By Fr. Mark Perkins
Editor’s Note: Unless otherwise specified, biblical citations refer to the Authorized Version and parenthetical citations to William G. Witt’s Icons of Christ: A Biblical and Systematic Theology for Women’s Ordination (Baylor UP, 2020) .
In September 2021 Earth & Altar published my series of essays evaluating the debate around women’s ordination in conversation with William G. Witt’s Icons of Christ: A Biblical and Systematic Theology for Women’s Ordination (Baylor UP, 2020). Although that series was not wholly negative, I was and I remain highly critical of Witt’s arguments. Late last year Witt finished his own three-part series responding to my review — see here, here, and here. What follows is not a complete response to his roughly 30,000-word series. For instance, Witt makes many claims about the accuracy and tone of my writing, which I will address in the comments of his blog, but which are tangential to the heart of our dispute. Here I restrict myself to our most substantive disagreements — those topics which I deem most edifying for the readership of Earth & Altar. Fundamentally, Witt and I disagree about the meaning of practices in the Church — and secondarily about the nature and meaning of sex difference in Scripture.
As I see it, Witt attempts to look past or through the practices of the Church to discover underlying theological rationales. These purported rationales then either justify or delegitimize the practices. By contrast, I begin with the Church’s practices as a foundation for theologizing and attempt to reason from them. In my view, theological rationale is downstream of practice, whereas, for Witt, any rationale must precede and stand upstream of a practice. This fundamental difference results in much talking past one another. Witt consistently misreads my theorizing about the possible implications of the practice of male-only ordination as though these reflections constitute my theological justification for the practice itself.
In addition, while Witt explains his objections to same-sex marriage and affirms the theological and social centrality of heterosexual marriage, he does nothing to allay my concerns about his flattening of sex difference into near meaninglessness. Men and women in Witt’s telling seem ultimately to signify the abstract concept of difference as such, without actually being meaningfully different, apart from the few “biologically determined” (410n4) tasks of motherhood, minimally conceived. Further, Witt does not counter my two central biblical claims: first, that his approach rejects the primal blessing or mandate of Genesis 1:28, and, second, that he makes St. Paul’s discourse on husband and wife in Ephesians 5 reversible and therefore arbitrary — per Witt’s reading, within the sacramental icon of marriage, either spouse could equally image either Christ or his Church.
Put briefly, Witt is wrong about the practices of the Church and wrong about sex difference in creation and in Christian marriage — and therefore wrong on women’s ordination.
Practices and Theological Reasoning
Our most important differences come down to the meaning of tradition — specifically, what constitutes a tradition and how we know it. For Witt, the practices of the Church do not matter at all, in and of themselves. What matters — and where he can legitimately claim more of an appreciation for tradition than I granted him — are the theological rationales that supposedly justify practices. There is indeed relatively little historical precedent for the contemporary in persona Christi Catholic rationale for the restriction of ordination to some men and no women — but there is overwhelming evidence for the Catholic practice of ordaining only (some) men to holy orders. The question is whether these practices, in and of themselves, have their own weight.
Witt believes they do not, because “traditions are only as valid as the reasons behind them” (20). In his book, he supports this contention with a story about a family practice (cutting off the end of a bread loaf before baking) that endured long after the underlying reason (a small oven) no longer obtained. In his essay series, he reaffirms his view, this time with three more examples:
‘traditions of setting off fireworks on the Fourth of July, of gathering with family and eating Turkey on the third [sic] Thursday of November, of exchanging presents on December 25. None of these three traditions simply arose as a ‘long-held practice’ for which arguments for the practice arose afterwards. Exactly the opposite is the case. Each of the traditions occurs for specific reasons… and the practices arose as ways of commemorating original events by symbolic acts with rational justification…. Without the initial reasons, there would have been no corresponding tradition.’
By contrast, I maintained that the practices of the Church do have their own weight, and that the rationales for practices are frequently only divulged long after a practice arises. I supported my contention not with family traditions or American holidays but primarily with examples from the Bible: “One could almost describe the entire Old Testament as a series of divine interactions and divinely instituted practices whose deepest meanings are mostly obscure prior to the Advent of Jesus Christ.” The real and ultimate reasons for the institution of marriage in Genesis 2 are not revealed until the New Testament writings of St. Paul and St. John. Likewise, the true meanings of the Bread of the Presence, manna from heaven, and the Passover are entirely obscure until the Advent of Jesus Christ.
‘The same holds true for the image-bearing function of Adam and Eve, the shadowy figure of Melchizedek, the role of the twelve tribal patriarchs of Israel, and indeed the whole priestly sacrificial system of the Old Covenant.’
Witt never addresses this biblical pattern of practices preceding rationales.
Instead, he simply reiterates his own premises. He reaffirms that a rationale must precede a practice. He reasserts his “fundamental thesis,” which is that “arguments either for or against women’s ordination must be properly theological argument” — and, for him, practices as such do not count as properly theological argument. Although my claim has always been that the Church’s tradition gives us a practice but not a rationale, Witt demands that I produce “reasons in the historical record for opposition to women’s ordination” other than misogyny, and that I establish those reasons “from the historical record itself” (emphasis original in all quotations, unless specified otherwise). In other words, in response to my rejection of his premises, Witt simply reasserts those very same premises — and faults me for failing on the basis of standards that I reject. We truly are talking past each other.
Toward the end of my first essay I traced the weight of practices beyond the New Testament into the Ecumenical Councils of the Church. The definitive evidence for the orthodox position at Nicea was not this or that Bible verse or theological argument but rather the Church’s “unbroken practice of worshipping Jesus as God.”
‘This is not a perfect comparison. The Nicene fathers really were expressing what the Church had always explicitly believed but had never fully formulated, whereas the status of male-only ordination may be closer to Old Testament practices: the rationale has been largely obscure rather than underformulated. But our duty is the same as the Nicene fathers: to reason not on the basis of how we would organize Christ’s Church if it were entirely up to us, but to ask why the Spirit-bearing Body of Jesus Christ has done what she has always done.’
