Archive for July, 2009

Dutch dominicans Address Priest shortage

July 9, 2009

Dutch Dominicans Address Priest Shortage

When John XX111 (now blessed) announced his intention to convene the Second Vatican Council one of the hopes he expressed was that the Council would be a second Pentecost for the Catholic Church. In one respect, at least, his hope has been fulfilled: Since the Council (1962-65), there has been an explosion of ministries in the Church resembling what took place in the earliest days of the Jesus movement beginning after Pentecost and continuing in the early Church.  Many passages, especially in the letters of Paul and the ones attributed to him, echo what we read in the epistle to the Corinthians: “To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit.  To one is given through the Spirit the expression of wisdom; to another the expression of knowledge…to another faith…to another gifts of healing…to another mighty deeds; to another prophecy; to another discernment of spirits…But one and the same Spirit produces all of these, distributing them individually to each person” ( 1Cor. 12:7-11).

We are familiar with parishes where baptized, but not ordained, Catholics serve as readers of the Scriptures and Eucharistic ministers during the liturgy, bring Communion to the housebound, instruct converts, prepare parents and godparents for the baptism of a child, provide couples with pre-marriage counseling, visit hospitals and prisons, serve as pastoral associates and sometimes administer parishes where there is no priest.  By some estimates around thirty thousand lay ministers are salaried while many others are unpaid volunteers. Because of the varied and generous response of the baptized it may be said that parishioners are better served in terms of ministerial needs than at any time since the early Church. 

While all this is happening, however, we are witnessing a continuing decline in the number of priests available in parishes and many people are left without weekly celebration of the Eucharist in their local churches.  In some places parishes are clustered and two priests may be serving five parishes alternating where the Eucharist is celebrated from one church to another. In some places services of Word and Sacrament, where prayers are said, Scriptures are read, and hosts consecrated at another time are distributed, replace the celebration of the Eucharist.  Tragically, reports are that some people do not seem to notice much difference between the service and the full liturgical action of eucharistic celebration and many Catholics may lose appreciation of a fundamental reality of our faith namely that…”the liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the church is directed; it is also the fount from which all her power flows” as the Second Vatican Council taught in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy one of the Council’s greatest achievements.

Despite the growing crisis of priestless parishes that has been with us now for almost fifty years the response of Church leaders has been to urge prayers for more vocations in the hope that more celibate males will come forward for training and ordination.  Appeals for recognition that there is no shortage of vocations, if married persons male or female, and single women were invited to train for ordination into all ranks of ministry as deacons, priests and bishops, are ignored. The ordination of women is described as definitively settled by Church authorities before the question was studied in depth. Indeed important studies have indicated that there are no solid reasons in scripture or tradition why women may not be ordained.  And as far as ordaining married men is concerned, Karl Rahner stated correctly in 1982: “If the Church in a concrete situation cannot find a sufficient number of priestly congregational leaders who are bound to celibacy, it is obvious and requires no further theological discussion that the obligation of celibacy must not be imposed” (The Shape of the Church to Come, 101).


Recently a group of Dutch Dominican priests issued a report Kerk en Ambt “The Church and the Ministry” (CM), which was accepted by the administration of the Dutch province and distributed without permission to 1300 parishes in the Netherlands.

The core recommendation of CM is that men and women can be chosen by the church community itself (‘ from below’)and presented to the local bishop for ‘confirmation’ or ‘blessing’ or ‘ordination.’ Should the bishop refuse acknowledgement of the person chosen as presider at the eucharistic celebration, the community should still proceed with the celebration.

Presiders at local celebrations should be suitable members of the community in question but it is irrelevant whether they are men or women, homo- or heterosexual, married or unmarried.

They should have necessary qualifications which CM describes as being versed in Scripture and Christian tradition, and able to preach.

They should also be open to have their expertise and liturgical creativity evaluated by the local community.

It is clear from reading CM that the Dominican theologians are offering a new model of priesthood (though one solidly grounded in Church tradition as we shall see), they are also working with a new model of church as proposed by the Second Vatican Council. They refer to the fact that in the dogmatic constitution on the Church the bishops at the Council, after fierce debate, inserted a chapter on the “People of God” before dealing with the pope and bishops, the hierarchical church. They emphasize that the Council saw “the people themselves and the salvation of the people” as the goal of the church community, and that the hierarchy is the means towards the salvation of the people.

Even though, in the period after the Council, this new view of the Church has not been incorporated into revised church structures or practice, the Dominicans appeal to it to justify their view of leadership at community level as appointment for service.  In other words, ordination does not entail a change at the level of being, ontological change, but change in the order of function in the community.

The theologians emphasize the Eucharist as ritual meal, a common sharing of bread and wine, doing what Jesus did, and in this sharing Jesus is present.  They state: “The bread which is broken refers explicitly to Jesus’ life and death, the wine points to his life force, to his strength of mind and spirit, to his blood; in the Bible ‘blood’ means life force.”

The Jewish roots of the Eucharist and Jesus’ identity as a Jew, are accorded their place as is the relationship between Eucharist and justice:  “ The history of the Jewish people, with its exodus from the ‘house of slavery,’ …the exile and return to the promised land, but also the holocaust, are on the table and so is the life story of the Jew Jesus, his death and resurrection, the whole history of those who have tried to follow him, in their good and bad moments.  The fact that people keep celebrating the Eucharist is a token of their hope that there will be a time when justice will be done to every person.”

The Dutch Dominicans present their recommendations to the Dutch Church as a contribution to what they hope will be a deeper discussion.  They state explicitly that the report, summarized above, “… is not meant to be a guideline or a doctrinal position”. Official church policy is giving priority to preserving priesthood in its present form over against the right of church communities to full celebration of the Eucharist.

