A Challenge to St. Paul on Women and a Reply to Fr. Scanlon

Editor’s note: The following essay by Dr. Harriet Murphy is a response to a column published in Crisis on July 27, 2016 by Fr. Regis Scanlon OFM Cap on the possibility of a female deaconate. Fr. Scanlon’s response to Dr. Murphy’s critique may be read here.

Cultural historians of the future may well say that Fr. Regis Scanlon OFM Cap dug his own hole when he expressed his opinion about female deacons last month in Crisis and developed a thesis familiar to readers of Simone de Beauvoir, that women are, after all, the second sex. We are grateful that Fr. Scanlon staked out the legal, authoritative territory round female deacons. He reminded us of what we already know. First, that there have always been female deacons throughout history. Some of this is in Holy Scripture itself, with references to Priscilla and Lydia who have a charism of prophecy. The priesthood of the laity also depends on the sacramental priesthood, so that women already share in Christ’s gifts as such, because of baptism.

Second, that the Church has already clarified that women cannot have access to the hierarchical and sacramental diaconate. The sacrament of holy orders is reserved to men only because Christ was a man and the first priest. The ruling against the priesthood for women is an infallible and irreversible ruling; it was settled in 1994 when Pope John Paul II said he had no authority to change Tradition. As the first priest, Christ set us all an example and a precedent that has been consistent through Church history. The emphasis for men and women is on universally imitating his virtues.

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There is such a thing as the development of doctrine in the sense meant by Cardinal John Henry Newman. Development means not everything is set in stone. It means the Church can do what the sportsmen do. She can dig deep. She can find interesting arguments. She can sift through the opinions, errors, and hypotheses. The Magisterium can explore topics theologically. She can propose a way out of any controversy. The Woman Question has always been controversial. When Pope Francis asked that we find a deeper theology for women he was “developing” a conversation further which began when Pope Paul VI ended the Second Vatican Council with a cry that Christian women lead the way in bringing non-Christian women into true liberation and emancipation in Christ.

What the present discussion needs are some more clarifications to challenge the arguments in circulation in feminist theology for more power for women in the Church. The first is simple. I do not have to become a priest to represent Christ. The second is also straightforward. I do not have to become a priest to imitate Christ. The third should be uncontroversial. The fact that a woman is not allowed to become a priest is not a legitimate justice and equality issue or grievance. An injustice is not being done the female sex, and notions of exclusion are inappropriate because the Church teaches that men and women have different and complementary privileges (Alice von Hildebrand). Women can still become, in the traditional view, Virgo, Sponsa or Mater (virgin, wife and mother).

Consecrated virginity is unique because virginity is not just biological but goes to the heart of what we mean by service, of listening, waiting, hoping, and loving; younger readers should at least explore this unique vocation before necessarily assuming they should marry. To be an apostolic sister is also a special vocation, and it too should be given the benefit of the doubt. Marriage is not just a choice but a way of living life sacramentally. Since the Second Vatican Council, women in greater numbers and with access to greater resources have chosen the lay life and assisted the Church’s mission through being wholly available for service in the world. The new lay ecclesial movements such as Emmanuel, Communione e Liberazione or Opus Dei represent this development. They have been an enormous blessing to the Church as the Church tries to form the culture.

Fr. Scanlon’s essay has a polemical, rhetorical spin that implies the Magisterium does not have the right to guide us how to interpret Holy Writ. Interpreting the Scriptures privately to find additional reasons for his own opposition to women calling for the sacramental diaconate, he wants to employ a literal interpretation of 1 Tim 2: 12-14. He shifts the discussion from the priesthood and from the diaconate, to a concern about why women cannot and should not teach officially in the Church. He suggests why women should be happy to teach unofficially and only exercise authority over men in that limited capacity. He claims the argument against women teaching officially is an interpretation of the truth about female nature as distinct from male nature. He claims this is the divine plan. The authority is St. Paul who says that women who descend from Eve are not entitled to teach officially in the Church. This has its reasons. Eve was literally second in the order of creation and primarily more prone to be deceived and more prone to error than Adam. Fr. Scanlon thinks St. Paul is, as it were, the Magisterium, on a theology of human nature which casts women as guilty of temptation and therefore to be limited to unofficial teaching. Here we are looking at Father Scanlon’s hobby-horse. He seems to have forgotten one of Pope Francis’ recent interventions which proves the Church has that divine liberty to distance herself from the legacy of history in all things except dogma. Francis said that it is not right for us to think of women as a temptress. That tradition did not help. We do not need to dogmatize a stereotype but rather unpack it and put something holy in its place.