Witt’s approach, however, enables him to evade the force of tradition, dismissing not only the universal practice of male-only ordination but even, at times, the explicit reasoning for that practice given by Church Fathers and medieval theologians. Contemporary Roman Catholic theologian Sr. Sara Butler contends that the rejection of women’s ordination, from the patristic through the medieval eras, frequently emphasized the normative example of Jesus Christ’s choice of male apostles and (what they understood to be) St. Paul’s prohibitions on women in ordained ministry. According to Sr. Butler, the third-century Didascalia, the fourth-century Apostolic Church Order, and the fourth-century father St. Epiphanius all explicitly point to Christ’s example as the definitive datum. Later, in the thirteenth century, Pope Innocent III drew on this thread, highlighting Christ’s choice of apostles as the basis for the restriction of ordination, as did John Duns Scotus and a host of others who followed him (Sr. Butler names Richard of Middleton, Durandus of St. Pourcain, Antonio Andreas, Peter de la Palude, and William of Rubio. She notes, “Scotus also judged women poor candidates because of their weak intellects and unstable wills, but this does not form the grounds of his argument.”) The weight of the prohibition, then, is fundamentally found in the example of Christ and his Apostles. The particular rationales that they sometimes — though, as we will see, relatively infrequently — muster around female inferiority are, thus, secondary explanations of rather than primary justifications for the restriction of ordination to men. In fact, many of the examples Sr. Butler cites give no further explanation whatsoever — they were apparently content to establish the practice of Christ and the Church as a sufficient basis for ongoing practice (Sara Butler, “The Place of Scripture and Tradition in the Question of Ordaining Women to the Ministerial Priesthood,” Background Paper for ARCIC II [January 1993]).
None of this matters for Witt, though, because he takes, as his fundamental premise and starting point, the assumption that practices do not matter absent rationales. Even Christ’s own practice is not, for Witt, relevant material in itself. Thus, even as Witt acknowledges Epiphanius’s repeated appeal to biblical and traditional practices, he dismisses it as irrelevant — because Epiphanius “makes no theological argument” (31). Likewise, although “The Didascalia apostolorum also appeals to a male apostolate,” this appeal to practice, in and of itself, means nothing. Only the rationale subsequently given — in Witt’s gloss, not “sacramental theology, but rather male authority” — matters (32). Witt also argues that the Didascalia’s specific restriction of teaching sits uneasily alongside contemporary Catholic views, which permit women to teach. Sr. Butler, however, points out that “In the emendations to [the Didascalia] found in the [fourth-century] Constitutiones Apostolicae, the ban on women’s teaching is more explicitly directed against teaching ‘in the Church’” and that it is premised upon the claim that “public teaching and baptism belong to the office of priest.” The Constitutiones, in other words, assumes that women cannot preach precisely because they cannot be ordained. Witt, however, reads this in reverse, as though the Didascalia contends that women cannot be ordained only because they cannot teach. (The Roman Catholic Church continues to view liturgical preaching as fundamentally the domain of ordained clergy. Although laity can, under the authority of clergy, preach in certain services, they are not allowed to do so “within the Celebration of the Eucharist at the moment reserved for the homily.”)
Witt’s choice to exclude practices from consideration may be the most critical step in his argument. Despite this, it is more assumed and affirmed than argued for. Ironically, his own argument for the meaninglessness of practices absent rationales is not theological or biblical but rather common-sensical — drawing on the logic of family traditions and American holidays rather than the evidence of Scripture and the Church’s history.
More than ordination is at stake when it comes to Church practices. In my review essays, I pointed to Alexander Wilgus’s argument from the Eucharist. In the Eucharist, we use bread and wine. We take, bless, break, and distribute. We say the Words of Institution. Why do we do so? In the first and final place, we do so because that is what Jesus did. We are following a practical precedent. We find a consistent pattern throughout the Scriptures and Church history. We theologize on the basis of the received and given practice. If we decide that the theological rationale for bread as Eucharistic matter is unsatisfying or even lacking altogether, we do not assume that we can choose instead to use cauliflower.
Witt’s method could be easily and at least as persuasively adapted to dismiss the requirement for bread in the Eucharist as fundamentally arbitrary and therefore revisable. After all, the manna from heaven which prefigures Holy Communion is not, strictly speaking, bread. The Passover includes meat alongside bread and wine. The most obvious answer to “why bread?” is simply the dietary habits of the Ancient Near East, as well as the broadly symbolic nature of bread in Ancient Near Eastern cultures. But different cultures have different dietary habits, and the contextual symbolism of bread in the Ancient Near East does not obtain universally. One could therefore plausibly claim that there is no theologically weighty objection to substituting cauliflower or chickpeas or rice for wheat in the Eucharistic elements. How one reacts to this hypothetical seems a pretty good litmus test for one’s view of the Church’s practices. If I did not believe that practices have their own weight, I would be hard-pressed to justify the Church’s historic insistence on bread.
The relation between practices and rationales I am outlining here is admittedly something of a polemical hyperbole. Christian thinking and Christian doing are not neatly separable, and Christian practices are always entangled with sin in this veil of tears. The scandal of male-only ordination is that, as E. L. Mascall suggests and as we will explore below, there has been almost no Christian thinking about it at all until very recently, and what little has occurred before the past century (not to mention much since then) has often resorted to “unbaptized natural theology,” as Witt characterizes it (277). Even so, ordination is no less a practice of the Church than is the Eucharistic celebration. The restriction of ordination to men is no less ancient, biblical, and universal than the restriction of Eucharistic matter to bread and wine. Moreover, contra Witt, the history of the Church gives us no examples of the Church ever revising any comparably ancient, biblical, and universal Church practice.
Church Practices and the Vincentian Canon
When it comes to male-only ordination, we have, unquestionably, a universal practice of the Church. For me, the clinching argument has never been why that is but the fact that it is. And, according to Sr. Butler, this was often the clinching argument from the patristic through the medieval era as well. We receive a practice before seeking to explain it, and we should always remember that any explanation is downstream from the practice itself.
By contrast, Witt believes we can revise a received practice if that practice is not accompanied by a persuasive theological rationale. For support, he offers eight examples of “times in the past when the church altered a previously accepted ‘universal tradition.’” Only one of his examples, however, could even theoretically satisfy the Vincentian canon — “what had been believed everywhere, always and by everyone,” in Witt’s rendering. Collectively, his examples emphasize with startling clarity just how unprecedented the innovation of women’s ordination really is.