With reference to the services of Word and Sacrament the report cites the statement of the bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, who is in charge of the liturgy portfolio within the Bishops’ Conference, and who said: “Services of Word and Communion can be quite valuable in regions where a celebration of the Eucharist really is impossible.  But when such services become a fixed part of the liturgical programme as an alternative of equal value of the Eucharist, we fail to recognize the unique significance of the Eucharist for the life of the Church.  As a result we build the church of tomorrow on a basis which is too unstable.” (An English translation of “The Church and Ministry” is available in the Special Documents section of


Five months after the Dutch theologians issued Church and Ministry the Master of the Dutch Province of the Dominicans, Fr. Carlos Aspiroz, at the behest of the Vatican, issued a sharp reprimand to the theologians warning them that their proposal concerning lay celebrants “…was not in the constant and authentic tradition of the Catholic Church” and that the action they envisage with respect to lay celebrants would encourage schism in the Church (The Tablet, 9 February 2008).  These are very serious charges and not unexpected, and the Dutch Dominicans have promised to distribute Fr. Aspiroz’s letter and a critical analysis by French Dominican theologian Fr. Herve Legrand of the Church and Ministry document and its proposals. Fr. Legrand has rejected the argument that congregations could choose lay celebrants without the local bishop’s approval.  Celebration of the Eucharist by a lay minister would be “schismatic conduct” he continued and a congregation choosing this option would become a sect.

However, ‘the constant and authentic tradition of the Catholic church’ is not as uniform as the reprimand would have us believe.  The following considerations should be taken into account. 

  • In accordance with the mandate of Jesus at the Last Supper: Do this in memory of me the Church has always considered weekly celebration of the Eucharist as His gift and absolutely essential for the spiritual nourishment of the Christian community.
  • The New Testament does not contain direct instructions as to who may preside at the Eucharist, but it does stress that all ministries and grace are gifts made by the Spirit to the people of God, not exclusively to the bishops.
  •  Dealing with the earliest period in the church Edward Schillebeeckx has written that “…the modern situation in which a community might not be able to celebrate the Eucharist because no priest is present is theologically inconceivable in the early church; the community chooses  a president for itself and has hands laid on him so that they can also be a community which celebrates the Eucharist, i.e. a ‘community of God’ In that case the vitality of the community in terms of the gospel is the deciding factor, not the availability of a body of priestly manpower, crammed full of education in one place or another” ( Ministry, 41).
  •  Schillebeeckx cites Tertullian (ca 155-230) who said: “Where there is no college of accredited servants, you layman must lead the Eucharist and baptize…for, where two or three are gathered together, there is the Church even if all those are lay people” (Ministry, 51).
  • Raymond Brown states: “There is no compelling evidence for the classic thesis that the members of the Twelve always presided when they were present, and that there was a chain of ordination passing the power of presiding at the Eucharist from the Twelve to missionary apostles to presbyter-bishops.  How one got the right to preside and whether it endured beyond a single instance we do not know; but a more plausible substitute for the chain theory is the thesis that sacramental ‘powers’ were part of the mission of the church and that there were diverse ways in which the Church (or the communities) designated individuals to exercise those powers” (Priest and Bishop, 41).
  • In the same vein as Brown, James Bacik writes that “Jesus did not leave a blueprint or flowchart for leaders in the Church.  Forms of oversight leadership developed gradually, in response to the needs of the faith community and social influences, under the inspiration of the Spirit” (“The Priest as Pastor” in Priests for the 21st Century, Donald Dietrich, editor, 47).
  • In the house churches it is most likely that the host couple or individual women or men led the celebration of the Eucharist.
  • The idea that ordination confers a new ontological status on the priest who is thereby exclusively empowered to celebrate the Eucharist  is a development in the second millennium of the Church’s history and is unknown in the first millennium.
  • Today theologians stress relational ontology meaning that ordination confers on the priest a new location and function in the community rather than a superior, exclusive status with higher power attached.
  • The Second Vatican Council stresses that the Eucharist is offered by the whole community present with the priest presider, not exclusively by the priest.
  • Mandatory celibacy as a necessary condition for ordination to priesthood dates from the First Lateran council in 1123. Until then celibacy was optional and many deacons, priests, monks and bishops were married.  Major reasons for the imposition of celibacy had to do with achieving power over priests by a centralizing papacy, and taking control of property and lands by the destruction of priestly families which often exploited benefices for financial gain rather than ecclesial well being. The struggle to impose celibacy was long, bitter and at times violent. Defenders of priestly marriage had more than a thousand years of tradition on their side.
  • The upshot of these considerations is the realization that priesthood, a divine gift to the Church, is in part socially constructed and altered in accordance with varying needs and conditions.

A French group Nous Sommes Aussi Eglise, NSAE ( We Are Also the Church)                 have sent an open letter to French bishops and they have expressed their support saying “It was with joy that we received the report of the Dutch Dominicans…The situation described and the questions raised are in fact directly applicable to France.” NSAE call for examination of the exercise of power in the Church. And they cite Herve Legrand, a critic of the text of the Dutch priests, who says” One must formally acknowledge to the local authorities that their cry of alarm is justified. Now that this debate has begun around this approach and the response to it, it would be well to conduct it according to clear and suitable rules as with all worthwhile debates.”  And they ask the French bishops to participate fully in the ongoing debate. They conclude “ Far from being a threat to the church, we have a veritable godsend: we must know hos to profit from it. ‘When it comes, the Spirit of truth, it will lead you toward the fullness of truth’”(Jn 16:13). (Translated by Christine Roussel, text posted online by the Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church, 3/2/2008).

No doubt considerable discussion of the original proposal and the reprimand will now ensue.  We may expect to see fuller critical investigation of the changes and developments priestly ministry has undergone over the centuries and to what extent ‘constant’ tradition is involved in developments largely found in the second millennium of the church’s history. We may expect to see the validity of celebration of Eucharist by non ordained celebrants defended in light of the fact that it was accepted practice in the early Church. It is no secret that small communities in various countries are celebrating eucharistic liturgies led by both women and men. The fact that these practices are illegal by current norms and currently underground does not mean they are destined for oblivion

The Second Vatican Council sanctioned changes in celebrating the Eucharist such as altars facing the people, use of the vernacular, and communion in the hand, practices which had arisen in various European churches prior to the Council, and were technically illegal, now they are standard, accepted practice.

