|An Anglican Priestess Celebrates Mass|
Church of England, 1994
What would happen if the Catholic Church ordained women? A growing number of Catholic laity seem to be fine with the idea. A fairly good size of liberal clergy seems to be fine with it as well -- even advocating it. So let's play a little game of "what if?" Suppose in some alternate bizarro universe, Rome made a decree that women could henceforth be ordained to the diaconate and the priesthood, with the possibility for the episcopate at some later date. What would happen?
It's not like this is a mystery. To answer this question we already have historical examples from liturgical/sacramental communities that are very similar to the Catholic Church. There is one in the U.K. called the Church of England. Another exists here in the U.S. called The Episcopal Church. Both of these entities have a profoundly "catholic" character in just about everything they do. They could rightly be looked at as "experiments" for the Catholic Church to examine and study. So what have we learnt from the Church of England and The Episcopal Church? For the purpose of this essay, I'll focus on The Episcopal Church since I am an American.
First, let's take a look at Episcopal liturgy...
Aside from the woman priest (priestess), and the fact that the entire production seems to be run mostly by women (I counted 2 men and 4 women, not counting the altar servers), the liturgy looks rather Catholic, doesn't it? That's because they're using Rite Two from the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, which was based on the Catholic 1970 Novus Ordo Missal. It's almost identical. I think it would be fair to say that this liturgy represents just about everything that many liberally-minded Catholics would prefer. In The Episcopal Church of the United States, women can be ordained as deacons, priests and even bishops! But it wasn't always this way. The Episcopal Church maintained an all-male priesthood up until January 1, 1977, when the first women were ordained priests (priestesses) in The Episcopal Church. It was at this point the title of "Mother" entered the Episcopal vocabulary, replacing the title of "Father" for female priests. Henceforth, female priests would be addressed as "Mother" instead of "Father" which is commonly used for male priests.
A lot happened between the years of 1977 and 1980 in The Episcopal Church. We could consider it nothing short of a transformation. Between the years of 1970 and 1977, The Episcopal Church was almost indistinguishable from the U.S. Catholic Church, except The Episcopal Church used an older case of English while the Catholic Church used modern vernacular. Then in 1977, The Episcopal Church began ordaining women. This followed in 1979 with the new publication of the Book of Common Prayer, introducing modern vernacular English in Rite II, that mirrored the new Roman Catholic Novus Ordo liturgy. While all this was going on a backlash was set into motion. Old-school, traditional Episcopalians could not tolerate this. A number of Episcopalian priests sought conversion to the Catholic Church and many eventually became Catholic priests. This is how the Anglican Use Pastoral Provision was started, which would eventually lead to the creation of Ordinariates decades later. Some Episcopal priests went to the Eastern Orthodox churches instead. A number of Episcopal bishops and priests held an unauthorised meeting called the Congress of St. Louis. This happened in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1977 immediately following the decision of The Episcopal Church to ordain of female priests. The meeting was attended by some 2,000 Episcopal clergy. While some were from Canada, this is still a very large number considering the overall size of The Episcopal Church in the United States at that time was but a fraction of that in the U.S. Catholic Church. This meeting was nothing short of an earthquake in The Episcopal Church. It produced a document called the Affirmation of St. Louis which condemned The Episcopal Church for its action in ordaining women, and affirmed ongoing communion with Canterbury as they gave themselves permission to start their own new jurisdictions apart from The Episcopal Church. In other words, this was a formal schism. Since then multiple new Anglican jurisdictions have arisen in North America. These consist of but are not limited to; the Anglican Church in America (ACA), the Anglican Catholic Church (ACC), and the largest one today is the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). All of this is an example of the immediate short-term response following the ordination of women in a very "catholic-like" Protestant church in the United States. So we have our short-term example. We know exactly what will happen, in the short-term, if a similar decision to ordain women were handed down in the Catholic Church.
If the Catholic Church suddenly decided to ordain women to the priesthood, we would expect no less than a similar response but on a much more massive scale. For starters, it would be global. We could expect rival ecumenical councils (or synods) to be held, followed by the schism of entire continents: Africa, Asia, and much of Latin America. These regions would refuse to ordain women entirely, and they would break communion with any faction of the Catholic Church that does. In places like North America and Europe, the Catholic Church would cleave into two factions -- one that ordains women and the other would not. Initially, in North America and Europe, it's likely the faction that ordains only men would be smaller, perhaps significantly smaller, and the faction that ordains women would be initially larger. This would change, however, in the decades to follow.
Let's go back to what happened in The Episcopal Church. In the decades that followed the ordination of women, a dramatic demographic decline in church membership worsened...