“Constantinianism” originates with Constantine, three centuries after Christ.
According to Witt’s own narrative, the persecution of heretics only begins with St. Augustine in the fifth century.
The question of slavery is complex, but slavery can make no claim to Vincentian status. The Mosaic Law undermines the practice. (Eugene Genovese, for instance, shows how suggested reforms of antebellum American slavery along Mosaic lines would have, perhaps unintentionally, ended the South’s “peculiar institution” if adopted.) The New Testament guides Christians in living faithfully within a slaveholding society but likewise undermines the practice, as Witt notes in his section on William Webb’s trajectory hermeneutics (118f). Though the Church’s record regarding slavery is far from clean, she never universally endorsed the practice.
Serfdom originates in the medieval era (though with earlier roots).
Pacifism has a stronger claim to New Testament origins and universality in the early Church, but it can make no claims to the Old Testament.
Antisemitism proper only emerges many centuries after the New Testament, and its full flowering is a medieval phenomenon. (Witt’s examples are all medieval.)
We both agree that the long-held belief in the ontological inferiority of women has no true foundation in the Scriptures.
Thus, with the exception of the prohibition on usury, each of these is a relatively late arrival in the history of God’s people. By contrast, the priestly role is, as I put it in my third essay,
‘taken up in Scripture by Adam, by Aaron, by all firstborn males in Israel, by the Levitical priesthood, by Melchizedek, by David, by Solomon, and by Jesus himself. We could add to that list Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph (see Bergsma 29-47). Moreover, the apostolic office given to the Twelve in the Gospels was anticipated by the twelve patriarchs of Israel and was handed on to their successors in the episcopacy, which office remained exclusively male for the next two thousand years.’
The only potential exception to this unexceptionally male picture is a disputed phrase referring to the otherwise unknown Junia as “of note among the apostles” (Rom. 16:7). According to the pro-women’s-ordination scholars whom Witt cites, the most grammatically likely reading is that Junia is a noteworthy apostle, whereas alternative readings (such as Junia being a noteworthy figure to the apostles, or apostolos being used in the broader sense of “messenger”) are unlikely, all thing being equal. Suffice to say, this ambiguous reference is negligible compared to the clarity and universality of the picture in Scripture and throughout the Church’s history.
The dramatic chronological difference between the late-arriving phenomena Witt offers and the actual Vincentian practice of male-only ordination is even less important than the qualitative difference between ordination and his examples, not one of which is actually a practice of the Church in the first place. A practice of the Church is not anything Christians happen to do or think. They are acts that the Church does, as the Church, as part of her ontological nature. Each example Witt gives is an attitude of the Church towards the broader polis — better yet, it is a relation or negotiation between the Church and society. This does not mean that the Church was or could be neutral with respect to any of them. To the contrary, every one of them has profound theological and ethical implications, and the Church’s response is either more or less faithful to her nature as the Body of Christ. Yet not one is a practice of the Church as such. None of them flows from the sacramental, ontological reality of the Church.
By contrast ordination is not an attitude of the Church towards the state or the polis. It is the Church’s own action. This action is not hermetically sealed from the culture — how the Church practices and understands ordination is certainly subject to cultural influence. One could plausibly argue that the episcopacy (at least in the West) was shaped first by the secular office of Roman official, then by that of feudal lord, then aristocrat, and now CEO or middle manager of a corporation. Yet ordination as such remains a practice of the Church.
To sum up, not one of his supposed Vincentian traditions is a practice of the Church, only two can claim any real biblical support, and only one could plausibly claim support from both testaments and into the early Church — and on the particular issue of usury, it is questionable whether the Church has actually changed her teachings, not to mention whether any such change is for the good. These are not precedents, then, for the innovation of ordaining women. There are no such precedents.
Alternate Explanations for the Church’s Practice
The uniformly male priesthood across both testaments and throughout the Church’s history certainly seems to suggest there is something intrinsically male to the priesthood. Call this “theory a.” Witt’s response to the universality of the male priesthood is, here as in his book, to seal off the different biblical instantiations of priesthood from one another and then to provide discrete explanations for each in turn. Witt nowhere offers “theory b” in place of a — he instead offers us theories b, c, d, e, f, g, and h:
Witt did not discuss Adam’s priestly role, so I do not believe he addresses his maleness in respect to priesthood.
Witt says that the Levitical priesthood’s maleness (which, again, began with all firstborn sons in Israel, not just the tribe of Levi) is due to purity laws. He objects that my “dismissal does not take seriously either the strictness or the symbolism of OT purity laws.”
Jesus’s own maleness, he says, is fitting in order to subvert Mediterranean power dynamics and to fulfill the typological roles of prophet, priest, and king.
The prophet-priest-kings of the Old Testament — Melchizedek, David, Solomon — are male in the first place, Witt now says, simply because positions of political power in the Ancient Near East were filled by men.
The twelve apostles are male to fulfill the typology of the patriarchs.
The twelve patriarchs are male, he now says, (1) “specifically because they are patriarchs, not matriarchs” — obviously, the real question is why patriarchs — and (2) because of “ancient Middle-Eastern socioeconomic practices: property inheritance passed through males.”
The unremittingly male episcopacy and priesthood from the early Church on down to the late modern era is due to misogyny.
Per the Levitical priesthood (2), my question is, why did God give Israel ritual purity laws that excluded women in the first place? Witt’s rejoinder — that I underestimate the strictness and symbolism of purity laws — does not adequately address that underlying question. Nor does Witt effectively counter the fact that Israel’s priesthood, by contrast with the female priesthood of surrounding pagan cultures, was exclusively male. (Again, the paganism of “priestesses” was C. S. Lewis’s actual point in his essay on women’s ordination, contra Witt’s baseless assertion in his book that Lewis was implying sexual immorality on the part of female priests. A 2004 Forward in Faith document remains Witt’s only evidence of such a use, though he now adds vague references to “the internet” and “private conversation.” This is a very long way from proving that Lewis could rely upon his audience to infer such a connection in 1948!) Witt claims that the existence of a female priesthood in surrounding cultures only matters if Israel’s priesthood and pagan priesthood are comparable offices. But this evades the underlying issue — which is that Israel’s priesthood uniquely excluded women, in distinct contrast with surrounding cultures. Pointing out all the particularities of Israel’s priesthood that could have contributed to the exclusion of women is not a meaningful response to the problem.