Moreover, there is the fact that Church leaders have known for over fifty years that a shortage of ordained priests is depriving numerous parishes of regular celebration of full eucharistic liturgy, and they have taken no constructive steps to deal with this threat to the very essence of many Catholic communities who rightly see the Eucharist and its weekly celebration as the fount and origin of their faith. Perhaps the proposals made by the Dutch Dominicans will at last spur Church authorities into serious consideration of the ordination of women and married men to priesthood.

 Even if there is conflict and struggle many are likely to regard this as a worthwhile price to pay to defend the inalienable right of communities to full eucharistic participation on a regular basis.  We recall that conflict and struggle marked the great Trinitarian controversies in the first centuries and we recall also, that when some synods of bishops went into heresy the true faith was preserved by the faithful, as Newman has recounted in his epoch-making book: On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine. The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church from Vatican Two ( Lumen Gentium) has extensive discussion of the role of believers in securing authentic Church teaching declaring at one point: “ The whole body of the faithful who have an anointing that comes from the holy one ( c. 1 Jn. 2:20 and 27) cannot err in matters of belief” (Chapter 2, #12). The constitution lays considerable stress on the necessity of consulting the whole people of God in establishing church teaching in matters of belief and practice.

The document produced by the Dutch Dominicans is very important as is the condemnatory stance from the Province’s Master and one hopes both will be critically evaluated and taken with utmost seriousness throughout the Church where shortage of priests is widespread.  Gratitude is owed to the theologians who produced the report for their courage and forthrightness in tackling the issues so honestly in the interests of the future of the global Church and in service to the reign of God which the Church exists to promote.

Paul Surlis ( Rev).

Crofton Maryland, 21114











The Ordination of Women

July 9, 2009

The Ordination of Women: Divinely Prohibited or Inevitable Development?

In 1921 in celebration of the victory of women’s suffrage the Women’s Party presented a statue by Adelaide Johnson of Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton to the U. S. Congress.  The inscription describes achieving the vote as “one of the great bloodless revolutions of all time that liberated more people than any other without killing a single person.” Eighty eight years later the great revolution, now global in scope, and with a larger agenda, continues its liberating trajectory and its effects are being registered in the domestic, political, economic, cultural and religious spheres in spite of opposition and set backs still being encountered.  When will the women’s movement be regarded as having been successful?  Asked that question, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, at present the sole woman on the U.S. Supreme Court, said in effect: when the percentage of women in the professions is the same as their percentage in the population.  Women, of course, are half the human race but they are still far from being half of all the professions and, we may add, vocations.

In the Catholic Church women are, thankfully, disproportionately present in a variety of ministries but there are, officially at least, no women priests, or bishops, and while the door is slightly ajar for the ordination of women as deacons, we are told that their ordination as presbyters and therefore as bishops is prohibited by divine law evidenced in the constant practice of the Church since, and including, the time of Jesus.

In A Call to Action (1971) Pope Paul V1 said that criticism of existing society in light of utopian perspectives “provokes the forward-looking imagination both to perceive in the present the disregarded possibility hidden within it, and to direct itself toward a fresh future” (#37).  Let us now look at our Church in light of utopian considerations:

Consider the enrichment the people of God would receive from frequently hearing women’s perspectives on the Gospel in weekly liturgies.  And consider for a moment:  how transformative it would be if half the priests and bishops in churches and dioceses all over the world were women, if half the curia in Rome were women, if the next pope might be a woman, if half the Vatican nuncios were women?  Wouldn’t it matter immensely if half the personnel including the nuncio on a rotating basis, representing the Vatican at the United Nations, were women?  Would Vatican policies, especially concerning women and reproductive rights in developing countries be what they are today if half the personnel representing the Vatican were women?  If half the church’s power holders and policy makers were women and if Church governance were truly collegial would a narrow sexual agenda be lifted up as the church’s dominant concern? Would we be told by some including some bishops that birth control restriction to natural means and an absolute prohibition of abortion, trump war making and social justice concerns in national elections especially in countries engaged in predatory wars for access to energy resources? What this exercise in imagining shows is how patriarchal the church is in its power structures and central liturgical ministries and the immense reforms needed in Church life and structures.  

The vehemence of the opposition to the ordination of women, even the discussion of it publicly, suggests that admission of women to all ministerial and power controlling roles is seen as a threat to the entire patriarchal power structure which has been carefully constructed for over a millennium.  Women’s presence at all levels in that structure would help to begin its unraveling in ways analogous to how voting and civil rights for people of color threatened white, mostly male, political power structures in the USA  especially in the South in the sixties. The USA now has a black president and the state of Georgia has a black woman as Supreme Court justice just to cite two important examples.

Presumably, women as presbyters and bishops, would be found on a spectrum conservative, centrist, liberal and liberationist in numbers broadly similar to men but still their presence in the ordained ministries and all offices, would, I believe, make enormous differences.  For one thing the Church by denying women full co-equal rights in all areas of Church ministries and decision making offices offers, at least indirectly, support to governments and others who wish to confine women to subordinate or second-class status in all areas where they should be fairly represented. Dan Maguire says: “The Church’s exclusivism gives

 Paul Surlis 1684 Albermarle Drive, Crofton, MD 21114

wordless blessing to the multiple exclusions that pervade our sexist societies[1]” Moreover, the Church’s own public image and witness in all areas of social justice and civil, social and other rights is undermined.  And this is not a mere cosmetic matter as the term image might suggest. Rather it is a theological issue of significance to the very meaning of the Church which in the Second Vatican Council described itself as the “ universal sacrament of salvation” (Gaudium et Spes ch., 4 #45, Lumen Gentium ch., 7 #48). Any sacrament is deficient if the sacramental sign is deficient and a church claiming to be a universal sacrament of the whole human race is deficient if half its members are  not accorded the possibility of full, co-equal presence in all ministries and offices in that church.

