"But when Christ came as high priest...He entered once for all into the sanctuary, not with the blood of goats and calves but with His own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls and the sprinkling of a heifer's ashes can sanctify those who are defiled so that their flesh is cleansed, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal spirit offered Himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from dead works to worship the living God."
-Hebrews 9:11-14


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Thursday, November 24, 2011

On Women Priests: Part One

Hello, world. My name is Aloysius, and this is the first blog post I have ever made in my life. I hope to become better at this sort of thing as time passes, so bear with me if my first few attempts seem ungainly. This will be a rather long inaugural post, but I think the issue calls for some detailed examination. Thus, this will come in small increments (I went rather crazy with this one, so there will be two or three parts to it), and I hope you have the patience to slog through my commentary. Input of any kind, whether it be praise or constructive criticism, would be highly appreciated; I’m brand new to this whole blogging game, and any advice on how to improve would be immensely helpful from the gurus who have been doing it for a while.

I thought that for my first post, I would comment about something that never fails to get me worked up: the ever-present ‘question’ of women priests in the Catholic Church. I was reminded (again) of this tiresome issue when I came across an article about this subject in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, written by the inestimably objective and unopinionated Michael O’Malley. And just to make things clear here, that was sarcasm just now; I have a habit for sarcasm which is a little on the heavy side, so I’m doing my best to quell that instinct. Whether I succeed or not is another question. As a side note, all boldings are mine, and are meant to emphasize a point that I am addressing in the piece.

The article is dated Saturday, November 12th, although I first heard about it on Monday the 14th while at breakfast with my father and some friends (Elizabeth’s parents, actually) after morning Mass; Dad always gets the paper when we go out. It’s titled “Woman priest, a Beachwood native, sees her ordination as valid; Roman Catholic Church does not.”

Disregarding the title, which had alarm bells ringing in my head already, I’ll get to the dissection of the article. Here’s the link, by the way: http://blog.cleveland.com/metro/2011/11/woman_priest_sees_her_ordinati.html

It starts:

Women priests are taboo in the eyes of the Roman Catholic Church, and those who participate in ordinations of women automatically excommunicate themselves from the church, according to laws of the Holy See.
But the Rev. Barbara Zeman, a Beachwood native, considers herself both a priest and a devout member of the Catholic faith.
Zeman, who now lives in Chicago, will be in Northeast Ohio this week to say a Mass. She was ordained in 2008 within a movement that believes God calls women as well as men to the sacrament of Holy Orders. She is one of an estimated 125 women in the United States who wear priest vestments and administer the sacraments.

Okay, not too bad. There’s the obligatory bit that emphasizes the views of the hierarchy of the Church as opposed to the views of the laity, a common enough tactic with regard to this topic. There's also the irksome reduction of the Church's position on women priests to a "taboo," implying that it really comes down to social custom or emotional aversion rather than theology, ontology and Biblical precedent. But then it really starts getting sad:

"As we see it, our ordinations are valid," said Zeman, who was raised Catholic. "We are Roman Catholics and we are following our consciences. We are disobeying an unjust law that says only men can be ordained."
Zeman, 63, will be here Thursday to lead a discussion on women's ordination and say the Mass. The event, sponsored by the Community of St. Malachi, a local nonprofit Catholic group focused on social justice issues, will be at 7 p.m. at the West Shore Unitarian Universalist Church in Rocky River.

Oh, where to begin? First of all, there is the telling “As we see it” bit – a statement of personal belief and opinion. It gets worse when she says that “we are Roman Catholics and we are following our consciences.” If it weren’t for the appellation of Roman Catholic included in that sentence, I would have thought we were talking about a Protestant here – they do, after all, lay so much emphasis on personal interpretation. But I digress. There seems to be an inherent misconception about the role of conscience in the Catholic faith. Zeman here seems to believe that conscience is paramount; it trumps all other considerations, especially those onerous laws and rules imposed upon Catholics by the Church hierarchy. I’ll get around to addressing the hierarchy bit in a moment and focus for now on the role of conscience.
To be sure, following one’s conscience is immensely important in living a life of faith. Conscience has been called the inner voice of God within us, informing us on right and wrong. But I think some clarification is in order, just to be sure. St. Thomas Aquinas, the Doctor Angelicus of the Church and my personal hero, writes in his Disputed Question on Truth, Question Seventeen, “On Conscience”:

Conscience is nothing else than the application of science to some special act…

Deciphering the more archaically worded bits of the passages may be puzzling at first, but the message is clear. Thomas here uses the term science to refer to “the knowledge of things from their causes,” and not the more popular conception of the term that refers to the branch of knowledge known as naturalism. In a more modern context, the Catechism of the Catholic Church defines conscience as “a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed” (1778).

