized male can validly be ordained. Raming takes a further step in by identifying the particular conception of women that lies at its base.
Gratian’s Decretum (ca 1140 A.D.) is a collection of church law that served as a legal textbook. His sources include Roman law, the Bible, the works of the early Church Fathers as well as the decisions of church councils. Gratian’s Decretum include commentaries about the illicitness of women’s participation in liturgical activity. Women cannot touch consecrated vessels and cloths, cannot incense the altar, or take communion to the sick. Not everything in this collection can stand up under the scrutiny of today’s scholarship.
The Decretum prohibits a woman from the practice of teaching men on the basis that women are inferior to men and must stand in a subordinate position to men. To teach men suggests that women can rule over men.
Ultimately Dr. Raming concludes that the denigration of women in medieval times had its source on the concept of the ‘order of creation’ which figures prominently in the writings of the early Church Fathers. Their writings were considered authoritative and actually considered as legal evidence.
According to St. Ambrose, an early Church Father, the fact that a man is superior to a woman is self-evident: “The man should realize that the designation vir (male) is not derived from the sex but rather from virtus animi (strength of soul) and the designation mulier (woman) on the contrary derives from mollities mentis (softness of mind) that is, from weakness and softness of character.” Raming concludes that these terms are not value-neutral. Mulier implies a serious stain and inferiority, while vir indicates a human being as an ideal form.
Church Fathers often used scriptural sources to support woman’s place in society as a condition of servitude. The Imago Dei (image of God) was not applied to a woman. The evidence that a woman is not made in the image of God was derived from the Yahwistic creation narrative, (Genesis 2). Indeed St. Ambrose in his Book of Paradise concludes “that woman was made not from the same earth from which Adam was formed, but from a rib of Adam himself…Therefore two, male and female, were not made from the beginning, but first male and then female from him…”
St. Augustine apparently did not view the subordination of women as being offensive, rather it belonged to the natural order of creation, recognized as being of divine origin. Raming states that “this Augustinian type of reasoning, to deduce norms of natural law from the factual, is by no means unique in the history of natural law. The existence of slavery was rationalized as natural necessity, which in turn led to the fundamental permission to hold slaves.”
Dr. Raming views the ecclesiastical prohibition against women’s ordination as a religious issue. Women are limited by canon law to pursue their call to priestly ordination even when they are given such a charism. (I Cor. 12-11) She recognizes that the ancient tradition of the church of an all-male priesthood is alleged to be of divine origin. The subordinate position for women according to Dr. Raming “deprives her of the opportunity to have direct access to God in her being and her religious life, and is thus deprived of full independent personhood.” The concept of “difference” employed by the hierarchy is a “cloak for the denigration of women”.
The four appendices handle new developments and documents since the first edition of the book, and include also a bibliography of new publications.
Dr. Raming’s desire to create a path to the ordination of women is not a simple issue of access to ecclesiastical office. Christ, as Head of the Church, bestows the Spirit’s gifts to all for the building up of His Church. The teaching against women’s ordination places obstacles to the working of the Spirit in the church. She believes that this one-sided, patriarchal character of office has led to the stagnation of the contemporary church. The very future of the Church will depend on a change of attitude toward women by the hierarchy. The title of her book says this most succinctly: The Priestly Office of Women: God’s gift to a Renewed Church.