The Jesus Movement

It is generally recognized today that Jesus initiated a reform movement within Judaism rather than setting out to found a new religion.  The Jesus movement was innovative, indeed revolutionary, in its admission of women to membership on an equal basis with men. “ There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus”  These words from Gal 3:28 express the egalitarian ethos of the Jesus movement.

The exclusion of women from priesthood is sometimes justified on the basis of there being no women among the Twelve.  However, this argument is unsustainable.  The Twelve were symbolic of the reconstitution of the twelve tribes of Israel and should not be thought of as bishops ( or episcopoi).  The circle of apostles was wider than the Twelve and included Paul, Barnabas, Andronicus and Junia.  Rom 16:7 describes Andronicus and Junia as “outstanding among the apostles.”  Jesus scandalized his disciples by his dealing with the Samaritan woman who was regarded as ritually unclean.  He revealed his Messiahship to her: “I who speak to you am he” and she went, acting as an apostle to summon the people of her city to meet Jesus (John 4: 7-30). Jesus learned from the Syro-Phenician woman that his mission was not exclusively to Jews but should embrace non Jews also (Mark 7:25-30.) Mary Magdalen was called the “Apostle to the Apostles” by Thomas Aquinas and later by Pope John Paul 11, because of her primary role as witness to the Resurrection.  Professor.Sandra Schneiders writes: “The Twelve are immortalized as the foundation of the church.  As such they have no successors; they are members of a wider group which was never all male”[2]

A most important fact concerning Jesus’ practice is to recognize that the argument that Jesus did not ordain women at the Last Supper is beside the point, he ordained no one then or at any other time.  Jesus did not perpetuate among his followers the institution of cultic priesthood based on temple service.  James P. Mackey writes: “No document in the bible shows any knowledge whatever of there being priests amongst the officers of any of the communities of Jesus- followers”[3]. In 1Peter 2:9 all Christians are called ‘a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people’ as such they did not need special priests to act as mediators.

Schillebeeckx states: “Throughout the development of the ministry in the New Testament one striking fact is that the ministry did not develop from and around the Eucharist or the liturgy, but from the apostolic building up of the community through preaching, admonition and leadership.  No matter what different form it takes, ministry is concerned with the leadership of the community: ministers are pioneers, those who inspire the community and serve as models by which the whole community can identify the gospel.  For the New Testament, there is evidently no special problem as to who should preside at the Eucharist: we are told nothing directly in this connection.”  Schillebeeckx further comments that “the Eucharist is Jesus’ parting gift to the whole community” and that “there are no biblical grounds anywhere for a sacral and mystical foundation to the ministry of the Eucharist[4]. He sees it as evident that leaders in the community, and not just anyone, presided at the Eucharist which in this way was connected to ministry. At this time it appears that ordination was implicit in having a leadership role and did not require special authorization or ceremony[5].

Raymond Brown writes: “There is no compelling evidence for the classic thesis that the members of the Twelve always presided when they were present, and that there was a chain of ordination passing the power of presiding at the Eucharist from the Twelve to missionary apostles to presbyter bishops.  How one got the right to preside and whether it endured beyond a single instance we do not know; but a more plausible substitute for the chain theory is the thesis that sacramental ‘powers’ were part of the mission of the church and that there were diverse ways in which the church (or the communities) designated individuals to exercise these powers” [6]

Women in Ministry

According to the understanding of ordination prevailing in the early centuries women were ordained or appointed to a role and served in all areas of Church ministry. Based on an exhaustive study of engravings Ute Eisen in 1996 wrote: “It is clear that women were active in the expansion and shaping of the Church in the first centuries: they were apostles, prophets, teachers, presbyters, enrolled widows, deacons, bishops and stewards…In short, to the question of whether there were women officeholders in the church’s first centuries our study returns a resounding answer: yes![7]. Elizabeth Schuessler Fiorenza examines the work of women in the early church’s missionary movement with special reference to the house churches where women often were leaders and where Eucharist was celebrated.  Women in mission work were co-equal with men including Paul whom they initially preceded in this activity.[8].

In 1982 Giorgio Otranto “suggested that women had actually functioned as priests in Italy and Brittany in the fifth and early sixth centuries.”  The evidence Otranto relied on was a letter of Pope Gelasius 1, dated 494 in “which the pope condemned allowing women to officiate at the altar.  A similar condemnation was sent to bishops in Gaul to two Breton priests who allowed women to serve at the altar with them. Otranto also adduced epigraphical evidence in support of his claims[9].  As late as the twelfth century rituals exist for the ordination of abbesses and their roles included hearing their nuns’ confessions and absolving them from their sins in a manner similar to that of bishops and priests.[10] And, as is well known, in the Celtic church in Ireland abbesses exercised jurisdiction over their convents and surrounding territories while bishops and priests administered the sacraments.

Two Councils and Priesthood

I wish to look very briefly at the Council of Elvira and the Council of Chalcedon and what they said about priesthood. Elvira, a small provincial synod assembled at the beginning of the 4th century (c. 303 or 309) is sometimes said to have mandated celibacy for the clergy but this is incorrect.  What it advocated was continence; it forbade not marriage but the sexual act within marriage for clergy.  Elvira took place some years before Constantine issued a proclamation of religious tolerance in the Edict of Milan in 313 C.E., enabling the Christian religion to be practiced publicly.  At Elvira we see the formerly persecuted Christian sect emerging as an establishment power.  The bishops acting as a ruling elite with absolute power, devoted much attention to regulating the sexual conduct of the laity as well as of the clergy.  For example, a woman who flogged a slave girl to death in what appears to have been a sadistic rage, is given a lesser penalty than a woman who had an abortion, various types of marriage are forbidden e.g., to Jews or priests of the Roman Empire.  What is going on here is a community struggling to define its identity and its power, and the clerical caste as it has now developed is exercising its control over lay members of the church and especially over women.[11]Moreover, mandating continence for clergy within marriage reflects a cultic view of priesthood and a deep suspicion of sexuality as polluting because involving contact with women.  The teaching called Manichaeism arrived in the Roman Empire shortly before the Council of Elvira.  Manichaeism regarded women and sexuality ambiguously as creations of an evil deity and advocated sexual renunciation at least for its elect and appears to have influenced Elvira.  In summary we may say there was widespread sexual anxiety and confusion permeating society before and after Elvira. E. R. Dodds writes that “contempt for the human condition and hatred of the body was a disease endemic in the entire culture of the period…I incline to see the whole development less as an infection from an extraneous source than as an endogenous neurosis, an index of intense and widespread guilt feelings” [12]. In  widespread dualistic systems woman and the body were regarded as suspect if not downright evil, hence the continence demanded of Christian priests, and  the punitive, controlling attitudes directed at women during this time. Laeuchli argues that the “faithful were in such crisis that they welcomed clerical control.”[13]