Okay, so we’ve established what conscience is. Aquinas writes further that the conscience is absolutely binding: “…it is clear that conscience is said to bind in virtue of the divine precept,” i.e. the precept that necessitates that we avoid evil and do good. Furthermore, the CCC states that “[Man must not] be prevented from acting according to his conscience, especially in religious matters” (1782). So it would seem that Zeman actually has a case here. But Aquinas further goes on to address the questions Can conscience err? and Can an erroneous conscience bind? With regard to the first question, Aquinas puts forth unambiguously that it may indeed err:

Conscience is nothing else than the application of science to some special act, in which application error can arise in two ways: in one way, because that which is applied contains an error in itself, in another way in this that it is not correctly applied. Just as in syllogizing fault comes about in two ways, either because one uses falsehoods, or because one does not reason correctly.

So in other words, a conscience may err either in (a) the premises one uses to come to a particular moral decision or (b) a simple failure to reason properly.

Zeman and her compatriots certainly qualify for the first example, and the key – and flawed – premise here is her claim that the doctrine of male-only ordination is an “unjust law.” She perceives it to be an injustice, and so her conscience compels her to reject it. I’ll address this shortly, but first, a little more from the CCC regarding conscience and error:

1790 A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself. Yet it can happen that moral conscience remains in ignorance and makes erroneous judgments about acts to be performed or already committed.
1791 This ignorance can often be imputed to personal responsibility. This is the case when a man "takes little trouble to find out what is true and good, or when conscience is by degrees almost blinded through the habit of committing sin." In such cases, the person is culpable for the evil he commits.
1792 Ignorance of Christ and his Gospel, bad example given by others, enslavement to one's passions, assertion of a mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience, rejection of the Church's authority and her teaching, lack of conversion and of charity: these can be at the source of errors of judgment in moral conduct.

The issue of whether an erroneous conscience binds is fundamental to this issue. Thomas, in his exhaustive treatment of the matter, writes:

…we are said to be bound by precepts because we incur sin when we do not observe them. Therefore conscience is not said to oblige us to do something because to follow it is good but because not to follow it entails sin.

To go against your conscience is to necessarily go against what you see to be the will or precept of God. Thus, an erroneous conscience binds because to go against it, even though it is erroneous, would be per se going intentionally against what is seen to be the law of God, which characterizes a mortal sin of the highest order. In this sense, then, Zeman is right, in that to follow her conscience is required absolutely of her. The problem that must be addressed is the error in her conscience. I’ll address that issue in the next part of this series.

I hope you like how this is coming along. Any comments, advice, or thoughts that you folks have are greatly appreciated.


  1. Great, very mellifluous and to the point!! I concur completely and am looking forward to more..

  2. Am to have the honor of the first comment on this blog? How marvelous! Many thanks, sir, for kindly addressing anew the issue of conscience. I was aware of what the Catechism said, but St. Thomas' thoughts were an excellent addition. Overall - I do not think it was a bad start. It was very readable. I will be interested to see where this blog goes. Perhaps a post or two on the new translation? God bless you for your efforts to sanctify the net with His Truth. Say a prayer for me, will you? I am in the process of discerning a priestly vocation. Tricky business. Take care!


  3. Thanks for starting a blog to defend our beloved faith, I enjoyed your 1st post. I don't have anything critical to add and I look forward to part 2. Peace in Christ!

  4. Very nice. Thank you for the new blog. I found your link in the comments section of Jimmy Akin's blog.

  5. Thanks for the comments and compliments, folks!

    Daniel: Yes, I am very interested in the issue of conscience, and St. Thomas' discourse on it was a blast to read, not to mention very instructional. If you want to read it, you can find it in the Penguin Classics Selected Writings of Thomas Aquinas - a fantastic book all around; or if you don't feel like buying a book, you can find it here: http://dhspriory.org/thomas/QDdeVer17.htm
    I don't know how close the translation is to my version, but it's the same text at heart. As for a post about the new translation, I certainly plan to - the same Mr. O'Malley who wrote the article I'm commenting on here also wrote an equally despicable article about the new translation, which has me a bit riled up as well. Sometime in the next week or so, I might post something on it - probably not as comprehensive as this post, though.

    Anonymous (11/28/11 8:41 AM):
    Where in this comments section did you find the link? I didn't know it was anywhere near Mr. Akin's blog.


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