As you can see from this graph, in comparison to the Catholic Church, there was a radical decline in the overall membership of The Episcopal Church, starting at about the same time it began it began ordaining women (just before and after 1977). What The Episcopal Church managed to do was put an end to whatever vocational crisis they might have been having, if one ever existed at all. There is now an abundance of priests/priestesses, but the overall size of the denomination has shrunk significantly. In 1976 there were about 3.5 million Episcopalians in the United States. Today that number is about 2.5 million. That's about a 30% loss in membership. When we look at actually mass attendance, the numbers are worse, at just a little over half a million. The Episcopal Church solved their vocational crisis, if there ever was one, but at the cost of burning down their denomination. There are now more priests (and priestesses) per member than ever before, but there are fewer members now -- a lot fewer. The Episcopal Church has significantly shrunk in size, and the decline is ongoing. As you can see in the video above, there is a lot of space in the pews between mass attendees, and of those who are attending, a disproportionate number are geriatric. This is representative of The Episcopal Church at large, which is facing a membership crisis within the next 10 years, as a good number of their faithful contributors will die off due to basic human biology. At that time, we can expect another slump in denomination membership. This is the long-term result of ordaining women as clergy. If there is any thought that ordaining women to the priesthood will somehow (magically) boost Church membership, the historic example of The Episcopal Church should shatter that myth.
There is an ecumenical cost to ordaining women. As Pope St John Paul II wrote in Ordinatio Sacradotalis: "In order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church's divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgement is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful." He declared this invoking the infallibility of his office, so it is therefore unchangeable according to Catholic theology. Such a declaration has so entrenched Catholic dogma into an all-male priesthood that immediate schism from those in the Catholic Church who would seek to ordain women is both justifiable and understandable. This is why Rome has consistently excommunicated all clergy involved in mock female ordinations, and even those who aggressively advocate for female ordination. The Catholic Church, by her own profession of faith, does not have the authority to ordain women, and therefore those who try put themselves outside communion with the Catholic Church. As I said above, the ordination of women on a large scale by the Catholic Church would result in an unprecedented schism unlike anything ever seen in modern times. Furthermore, any hope of ecumenical reunion with the Eastern Orthodox would be dashed forever, at least for the faction that ordains women.
The rationale is as follows. Apostolic Tradition is clear. If Jesus intended to ordain women, he would have ordained the most worthy and knowledgeable woman of them all -- Mary his mother. Nobody knew Christ better than Mary. Nobody understood him better than Mary. Nobody could communicate the message of the gospel better than Mary. So if Jesus Christ intended to ordain women, he would have (indeed he should have) ordained Mary his mother. Yet he didn't. In fact, he never ordained any women at all, even when they proved their courage was greater than 11 of his 12 apostles. For none of them stood by him while he was on the cross, save the Apostle John and the women. If Jesus Christ intended to ordain women, he most certainly would have, and yet he did not. Furthermore, St. Paul the Apostles explicitly says that women are not to be ordained (1 Corinthians 14:34, 1 Timothy 2:12). The Catholic Church is in the business of keeping Apostolic Tradition. That's what makes it Catholic. Failure to uphold Apostolic Tradition invalidates the ministry of the Church and therefore operates against the Church. We must follow Apostolic Tradition, or else we're not Catholic. Failure to uphold this Apostolic Tradition will result in spiritual implosion for the Catholic Church, for by ordaining women, the Catholic Church would be attacking its own foundation.
In the long run, we could expect the faction of the Catholic Church that ordains women to follow along on the same path as The Episcopal Church right now, into total decline. The faction that does not ordain women will likely grow and increase over the following decades, just like the splintered continuing Anglican provinces are growing right now. At the present rate, weekly mass attendance in the ACNA will exceed that of The Episcopal Church within about 10 years.
On a practical level, this is how the faithful laity would (and should) respond to the ordination of women priests in the Catholic Church. First and foremost, regardless of whatever the hierarchy says, the ordination of women is invalid. It's not really an ordination at all, but rather a mock simulation. When a woman is "ordained" as a "priest," she does not become a priest, and at that point, she ceases to be Catholic as well. Therefore, any sacraments offered by her ministry are also invalid, with the exception of baptism of course. So confession is invalid, and so is the Eucharist. Faithful Catholics would be under moral obligation to avoid all masses presided over by a female "priestess." The bread would not be transubstantiated in such masses and would remain just bread. The same goes for the wine. Therefore reception of these things, with the mindset that it is Christ, would be manifest idolatry, though culpability of the laity may be limited due to ignorance. Faithful Catholics would have to seek the sacraments elsewhere, offered by a male priest who is validly ordained. The same goes for confession and healing. All of these would be automatically invalid if offered by a female "priestess," because in fact, she is not a priest. Parishes, where female priestesses preside, would empty out, and parishes were male priests preside would fill up. It's as simple as that.
The whole thing would be a terribly unfortunate mess, but biology would eventually correct the problem, as the faction Church that ordains women would eventually be unable to support itself financially. The laity would gradually deplete over decades, and there would not be enough to financially support the number of priests/priestesses in that faction. Not to worry though, I don't expect this to happen in the Catholic Church. There may be many people who want to happen and will try hard to make it so, but in the end, the Catholic Church will have to decide if it wants to commit suicide or not. I think the overwhelming number of African, Asian and Latin American bishops would put a stop to any church attempt, and then, of course, there is always the Holy Spirit.
Shane Schaetzel is an author of Catholic books and a columnist for Christian print magazines and online publications. He is a freelance writer and the creator of 'CatholicInTheOzarks.com.' Your support is what makes essays like this possible. This essay and all of Shane's Internet resources come to you (ad-free) thanks to the generosity of benefactors. Please consider becoming a benefactor.
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