The undercurrents of sexual malaise briefly described here have had long lasting, negative influences on views on sexuality, marriage and women in the Catholic Church and in cultural and social domains influenced by religion.

The Council of Chalcedon in 451 condemned as invalid absolute ordination that is presentation of candidates not recommended by or committed to a community.  Yet today we are on the verge of absolute ordination and the severing of the connection between candidates for ordination to ministry, especially of bishops and priests may be one root cause of problems we have witnessed with sexual abuse when no sense of accountability to communities or victims was felt by abusers and some bishops who concealed what was happening by transferring suspects to new parishes secretly. 

A New Definition of Ordination

The First Lateran Council (1123) mandated celibacy for the clergy in the west, the first ecumenical council to do so. One strategy used to put an end to a thousand year tradition permitting clerical marriage was a radical assault on women who were not only described as evil but who were frequently demonized.  The utterly intemperate language used of women by Peter Damian beggars belief.  He called women “…appetizing flesh of the devil…poison of the minds, death of souls…companions of the very stuff of sin, the cause of our ruin.  You, I say, I exhort you women of the ancient enemy, you bitches, sows, screech-owls, night owls, she-wolves, blood suckers.[14]  Small wonder that power over the Eucharist is at this time confined to men who would be contaminated by sexual contact with such evil creatures as women.

The Third and Fourth Lateran Councils (1179 and 1215 respectively) brought about a decisive shift in the understanding of ordination.  Whereas in the early Christian centuries appointment to a leadership role in the community was the decisive element, now in the second millennium as a result of the Lateran Councils, there is a new emphasis on the spiritual power conferred on the ordained priest to change the bread and wine into the body and blood of the risen Christ and the conferring of this power takes priority over appointment to a community. Schillebeeckx sees this as a personalizing and privatizing of ordination and a move away from the more communal earlier understanding of ministry.  The Fourth Lateran Council “declared the Eucharist can be celebrated only ‘by a priest who has been validly and legitimately ordained”[15] This is not a complete break with earlier tradition but it does represent a narrower, more juridical focus and the change was brought about for mainly social and legal reasons not for theological ones.  This entails, he argues, that now in our time the “earlier ecclesial view of the ministry should have priority over the conception which has been regarded as official since then.” [16]  However, the view of the Fourth Lateran Council has prevailed in the church since then and it is the one still operating in official magisterial documents and in the view of many believers. This view of priesthood stresses the change in being, or ontological change, that accompanies ordination.  Once this view became established theologians and lawyers quickly argued that women can not change bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ and hence they cannot be ordained.  Moreover, the argument continued, according to this understanding of ordination, women have never been ordained, and for all practical purposes the history of women’s ministerial roles in the early centuries and in the first millennium was deleted from historical memory, and treated as if it never existed. This is one other example of women, who were major actors in historical processes, being excluded from historiography or the written record.  Of course, the writers of the historical record were usually men. 

Today it continues to be assumed that women can never be ordained to be priests or bishops in the Catholic Church and that one decisive argument in favor of this position is as we saw, that women were never ordained in the past and were not present at the Last Supper when the Twelve Apostles were ordained.  This was the principal, though not the only, reason leading Pope John Paul 11, following Paul V1, to declare that the issue of the impossibility of ordaining women was definitively established and should no longer be discussed publicly by Catholics ( Apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, 1994).  The then head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Ratzinger, now Benedict XV1, declared this position infallible but he was quickly reminded by theologians that the conditions laid down in Church teaching for an infallible declaration had not been fulfilled and the claim of infallibility has been dropped . 

Saying Yes to the Ordination of Women

At one level then the arguments for the ordination of women represent a return to the earliest tradition and the understanding of ordination as the whole process by which the community selects a candidate for service to the community and in which the charism for presiding at the Eucharist is granted by the Holy Spirit to the community which confers it on the person being ordained. The gifts of the Holy Spirit are given to the holy People of God, the church.  They are not given to a male hierarchy to be dispensed by them exclusively to other males chosen according to now obsolete criteria. In terms of appointing a person to a position of service to the community or a leadership role there is no inherent obstacle to the ordination of women and as we hear frequently today women already serve in a variety of ministerial and leadership roles in parish communities.

As far as ordination understood as power to change bread and wine into the body and blood of the Risen Christ is concerned the most substantive argument against women being able to effect this change, is that sacramental theology requires a “natural likeness” between the signum or sign and res that which the sign represents, and the nature of priesthood.  Men, as men, are said to posses this likeness to Christ who was a man but women do not.  However it is mistaken to locate this likeness exclusively in the male sex dimension.  There is the more basic fact of common humanity and also, surely, what Jesus asks of followers including priests, should be located in love and service not in gender.  The gospel of John has no institution of the Eucharist in its Last Supper account.  Instead John presents Jesus washing the feet of the disciples, this was a role traditionally reserved for slaves and women but Jesus adopts it to signify the importance he attached to service for all his disciples (John  13:3ff).