Per Christ’s maleness (3), Witt does not respond to the argument that, since Christ invests apostolic office with the same roles of prophet, priest, and king, what is typologically fitting for Christ must be typologically fitting for the apostles and their successors. Moreover, as I argue in my fourth piece, the priest is an instantiation of the kingdom of heaven’s inverted hierarchy. As it was fitting for Christ to be male in order to subvert worldly corruptions of masculinity, so too it is fitting for priests to be male, and for the same reason. Witt did not address this argument.
Witt’s argument that the kings (4) and patriarchs (6) were male due to cultural context also falls flat. True, women did not exercise political leadership in the Ancient Near East, and inheritance passed through male offspring. But it is equally true that Ancient Near Eastern socioeconomic practices left no room for sabbath rests every seven years nor for a Jubilee every forty-ninth — but that did not prevent God from requiring them anyway. Are we to believe that God, in both the Old Testament and in Jesus Christ, is only at the mercy of culturally contextual socioeconomic strictures when it comes to sex difference?
Note that I largely agree with Witt about the broader ways in which Christ and the New Testament subverted cultural expectations towards women. Yet, when it comes to the priesthood, God, beginning with Adam, continuing through the Old and New Testaments and on through the history of the Church, was apparently unable to subvert cultural context, instead leaving that task to a few late modern biblical scholars. As I suggested in my second piece, “trajectory readings offer a healthy corrective to overly static and wooden interpretations of Scripture,” but they are also hazardous. And when it comes to the priesthood in particular, there simply is no biblical trajectory at all — nothing to trace “off the page” in the first place.
If egalitarians like Witt are right when they claim that denying the priestly vocation to women denies their equal dignity or even their very image-bearing capacity, then his explanations for the biblical data are entirely unsatisfying. All of them — from the importance of Mosaic ritual purity to Ancient Near Eastern inheritance laws to cultural practices of kingship — fall well short of exonerating the God of the Bible of misogyny. To be clear, I did not and do not contend that Witt actually views the God of the Old Testament as misogynistic. Had I done so, that would make me a very stupid or careless reader indeed. Nevertheless, Witt’s tendency to explain New Testament maleness by reference to Old Testament precedents leaves us with just such a God, regardless of what he personally believes. God did not hesitate to reject Ancient Near Eastern practices when such practices contributed to economic injustice. If the dignity of women demands that they be free to serve the Church in ordained ministry, then we must admit that the God of the Bible fails to honor the dignity of women.
Alternatively, we might reexamine our premises.
While Witt’s explanations for the Bible’s male priesthood are unsatisfactory, his responses do help clarify the nature of biblical typology.
In my series, I claimed typological priority for the apostles and indeed for the Gospels writ large. The Old Testament types, I asserted, did not so much set the stage for New Testament fulfillment but, rather, anticipated the Gospel archetypes. Thus the twelve, male, Jewish patriarchs ultimately anticipate the twelve, male, Jewish apostles. Witt, by contrast, describes typology as a one-directional process in which the prototypes set the stage for the fulfillment. Witt does have a point here; my own portrayal was something of a polemical overcorrection. But, just as Witt’s gesture towards the cultural traditions of Christmas and Thanksgiving is insufficient as an analogue to the tradition and traditions of the Church, Witt’s description of typology may be sufficient for the modern Academy — but not for the Bible.
On one level, we can certainly say, with Witt, that the New Testament follows the typological “clues” set down in the Old Testament. But we should also say — as Witt does not — that, on another level, these typological foreshadowings always anticipated Christ. So, for instance, on the first level, we can rightly say that when Jesus rode “an ass and a colt the foal of an ass” on Palm Sunday, he was just properly reading his “cue cards,” as it were, from Isaiah, Zechariah, and Solomon. Yet, on another and more profound level, we must affirm that Jesus was not ultimately following Solomon. Rather, Solomon anticipated Jesus. The real meaning of Solomon’s own triumphal entry in 1 Kings 1 always was to anticipate Christ, just as the real meaning of marriage was always to anticipate the relation between Christ and his Church. Similarly, I agree with Witt, contra Manfred Hauke, that the Levitical priesthood does not symbolize a male YHWH. Instead, we can now see how they anticipated a male Christ.
When it comes to the Twelve Apostles, Witt points out that their number and their Jewishness are just as important as their maleness. I did and do agree that all three characteristics are typologically fitting for the Twelve, and I largely agree with Witt’s clarifications about how bishops succeed to apostolic office, as well as the particular ways their office corresponds to that of the apostles. The Twelve are members of a broader apostolic office into which St. Paul was inducted and which was passed on to the bishops, but, as I wrote, “the twelve apostles did have a particular symbolic role vis a vis Israel.” That role is unrepeatable. After all, there are twelve thrones in the eschaton.
Nevertheless, the broader apostolic office of the episcopacy continues today. So how do we know that maleness matters for that office but not number or Jewishness? Simply because that is the data we have from both the Bible and history of the Church. As I pointed out (following Jaroslav Pelikan), the first qualification listed for St. Matthias to take Judas’s “bishoprick” in Acts 1:21 is that he be male, aner. Meanwhile, the New Testament unquestionably confirms the existence of a wider apostolate beyond the Twelve. And the New Testament similarly implies — and Church history confirms — that this wider office was inclusive of Gentiles. But, with the exception of that disputed phrase associated with Junia, there is no evidence anywhere of a female apostolate. This should not be surprising, given that the episcopacy continues the typological roles of prophet, priest, and king — all of which have Gentile antecedents in the Old Testament, but only one of which (prophet) was open to women in Scripture.
