Geoffrey Kirk calls on supporters of women priests to be consistent in their arguments and highlights the issue of conflicting Mariologies

Why, oh why, can’t the proponents of women priests and bishops decide what they are on about? I refer not only to the crippling delay in drawing up legislation for the inevitable consecration of women as bishops – where opponents are being blamed in order to cover up an astounding loss of nerve. I mean the continuing disagreement about the status of the question and the conflicting and contradictory assertions which are advanced in favour of the innovation.

There is even disagreement among proponents about whether or not it is an innovation! Were the apostles and the apostolic Fathers a bunch of blackguard misogynists, or were the first four centuries a golden age for women’s ministry across the Mediterranean? We really need to know; but the very supporters of women priests cannot speak with one voice.

At the heart of the whole problem lies a conflict about the Mother of God. Women priests and their supporters do not agree about the most famous woman in history (Helen of Troy notwithstanding).

On the one hand feminists regard the Church’s veneration of Mary as the canonization of the dependent status and oppression of women. The glorification of Mary as both Virgin and Mother – as the obedient humble servant – so it is said, has paradoxically resulted in debasing women. On the other hand, Mary has become the inspiration of a revolutionary new outlook: her Magnificat has become one of the prime texts of liberation theology, putting at the heart of the Christian message an imperative to subvert the powers that be.

Whilst these attitudes are not strictly contradictory, it is clear that they are set on diverging trajectories leading to very different Christologies. The first, which celebrates woman as victim, makes Mary her own oppressor. By her submission at the Annunciation, she gives birth to a male Saviour, the Son of a male God. Together those two lend divine sanction to male dominance. On this view, her own son is part of what Mary must be saved from.

The Christology of the second view is less provocative but no more orthodox: here Mary and Jesus co-operate in the subversion of established authority. She is the ‘humble and meek’ who is exalted. He is the one who ‘puts down the mighty’. The Jesus whose kingdom is not of this world is somehow transformed into an agent of revolutionary change. Mary is the earliest beneficiary of that revolution, and its primary advocate.

It is evident to all but the enthusiasts of women’s ordination that they cannot both be right. Was Jesus a feminist or not? Was he part of the solution or part of the problem? We should be told.

Mariology (consideration of the role of Mary) was, in the patristic period, held to be a derivative of Christology (as these modern considerations only go to show). But in later thinking it has also come to be seen as closely related to ecclesiology (so in the documents of the Second Vatican Council it makes its appearance in Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church).

There is naturally a connection between these conflicting feminist Mariologies and the emerging understanding of the Church among those who favour women’s ordination. As we have seen, the majority feminist view is that Mary’s problem is submissiveness. Her ‘amen’ to the angel is seen as an involuntary acquiescence, later employed by a male hierarchy to exploit and subject women. The minority feminist view consequently seeks to redress all that with a posture of revolutionary defiance, which strikes at the biblical imagery of the Father, and seeks to deface the icon of him in Jesus his Son.

How does this impact on the doctrine of the Church? In a topsy-turvy way, by masculinizing her. The Church ceases to be organic and personal (‘the Bride of Christ’) and comes to be seen as structural and functional (‘the people of God’). That structure exists to express its function: which is to take decisions. Like any other populus, the populus dei is thought to be in control of its own destiny. What was once seen as given (‘traditio’, ‘gratia’) is thought to be disponible, and contingent on the will of the majority.

But just as the enthusiasts for women’s ordination cannot, in the end, decide on a coherent Mariology, so they remain in several minds about their ecclesiology. Some are clear that women’s ordination is both an ethical a priori and a theological requirement: ‘consonant with Scripture, required by the tradition’; ‘the time to do justice is now’. Others (with what degree of sincerity it would be hard to say) have embraced a doctrine of reception – ‘let’s try it and see’ – which curtseys to the tradition whilst having one’s own way. Still others have defended women’s ordination as no big deal (‘a second order issue’), comparable to the ending of clerical celibacy.

Probably most proponents have had a foot in all three camps. When they wanted to do it they proclaimed it to be a necessity (‘a first order issue’). When they had done it they denied that it was a Church-breaking matter (‘a second order issue’). And as an insurance policy (and a salve for tender consciences) they saw no reason to abandon the ‘doctrine of reception’: so long as it did not result in any very practical consequences.

For a bunch with an exalted notion of their own integrity, they have managed to be remarkably inconsistent. ND