Several theologians today rightly stress that baptism is foundational for all ministry that of the people of God in general and that of clergy also. Women have always been admitted to baptism; today as in the first millennium, they should also be admitted to ordained ministry on a co-equal basis.

Much of what women demand is summed up in the statement ‘women’s rights are human rights.’  And while no one has a right to priesthood, women who experience a call to priesthood and service have a right to have their vocations treated in ways co-equal to those of men.  I am well aware that many women are skeptical of joining priesthood in the church as it is organized and administered at present with its top down, hierarchical structures under an absolute monarchy that arrogates all power executive, legislative and judicial to itself.  But that is a separate, if related, set of issues.  My concern is to argue that there are no compelling reasons why women should not be deacons, priest, bishops and pope in a community symbolizing and working for the reign of God which Jesus announced and inaugurated in his person and ministry, and in his death and resurrection.

Paul Surlis, May 1, 2009,
1684 Albermarle Drive, Crofton, MD 21114

Paul Surlis was ordained at Maynooth in 1961.  From 1975 until 2000 he taught moral theology and Catholic Social Teaching at St. John’s University, New York.  He retired in 2000 and moved to Crofton MD where he is involved in research and writing.



[1] The Exclusion of Women from Orders: A Moral Evaluation” in The Moral Revolution: A Christian Humanist Vision, (Harper and Row, San Francisco, 1986), 139.

[2] “Did Jesus Exclude Women from Priesthood?” in Women Priests: A Catholic Commentary on the Vatican Declaration, ed. Leonard Swidler and Arlene Swidler (New York: Paulist, 1977), 230

[3]   Jesus of Nazareth: The Life, the Faith and the Future of the Prophet, ( The Columba Press: Dublin, 2008), 271

[4] ”  Edward Schillebeeckx, Ministry: Leadership in the Community of Jesus Christy, ( Crossroad: New York,1981), 30

 Paul Surlis, 1684 Albermarle Drive, Crofton, MD 21114Evolution,  September 11, 2005 24 th Sunday in Ordinary Time.

 Today I want to say a few words on evolution, the bible and our faith.  I want to address two main questions: Must the book of Genesis with its account of creation in six days be taken literally and does that mean we cannot accept evolution?  Secondly, is it correct to describe the hurricane Katrina as an act of God or a punishment sent by God as many people are doing?

The book of Genesis is the first book in the bible but it was by no means the first book written.  In fact it is later than several other books.  The word genesis means origins and the book of that title is a religious interpretation of the origins of the universe, of the heavens and of human beings, of evil and suffering and it offers a story in which these profound questions are explored through symbols and myth.   The questions of origins of life, of persons and of the universe are shrouded in the mists of space and time and they are best explored from a religious point of view through myth and symbols which indicate that we are in the presence of mystery.  Symbols and myth contain truth but the ultimate truth is profound and beyond our reach in terms of fully understanding it and many approaches are needed to give us insights.

Someone defined a myth as “a story about the way things never were, but always are.”  So, is a myth true?  Literally true, no.  Really true, yes.

The intent of the author of the creation story is to present God as creator of all things and to present the Sabbath as a day of rest, a day to be kept holy; perhaps because, among other things, it commemorated the liberation of the Hebrews from Egypt a foundational religious event in Israel’s history.  And the lesson is: If God rested after the work of creation we, too, should make the Sabbath holy. Workers, and particularly slaves and animals, need a day of rest.  In presenting the creation story the author took for granted the prevailing theory of the universe and used it as a framework but he was not teaching that framework. The people at that time thought the heavens or firmament were like a basin that was inverted.  The waters of chaos were above the basin or firmament.  The sun, moon and stars hung on the underside of the firmament and the earth was a flat disc floating on water. 

When we accept that the author was teaching a religious understanding of life and origins and not teaching science then we see that we are not bound to an acceptance of a literal understanding of the creation account. 

After thousands of years science has in fact determined that life as we know it developed through the process we call evolution.

When religion is true to its own sources and method and science is true to its method of investigation, proposal of theories and openness to new data, there can be no contradiction between science and religion.  Each proposes truth according to its own method and in its own sphere of competence, and religious truth and scientific truth do not contradict each other.

The bible is not one book, it is a library of books and it contains many kinds or genres of writing from history to poetry to short stories to parables and sometimes myth. The bible is word of God expressed in human language. It is word of God in human words and to understand the message we have to use tools of critical interpretation.

 Pope John Paul 11 said that evolution is no longer a mere hypothesis and acceptance of evolution is compatible with Catholic faith.  We are grateful for that statement as it saves us from some of the interminable bickering going on today about creationism or intelligent design much of which is based on a false, literal interpretation of Genesis.

The universe appears to be about 14 billion years old and life evolved from the innate fertility of the universe and from the interplay of chance and necessity.  Elements in our bodies including carbon and mineral traces appear to have come to earth from exploding stars in the cosmos, perhaps meteors brought them here and they facilitated the development of life and of human life. We are made of stardust quite literally.  The universe is dynamic and contains within it the creativity of God but this does not entail that God micromanages the processes as intelligent design claims.  St. Augustine had a theory similar to this 1500 years ago.  God in freedom continuously creates a universe that reflects God’s freedom in the evolutionary process towards greater complexification.

St. Thomas Aquinas laid the groundwork for accepting contingency or chance as within God’s creative power.  The current head of the Vatican observatory said: “Chance is the way we scientists see the universe…It is not chancy to God, it’s chancy to us.”

Events like Katrina, volcanoes, tsunamis, storms, tidal waves are produced by the evolutionary process but not directly by God. Sometimes destructiveness comes from failed human planning or failure to overcome barriers like poverty and race which we have ample resources to remedy. It is never correct to refer to such catastrophies as an act of God or a punishment sent by God.  Such expressions convey the impression of a callous, punishing God that drives some people from religion.