There Is No Traditional Rationale
The fact that the practice of male priesthood originates in Scripture also works against Witt’s contention that misogyny is the traditional rationale for the restriction of the priesthood to males. We both agree that this rationale does not originate in and is not ultimately supported by the Bible. Thus, by the time of Origen — the source of Witt’s first misogynistic quotation — misogyny is already a late-arriving explanation for an already-existing practice. Witt says that the misogynistic explanation “appears over and over again” throughout subsequent Church history, but what he actually demonstrates is that, roughly once every two-hundred years from Christ until the Reformation, someone refers to female inferiority as a reason to exclude women from the priesthood (n.b. his quotation from St. Augustine  does not concern ordination.) Witt claims in his book and in his essay that these examples are “selective” — implying that they are but the tip of the iceberg — but nowhere in the main text or in the footnotes or in any of his subsequent essays has he pointed to the rest of the iceberg.
I am sure there are more such quotations floating out there in those first fifteen centuries of the Church’s history. Actually my main takeaway from Witt’s work is how startlingly rare and superficial any reflection on the restriction of ordination to men seems to be in Church history — and how rarely anyone in the Church explicitly connected male-only ordination to the inferiority of women, despite how widespread such views of women were.
In my first essay I said that his six quotations were almost all throwaway lines mentioned in the process of making some other point — the equivalent to an “oh by the way” in a sermon — and that the only partial exception was Aquinas’ statement. On second thought, I would add Chrysostom as well. Thus, the sum total of sustained theological reflection on sexually restrictive ordination from the first 1500 years of Church history comprises a couple paragraphs from St. John Chrysostom in the fourth century and one question from St. Thomas Aquinas about a thousand years later. In addition, Witt gives us four throwaway lines from varied figures (Origen, Tertullian, St. Epiphanius, and St. Albert Magnus), as well as aforementioned references to the Didascalia and the Apostolic Constitutions, all spanning a full millennium.
This does not amount to robust proof of a theological tradition. Actually Witt’s narrative is the clearest possible evidence not of a unified tradition of misogyny but rather of there being no traditional rationale whatsoever. What we do have is a universal, univocal, and unchanging practice. And, as noted above, Witt’s prior decision to exclude the fact of practice from consideration allows him to ignore — or, perhaps, to fail to see — the tendency of the fathers and later theologians to point to Christ’s example and the existing practices of the Church as definitive data.
If practices did not matter in and of themselves — if they only matter insofar as they display or exhibit an underlying theological rationale — then we would indeed be working from a blank slate, choosing among equally novel options. But my position is almost exactly the opposite —that what matters in the first instance are the practices themselves, and that theological rationales follow from sustained reflection on those practices. Even were I more persuaded by Witt’s seven alternative explanations for the exclusive maleness of holy orders in the Church and in the biblical prototypes, we would have to ask whether — and how — the Church could go about making the unprecedented innovation of women’s ordination. Just as bread is what we are given in the Eucharist, men are what we are given in the priesthood. No jurisdiction or tradition, acting alone, has the right to alter such Vincentian practices. (Witt did not address my critique of his silence about the process of changing a universal Church practice — see the section titled, “How Does the Church Change?” in my first essay.)
Whereas the lack of sustained reflection on the practice would be, for Witt, proof that we can safely dispense with the practice, for me this means that we actually must now engage in that reflection — and we must do so in light of unprecedented late-modern questions and challenges. The Catholic argument has rightly emphasized a kind of “is-ness” to the male priesthood — what I referred to as “bare correspondence.” Although I characterized this reticence as admirable in many ways, I also suggested a need to move beyond the what towards tentative explanations of the why. In a thoughtful essay comparing the baptismal controversy that raged in the Church from the second through the fifth centuries to the contemporary dispute over women’s ordination, Fr. Robert F. McNamara suggests that “the Paraclete… reminds us duly of the what of revelation, but leaves it up to us (the popes included) to sweat out the why.” As I put it in my fourth essay, “our responsibility is to reason from the given images of Scripture towards life-giving theology. Especially in this time of deep and profound confusion about embodied sexuality, the Church owes to the world an account of the significance of sexuality, including its relevance to ordination.”
Nevertheless, our first duty is simply to receive what we are given.
Icons and In Persona Christi
I do not wish to rehearse my entire argument for the priest’s iconographic role, but I do want to clarify a few points. First, let me reiterate once more that the iconographic in persona Christi argument is not, contra Witt, my positive argument for ordination but rather an attempt to explain the practices we are given.
Second, in affirming the priest’s literally iconographic role, I do not deny that the priest also has a moral and ethical imperative to imitate Christ’s cruciform humility. I vigorously affirm it!
Third, the difference between the priest acting as a visual and iconographic representation of Christ — versus a non-visual representation of the Church — is first and foremost rooted in the logic of icons and the nature of God. As I wrote, “Icons exist for our benefit: to enlighten and teach us and to spur us to devotion, prayer, and worship. They do not edify God, who does not need iconographic ‘clues.’” In other words, since icons are never for God’s benefit, and since the priest only ever represents the Church to God — “the priest never represents the Church to the Church in the Mass” — the in persona ecclesiae argument fails. In addition, whereas the Church is an analogically female collective, Christ is a literally and anatomically male individual. Hence, the fact that a male priest is a member of a collectively and analogically feminine Church is not in tension, much less contradictory, with the notion that the individual, literally male priest represents the individual, literally male Christ in the liturgy.
Fourth, Witt seems to think that I disagree with his “straightforward reading of the plain-sense of the meaning of the text” of the Eucharistic Canon being “a prayer addressed to God by the congregation,” but I do not. As I wrote in my fourth essay, in the Canon, “The priest recites with his mouth the words of the liturgy, praying to God with the congregation.” What breaks down the clean division between narrative and drama is what the priest does while he is praying: “he also ritualistically and dramatically enacts Christ’s fourfold Eucharistic action — taking bread, blessing, breaking, and distributing it.” Witt never addresses the significance of this ancient and universal fourfold action through which the celebrant explicitly enacts the role of Christ in the Last Supper.
Finally, Witt does provide needed caution against potential abuses of the in persona Christi logic — specifically, the kinds of clerical narcissism in which the priest makes the liturgy a showcase for himself. Despite what Witt implies in his response, I never suggested that priests should draw attention to themselves in the liturgy. (The quotation Witt uses to support his contention was not about the priest in the liturgy but rather literal painted icons — specifically “the Grunewald triptych” and “the icons of St. John the Baptist and the Blessed Virgin Mary which flank the altar at All Saints, Charlottesville.”) Nevertheless, I was not sufficiently clear on this point. Priests who deliberately draw attention to themselves — whether through idiosyncrasies, excessively dramatic reading, or flamboyant ritual — are guilty of imprudence if not sacrilege.
