The question of whether or not women could ever be ordained to the ministerial priesthood is one that often generates more “heat” than it does “light.” Folks often come to the discussion emotionally charged to the point where rational discussion becomes difficult.
Be that as it may, I will respond to this question using the Church’s official teaching on the matter as it was taught in Inter Insigniores from the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, promulgated October 15, 1976, and as it was reiterated by Pope St. John Paul II in his Apostolic Letter, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, May 22, 1994. in 1994.
We will attempt here to present as much “light” as we can without the too-often accompanying “heat” that ends up keeping people away from the “light” that is ultimately Jesus Christ who is “the true light that enlightens every man… coming into the world” (John 1:9).
The Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, with the approval of Pope (now St.) John Paul II, noted, in both its “Responsum Ad Dubium Concerning the Teaching Contained in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis,” and in its “Letter Concerning the CDF Reply Regarding Ordinatio Sacerdotalis,” made clear that this teaching is infallible (in both documents) and that the source of its infallibility is not to be found in the Apostolic Letter, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, itself; rather, it is because of the fact that this teaching is a matter taught by the Ordinary and Universal Magisterium of the Church, i.e., all the bishops of the world in union with the Pope have taught this definitively as a matter that must be believed with divine faith by all of God’s faithful.
In this post, I would like to break down the reasons the Church has given us for the veracity of this dogma into seven distinct points, though we could talk about more.
1. The Church has Definitively Declared it; Thus, Women Cannot be Ordained to the Ministerial Priesthood.
This seems simple. And it is. But if we understand that the Church is God’s voice on this earth in matters of faith and morals, then this first point is the most important of all. Jesus said of his Church, “If they hear you they hear me; if they reject you they reject me” in Luke 10:16 (see also Matt. 18:15-18, Acts 15:24-28, Matt. 16:13-18, I John 4:6, etc.). When God speaks through his Church, the matter at hand is settled. In matters of faith and morals, we must begin with The Faith as Catholics. Yet, as St. Anselm said, the key to our journey as Christians is always “fides quarens intellectum” (faith seeking understanding). We have the assurance as Catholics that the Church will never and can never lead us astray in her formal and definitive teachings because Jesus guarantees it in Matt. 16:18-19! So we can know that the Faith is not dependent upon our understanding of it in order for it to be true. Thanks be to God!
Yet, as Catholics we must ever seek to understand more deeply our Faith though we can never understand it comprehensively. This leads us to point two.
2. The Church’s Constant Tradition for 2,000 Years Cannot Err
The Church has always reserved ordination to the ministerial priesthood to men. There have been a few heretical sects, such as the gnostics and the Collyridians, of the first 400 years of the Christian era who allowed women to be “ordained,” but they were quickly and vociferously opposed by the Fathers and Christian writers of the Church such as St. Irenaeus of Lyons (AD 180), Tertullian (AD 200), Firmilian of Caesarea (AD 250), Origen (AD 230), St. Epiphanius (AD 350), and more.
After the issue was dealt with in the early centuries, the Church universally accepted this dogma without any problem until the 20th century. Hence, the magisterium was never compelled to make a formal pronouncement on the matter until recent times. However, the constant teaching and practice of the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit is proof of the divine origin of the doctrine. We must remember that all of the teachings of the Faith were given to us in the first century in Scripture and Sacred Tradition. The Church does not invent new teachings, she merely defines what she has been given. If Jesus and the apostles taught that women could be ordained, we would have known about it through the Fathers and the teaching of the Church.
The Truth is: 2,000 years of constant Tradition gives us the clear truth: Jesus Christ willed for there to be a male-only priesthood for his Church.
3. The Attitude of Christ
For Christians, the teaching and practice of Jesus Christ is most essential. It is an historical fact that Jesus Christ did not call any woman to be part of the twelve that he ordained. Jesus Christ is “the Word” of God. He is the visible manifestation of the will of God on this earth. Jesus, therefore, is the revelation of the will of God for the Church and for us. So when he does not ordain women, he reveals the will of God in this matter. Some say that Jesus was just “giving in” to the custom of the day. “He would have ordained women if he had lived in a more liberated culture.” This is not true for several reasons.
1. Pagan cultures, almost universally, had priestesses in their religions. Judaism stood in the minority in reserving the priesthood to males. There were many examples of women priests at the time of Christ.
