Letter to The Tablet editor, 27 February 2020
Has the Holy Father made a mistake in not permitting the ordination of women, even initially only to the diaconate? The exclusion of women from ministry can be traced not only to tradition but also to an erroneous reading of the evolution of “church” and its ministries.
In common with many other biblical scholars, I would affirm the following. Firstly, the historical Jesus encountered very few non-Jews. His ministry was “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”. Jesus did not foresee a separate religious movement, later given the name Christianity.
Much less did he foresee a Church (the term is found in the Gospels in Matthew alone), with specific structures and ministries. In the New Testament, varieties of ministries are indeed evident, in particular in Paul, Matthew and Luke-Acts. Towards the end of the first century, these settled into servants, elders and overseers (the later deacons, priests and bishops). The Council of Trent, in affirming that all seven sacraments were somehow instituted by Jesus, made the mistake of accepting the way the Reformers posed the question. This was unnecessary (though understandable in pre-critical times) and brings with it insurmountable historical difficulties.
If the above is substantially accurate, then the historical Jesus “ordained” nobody at all and the Last Supper was not an ordination service, simply because the historical Jesus did not reckon with a body separate from his own Jewish faith.
As a result, the argument from the Last Supper that only men can be ordained makes no sense. What we have inherited, across the Christian centuries, is the Spirit-guided tradition, reflecting a graced evolution. There is no reason to think that the Holy Spirit has stopped guiding us in these critical times. Listen to what the Spirit is saying to the Churches!
(Dr) Kieran J. O’Mahony OSA
Biblical Studies Coordinator, Holy Cross Diocesan Centre, Dublin, Ireland