On that note, I am grateful that my jurisdiction celebrates ad orientam rather than versus populum, affirming that the priest, rather than exhibiting himself for the congregation, primarily prays along with the Church to God. There is indeed a sense in which the priest should, as is commonly said in my diocese, “draw back the veil between heaven and earth and hide in the folds.”
Yet the celebrant never disappears, simply because he is the celebrant, and he alone enacts Christ’s fourfold Eucharistic action. The priest’s particularity must not distract from Christ nor become self-glorifying, and of course the same holds true for any icon. And yet icons and celebrants and all Christians manifest Christ not by being obscured nor rendered invisible nor becoming subsumed within Christ in a kind of self-annihilating Nirvana but rather through their very particularity. All Christians do so morally and ethically, as the hands and feet of Jesus in the world and by offering up their whole lives to Christ’s service. Literal painted icons do so by depicting the heavenly glorification of the saint fully participating in the divine life. The priestly icon does so by manifesting Christ in Holy Communion, most explicitly in Christ’s fourfold Eucharistic action — taking, blessing, breaking, and distributing the bread of heaven.
“Nor,” as I wrote, “is there any meaningful tension between saying that the priest acts in persona Christi and saying that it is Jesus Christ himself working through the priest. In every Eucharistic theology which purports to convey ‘Real Presence,’ nothing happens absent the mystical action of the Holy Trinity.”
I retract nothing I wrote, but I am grateful to Witt for drawing out some important clarifications and highlighting some significant omissions in my presentation of the priest in the liturgy.
Sex Difference in Genesis 1:28
Witt discerns from the conclusion of my fourth essay that I “might perhaps be at least a ‘soft complementarian’ after all.” That I am, in some sense, a “complementarian” was not smuggled into the end of my fourth essay but rather fully established in the second. Witt too is, in some minimalistic sense, a complementarian — he writes that “woman (issa) is created as the proper corresponding and complementary partner to man (is), woman who is both equal to and yet distinctively different from the man,” and he discusses “sexual complementarity” at some length. I avoid the label simply because “complementarianism” tends to be subsumed within the rigid and artificial evangelical complementarianism of Wayne Grudem and the like. But that men and women are created to fulfill shared mutual tasks with noninterchangeable interdependence, with this in no way elevating one over the other in image-bearing dignity — this I do not deny but gladly affirm.
Sexual non-interchangeability and interdependence partly ground my own understanding of the restriction of ordination to (some) men. As Mascall puts it (cited in my second essay),
‘if it is true that the order of redemption is not isolated from the order of creation and that grace does not ignore or destroy nature but presupposes and perfects it, it would be very strange if the differentiation of function on the level of nature was not paralleled by a not less marked differentiation of function on the level of grace.’
By contrast, Witt’s argument undermines the vision of Genesis 1:28. Sexually differentiated and mutually interdependent complementarity are inherent to the creation story, not only in sexual procreation, but also in exercising dominion. The contexts for the divine mandate or blessing of Genesis 1:28 — textual, canonical, and cultural — strongly suggest that a differentiation in roles in order to accomplish mutually given tasks applies to both procreation (Gen. 1) and to dominion/labor (Gen. 2). Thus, an interdependent division of labor in accomplishing shared tasks is not, contra Witt and Beth Allison Barr (among others), a result of the fall but is a prelapsarian good instituted by God himself — though never experienced in prelapsarian innocence after Genesis 3.
As I pointed out in my first essay, Witt’s own narrative suggests that the plausibility of women’s ordination depends not only upon the reduced frequency of pregnancy, as well as the increasing ability of postindustrial societies to substitute artificial methods of reproduction and care for the natural means of procreation, delivery, and nurture of infants, but also the increasing irrelevance of bodies in labor. Meanwhile, Witt’s affirmation of sex difference — “Only men can be husbands, fathers, sons, and brothers. Only women can be wives, mothers, daughters, and sisters.” (120) — ultimately reinforces my argument, given that most of these nouns are never fleshed out with any content. So far as I can tell, the only substantial distinction he acknowledges in the book or in his essays is the fact that “only women can give birth to and provide breast milk for children” and that “these biological differences account for some differences in how men and women will be partners and parents even in a postindustrial age” (72). He never says what these “some differences” are, though in a later footnote he suggests that the only tasks for which “men and women are not equally suited” intrinsically are the “biologically determined” tasks of fatherhood and motherhood — presumably that same ability to “give birth to and provide breast milk for children” (410n4, 72).
What, then, does it mean to be a mother? As far as Witt will say, it means the retention of female sexual organs and their use in the most minimal version of biological reproduction. Perhaps Witt would say more than this, but in his book and in his review series, he does not. What does it mean to be a son rather than a daughter? A sister rather than a brother? Witt says nothing at all about these distinctions, and I do not see how, based on his premises, it could mean anything at all beyond the abstract notion of “difference” as such.
Ultimately, reproductive asymmetry is unavoidable. “Fairly or not, inequitable parental burdens and blessings are inscribed in our very bodies.” Witt’s egalitarianism, however, trods the well-worn path of flattening difference in order to defend equality, a ubiquitous tendency in modern movements for equality — and one with an ancient heritage when it comes to sex difference, as Abigail Favale has pointed out. To say that someone is “equal” naturally prompts the question, “Equal to whom?” The presumed norm, spoken or unspoken, in both modernity (including many forms of contemporary feminism) and in the ancient world, is the man. As Favale writes, “Platonic equality between the sexes is ultimately expressed as sameness; women must shed, as much as possible, their female distinctiveness, in order to rule alongside men.” Just so, Witt’s narrative depends upon a flattening of differences in which women shed, as much as possible, the female distinctiveness that results in reproductive asymmetry. To be clear, Witt never says this explicitly, and I do not think he in any way intends this message — but his narrative depends upon it.
