Recently I was invited to address the Newman Society at Oxford University. This group is proud of its claim to be the oldest of the many societies established by the student body. It takes its name, of course, from the great Cardinal John Henry Newman, who, as a Fellow of Oriel College, and Vicar of the University Church, was one of the greatest figures of the Oxford of his day.
The Newman Society meets at The Old Palace, the Catholic Chaplaincy, and an excellent dinner was provided before the meeting by a team led by the chaplain Father Jeremy Fairhead -- who met me at the front door clad in a smart white chef’s apron over his clerical attire. Conversation over the meal was lively and enjoyable. We then hurried upstairs to the large drawing-room, which was simply packed for the meeting, extra chairs being carried in and a great buzz of talk: Catholic life is thriving in Oxford at the moment.
It is all very encouraging. Adjoining the beautiful 14th-century buildings of the Old Palace is the modern chapel and associated rooms -- necessary because some 300-400 people attend Mass here every Sunday, and a good number on weekday mornings too, at the smaller weekday chapel of St. Thomas More. The modern part of the chaplaincy is ugly (it was built in the 1970s!) but serviceable. It seems absurd that in this city of churches something new had to be constructed for the Catholic chaplaincy -- but making use of some Medieval or Victorian Anglican church still presents legal and other difficulties so building something new is actually simplest.
As the meeting began, I had the delight of meeting, among the undergraduates, one who had been the winner of an award presented by The Keys, the Catholic Writers’ Guild of England and Wales, a couple of years earlier as a schoolgirl. The award, presented annually for the best essay contributed by a Catholic school pupil in Britain on a given theme, had been presented at the House of Commons by Catholic MP Anne Widdceombe, and the memory of this evidently still glowed. I was thrilled to see how much it had meant to this young student, and to see that she had continued to develop her faith and was here to attend a Newman Society meeting and enjoy being part of the university’s Catholic life.
Topic for the evening was “Women and the Catholic Church”, with the sub-title “Does the Church oppress women?”, which is the title of my booklet on the subject produced by the Catholic Truth Society. It covers, among other issues, the question of whether or not women can be ordained as Catholic priests, and gives some background and thought-material on the subject. In exploring this, it emphasizes the consistent teaching of the Church on the subject, from Christ’s choice of His Apostles -- twelve men, despite the fact that it was normal among all the pagan religions of His part of the world to have priestesses, and indeed a female priesthood was virtually taken for granted in the Roman world -- right down through all the different eras of Christian history to Pope John Paul II’s authoritative statement on the subject in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis.
I was surprised to note, in conversation with the young award-winner, that she considered it quite normal to believe that women ought to be ordained. But I remembered that, in conversation with her religious education teacher, I had become aware that this teacher certainly supported female ordination -- and she had evidently been only too successful in communicating this to her pupils.
It’s important to understand that this support for priestesses does not necessarily come as part of a “package deal” of dissent on other issues: while such dissent is certainly the norm among older campaigning feminists, this is not the case among the younger generation of Catholics. They tend, if they are practicing the Faith at all, to be generally supportive of the Church’s message on, for example, sexual morality and particularly on abortion. They have already decided that they do want to be associated with the Church -- it isn’t just a cultural thing as it may have been in the past, and of course they are acutely aware of their many friends who have simply abandoned a Faith that was poorly taught as a result of the poor religious education and ugly liturgies that have marked the Church in recent decades.
These young practicing Catholics of the John Paul II generation have a certain openness to the possibility of Catholicism being something positive. They may even be quite keen on things like use of Latin in church, once regarded as something no one young could want. They aren’t the 1970s generation and they aren’t terribly impressed by the language and literature of dissident nuns and sloganizing ex-priests. They don’t necessarily feel any sense of resonance with talk of a “patriarchal and oppressive” Church, and they don’t buy into the whole women-have-been-oppressed-by-male-clergy-down-the-centuries idea. It’s more simple than that: they have something very positive in their attitude to Christ and to the Church, but they lack formation and a sense of belonging to a great tradition of teaching.
