Father Richard Barrett answers readers' questions
At the beginning of his Gospel. Mark uses equally powerful images to describe the work of Christ in our lives The Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness for 40 days. There he was tempted by Satan. He did not escape from the wilderness. There he was alone. far removed from the distractions that hide and cloak our lives. In that silence he was aware of all that lay within himself, and all that Satan would employ to undermine him. As he remained there, an untamed and threatening wasteland became a place of peace. He was with the wild beasts, and the angels looked after him.'
Life brings us into conflict with the darker side of ourselves. There is a wilderness within each one of us. There we are alone, and there we must battle with the untamed forces that can so easily destroy us. We can name our wild beasts. Arrogance, pride, selfishness and so on. St. Mark's account of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness challenges us to face up to ourselves. The Spirit that led Jesus into the wilderness leads us into ourselves. The experience might well be lonely and uncomfortable. It will be fearful as we acknowledge the darkness that lies in wait for our best intentions. At the end of 40 days the wild beasts were at peace with Christ, they submitted to his presence. Christ does not bid us to face up to ourselves alone. He is with us. He alone can bring peace to the untamed wilderness of the heart. It is for us to accept the challenge of Lent. The time has come. Repent and believe the good news.' Recently articles have appeared in The Tablet and The Catholic Herald that justify Mary as priest and give her a role similar to that of Christ the priest. Should one evaluate this as a latent tradition for female ordination?
THERE 1S LITTLE doubt that in the past, individuals have spoken of Mary as
priest, and Wijngaards' article from The Tablet identifies authors from the 16th and 17th centuries who spoke of Mary in such terms, mentions some images from Christian art that depicted her in priestly vestments and claims that the priestly ordination of women was resisted on the grounds of cultural and theological prejudice. All this. it is argued, amounts to a "latent tradition" of female ordination. The article in The Tablet has been put in the same company as the one from The Catholic Herald on Mary the mediator and not without reason as we shall sec.
Wijngaards says that the Vatican has neglected his "latent tradition" in its assertion that female ordination is not possible for the Catholic Church. The article in The Catholic Herald argues for a definition of Mary as co-redeemer, but such a definition would probably play into the hands of those arguing for female ordination, and so may be judged inopportune.
The CDF document Inter insigniores (15.X.1976) is often criticised for its theological argument of natural symbolism as an explanation for male priests, but the most valuable part of the instruction is its allusion to the existence of sects in the first centuries that practised and exaggerated devotion to the Virgin Mary, sought a divine elevation of the feminine and claimed Mary was equal to Christ and a true priest.
This cult was the first to attempt to include women at the altar as presbyters. So it is clear from church history that the campaign for female ordination has been around for a long time and that it was from its very inception tied to an exaggerated devotion to Mary. Aside from excessive devotion, which is after all a subjective matter, there was also the objective problem of the exultation of Mary to co-equality with Christ.
OTWITHSTANOING the freedom of theologians to write up this kind of argument, and there are
plenty of mariologists around who will do so, it does seem to amount to a further insistence of exaggerated Mariology. It went hand in hand with the feminism of the hierarchy then and it leads to same conclusion today. Its appearance in the 16th and 17th centuries among many Latin authors can be
explained as an example of what happens when one reality, the priesthood, comes to dominate the entire field of theology. As the only valid model with which to view Christ's continuing presence to the Church, it was understandable that Mary's place had to he justified by alluding to the same model, namely her spiritual priesthood.
THIS IS A testament to the ingenuity of the Latins, but it is not a good example of the practice of analogy. There may be grounds for arguing that her participatory role at Calvary gives her an angle on the priesthood of all the faithful, but this is a far cry from being a `there is no ground for saying that we have discovered a "latent tradition". We should see this for what it is excess, poor analagy and myopia principal dancer in the apostolic troupe. In the sixth century. St Epiphanius combated the Gnostic marian sects by pointing out that exaggerated claims for Mary and a female presbyterate do not belong to the apostolic tradition.
Moreover, Wijngaards is guilty of huge historical blindness when he claims that the priestly ordination of women was not envisaged because of theological and cultural prejudice.
In fact the Graeco-Roman world at the time of the birth of Christianity was full of cults that practised a female priesthood and a female leadership, and not all
of this was sexual in nature as in the cult to Isis (communion through coition). There was no obstacle from the surrounding culture to the apostolic Church ordaining women if it had wanted to.
The truth is that the early Church felt it was bound by the example of Christ in choosing the apostles and by the teaching and the practices of the apostles in their provision for the future. Wijngaards' appeal to visions in the life of Alphonsus, to excessive Latin piety, to exaggerated worship of Mary and to a few eccentric works of art is not a sustainable theological argument for female ordination it is a ragbag assortment of clutched straws that confuses the eccentric strands of history (tradition with a small "t") with normative Tradition (ratified practice with a capital "T").
GIVEN THAT the feminisation of the priesthood in the first centuries came from Gnostic sects and the sacerdotalisation of Mary in the Tridentine period came from excessive Latin piety, we can regard this as no ground for saying we have discovered a "latent tradition" in the proper sense of the word. It may have been natural to apply images of priesthood to other spiritual realities in an age where all church reflection was dominated by the priesthood, but in the cold light of another era, we should see this for what it is excess, poor analogy and myopia.
Finally, reading Latin piety of the kind that underpins The Tablet article reminds me of the difference between science fiction and a good documentary entertaining as the former is, the decisions of government have to be made in the sober light of the latter.