(LifeSiteNews) — Dr. Peter Kwasniewski’s Ministers of Christ: Recovering the Roles of Clergy and Laity in an Age of Confusion (Crisis Publications, 2021) equips the reader with excellent arguments against two serious problems in the Catholic Church today: the blurring of the distinction between the clergy and the laity and a false belief in the interchangeability of men and women.
A recent crisis moment that epitomizes both these problems was the decision of Pope Francis to confer the so-called “ministries” of lector and acolyte—which are in fact two very ancient minor orders—upon women. Against perennial tradition, Roman Catholic (although not Eastern Catholic) women have been front-and-all-but-center in church sanctuaries since the Swinging Sixties, but this formal change to canon law is, Kwasniewski asserts, “a tectonic shift both in theology and in praxis.”
“Francis is saying that the Catholic Church, for the first time ever, should officially institute women as liturgical ministers—not as substitutes for ministers, but as ministers simply speaking,” the scholar writes. And Francis has done so “against the backdrop of the pervasive feminism that has equated the worth of women with their taking-on of roles traditionally reserved to men.”
There is also, Kwasniewski and his fellow authors, Leila Marie Lawler and Bishop Athanasius Schneider, make clear, a backdrop of the pervasive clericalism that suggests that laypeople who take on liturgical and pastoral roles once reserved to the clergy are thereby an “elite.”
Lawler points out that this clericalization of the laity (or its supposed “elites”) is particularly harmful for women, whose greatest contribution to the Church—motherhood, physical or spiritual—has been cast into the shade. It certainly hasn’t been great for the Church as a whole. In her Foreword, Lawler contrasts the pre-conciliar fertility of the Church—from which flourished a vast Catholic culture spreading well beyond the church doors—to the sterility of the “new ecclesiology” of today.
Noting that conservatives sighed with relief that Pope Francis’ Querida Amazonia didn’t call for women’s ordination (guilty as charged), Lawler points out the bad news. The post-synodal exhortation passes over the crucial roles of women as wives and mothers in silence, instead describing us as potential providers of “ecclesiastical services.” This, she feels, is replacing the “traditional framework of the three societies—Church, State, and Family” with one that is “not fruitful.”
Lawler also introduces the motif of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Queen of the Apostles—who is not Herself a priest. Kwasniewski takes special pains to emphasize the shared femininity of the Blessed Mother and all women, arguing (for example) that the “Virgin’s divine maternity elevates the female sex to its greatest dignity and gives it a privileged ontological symbolism that the male sex cannot share.” At the same time, of course, he argues that men have a “special link” to Christ that makes them capable of exemplifying him through the major (priest, deacon, sub-deacon) and minor (acolyte, lector, porter, exorcist) orders.
Kwasniewski makes his strongest and most direct arguments for why women cannot be priests in his essay “Incarnate Realism and the Catholic Priesthood.” In short, priests are only priests in that they participate in the priesthood of Christ, the High Priest, who chose to live as a male human being. And therefore, as “Christ is Priest in the totality of His incarnate reality, it follows that the one to be ordained must be male, since otherwise the ontological basis of conformity to the High Priest would be lacking an element intrinsic to the constitution of human nature,” Kwasniewski writes. “In short, the ministerial priest would not reflect and could not act in the real, concrete Person of Christ.”
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I think this is very neatly argued, and if my question of “Why can’t women be priests?” had been answered this clearly when I was ten years old, I would have been spared many tears and much trouble.
There are a number of other essays on the theme of “Why can’t women be…?” “Why can’t women be altar servers?” is answered in the form of a beautifully written pastoral letter, written by a fictional “young, orthodox, straight-shooting priest” on behalf of his bishop. “Why can’t women be lectors?” is answered in the form of a cleverly structured Thomistic questio. “Why can’t women be deacons?” is answered by Bishop Schneider in a fascinating essay full of historical details, like the fact that the Council of Trent permitted married men to take minor orders.
Needless to say, none of these essays denigrate women—or the laity in general—in any way. Indeed, I think this book should be read by any theologically minded Christian who has ever wondered why the Catholic Church (and, indeed, the Orthodox Church) reserves holy orders to men, or who has felt personally wounded by the sight of a sanctuary populated only by males, or who has burst into tears during a Rite of Ordination.
Full disclosure: To my surprise, I found my name listed in the acknowledgements at the back of Ministers of Christ. It seems I was on the launch team and was supposed to read the book before publication. After I gave my memory a hearty shake, a faint recollection of an email to this effect fell out. Nevertheless, I did not read the book before this past weekend.
Peter Kwasniewski, Ministers of Christ: Recovering the Roles of Clergy and Laity in an Age of Confusion (Manchester, NH: Crisis Publications, 2021, 285 pages, $19.95.)