Of course, in our sin-soaked world, such asymmetries are sources of exploitation and abuse. We must reject this, not by diminishing but by honoring that which is distinctly female. Healing can only come through a renewed embodiment and not further disembodiment: “if we wish to escape the sexual, ecological, and cosmic catastrophes of our day, we will need to find new ways not to escape but rather to embrace and restore our primeval calling as embodied, sexual creatures.”
Witt is right that my portrayal of modernity was polemically negative. I freely acknowledge the distinctly modern goods he praises. (I do appreciate toilets, per footnote 9 in his second essay.) But the same holds for his depiction of premodernity. As I wrote,
‘One rightly suspects a story in which the Industrial Revolution is cast as (partially) restoring the prelapsarian innocence of Eden — as though we travailed under the curse of unmitigated sexual oppression from Genesis 3 right up to the advent of electric lights and the invention of the internal combustion engine (Machinae gratias). Witt’s narrative perfectly fits into what David Bentley Hart describes as “the story the modern world tells of itself now… the story of how we Westerners finally learned to be free, for the first time ever” (Hart 25).’
While Witt’s latest series emphasizes his substantial ethical concerns about modernity, he does not so much deny as defend the underlying story modernity tells, at least when it comes to the flattening of sex difference.
Yes, ever since Genesis 3 disorder in sexual relations and in labor has been endemic. That was true before industrialism and it remains true today. Despite Witt’s insinuations, I do not long for premodernity. In my first essay, I explicitly quoted and agreed with some of Witt’s claims about the impossibility and undesirability of a return to premodernity:
‘“It is not remotely likely that the social and economic changes that have created modern society… are going to be reversed,” nor would even the most sentimental among us really “wish to return to… preindustrial society” (70). Indeed, returning to pre-industrial society is neither possible nor desirable.’
Nevertheless, I do not think that the modern flight from embodiment and from procreation will heal the wounds of sin, and I look to Genesis 1 and 2 for hints and shadows of what a renewed society might look like. Interdependent mutuality in procreation and in labor seems to be one key.
Marriage and Ephesians 5
In addition to largely ignoring my argument from Genesis 1:28, Witt also failed to address my claim that he makes St. Paul’s vision of marriage as an icon of Christ and his Church in Ephesians 5 arbitrary and confusing. I agree with Witt that the entire Christian community is one characterized by humility and deference, as well as by mutual and voluntary submission. Moreover, as I suggested, submission is not passive assent, and I concurred with Witt’s point that husbands are never called to compel submission or obedience. The tendency among some evangelicals to define “male headship” in terms of “who gets to decide when couples disagree” reveals a drastic failure to internalize the sacrificial cruciformity of Christ.
But, as I wrote,
‘for Witt’s argument to work, we must go quite a bit further than all this. Witt’s reading requires not only that Christians share in a community characterized by submission and self-sacrifice, but that this community be one of undifferentiated mutual submission.’
Neither wives in Ephesians 5 nor the young in 1 Peter 5:5 are uniquely called to submission — all submit to all — and yet the young are indeed specifically called to submit to the elderly, while wives are specifically called to submit to husbands. We have to make sense of this call in light of the larger picture of the community, as well as the specific way husbands are called to sacrifice for wives. But, if Witt’s view is correct, then we must, as I put it,
“believe that St. Paul could just as easily have said, ‘husbands submit to your wives as to the Lord’ — and ‘wives must love their husbands as Christ loved the church by giving himself up for it’ (cf 5:25) — without any meaning whatsoever being lost. This reading essentially makes the whole of Ephesians 5 superfluous and arbitrary at best, if not confusing and actively misleading.”
Likewise, in 1 Peter 5:5, we must imagine that St. Peter could have equally written to the elderly to submit to the young. Could Sts. Paul and Peter have so written without any meaning being lost? Witt does not ever quite say. If not — if there is something meaningful and non-interchangeable about the submission of young to old and wives to husbands — then this suggests that there is therefore some meaningful, non-interchangeable difference in the role of men and women in marriage.
As I put it in my third essay,
‘In Christian marriage, husbands are particularly but not uniquely called to self-sacrifice and wives to submission. These are not mutually exclusive callings. In the Church, men will submit and women will sacrifice themselves. Nevertheless, St. Paul suggests that there is something particularly fitting in a husband’s self-sacrifice and a wife’s submission (which, as I emphasized, is not passive obedience). In Ephesians 5, the explicit rationale for this distinction is symbolic. The ultimate meaning of marriage — the archetype to which human marriage corresponds and of which it is a shadow — is Christ’s relation to the Church. And in the symbolic world in which marriage reflects God’s relation to his people — again, this being the final purpose for which marriage was instituted — the husband and wife are images of Christ and his Church respectively and non-interchangeably. Iconographically, we cannot reverse St. Paul, asking the wife to represent Christ and the husband the Church in marriage.’
Sacrificial Masculinity and Motives
When I showed my fourth essay to Sr. Butler, she voiced a concern, not necessarily that I was wrong, but that, in offering a possible moral and ethical explanation of “sacrificial masculinity,” I might be read as suggesting that the practice depends upon the rationale. That is why I tried to clarify that the practice comes first — and that both in persona Christi and my own theory of sacrificial masculinity fundamentally remain theories which are not justifications for the practice but rather attempts to reason from the existing practice.
Apparently Sr. Butler was right to fear that some readers would misread me in this way — and my own attempts to clarify otherwise were insufficient — because Witt’s response evinces just such a precise reversal:
'Perkins seems to be saying that in the end, clergy must be males because, just as in marriage, men exercise hierarchical authority over their wives, so in the church, clergy must be exclusively male because men simply as men exercise hierarchical authority, and are always in charge.'
To be clear, I never defined the husband-wife relation as one of “hierarchical authority” because I do not think this is the best way to understand the Church-and-Christ, submission-and-sacrifice marital iconography, nor do I think “men simply as men exercise hierarchical authority, and are always in charge.”
I did, however, define the priesthood as exercising sacramental authority. This is not because, as Witt suggests, I am “very concerned to preserve the hierarchy and authority of clergy over laity in the church.” It is simply my own best attempt to understand the passages in which Christ grants authority to his apostolic Church, and in which St. Paul exercises or threatens to exercise apostolic authority. Witt does not address my use of John 20:22, Philemon, and 1 Corinthians 5-6. Rather than engage this biblical data, he chalks up my view to vicious motives.
