Women hearing confessions

Andrew Britz, OSB

An English bishop has suggested that Catholic women be commissioned to administer the sacrament of reconciliation. At the same time he acknowledges that, with the shortage of clergy, many of the faithful, in facing serious illness, do not have access to the sacrament of the anointing (see CNS story of the week on this site).

It is interesting to note that, in advocating women as confessors, Bishop Vincent Malone of Liverpool does not give the current shortage of priests as his primary reason. Rather, he compares the confessional with a medical practice where patients are routinely given the choice between a male and female doctor; Malone asks whether the time has come for the church to offer Catholic women a similar choice of confessor.

A historical study of the development of priestly ministry is critically important in this regard. Of late, many people -- including some members of the church's central administration -- believe it is time to re-examine the division of authority between the pope and the diocesan bishops. For example, if Pope St. Siricius were to visit St. Ambrose in Milan, the latter would never have conceived of vacating his cathedral chair; rather, he would have given his guest a faldstool in a place of honour in the sanctuary for the celebration of the eucharist.

The division of authority is not, however, a theological issue only at the top. The same sort of simplification of structures has taken place at the "other end" of the clerical world. With the Peace of Constantine (AD 313), there developed rather quickly a deep separation between the clergy and the laity: all sacramental ministry (with the exception of emergency baptism) was taken from the laity and centred in the ordained.

So, just as all authority came to be centred in the pope, with the bishops becoming his "delegates," in an analogous way all sacramental power came to be exercised only by those who led the eucharistic celebration. Both these developments need careful reassessment.

If one takes Jesus' words seriously, one would have to conclude that he was not interested in establishing a church principally noted for its hierarchical structure. When the disciples were jockeying for position, Jesus chided them: "You know that among the pagans their so-called rulers lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority felt. This must not happen among you. No, anyone who wants to be great among you must be your servant. The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many" (Mk 10:42-45).

In this regard, it is important to note that the early church, usually in the midst of persecution, could not have developed much hierarchical order in its underground existence even if it had wanted to.

If its priests had to carry out all sacramental actions (as was the case later in Elizabethan England), they would have been discovered and martyred. As it was, the early church hid its leaders of the eucharist very well; few of those we came to call priests were ever caught by the Roman persecutors of the church.

The meaning of the priesthood changed rapidly with the Peace of Constantine. When the Roman state, as it had long done with pagan priests, began paying the Christian clergy (and thus freeing them from other work), Christians naturally expected these underemployed citizens to do most of the work in the church.

And, as one might suspect, it did not take the clergy long to develop a theology of authority to suit their new position. With little to support any model of authority in the New Testament -- especially not in the words of Jesus himself -- they turned to the Hebrew Scriptures and found there a wealth of material. Soon, according to the ordination rituals, the bishop (and, to a lesser extent, the priest) became the successor not only of Old Testament priests but also of prophets and kings.

All the charisms of authority and sacramental expression came to be centred in the sacrament of orders. A great divide between clergy and laity developed. The priest was not just ordained; to symbolize his complete mastery, he was ordained in a sevenfold manner. He was not simply ordained priest but also among others, mass server, deacon and doorkeeper.

Authority for the clergy was now complete; the clergy not only claimed exclusive right to define dogma, they also claimed exclusive right to administer the sacraments.

One of the last areas of sacramental administration to fall under this clerical coup was the anointing of the sick. We have a vestigial remnant of this in the Holy Thursday Chrism Mass. While chrism and the oil of the catechumens are blessed together by the bishop, the ritual still suggests the oil of the sick be blessed as part of the eucharistic prayer.

The oil of the sick and the eucharistic food have always been closely identified in the church. We all know how we lose our appetite for food when we are sick -- and how our desire for a massage increases at the same time. The church acknowledged this, and in its solicitude for the sick presented both -- usually together -- but in individual cases presented one or the other, depending on which was especially appreciated as Christ's presence by the sick person.

Already in the early third century, in the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus, the bishop was instructed to bless oil during the eucharistic prayer for the laity to take home to anoint their sick.

Pope Innocent I expressly resisted the move of the post-Constantinian clergy in Rome to make themselves the only ones who could anoint the sick. (They had used the text from James [5:13-15] to back up their argument.)

Pope Innocent said: "Now there is no doubt that these words of James are to be understood of the faithful who are sick, and who can be anointed with the holy oil which has been prepared by the bishop, and which not only priests but all Christians may use for anointing, when their own needs and those of their family demand."

While church history is clearer on the appropriateness of having the laity anoint the sick, a good case can also be made for the celebration of Form One (individual confession) by "lay" men and women. It is crucial for the health of the church that we have the honesty and the courage to open fully the question of ministry. We will never arrive at satisfactory answers to the questions of priest shortages, priestly celibacy and, yes, the ordination or non-ordination of women, with our current practice of ministry.

Could it not be that the Spirit is calling us back to pre-Constantinian practices in which ministries were not centred in a class of people but widely shared among many? Need our confessors always be those who lead the eucharist for us, or those who anoint our sick also be those who decide church policy?

Should we not commission those who are especially gifted in visiting the sick to anoint them "in the name of the church"? Likewise, should we not admit that many who are good at leading the eucharist are less than adept at listening with the tenderness of God to the woes of the sick?

Thirty years ago a mother of two priests complained to me that it was not fair that she had to go to confession to a man. A simple, poorly educated woman, she was anything but a flaming feminist in her desire to have a feminine ear to hear her confession.

St. Paul often seems to indicate that some are called to be confessors, some administrators, some baptizers, some the visitors of the sick. It never occurred to the Apostle that someday the church would be so fortunate as to find all these charisms in the same person.

Both crises, that of the lack of clergy to take tender care of the sick and that of so many Catholic women not feeling that they are equal members in the church, should prompt us to make this move to break up the ministries. We will, no doubt, find that in struggling to solve these two problems, we will have gone a long way toward solving most of our problems with ministry and the priesthood.

Published in the September 10th, 2003 edition of The Prairie Messenger

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