Will ordination doctrine drive a "mass exodus of the faithful" from the Catholic Church?

So says my colleague at The Week, Damon Linker, in an essay predicting that all churches would need to change doctrines to keep up with the modern world, especially the Catholic Church. Refusing to adapt doctrine to modern thought will force an exodus of people from their faiths, Damon writes, especially the Catholic insistence that ordination is limited to men:

By contrast, the majority of Catholics who support women’s ordination are confronted on the altar with the all-male priesthood every time they go to church. At the moment, frustration about the issue is muted because Pope Francis has inspired so much good will among the faithful — and raised such high hopes for reform. That has given the church some breathing room.

But it isn’t going to last. As I’ve argued at length, there is no indication that anything of doctrinal substance is going to change under the new pope — and least of all on the ordination of women, a subject on which Francis has explicitly endorsed Pope John Paul II’s position, which unequivocally dismissed the possibility. Sooner or later — and probably sooner — egalitarian-minded Catholics are going to lose their patience with the hierarchy’s unpersuasive defenses of the status quo.

And they are stunningly unpersuasive. Here is the argument in its entirety: Christ chose 12 men to be his apostles; they in turn chose men to help them spread the word of God; today’s priests and bishops are the direct descendants of these original apostles; therefore, the church doesn’t have the power to ordain women.

The church would be on much firmer ground if the Gospels recorded Christ explicitly stating that he chose men to be his apostles because it is God’s will that only men can serve in that role. But of course he said no such thing. A weaker but at least potentially defensible argument would involve some sort of claim about the nature of women being incompatible with ordination. But the church makes no such argument. Alternatively, the church could appeal to a popularly held gendered vision of God like the one affirmed by the Mormons. But the church doesn’t do that either.

As it is, Catholics are left with: This is the way we do it, because we’ve always done it that way, and we can’t change, so drop it.

First, there seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding of the office of Pope. No Pope can change doctrine; the entire structure of the office aims to preserve and defend doctrine. Anyone looking for changes of “doctrinal substance” from any pontificate is doomed to disappointment, including ill-informed Catholics.

Damon claims to represent “the argument in its entirety,” but he’s in error. The argument offered is one of the points in defense of the doctrine of ordination, but it’s not even the main argument. He then demands a Scriptural reference, which hints at a sola scriptura approach, a theological position which of course the Catholic Church rejects anyway. The truth is more complicated, and requires people to understand the nature of the Mass and the priest’s role within it. This could fill books (and has — I’d recommend Coming Soon or The Lamb’s Supper), but I’ll offer a relatively brief explanation.

Priests act in persona Christi capitis during the Mass (CCC pp 875), especially during the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The congregation becomes an earthly part of the eternal celebration of the Wedding Feast of the Lamb, as described in Revelation, in which the Church becomes the Bride of Christ. The priestly authority comes directly from Christ Himself through the apostolic succession of the bishops and their authority to ordain priests for this purpose. It is in this role that priests can effect the transformation of the sacrifice of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ through the unity of the Holy Spirit with Christ and God the Father, as seen in Revelation, and offer it to the faithful as a sacrament of union with Christ and that eternal celebration. Acting in persona Christi capitis, the priest acts in place of Christ the bridegroom in that moment in time here in the world (CCC pp 1348). Also, the priest’s role in the Mass occurs through the power of Christ the bridegroom (CCC 1548). This is how the two will become one flesh, as in sacramental marriage in this world. If the congregation is the bride, the priest as groom must be male to act in persona Christi capitis, according to the teachings of the Catholic Church.

None of this is particularly secret, by the way. As the references show, the Catholic Church teaches all of this quite openly. The belief in the actual presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the Liturgy of the Eucharist as a connection to the one sacrifice at the eternal wedding feast forms the substantial argument for ordaining only men to the priesthood. (It’s worth noting that the recently restored order of the diaconate is currently only open to men, but the Church is discerning on that practice, since deacons cannot serve in the place of priests during the Liturgy of the Eucharist anyway.) However, it’s at least a fair point to admit that many Catholics never hear this teaching, for reasons of poor catechism at home or in churches and schools.

Now, people are free to believe this or not, but the basis for the doctrine isn’t simply that Jesus only chose men to be His apostles. Furthermore, the Church’s role isn’t to change with the times anyway. It’s to defend what it teaches as revealed truth, and to spread the truth rather than take polls. That may indeed produce an impulse for congregants to leave, but that may be a symptom of poor catechesis rather than a refusal to change doctrine to suit the modern temperament. If an exodus occurs, that would be the cause, not a refusal to rewrite doctrine.

The poet Alexander Pope once wrote that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing,” warning that “shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, and drinking largely sobers us again.”  This would seem to be an apt demonstration of that axiom.