To be consistent with the claim that the Church has, as it were, two theologies, Fr. Scanlon’s interpretation requires him to resurrect an opinion from Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas about women not being rational, now obsolete, and only alive today in the nether regions of feminist theology or amongst priests who cannot adapt to change, believing all change is a “break with Tradition.” This opinion held that women, by their very nature, and because they were derivative males were unsuited to the study of sacred doctrine. It would require him to contradict the fact that, since the 1940s women have been admitted to study theology at Catholic universities, and, latterly to teach theology, religion and philosophy, even at pontifical universities in Rome where they now have authority over young men and women, many of whom will be choosing the religious life or the priesthood. It would require him to challenge the new lay ecclesial ministers, 80 percent of whom are female since the United States Bishops produced “Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord.” It would suggest the Church may have erred in permitting the bishops to appoint female altar servers, or having women read the epistle. It would require him to get friendly with Sister Joan Chittister OSB, who says the “Church has done nothing for women.”

Citing St. Paul’s argument that the divine plan intended women to use their authority only unofficially is wholly unecclesial. The Apostle’s statement has been developed by the Magisterium to mean that women can, like men, overcome their innate sinfulness, in an atmosphere of community and collaboration, so to take up new posts in the body of the Church. The shift is nothing unless we understand the “universal call to holiness” of the Council; it is nothing unless we understand that there is ontological equality before God and in Christ; it is nothing unless we give women the benefit of the doubt. The changes are not about macho “feminists” interested in “getting” power, or getting “more” power. Women have their own, innate gifts. They are being asked to use their influence to revolutionize the world wherever they are, because people need Christ, who is great.

Fr. Scanlon has done the American Church an enormous favor. He has taken the lid off a can of worms. He joins Michael Voris and Cardinal Raymond Burke in circulating unhelpful ideas about legitimate changes mandated by the Holy See being, in effect, responsible for emasculating men or sponsoring the decline in the number of vocations to the priesthood, with Michael Voris insinuating that a female canon lawyer working in the diocese is nothing short of an “abomination.” This is confusing and a way of challenging the authority of Holy Mother Church; it is about the clericalism which Pope Francis is trying to outlaw. In the light of the strength of error in feminist theology and the increasing number of rational women in the professions who, like Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard, do not necessarily sacrifice their femininity in order to make a new kind of contribution. Perhaps Father Scanlon might like to pause and consider the points made in the seventeenth century by the Mexican poet and Carmelite nun, Sor Juana de la Cruz, on the same topic. A large number of immoral, schismatic and heretical men have visited much confusion upon the world because of errors and misunderstandings generated by their lack of control over their passions. It Is counter-factual to argue that men have a monopoly on right reason just by dint of their biological sex.

On behalf of my non-Catholic undergraduates and postgraduates, I also need to take exception to an inference that Theology of the Body is not carrying the mandate forward. Now being taught in over eighty dioceses in America, it posits the revised version of collaboration and cooperation between the sexes which depends on humility in Christ rather than innate privilege, the older system which the historical record shows is open to abuse. Mulieris Dignitatem (1988) elaborated the dignity and vocation of women and gives thanks to God for “the feminine genius” of working behind the scenes to effect change invisibly. Pope John Paul II’s Letter to Women (1995) exhorts women to rise to the occasion of using their authority, derived from the fact they are baptized into Christ, to change the world. The Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World (2004) asks the “sleeping giant of the laity” to recognize that pure piety is not enough to fulfill the mandate from Christ. A Church of women and men who are timid is not a way of responding to Pope Benedict’s CUA address, when he specifically mentioned his sadness at the tepid quality of our interventions in the Public Square.

The Cardinal Ratzinger Prize for Theology, meanwhile, was awarded to Anne-Marie Pelletier for her contribution to the fuller picture of precisely what Holy Scripture has to offer women, not apparent in Fr. Scanlon’s interest in two sentences from St. Paul. Promise and Challenge, edited by Mary Rice Hasson, published by Our Sunday Visitor (2015), explores in some depth some of the new thinking on women. To counter-act a legitimate danger in a permissive era where we go from one extreme of gender fluidity, to the other, crypto-Protestant extreme, of resurrecting “head of the household” type stuff, Fr. Scanlon has inadvertently helped us to remember the main point. Christ is the head of each household and men and women are subject to one another, in Christ. In this, the Catholic Church is always progressive and does not fear anarchy. Neither is a Living Church a sect, permanently repeating its defensive positions. Pope Francis has said at Amoris Laetitia, 54 that: “history is burdened by the excesses of patriarchal cultures that considered women inferior … there are those who believe that many of today’s problems have arisen because of feminine emancipation. This argument however, is not valid, it is false, untrue, a form of male chauvinism.” That is the voice of the Ordinary Magisterium, and it is authoritative.

Editor’s note: The image above titled “Paul the Apostle” was painted by Claude Vignon (1593-1670).


  • Harriet Murphy

    Harriet Murphy writes from Berlin. Her latest book The Abolition of (Wo)man will appear in the Fall from Angelico Press. She earned her D.Phil. from Oxford University and taught modern languages and literature at the National University of Ireland and the University of Warwick in England.

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