Valid Ordination, The Anchor, August 8, 2008

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
August 8, 2008

On July 20, a group calling itself Roman Catholic Womenpriests conducted the simulation of the Catholic presbyteral ordination rite for three women at a Protestant Church in Boston. Boston was the latest stop in a series of such events that the group has staged in St. Louis, Pittsburgh, on the St. Lawrence Seaway and on the Danube River.

In each of the events, as in Boston, the pseudo-ordination ceremony is preceded by a well-calculated public relations blitz. Many of the members of the secular media cover the ceremony according to the categories provided them by the organization’s propaganda: there will be a valid Catholic ordination rite by a validly-ordained female Catholic bishop resulting in validly-ordained Catholic women priests, and though mysoginist control-freaks in the Vatican consider the ceremony illicit and those participating in it insolent, there’s nothing that they can do to stop the ceremony and the inexorable march of equality and progress it signifies.

One wonders how the same newsrooms would respond to a press release indicating that later on that afternoon one of the same three ordinandae would be crowned Queen of England by a woman claiming to be a validly-ordained Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury. In the unlikely occurrence that the media would give such a story any press at all, they would presumably treat it in the way they cover all wacky stories, without seriousness or professional credibility. Yet the possibility that one of these woman would be validly anointed queen is only infinitesimal, not strictly speaking impossible; their chance of being ordained Catholic priests is precisely zero. Yet whether through gullibility, ignorance or perhaps complicity with Womenpriests’ agenda to change what the Church teaches it cannot, many in the secular media presented the July 20 event as if we were dealing with something real and consequential.

It’s not only secular journalists, however, who fail to grasp why it is impossible for women to be validly ordained priests. Many fellow Christians — like those in the Anglican Communion, who have recently approved even female “bishops” — not only fail to understand but to follow the example of Christ and the teaching of tradition. And it is obvious that some Catholics — not just the radicals in groups like Roman Catholic Womenpriests but ordinary Catholics in the pews — can be at a loss to understand the Church’s teaching, too. That’s why the recent pseudo-ordination ceremony in Boston is a good opportunity for all Catholics to look at the question anew through the eyes of faith.

To believe in Jesus Christ as the Son-of-God-made-man means, minimally, to trust in what Jesus said and did. It is not possible for a true disciple to think that Jesus could have made a mistake with regard to something essential to the Church and to our salvation. To do so would be to place oneself above God, as if a creature could know better than God what God should have done. Such would be the arrogance of a Lucifer, not the humility of a disciple.

When Jesus chose the twelve apostles, and when, later, during the first Mass, he ordained them priests to “do this in memory of me,” he didn’t explain to us why he was choosing only men. But a believer trusts that Jesus did what he did for a reason, even if he didn’t tell us that reason.

We know that the reason couldn’t have been because Jesus shared the ancient cultural discrimination against women. He showed time and again, on the contrary, how to treat women in accordance with the dignity he gave them from the beginning (see Mulieris Dignitatem, 13).

We know that it couldn’t have been because Jesus was afraid to “rock the boat” of misogynist culture. He wasn’t afraid of anyone, even when they were threatening to kill him.

We know that it couldn’t have been because he just wasn’t thinking through the consequences of his actions. When we review how great a preparation he had taken for the celebration of that first Mass, we see — from the disciples’ finding the man with the water jug onward (Lk 22:10) — that Jesus didn’t leave any detail to chance.

If Jesus chose to ordain only men, then a believer trusts that he did so deliberately, and that, because he is God, he did the unmistakably right thing.

Moreover, if the Church he founded and to which he promised the Holy Spirit to guide her into all truth (Jn 16:13), has never ordained women, then the reason must be that that is what the Holy Spirit wants. The only alternatives are that the Holy Spirit has either been asleep for 2000 years or just hasn’t considered the issue of priestly ordination important enough to intervene until now.

The reason why the ordination of women is invalid is because we, who are not God, do not have the ability to change the substance of the sacraments established by God. If a priest — even Pope Benedict XVI — preferred to celebrate Mass with filet mignon and brandy instead of bread and wine, after the consecration he would still have only steak and liquor. If someone tried to baptize a baby with milk rather than water, the only change that would ensue would be that the child would get wet and sticky. It’s the same thing with the “matter” of the sacrament of Holy Orders. The Church believes, and has always believed, that, because of Christ’s choice to ordain only men at that first Eucharist, the proper matter for the sacrament of Holy Orders is an unimpeded baptized Catholic male (Code of Canon Law, 1024).

Even if a validly ordained Catholic bishop, out of mental illness, disobedience or lack of faith, were to impose hands on a woman following the rite of Catholic ordination, nothing would occur, because ordination is more than a game of holy tag. Matter matters. Just as the validity of the sacrament of baptism or the sacrament of the Eucharist depends on proper matter — and the saving and sanctifying effects of these sacraments are contingent on their valid celebration — so, too, the validity of the sacrament of Holy Orders and all the effects that flow from it depend on proper matter. A lay woman who participates in an pseudo-ordination rite finishes the rite as a lay woman, deeply loved by God but by her own choice sadly excommunicated from the Church and in serious and perilous error.

There’s one last noteworthy detail about the July 20 simulated ordination ceremony in Boston. Roman Catholic Womenpriests decided to excise two of the priestly promises Catholic priests make during the rite of priestly ordination: the promises of obedience and celibacy. Theses extractions are highly symbolic, because they point, respectively, to the misunderstandings about power and sexuality that seem to be driving Womenpriests’ push for priestly ordination. The Sacrament of Holy Orders is not meant to establish a hierarchy of male domination, as Womenpriests alleges, but of loving service, in imitation of and in the person of Christ the Bridegroom who came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for his bride’s (Mk 10:42-45).