Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I.

Gifts and rights: the nature of the sacrament of holy orders

October 10, 2010

A gift is not a gift if the recipient has a right to it. A refund on your taxes is not a gift from the IRS. Our civic order is arranged to help individuals receive their rights; this is the goal of legal justice. A gift, however, is not due in justice; it comes from love, is freely offered and can’t be manipulated by the recipient. In the order of grace, no one has rights and everything is gift from a God who loves us. Sanctifying grace, God’s life in us, is pure gift; we can’t demand it from God; nor can we tell God to change it to suit us. All that Christ has given us through the church — the Gospel, the sacraments, the church herself — comes to us from his love. It’s all gift, and it is either received as such or lost.

I write this because the nature of the sacrament of holy orders has recently been publicly discussed as if it fell into the order of rights rather than the reality of gift, as if it were a matter of rules rather than a mystery of faith. Like all the sacraments of the apostolic churches, holy orders comes from Christ and is what he intends it to be. The church is not free to change it, anymore than the church can change the nature of baptism or the Eucharist or matrimony. Nor does anyone have a right to be ordained. It’s all gift.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (no. 1538) explains: “Ordination is … the sacramental act which integrates a man into the order of bishops, presbyters or deacons, and goes beyond a simple election, designation, delegation or institution by the community, for it confers a gift of the Holy Spirit that permits the exercise of sacred power which can come only from Christ himself through his church.” The power conferred is the authority to govern the church through participating in Christ’s role as head of the church, as shepherd of his flock and high priest of the redemptive sacrifice. Through this sacrament, the mission entrusted by Jesus to his apostles continues to be exercised in the church until Christ returns in glory at the end of time.

If the church is considered politically, as a form of state or a company, or if the church is reduced to a personal club whose rules can be changed without reference to anyone except the individual members, then the template of individual rights is laid onto the sacrament of holy orders, its reality is distorted and it cannot be understood for what it really is. Worse, the fact that holy orders can only be conferred on men becomes an infringement of the rights of women in a context of “gender equality” as a cultural imperative.

Whether women can be ordained priests has been discussed regularly since the second century. Each time over the centuries, the church has said she is not free to change the gift that comes to us from Christ himself. The argument is with Jesus, not the church. The fact that some theologians in every age have put forth arguments contrary to church teaching proves nothing except that they are mistaken, their understanding of the sacrament is not adequate to the faith of the church. The fact that there is huge social pressure to force the church to change her understanding of Christ’s gift and thereby lose the sacrament proves nothing except that cultures are not adequate to the faith of the church. The fact that someone declares himself or herself to be a Catholic priest makes no more sense than for me to declare myself a citizen of Saudi Arabia so that I can visit Mecca. Holy orders is a social sacrament; no one is a priest unless the church herself acknowledges the ordination as sacramental. The church and the gifts of Christ never fit into any human culture without some discomfort and societal stretching. The Catholic Church is never a national denomination anywhere in the world; her members have to be faithful first of all to the Lord who transcends all human cultures and their demands.

The claim is raised that Jesus is “inclusive,” and it is certainly true that he invites the whole world to follow him. The price of discipleship, however, is conversion, turning from our ways to his. The church is as inclusive as the Jesus who said to those whom he sent out, when they reported back to him about the towns where their teaching was rejected: “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty deeds done in your midst had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would long ago have repented. But it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the judgment than for you. And as for you, Capernaum, ‘Will you be exalted to heaven? You will go down to the netherworld.’ Whoever listens to you listens to me. Whoever rejects you rejects me. And whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me” (Lk 10:13-16). It’s all gift; but if you reject the gift as it’s given, you reject the giver.

Catholics who want to live their faith in peace should not be subjected to organized protests by others whose personal faith is not adequate to the faith of the church. Personal questioning of the mysteries of the faith is often part of anyone’s faith journey, and Catholics should make their concerns known to their pastors. But using political tactics to change church teaching to what one would like it to be is inconsistent with one’s continuing to claim to be Catholic. This is, finally, a matter of personal integrity. May the Lord who has given us the gift of holy orders, along with so many gifts of even greater importance in the household of the faith, keep us together in his love.