Marian Profile of Ministry Is Basis of Woman's Ecclesial Role

Author: Fr Max Thurian

Marian profile of ministry is basis of woman's ecclesial role

by Fr Max Thurian

Member of the International Theological Commission

The decision of the General Synod of the Church of England to ordain women to the ministry (11 November 1992) will not fail to create serious problems for ecumenical dialogue. Certainly the Anglican Communion is bound to experience new internal difficulties, and ecumenical solidarity demands an increase in our prayer and fraternal affection for so many Christian brothers and sisters who will suffer from this. The ecumenical movement has taught us, as Christians united by the sacrament of Baptism, to share joys and trials. Even if it is difficult to understand this choice of the Church of England, the bonds between it and the Catholic Church continue to exist despite this recent decision regarding the ordination of women. Theological dialogue should continue, perhaps by deepening the concept of the priesthood. The official dialogue on ministry made us hope in a greater convergence perhaps than there really was (cf. ARCIC I).

It is clear that in recent years both sides have felt a great desire to rediscover the full dignity of woman and to use all of her potential in the area of the Church's mission and service (cf. John Paul II, Mulieris dignitatem). Some have held that we ought to go so far as to admit women to the ordained ministry. One can say that the ecclesial communities lacked theological imagination in this case. There was the possibility of creating new ministries, suited to the nature and the gifts of woman. Why should we wish to ordain them to the "priesthood", which has assumed the form of a male service in the whole course of the Judeo-Christian biblical tradition, as well as throughout the entire history of the Church? To impose a male form of ministry on woman is to fail to respect her specific dignity. There are many ministries which would be far more consonant with woman's nature and talents.

Two ministerial profiles exist in the Church

We might well ask here if there was not some confusion between the priesthood properly speaking, which conforms a man to Christ, the one and only Priest, the Bridegroom of the Church (cf. Pastores dabo vobis, nn. 12, 16), and the various forms which ministry took on in the ancient Church: prophecy, catechesis (didascalia), pastorate, diaconate. The ecclesial communities which accept the ordination of women to the ministry do not recognize a ministerial priesthood and they thus ordain to a ministerial function rather than to a priestly state. For the Catholic Church, the priest is in the Church and for the Church as a sacramental representation of Christ, the one high Priest of the new and eternal covenant: he is a living and transparent image of Christ the Priest. He is a derivation, a specific participation and an extension of Christ himself (Pastores dabo vobis, n. 12). For this reason, it is natural that as a "sacrament" of Christ the Priest, the Catholic priest should correspond precisely with Christ himself, in his nature as man.

It should come as no surprise that non-Catholic ecclesial communities that do not have this sacramental conception of the priesthood accept the idea of ordaining women to the ministries of the word and of Church leadership which do not imply a sacramental configuration to Christ in his whole person. This merely emphasizes the difference existing between the Catholic sacramental priesthood and non-Catholic ecclesial ministry.

One could speculate about ministries that would correspond to the nature and the charisms of woman and which could be of great service to the Church. One can say that there are two ministerial profiles in the Church: the apostolic and Petrine one, which stands at the origin of the sacramental priesthood of the presbyterate and the episcopate, and the Marian one of spiritual maternity, of contemplation and intercession (cf. Address of John Paul II to the Roman Curia, 22 Dec. 1987). It is to this Marian profile of the Church that we should look to discover in depth the role of woman in the Church and her possible ministry. "This link between the two profiles of the Church, the Marian and the Petrine, is therefore profound and complementary. This is so even though the Marian profile is anterior not only in the design of God but also in time, as well as being supreme and pre-eminent, richer in personal and communitarian implications for individual ecclesial vocations" (Address to the Roman Curia, 22 Dec. 1987 n. 2; L'Osservatore Romano English edition, 11 Jan. 1988, p. 6).

Catholic Tradition is rich in all these forms of woman's ministry and the Holy Spirit could reveal others for the needs of our time.

How many nuns and women religious have exercised this ministry of spiritual motherhood, contemplation and intercession! How many communities, how many secular institutes, how many movements today are discovering this ministry of woman, religious and lay, which, without being the sacramental priesthood, serves Christ and today's Church in the Marian line of ministry.

Spiritual movements offer new possibilities

It is absolutely necessary to preserve and develop in the Church, which is a mother, the characteristic of femininity which is of her essence. To confer the ministerial priesthood on women would contradict their proper nature and the specific gifts which they possess. "By virtue of this consecration brought about by the outpouring of the Spirit in the sacrament of Holy Orders, the spiritual life of the priest is marked, moulded and characterized by the way of thinking and acting proper to Jesus Christ, Head and Shepherd of the Church, and which are summed up in his pastoral charity" (Pastores dabo vobis, n. 21). It is clear that the ministerial priesthood as it has been conceived for centuries does not conform to the proper nature of woman.

It is in the Marian nature of the Church, as Virgin, Bride and Mother, that the source of women's vocations and ministries in service to the Church should be sought.

It is rather striking to see how the ecclesial communities which are more orientated toward the pastoral consecration of women are those which have no experience, or only very limited experience, of the monastic or religious life. On the contrary, for the Catholic Church the monastic and religious life is an immense field in which the feminine ministries serving the Church flourish. Today the communities of modern foundation, the secular institutes, the spiritual movements at the heart of the Church are offering new possibilities for vocations and ministries in the Church to women, whether they are single or mothers of families.

In the light of the Marian nature of the Church as spiritual Mother, vocations and ministries proper to women can be identified in great numbers in the Church. The ministry of woman is characterized by spiritual motherhood: gifts of acceptance, spiritual discernment, counselling, etc. The contemplative life and the spiritual combat of intercession are also among the specific gifts of the Christian woman who can be led to exercise a true ministry of leadership in the heart of the Church. Could not the catechetical ministry be further improved, and even the ministry of preaching on the part of women, not to mention teaching theology?

The coming Synod on religious life will have an immense field for reflecting on how to develop all the potential of women's ministry in the Church as a complement to the ministerial priesthood of presbyters.

Text from

L'Osservatore Romano Weekly Edition in English 24 March 1993

Scanning and formatting courtesy of The Newman Center at Caltech