Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Ordination is a calling, not a right

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This is the grading season for college professors, and it is hard to break that habit.

So when I see people claiming as enlightening fact items that simply are not historically true, both in a front page interview and then a lengthy editorial piece, my hand itches and I want to whip out the red pen.
Consider this a daily dose of red ink.

Sunday’s paper published a “guest view” by Bridget Mary Sheehan, “Womenpriests face unjust discrimination” — words which I assume were set by the Daily News. The title implies that ordination to the Catholic priesthood is a human right.

As someone who examines human rights abuses in class, I found this a disturbing parallel. This nation has violated (and violates) the rights of African-Americans, and much of the brutality against the native peoples of this country is too painful to contemplate.

Women everywhere have suffered and do suffer death, mutilation, harassment, abuse and more in violation of their rights as human beings, rights that belong to them due to their inherited dignity as a human person.

But ordination is not a right for women or men, such as food, shelter, safe living conditions and education. It’s a vocation, or calling from God through a specific community (here, the Catholic Church). So the question becomes a Catholic theological one. But the historical bases underlying the theology in the column are not any better. For brevity’s sake, I’m going to list the incorrect assumptions in bullets:

n The woman who is set to preside over this impending ceremony does not stand in valid apostolic succession. But the bishop who presided over the initial ceremony in 2002 on the Danube River was excommunicated for joining a schismatic sect in 1998. It’s not valid.

n Meehan claims that recent scholarship affirms that women were ordained to the priesthood in the first 1,200 years of Church history. At absolute minimum, this is overreach. I studied these texts at one point in my life really wanting the material to provide the conclusive smoking gun. It does not.

n The notion of the sensus fidelium — that the “sense of the faithful” is a part of the fullness of doctrine — was set in place centuries ago, acknowledging both that the Holy Spirit moves through the whole of the Church, and there have been times in history when the people of the Church were more faithful to authentic doctrine or practice than the Church’s leaders at that time.

It is somewhat connected to the entirely accurate idea that conscience, informed by revelation, must always dictate one’s own moral actions. But saying that “if the community of faith does not accept the law, it has no effect on us” sounds more like anarchy — even Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” — to me. I certainly hope there are moral truths — let’s say, murder is wrong — that transcend whether a group of people agree with it at the moment in time. Otherwise morality, belief and practice becomes a mob rule.

Meehan claims this action is prophetic. But every single prophet in the Biblical tradition was a prophet because the person called others back to community while staying within that community. It’s hard to claim to be a prophet when you say in an interview that the only way to change the Church is to leave it and create your own.

And there are other flat-out wrong statements — on Augustine’s interpretation of unjust laws, on the validity of the impending ceremony because Pope Benedict has not personally intervened, and on a supposed logical contradiction in canon law between ordination being reserved for men and ordination requiring baptism.

I’m not writing this because I believe that the Catholic priesthood is reserved to men alone (although I do hold that to be true). I’m writing it because first and foremost as a teacher I hate seeing historical untruths in print, and bad interpretation passing for fact. We have enough religious illiteracy in our culture without adding inaccuracy to the mix.

But I hesitated writing this, because this issue comes with a lot of struggle and pain for many women and men, Catholic and not.

We could all treat each more kindly on this issue. We could also remember and live out that foundational teaching of Catholic practical theology, that all human beings are called to discipleship and friendship with God, and called to a specific vocation at that. Some are priests, others are mothers or fathers, or women or men religious, or teachers, or counselors, or activists, or lay ministers, and sometimes a combination of these and more.

All rightly-lived states of life can be holy, and there is a beauty in the diversity of callings; I honestly think Catholics say that better than anyone else. Perhaps we don’t say it well enough. But Meehan’s piece, with its inaccuracies and inflated claims, does nothing to promote that cause.

The Ironic Catholic believed to be a resident of Winona, known traffic scofflaw, is the author of this item.
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