On the subject of priesthood, for instance, many will merely assume that, just as women are now admitted to colleges that were formerly for men only (even when I left school in the 1970s, the number of women attending both Oxford and Cambridge Universities was small: most colleges were for men only and places for women were few), and just as women now do things like fly in space and fight in front-line armies, so they will and should naturally take their place in the Catholic priesthood too.
It’s a difficult message to counter: not because it’s a profound or intellectually well-grounded message, and not because it’s a particularly valuable one, but simply because it’s so superficial. It presupposes that the priesthood is simply a job -- a very beautiful one, requiring special sorts of insights and presumably a great devotion to Christ -- but a job nonetheless.
It’s worth noting that, actually, even the basic suppositions -- that it’s right and useful to have women in a front-line army, for example -- are worth challenging. It may well be that in a couple of decades’ time -- or even earlier -- we will be questioning the current fashion for encouraging young girls in the idea that wielding a sub-machine-gun is the best use of their talents.
There is certainly a need to challenge the clichés of the “unisex” culture, which has given rise to the notion that any and every difference between the sexes should always be minimized, and that, if necessary, biological, emotional, and psychological facts should be bent, twisted, or ignored in order to fit feminist ideology. But the real issue here, when discussing the Catholic priesthood, is deeper and relates to the nature of the priesthood itself: to Christ and His Church, Bridegroom and Bride, in God’s original plan.
I think we need to start with a recognition that God doesn’t make mistakes: we may see a greater understanding of His message and teachings, but He doesn’t require that we correct things that He got wrong. He didn’t and doesn’t get things wrong. In His plan, for example, marriage was always to be between a man and a woman, always to be open to the passing on of new life to the next generation, always to be lifelong, always to be faithful. We may need to teach this in new ways, and we may gain new insights into how best to live out this teaching (compare the richness of John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” with the terse and frankly somewhat bleak sternness of the Catechism of the Council of Trent on matrimony) but the teaching itself does not and cannot change.
In looking at the priesthood, we need to understand how Christ always sees Himself as the Bridegroom: we should note how His public ministry begins at a wedding, at Cana, and how the (interesting nameless) Bridegroom and Bride are there in the picture from the start. When Christ turns water into wine -- and in this we already see a foretaste of the Eucharist, as Mary’s “Do whatever He tells you” will become Christ’s “Do this in memory of me” -- we have the beginning of something priestly, which is of crucial importance.
Christ went out of His way to show that both men and women were to be carriers of His message and part of His Church. It is to a woman at the well that He speaks of Himself as the Messiah. It is to Mary Magdalene in the garden that He shows Himself first after His Resurrection. It is a little girl -- Jairus’s daughter -- that He brings back to life and to whose parents He offers the instruction “give her something to eat”. Women will know Him as Messiah, they will rejoice at His Resurrection and in His very presence, they will be fed at His command.
Who, then, are the priests? They are certainly a mixed bunch. The call to priesthood is clearly something specific: it’s not a matter of rewarding good behavior or of using specific gifts. One denies Him, but then goes on to be the leader of the new little flock, and the rock on which the Church will be built. One betrays Him -- and alas other priests have done that since, including in our own day. One stays with Him loyally, standing at the foot of the Cross along with the women. We know the names of the Apostles, and we see the very different backgrounds from which they come -- one the owner of a small fishing business, and other a tax collector. And we note that they are all men, and all specifically called. No special gifts -- not of preaching, or of personal charm, or of spiritual insight -- seem apparent. It is just a specific call, and to men.
“But some women feel they are called too” came a voice raised at my Oxford meeting, not from the young woman with whom I had been speaking earlier, but from another, similarly placed within this Catholic community, evidently not openly disloyal to the Church, certainly not seeking to be offensive or confrontational, just genuinely puzzled. But what do we mean by “called”? Is it just a feeling? We can all have feelings that seem genuine but are unreliable and fickle. We may feel -- genuinely feel -- that we are called to marry a particular person, only to discover that he or she doesn’t feel the same way. We may feel called to have a family, yet remain childless. We may know we have certain talents, only to find that, in unexpected ways, God uses our quite different gifts and in a career or country or situation wholly different from the one we had been planning.