God permits the world to be what it will be in its continuous evolution.  God allows and loves but does not micromanage.  Far from our faith being threatened by evolution we can say it is enriched by it.  We can joyfully embrace the genuine findings of modern science and prayerfully study how they enhance and enlarge our very limited understanding of God. Religion in turn answers questions of purpose and meaning the why questions that are outside the province of science that answers the how questions.


Paul Surlis, Seton parish, September 11, 2005




[5] Schillebeeckx, Op. cit., 30

[6]  Raymond Brown, Priest and Bishop( Paramus, N.J.:Paulist Press, 1970), 41.

[7] Women Officeholders, 224, cited by Gary Macy in: The Hidden History of Women’s Ordination: Female Clergy in the Medieval West, ( Oxford University Press, 2008) 18.

[8] In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins ( New York : Crossroad, 1983), 160-199.

[9] Macy, Op. cit.,  14-15.

[10]Ibid., 82-83, passim)

Paul Surlis, 1684 Albermarle Drive, Crofton, MD 21114

[11]  Sam Laeuchli : Power and Sexuality: The Emergence of Canon Law at the Synod of Elvira, (Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 1972), passim.


[12] Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety Cambridge, 1965), 35-37)

[13] Op cit., 107

[14] PL 145, 410, cited by Anne Llewellyn Barstow: Married Priests and the Reforming Papacy: the Eleventh-Century Debates  ( The Edwin Mellen Press: New York, Toronto, 1982), 60-61

[15] Ministry, 54. 

Paul Surlis, 1684 Albermarle Drive, Crofton, MD 21114

[16] Ibid.

Paul Surlis, 1684 Albermarle Drive, Crofton, MD 21114

social creed for the 21st century

July 9, 2009

A Social Creed for the 21st Century

Catholics, concerned with social justice and with creating awareness of the relationship between religion, liturgy and peace and justice activism, owe a debt of gratitude to Methodists and other Christian Churches who have sponsored what is referred to as a Social Creed since the first one was produced in 1908. The Social Creed was a product of the Social Gospel movement among Protestant Churches, which was particularly strong in the first two decades of the twentieth century. 

Walter Rauschenbusch, a Baptist minister of German descent, was a powerful force in the Social Gospel movement. He was trained in economics and theology at the University of Berlin.  When he ministered in an area of Manhattan known as Hells Kitchen, Rauschenbusch was appalled at the brutal working conditions imposed on factory workers who were mainly German and Irish. He witnessed dangerous work places, overcrowded tenements, unsanitary conditions, unemployment, poverty, and abuse of alcohol. He denounced “godless capitalism” in terms not unlike those used by Pope John Paul 11 in his condemnations of “raw capitalism” almost a century later. Rauschenbusch attacked individualistic religion and argued that anyone “who uncouples the religious and social life has not understood Jesus.” Martin Luther King Jr., declared that he was deeply influenced by Rauschenbusch’s Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907).

The thrust of the Social Gospel movement, in which other Protestant denominations and ministers were involved, was to work for all round social improvement which they tended to identify with the Kingdom of God on earth and they all argued, as John Wesley had done, for an inseparable relationship between individual and social holiness. Given the social convictions and concerns with which Wesley had imbued Methodism, it is no surprise that Methodists took a leadership role in the Social Gospel movement.  In 1908 The Methodist Federation for Social Service (formed in 1907) convened a General Conference on the social crisis and the report that resulted “The Church and Social Problems” contained an eleven point summary that soon became known as the Social Creed.

The summary began “The Methodist Episcopal church stands- For equal rights and complete justice for all men in all stations of life.”  It called for the abolition of child labor and the sweating system” (sweat shops). Demands were made for “a release from employment one day in seven” and for a “living wage in every industry.”

The Federal Council of Churches representing 33 denominations soon adopted a slightly enlarged version that became known as “The Social Creed of the Churches.”

During the one hundred years of its existence the Social Creed has been expanded, and new issues have been added as they emerged. In 1939 respect for conscientious objection to war was included and later, denunciations of discrimination based on class, race or gender were included.  This makes the Creed a living document with continuing social relevance as times and conditions evolve

A version for the 21st century.

In celebration of 100 years of the United Methodist Social Creed the General Conference published a new version on May 2, 2008.

This new version is arranged for use at worship services with music provided for a sung version.  Here is the text:

God in the Spirit revealed in Jesus Christ

calls us by grace

To be renewed in the image of our creator,

That we may be one

In divine love for the world

Response:And so shall we.


Today is the day

God cares for the integrity of creation,

wills the healing and wholeness of all life,

weeps at the plunder of earth’s goodness.

And so shall we.


Today is the day God embraces all hues of humanity,

delights in diversity and difference,

favors solidarity transforming strangers into friends.

And so shall we.


Today is the day

God cries with the masses of starving people,

despises growing disparity between rich and poor,

demands justice for workers in the marketplace.

And so shall we.


Today is the day

God deplores the violence in our homes and streets,

rebukes the world’s warring madness,

 humbles the powerful and lifts up the lowly.

And so shall we.


Today is the day

God calls for nations and peoples to live in peace,

celebrates where justice and mercy embrace,

exults when the wolf grazes with the lamb.

And so shall we.


Today is the day

God brings good news to the poor,

proclaims release to the captives,

gives sight to the blind, and sets the oppressed free.

And so shall we.

(    Text available at:

I have used this creed at Mass on a few occasions and many people found it refreshing and inspiring.  Unlike the Apostles’ and the Nicene Creeds which are affirmations of faith, this Creed might be described as a praxiscreed that is oriented to social action and social holiness.  A social creed, biblically and theologically inspired, is entirely appropriate in a communal meal recalling the death and resurrection of Jesus, who was politically challenging because of his emphasis on inclusive community and justice for children, women, outcasts and all the oppressed.  Participants in the Eucharist are transformed and are meant to carry a transforming message into their communities and beyond.

National Council of Churches

The National Council of Churches, successor since 1950 to the Federal Council of Churches, has also issued a new social creed describing it as “a message of hope for a fearful time.”  In an era of globalization they offer a “vision of a society that shares more and consumes less, seeks compassion over suspicion and equality over domination, and finds security in joined hands rather than massed arms.”

