Editor's Note: In the first part of this review (see previous post), Kaitlyn, our reviewer, reflected on some of the points from Witt's new book, Icons of Christ, which is one of the most comprehensive arguments to date for equalitarianism. Last post reflected on some points that stuck out to her for a Protestant reader. This post focuses on Catholic readers.
Witt in his book also addresses the Catholic argument of in persona Christi, the central argument conservative Catholics make against women in the priesthood: a male priest is required to represent Christ in the mass. He argues that while the priest represents Christ, the priest first and foremost represents the Church: in persona ecclesiae (222). This is evident by what is often considered the most important part of the liturgy: the Eucharistic prayers. The Eucharistic prayers use unified language of a church coming together to worship Jesus with “one voice”: “It is truly right and just, our duty and salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks… And so, with the Angels and Saints we declare your glory, as with one voice, we acclaim…” (Preface to the Holy, Holy from Eucharistic Prayer II, 3rd Edition of the Roman Missal, English Translation, 2011). From here, Witt argues that because the whole Church consists of both men and women, it is not clear why maleness is a prerequisite to stand behind the altar and say the Eucharistic prayers on behalf of the whole Church (223).
In addition to thinking about my point above, I would challenge my fellow Catholics to think of their response to the following question: does an all-male priesthood capture the fullness of who God is, in persona Christi, and the Church, in persona ecclesiae, to you? The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “God transcends the human distinction between the sexes. He is neither man nor woman: He is God” (CCC #239). Thus, does the priesthood (as we know it today) reflect the fullness of who God is, acting in persona Christi, and the fullness of who the Church is, acting in persona ecclesiae? Personally, as a whole, it leaves something to be desired. While I deeply appreciate the vocation and its beauty, in my limited experience, the priesthood as we know it today does not reflect the true, complete character of who God and the Church are to me.
Witt’s most compelling argument overall comes from his third chapter. In it, he argues that the traditional argument is not traditional at all. In the past, theologians have argued for the ontological inferiority of women as the reason why women cannot be ordained. However, around the mid-twentieth century, this view shifted. At this time, all mainline churches—Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, and Anglican—began accepting the essential equality of the sexes (29). In response, new Catholic arguments focused on the in persona Christi sacramental argument to deny women’s ordination (30). Protestants took on a complementarian position whereby women and men are equal but complementary. Because of that, there are certain things women cannot do (33-34). Interestingly, by speaking of equality, both positions contradict the historical argument of ontological inferiority and essential hierarchy (34). Thus, the traditional argument is not traditional at all—it is maybe fifty years old. Catholics like to pride themselves on tradition, but it is simply impossible to do so in this case.
There are a few small flaws with this book. First, Witt presents some minor errors in Catholic doctrine concerning women preaching (7) and celebrating baptism (32). However, these are only minor doctrinal errors and are thus, not fatal to any of his arguments in the book. More pointedly, in a book on women’s ordination, I would have liked to see more female and BIPOC voices. Although Witt does cite some female theologians, he focuses most of his attention on male scholars such as Alan Padget, Wayne Grudem, and John Paul II—when he could have covered female theologians and figures such as Marina the Monk (please look this one up), Therese of Lisieux, Elizabeth Johnson, Julia Brumbaugh, Kori Pacyniak, and Lucetta Scaraffia.
Overall, Icons of Christ provides a thorough and comprehensive examination of the various arguments for and against women’s ordination in all mainline Protestant and Catholic traditions. Overall, Witt does an excellent job thoroughly examining and analyzing Catholic and Protestant biblical, historical, theological, and philosophical arguments. He also covers the radical shift the argument has seen in the last fifty years that renders the “traditional” argument as anything but. Witt provides plenty of material for Christians of all traditions to reflect on. A challenging but rewarding read, Icons of Christ, is sure to be appreciated by theologians, readers, and students of all traditions.
Kaitlyn Lightfoot is a Master of Arts in theology student at Acadia Divinity College. She is also a musician and an avid reader.