To check whether our “call” is from God, we have to test it against reality: to see if what we feel called to do is technically possible. If women cannot actually be priests -- if we cannot be the Bridegroom at the wedding -- then it is idle to say that we feel that we ought to be.
It is all much more nuptial than we had supposed. That Cana imagery is not mere pictures: there really is a wedding theme going right through Christ’s life and ministry -- as well as back to Genesis and forward into the vision of Heaven that we find in the last book of the Bible. Christ did not marry in this world: He had no human wife and children. But He did have a Bride -- His Church -- and you and I and all the baptized are children of that union. That is why we now refer to His Bride as Mother Church. And the wedding is celebrated again and again at every Mass -- and at the Marriage Feast of the Lamb in Paradise.
Merely feeling that we ought to be the Bridegroom can’t turn us into bridegrooms. We have to ask what we are, and why God made us what we are, and whether He loves us or not. God has plenty of plans for each one of us. Discerning these need not be done in a vacuum: Mother Church helps us. She explains His teachings, shows us how (and when, and where) to pray, gives us treats and traditions, mild reproofs and gentle nudges, food for our journey and lots and lots of encouragement. The Church’s women saints and heroines show us the way: often more saintly than the priests who served or even taught them, often better known, and more worthy of being better known.
When we explore this issue of women and the priesthood we should, I think, keep in mind what happens in the life of the Church when heresies emerge: the universal pattern is for the heresy to sweep ahead and then for the Church to check it. This means announcing the truth and binding us all once again to what is right -- a service that, incidentally, is the humblest and best of the papal tasks, and one which Pope Benedict has described as being done as “washing the feet”, i.e., done in a spirit of service. With the announcing of the truth will come much -- often passionate -- debate, and perhaps the emergence of real heroes who defend the Church’s authentic teaching against all the odds. In the end, the truth will emerge more brightly: we may even have cause to be grateful for the original error, as it did enable us to be enriched by a deeper understanding.
Thus with the priesthood. A male priesthood is more important than we had thought. The notion of a priest as Bridegroom, as a Father, is one deserving of new emphasis. The nuptial imagery of each Mass is something we need to appreciate and study. The importance of marriage -- today under threat as never before -- and its true nature as a sacrament, is bound up with this. The understanding of the Church as a Bride and a Mother is important.
When we explain and discuss all this, we should do so knowing that many younger Catholics -- certainly in Western Europe and in America -- have had poor formation and catechesis, and are living out their faith in a very hostile environment. Merely to live as decent Christians -- to be faithful to prayer and to Sunday Mass, to be chaste, to live without endlessly being obsessed with material possessions and greedy for more of them -- is really commendable, given the huge pressures from all sides to live otherwise. As recently as the 1950s, it was fairly normal to be a churchgoer, absolutely odd to be openly “living in sin”, a public disgrace to be pregnant outside of wedlock, illegal to engage in homosexual acts, and crucial to be seen to dress with general modesty and to refrain from blasphemy or sexual expletives in speech if you wanted to hold down a respectable job. None of that now applies. Young people trying to live as Catholics in a modern university and take up positions in modern Western nations have to struggle to work out just what they do believe and why, and how they should live and whether it really matters.
When we tackle issues like the priesthood, feminism, and the transmission of the great truths of the Faith, we probably need more courage and more wisdom than we had perhaps once thought necessary. I enjoyed my evening with a young University audience. As the evening finished -- and it was still at the port-and-discussion stage when I left, with the conversation lively and the atmosphere good -- I knew that the Church’s authentic teaching would be discussed and explored with rigor, humor, honesty, and passion, as well as with the occasional cliché, some pomposity, loss of temper, and, inevitably misunderstanding, and confusion.
But it can stand up to all of this. In the end the truth triumphs -- and the task of the Catholic is to communicate that truth with confidence and with generosity, knowing that the work has already been done and grateful for the ministry of Peter, which keeps us all on the right track. In another hundred years, there’ll be some other young people genuinely asking questions about some other aspects of Catholic teaching (“Why bread and wine?” “Why a Cross and not some other form of death?”), which by then will seem crucial. And the Church will go on exploring the truth and re-teaching it and giving the unchanging answers with new insights.