|"Women....." -St John Chrysostom|
So writes Saint John Chrysostom in chapter nine of his third book on the priesthood. The Golden Mouth's books on the priesthood focused a Lenten book reading between myself, another Catholic, and some Orthodox friends with varying views towards Latin Catholicism. Saint John wrote his dialogues, if they can even be called that, on the priesthood after he and his friend, Basil, were elected bishops of their respective cities and John deceived Basil into receiving while fleeing the same fate. After some face-saving protestations, the Saint lays down the timorous duties of a "priest," by which he really means a bishop.
Priest is a word which has numerous meanings in ancient times. The one-time Patriarch of Antioch and Constantinople meant it as a bishop, which the older Pontificale Romanum preserves in calling the episcopacy the "second order of priesthood." In the time of Saint Cyprian of Carthage some meant it merely to denote those who sat on the bishop's council for the administration of the local church, whether that person was ordained or not (cf. Allen Brent's introduction to the S. Vladimir Press books). And, of course, it meant men who were ordained to offer the Eucharistic sacrifice in places where the bishop could not be present, which it almost universally meant by the time of Nicaea and which it still means today.
It was in giving this context to the term "priest" that I adduced the above quote and presumed aloud that we were all in perfect agreement on its meaning. One Orthodox conversant asked how broadly I would like to apply the idea that women cannot enter the priesthood. In turn yours truly suggested that if women cannot inherently enter one stage of Holy Orders then how could they logically enter any. Then the real tumult turned.
"I guess it goes back to the energies versus essence debate."
"No," I replied. "No, it doesn't really."
"I guess if you're going to call them 'Sacraments' instead of 'Mysteries' then you really need to reduce them to something simple that you can count."
"How would you have us understand the effects of Ordination? Is the Church's blessing and laying of hands in any ministry to be understand as a kind of Holy Order?"
"Yes! That is exactly what it is!"
"What of deaconesses?"
"Yes, they're ordained, just like an abbot or abbess, or a male deacon. Their roles are just different."
"But you don't think a woman could become a priest? There have been deaconesses, but the extent of their roles outside of Baptism is highly debated."
"They can be Sacramental deaconesses, but they cannot be bishops. We don't know yet if they cannot be priests. Orthodoxy must not be afraid of this question."
Initially this remark reminded me of Church World Mission by Alexander Schmemann, wherein the priest condones the idea that any encounter with God could be a Sacrament, a holy thing wherein God touches someone by His grace. The problem comes in assuming this must always be the case.
Deaconesses are a tricky matter. They certainly existed in most of Christendom up to and including the fourth century, but they never seem to have been very common in the city of Rome. In northern Italy and places under Byzantine influence they assisted in the full-immersion Baptism of female catechumens; at the Hagia Sophia they were permitted to take Communion at the altar; then again so was the Emperor, who was also allowed to perform certain incensations. In Armenia the order has died and been revived in several stages throughout history, including quite recently; the Armenian Apostolic Church permits them to read the Gospel at Mass, but I do not know if this has always been the case. Wikipedia declares them fully Sacramental and our Orthodox interlocutor declares anything hierarchically blessed a Sacrament, so why can we Latins not simply accept that women once upon a time had a separate-but-equal place in Holy Orders? Should they again?
Then again perhaps a blessing for work and the bestowal of a place doing something for the Apostles' successors is not always the same thing, even if it often is. Separate-but-equal ministries sound fine until you realize that the Church has the power to make or unmake these offices. The priesthood in the modern sense is an extension of the priesthood Christ gave the Apostles to be used only when the Apostles' successors are not presents; this came about some time after the Apostles invented the diaconate before our eyes in Acts. In the lifetime of some readers Paul VI eliminated three traditional Orders in the Latin Church: porter, exorcist, and subdeacon. If the power to create Orders for the Apostles' ministry rests with the Church then the Church has the power to confer them as it sees fit. Women cannot be divinely barred from one step of a created Order while admissible to another. If the Church can give women a fully Sacramental (or "Mysterious", if our book club friend is to be believed) place, why can she not have a higher rung at a later point?
This cannot be chalked up to Church discipline or tradition. There is no inherent reason why a married man with twenty children cannot be a bishop. It is a matter of strongly corroborated tradition and experience that he ought not be, but if he receives the laying of hands then he will become a bishop according to all Churches, East and West. No Apostolic Church, however, believes laying hands on a lady is anything other than an invitation to a bar fight or accusations of "micro aggression." If Providence has decided she cannot take the fullness of the Apostolic role there is no reason to think she could only have a particular part of it, the unique tradition of the Armenians not withstanding.
Then again cosmetic surgical procedures and adoption can aid some in embracing delusions of maternity, but it will not make men into mothers.