The NCC Creed is also titled “A Social Creed for the 21st Century” and it resembles the Methodist Creed in some respects but it also has a pronounced globalization dimension and states the social issues in a clear, more blunt fashion. Here is the text:

In faith, responding to our Creator, we celebrate the full humanity of each woman, man, and child, all created in the divine image as individuals of infinite worth, by working for:

  • Full civil, political and economic rights for women and men of all races.
  • Abolition of forced labor, human trafficking, and all the exploitation of children.
  • Employment for all, at a family-sustaining living-wage, with equal pay for comparable work.
  • The rights of workers to organize, and to share in workplace decisions and productivity growth.
  • Protection from dangerous working conditions, with time and benefits to enable full family life.
  • A system of criminal rehabilitation, based on restorative justice and an end to the death penalty.

In the love incarnate in Jesus, despite the world’s sufferings and evils, we honor the deep connections within our human family and seek to awaken a new spirit of community, by working for:

  • Abatement of hunger and poverty, and enactment of policies benefiting the most vulnerable.
  • High quality public education for all and universal, affordable and accessible healthcare.
  • An effective program of social security during sickness, disability and old age.
  • Tax and budget policies that reduce disparities between rich and poor, strengthen democracy, and provide greater opportunity for everyone within the common good.
  • Just immigration policies that protect family unity, safeguard workers rights, require employer accountability, and foster international cooperation.
  • Sustainable communities marked by affordable housing, access to good jobs, and public safety.
  • Public service as a high vocation, with real limits on the power of private interests in politics.

In hope sustained by the Holy Spirit, we pledge to be peacemakers in the world and stewards of God’s good creation, by working for:

  • Adoption of simpler lifestyles for those who have enough:  grace over greed in economic life.
  • Access for all to clean air and water and healthy food, through wise care of land and technology.
  • Sustainable use of earth’s resources, promoting alternative energy sources and public transportation with binding covenants to reduce global warming and protect populations most affected.
  • Equitable global trade and aid that protects local economies, cultures and livelihoods.

(Text available at:

(Cited with permission.)


Readers will notice that neither social creed mentions the sexual issues: abortion, homosexuality, birth control, remarriage after divorce without an annulment (a predominantly Catholic concern), or stem cell research, and wisely so.  These issues are highly divisive both within and between religious communities. They often function as wedge issues and make major social issues invisible.  In the Catholic Church, constant reiteration of the sexual agenda, particularly harsh and absolute condemnations of direct abortion and any use of the most primitive stem cells for medical research, convinces many that these are the only issues Catholics care about, and the broad range of social justice issues, addressed over a period of one hundred years, goes ignored or is even unknown.  And this, in turn, leads Catholics in some countries to turn elections into referendums on the single issue of abortion and often one sees the election of candidates who ignore global climate disruption, degradation of the environment,  who are defenders of preventive war, even torture, and who promote policies favorable to the rich and powerful while ignoring burning issues like poverty, lack of health care, lack of affordable housing, and the payment of wages that are far from living wage standards. And because of calling themselves ‘right to life’ these candidates win approval from those for whom abortion is the issue while promoting policies and legislation that increase the immiseration of women and actually increase the incidence  of abortions often resorted to in situations of desperation.

At present around 30% of U.S. legislators in both houses are Catholic, followed by Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians and Jews with a few Muslims and Buddhists. If legislators, of whatever religion, were regularly exposed to the recitation of a social creed in worship services, then without violating in any way the separation of Church and State, legislators would feel impelled to favor policies serving the common good with a preferential option for the poor.  Of course, this would have to be attempted against the wishes of profit-oriented interests, especially corporations and their stock holders, whose voting patterns are often determined by the desire for ever-increasing profit, the very central, iron law of capitalism. Recitation of a social creed on a regular basis while at worship would at least raise consciousness on social concerns and would challenge the authenticity of the privatized religious practice and orientation that are all too common even among devout believers.


A Social Creed for Catholics and World Religions?

If relationships between the Churches had been warm rather than hostile in the first 50 years of the 20th century perhaps Catholics, too, would have developed their own social creed.  If they had done so after Rerum Novarum, and if they had revised and extended it after each subsequent significant social document from the papacy, council, synod or bishops’ conference, Catholic Social Teaching would be better known today and no longer perhaps described as “our best kept secret.”

At least now, Catholics should give serious thought to adopting one of the existing social creeds from our Protestant friends (with permission and acknowledgement), or a common creed suitable for worship could be created in joint exercises between major religious bodies not exclusively Christian churches.  Jews and Christians share the legacy of First Testament Scriptures, especially the prophetic books, which are social in ways that are still profoundly relevant. It has been observed that concern for justice is treated as the religious equivalent of a sacrament in Islam.

All the major world religions contain social messages that have much in common.  Religious social creeds would inspire not only better relations between adherents, but they would inspire billions of believers to address the planetary issue of global warming and degradation of the environment, and also global issues like world hunger, poverty, disease, especially HIV-AIDS and malaria.  Religious creeds, addressing peace making through working for justice, would provide powerful witness against war, torture and violence in all its forms, especially violence against women and children.  Incorporating social creeds into worship services and the social agendas of all religions, would supplement the great work being done by the World Council of Churches and would counter the false impression that religion is a force making for violence and division, and the view some, even some believers, hold that religions are in competition with each other rather than divergent ways of serving the Divine Mystery by promoting the well being of persons especially the poor, vulnerable and oppressed of the world. The glory of the Divine Mystery is human persons fully alive in communities transformed and at peace.

I wish to thank the United Methodist General Board of Church & Society for permission to cite the new Creed for the 21st Century.

Fr Paul Surlis

1684 Albemarle Drive

Crofton, MD 21114.

Paul Surlis taught Catholic Social Teaching and theologies of liberation at St. John’s University, New York (1975-2000). He is now retired.