Witt also misreads my position as implying “in the end that at least some men simply as men exercise authority over women simply as women.” To the contrary, it is not the case that any man, simply because he is a man, exercises authority over a woman, simply because she is a woman. As far as ordination goes, this is a nonsensical claim — a priest exercises the exact same priestly authority over his male and female parishioners. Nor do men in general, by virtue of their maleness, hold some kind of derivative priestly authority over women as women, simply because some men will be ordained and women cannot be. Consider the Constitutional requirement that the President of the United States be a natural-born citizen. This does not mean that natural-born citizens, as such, have authority over naturalized citizens, nor that presidential authority over citizens in any way distinguishes between those citizens who are natural born and those who are naturalized. Witt’s claim is a non-sequitur.
I do not know how I could have made this particular point any clearer. As I stated in my fourth piece, it is only within a flattened, non-sacramental view of marriage and ordination that “the specific and distinct iconography of marriage and ordination will ‘bleed over’ into the royal priesthood of all believers.” By contrast, within a sacramental ecclesiology, “Marriage and ordination do not ‘bleed over’ into non-marital and non-clerical relations such that men have a special iconographic relation to Jesus Christ distinct from women within the royal priesthood of all believers.” In general “we see Jesus Christ through an icon of a female saint just as clearly as we do through a male saint;” moreover, “a particular woman [the Blessed Virgin Mary] manifests the glory of God more fully than any other (non-divine) person in salvation history.” Specific sex-based resemblance or correspondence does not obtain generally but only within the sacramental iconography of marriage (where the husband images Christ and the wife the Church) and ordination (where the priest images Christ). As I wrote in my third piece, “it is not the case that men in general reflect Christ while women in general reflect the Church.”
Nor is iconographic representation the all-or-nothing matter that Witt and Emily Hunter McGowin make it out to be. All humans bear the image of God in creation; all Christians bear Christ’s image in the order of salvation; husbands-in-relation-to-wives uniquely image Christ within the sacrament of marriage, as wives uniquely image the Church; priests uniquely image Christ through the sacrament of ordination and at the altar. These latter two “imagings” do not in any way threaten or diminish the fact that all Christians bear the image of Christ soteriologically, any more than the fact that Christians bear Christ’s image soteriologically means that non-believers do not bear the image of God in creation.
Witt notes that sacrifice plays a key role in my fourth essay, but he suggests that my use of it is imprecise. (“There is presumably a tie to the connection between priesthood and eucharistic sacrifice, but it is clear that ‘sacrifice’ functions metaphorically here.”) Actually, I carefully maintained the distinction and relation between literal and metaphorical sacrifice. As I noted, women in the Bible are more sacrificial, in the metaphorical sense, than are men. “But,” I wrote,
‘when we shift from this colloquial use of “sacrifice” and look instead at that to which the metaphor refers — literal, cultic sacrifice — we find a different story. From Genesis to Revelation, the whole Bible tightly associates cultic sacrifice with the priesthood, and, as we have seen, the biblical priesthood is unvaryingly male.’
My vision of “sacrificial masculinity,” so far from an ill-concealed chauvinistic libido dominandi, is in some ways little more than a variation on Witt’s own notion of Christological subversion. In my view — and as a tentative explanation for, rather than ground of, the Church’s historic ordination practices — the sacrificial priesthood manifests the Christological reorientation of masculinity. Whereas wordly masculinity abuses strength to exploit and to dominate, masculine strength in Christ is reoriented towards serving and protecting others — and towards sacrifice. The climactic example is Christ’s death on the cross for his Bride, the Church, and it is this act which stands behind both the cultic sacrifice of the priest at the altar and the husbandly “sacrifice” of a man in marriage.
And although the role of the priest in particular entails an authority and even a hierarchy, it is a redefined authority and hierarchy. To redefine a hierarchy is not to eliminate it, as does Witt’s view of the priesthood; to maintain a Christologically reoriented hierarchy in no way reinforces the hierarchies of the world.
In 1989, Fr. Haye van der Meer — a student of Karl Rahner’s who had been instrumental in pushing some Roman Catholics, including Rahner, to consider the ordination of women an open question — reversed himself. His motivations in supporting a female priesthood, he reflected, were rooted in a late modern male-normed pseudo-feminism, rather than the biblical vision for men and women. The narrative of Genesis 2 and 3, he wrote, presents Adam’s kingship not as one of domination but rather of service to his wife and queen, Eve: “his being king exists in this, namely that he serves Eve in a majestic way and not so much as a tiny, powerless piece of creation. The man can be a king in no other way than that in which Christ was, namely with a crown of thorns, that is the sign of his salvific suffering.” Likewise, he says, “the specific task of the priest is to become a slave, to hand himself over to be beaten and bloodied and thus befouled to stumble the way of the Cross” (H. van der Meer, “De vrouw en het priesterschap,” Internationaal Katholiek Tijdschrift COMMUNIO [Vol 14, Num. 1] Jan. 1989, trans. by Ray Noll of the University of San Francisco and brought to my attention by Sr. Sara Butler).
I expect some readers to scoff that the Church’s long history of clericalism, exploitation, and abuse reduces any notion of the priesthood’s sacrificial masculinity to absurdity. But this problem — the grave scandal of the Church’s failure to live up to its calling — is hardly unique. It is not qualitatively different from the problem of Christians, now and throughout history, failing to live out the truths of their baptisms or the Church’s failure existentially to live up to the already existing ontological unity of the Church.
That the Church has too often reinforced the world’s hierarchies — and that many evangelical complementarians seem dedicated above all to maintaining male control over decision-making — is an undeniable reality, and it is scandalous. The bleak narrative of Church history, like the bleak biblical narrative of failed masculinity, cries out for a man “who is neither cruel nor cowardly, and whose courage manifests in sacrifice.”
That Man is Jesus Christ, and it is up to every priest to subvert the world’s libido dominandi by manifesting the life of Christ through courageous sacrifice.
Fr. Mark Perkins is Curate at St. Alban's Anglican Cathedral in Oviedo, Florida and Executive Editor of Earth & Altar.