In the research for my thesis, I’ve read a lot of feminist theology. I’ve seen countless arguments which contend that by not ordaining women, the Church is saying that women are intrinsically less valuable than men. As a matter of fact, most of the arguments take that for granted. To them, by refusing to ordain women the Church is proclaiming, if passively so, that women are worth less than men, in awful contradiction to its teaching on the inherent dignity of every human person.
In his letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, John Paul II writes, “It is to the holiness of the faithful that the hierarchical structure of the Church is totally ordered. For this reason, the Declaration Inter Insigniores recalls: ‘the only better gift, which can and must be desired, is love. The greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven are not the ministers but the saints.’”
Ultimately, the question is about value. What does it mean to be a valuable person? John Paul, in the tradition of two thousand years of Christianity, defends the truth that each person has an inherent dignity and that the perfection of the person comes not with power, but with holiness. But it seems to me that our culture has rejected this truth. We do not see a person’s value in what he is; we see it in what he does.
When I was young my father always told us that there was no such thing as ignoble work. Unskilled labor, skilled labor, intellectual labor – whatever we chose to do, we needed only to do it to the best of our ability, and it would be honorable. Unlike many of my friends, I learned to look at garbage collectors and school janitors and see valuable people doing valuable work. The idea is entrenched in our society that these people are nothing because they do little jobs, but it did not occur to me to see it that way. That is perhaps one of the reasons that I was never bothered by the fact that women can’t be ordained.
Many women say that they want to be ordained because they feel God calling them to priestly ministry, but I would remind them that the ban on women’s ordination has been proclaimed by the Magisterium. Do they think their private “revelation” supersedes the authority of the Body of Christ? And if they think that, why in heaven’s name are they still Catholic?
Oops. Got a little rant-y there. Anyway, I don’t know any women who want to be priests, but I’ve read stuff by a lot of them, and the theme I see over and over is that in order to show that it values women, the Church needs to give them power.
But power does not equal value. Did you hear that, WOC? Power does not equal value.
A Wall Street journal article by George Weigel about our new pope brought my thoughts on the topic of power and value into focus. In the article, Weigel quotes Benedict XVI (then Cardinal Ratzinger) on the merits of the Benedictine motto ora et labora, pray and work. “Turning the earth into a garden and the service of God [were] fused together and became a whole… Worshiping God always takes priority… But at the same time, it’s a matter of cultivating and renewing the earth in an ethos of worship. This also involves overcoming the ancient prejudice against manual labor… Manual labor now becomes something noble… an imitation of the Creator’s work. [And] along with the new attitude toward work comes a change in our ideas about the dignity of man.”
These words of Benedict’s, some of the first of his I read since his papacy began, brought me hope. How fitting that they should concern the themes which have been persistently on my mind. In a way I can’t explain, things clicked for me when I read these lines.
It really comes down to this: earthly work is not our final object. In the last line of Weigel’s article, he writes, “We can be sure that [Benedict XVI] will challenge us all to the noble human adventure that has no better name than sanctity.” The work we do on earth is merely the means to our real object, which is holiness, ultimately beatitude. Plowing the fields, if that is what God calls you to do, is noble work because it is your path to sanctity. Each person’s work, however undignified it may seem, says nothing about the dignity of his person. The lowliest peasant may be greater, in the end, than the most powerful king.
That is why it is no contradiction that the Church values all persons equally but refuses to ordain women. The great ones are not those who are most powerful but those who are most holy. And if you reduce the value of someone to his power and ability, what does that say about the value of a person who cannot take care of himself? We must value the unborn and the disabled and we must also value the invisible people, the ones who do the little things.
The greatest person ever to walk the face of the earth was a humble and undistinguished carpenter who showed his greatness most when he relinquished every bit of his power. The greatest human creature on earth was the humble and undistinguished mother of a carpenter who in heaven is given the highest place among creatures. Should we not then seek to be humble and undistinguished ourselves?
I would guess that most of us are unable to be both powerful and holy. (Perhaps this is why they say that the one who should get the job of pope is the one who desires it least.) If this is so, then it seems to me that the error of equating power and value is a fatal one. When we think that we are only valuable when we are powerful, we seek power for its own sake, and every step takes us farther from the path to holiness.
I think that Mother Teresa (a great person, even though she was “only” a little nun) had a beautiful insight when she said “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.” Our new pope once called himself a “draft animal,” called to a work he did not seek. For him, the papacy is not what determines his value. Rather, being pope is merely the path God has called him to walk in “the noble human adventure that has no better name than sanctity.” The best we can do is follow his example in the work to which we ourselves have been called.