"Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." Paul to the persecuted at Philippi (2:5-11)
29 September 2018
Rejecting the In Persona Christi argument
Okay, I admit it, this set poorly with me when my kids were in sixth grade in Catholic school and the catechism questions on ordination came home for them to study. Once in a while, their Anglican mom will rebel, help them to do so even, but it was particularly hard in the sixth grade when their religion teacher was the sweet Spanish guy who labeled all his exams "Nice Little Quiz." I don't know if it was the English is his second language factor or the Nice Little Quizzes but I could never quite encourage rebellion. Besides, he's a really sweet guy.
But that's all neither here nor there... the question was something along the lines of why women can't be priests. Y'all, gentle readers, know that I wrestle with this and have spent parts of my life and ministry on both sides of this fence, sometimes at the same time. Nothing new there. But the answer was one, which I'd heard before but still, which I find unsettling. The answer was that women can't be priests because the priest stands in persona Christi at the altar. Women, apparently, don't look enough like Jesus for ordination.
Never mind that most of the priests I know are not Near Eastern Jews.
Many are ordained at an age Jesus never saw in his earthly sojourn.
Some are in need of glasses and other medical devices which would make them less than perfect for Temple worship, and therefore not "without blemish" either.
And not a one of them is willing to die for my sins.
Go on, ask every priest you know.
But that is not even why I find that question really unsettling... the part I couldn't put my finger on that day, but today I can is this:
The priest simply does not stand in persona Christi at the altar.
Jesus himself does that.
Jesus. is. in persona Christi. at. every. Eucharist. Full stop.
As a deacon, it is counter to my identity to take the place of the priest. Even when he is not physically present (the so-called Deacon's Mass) he is still the priest and his presence is known and honored there. How much more is this true with Christ?
If Christ is really present at the Eucharist, what business is it of the priest to stand in his place?
The ordination of the priest, however, is quite clear. He is authorized to absolve and bless on behalf of the Church. He has the voice of the Church. At the altar, it is the prayers of the Church he brings to God. When the Eucharist is celebrating with the priest facing the altar, as is traditional, he is present as the first among the people, being the voice not of Christ but of Christ's Church. He is, in the words of the Eastern Church, in persona Ecclesia.
The Priest, further, is not a part of Christ but a part of the Church and particularly authorized to be her voice.
And here I do say "her."
If the priest stands in persona ecclesiae, and ecclesia is traditionally not only a feminine noun but also traditionally feminized in imagery (Bride of Christ) even in the letters of the supposedly misogynistic Church Fathers, then there should be no barrier to a woman's priesthood in persona ecclesiae.
I am not nutty enough to demand an exclusively feminine priesthood on this basis.... it would be a fallacy of another sort.... but it does seem that the argument opens an intriguing door.
Am I coming out of the closet in favor of women's ordination to the priesthood? No, I'm not. Instead, I'm asking us to re-examine our arguments instead of just reasserting them. I am reluctant to stand in the generation that thought so highly of itself that it altered 2000 years of Christian practice. I am hesitant to affect the entire sacramental relationship which binds the Church together. I am unsure of the support from Scripture or Tradition for such radical changes. And above all I am passionately in love with the whole of Christ's Church, much of which would consider women priests a stumbling block.
But I am asking us to begin to think carefully about the images we use and what they are really saying, so that when the Church does settle these questions, she can do so with integrity.