2. Jesus was definitely not one to “cave in” to custom! HE WAS GOD! In fact, even the disciples were astonished when Jesus publicly spoke with the Samaritan woman in John 4:27. This was taboo for Jews, and most especially a Rabbi! Jesus allowed the woman who suffered from hemorrhages (cf. Matt. 9:20-22) to touch him, and he took no thought of it even though she was legally impure. Jesus allowed a known and publically sinful woman to approach him in the house of Simon the Pharisee (cf. Luke 7:37ff). This was radically counter-cultural. Jesus showed the hypocrisy of the men who wanted to stone a woman caught in adultery while the man was no where to be found in John 8:11. Jesus departs from Mosaic Law without hesitation in order to elevate marriage to the level of sacrament and affirm the equality of the rights and duties of men and women with regard to the marriage bond (cf. Mk. 10:2-11; Matt. 19:3-9). And over and over Jesus says, “You have heard it said… But I say to you” in the Sermon on the Mount in Matt. 5. Jesus radically departed from Old Testament tradition as well as from the Old Testament itself when he established the New Testament.
3. Jesus was accompanied by women during his itinerate ministry (cf. Luke 8:2-3) in a culture that did not consider women as equals to men. Jewish tradition did not accord the same value of testimony from women as men, yet Jesus first appeared to women after the resurrection and Jesus charged these women with the message of the resurrection to be carried to the apostles (cf. Matt. 28:7-10; Luke 24:9-10; Jn. 20:11-18). This is a departure from custom, yet Jesus does not call these women to be Apostles with the twelve. Further, even Jesus’ Mother, the pinnacle of God’s creation, who surpassed in dignity all of the Apostles combined, was not called to be numbered as an Apostle. Without her, there is no Jesus, there are no Apostles, and no Gospel at all. Yet, her greatness does not come from being an ordained apostle; it comes from doing the will of God according to her unique call. She is the epitomy of “woman” and “mother” (cf. Luke 1:37-38, John 2:1-5, 19:26-27, Rev. 12). But she is not an apostle.
4. The Practice of the Apostles
The Apostles continued with the same attitude as Christ concerning the ordination of women. Even though Mary, the greatest Christian, was present in the upper room with the apostles, and had a privileged place (cf. Acts 1:14), it was Matthias that was chosen to be numbered among the twelve, not Mary, in Acts 1:20-26. On the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit filled all those present, men and women, with the Holy Spirit, but it was only “Peter and the Eleven” who made the official proclamation of the Gospel (cf. Acts 2:14). As the Apostles ventured out among the gentiles, they would have encountered a world that was filled with religious traditions that ordained women, yet the Apostles remained faithful to the mind of Christ on this matter. Women had crucial roles in the Church, such as Priscilla, who instructed Apollos when he first was converted to “the way more perfectly” in Acts 18:26. Phoebe is mentioned as being in the service of the Church of Cenchreae in Romans 16:1. And Lydia, the first European convert, converted her household to the faith in Acts 16. But these were not ordained. Just as we saw with Christ, the Apostles held women in much higher esteem than in former Jewish culture (see Gal. 3:28). But never do they ordain women. In fact, whenever St. Paul refers to men and women who helped him in his ministry, he refers to them as “my fellow workers” (Romans 16:3; Phil. 4:2-3). But the title “God’s fellow workers” (I Cor. 3:9; cf. I Thess. 3:2) he reserves to men alone, e.g., Apollos, Timothy, and himself. Only the ordained have this title.
5. The Permanent Value of the Attitude of Jesus and the Apostles
Could it be that this attitude of Jesus and the Apostles toward the ordination of women was only temporary? After all, some of the prescriptions of St. Paul, such as the veiling of women in I Cor. 11:2-6, were only matters of discipline, and therefore, transitory by nature.
When it comes to the veiling of women, this is undoubtedly true; however, there is no doubt that the Apostle’s forbidding of women “to speak” in the assemblies (cf. I Cor. 14:34-35, I Tim. 2:12) is of a different nature. St. Paul does not oppose women prophesying in the assembly at all. He gives prescriptions as to how it is to be done in I Cor. 11:5. In his prohibitions of women speaking, St. Paul is referring to official offices in the Church (see I Cor. 14:29-37), or of the offices of bishop and deacon, in particular (see I Tim. 2:7-3:12). St. Paul’s reasons are given referencing the order of creation and redemption according to I Cor. 11:7 and I Tim. 2:12-15. The orders of creation and redemption are unchangeable! This stands in stark contrast to St. Paul’s indication that the matter of veils for women was a mere “custom” of the Church (cf. I Cor. 11:16).
It should also be noted that when we are speaking of Holy Orders in the Church, we are speaking about a sacrament. All seven of the sacraments are “outward signs instituted by Christ that give grace” as the Baltimore Catechism so eloquently says it. The substance of these sacraments cannot change. The Church does not have the authority to change them! For example, we cannot decide to use coffee and donuts at Mass because it would relate to our culture better as a staple of our diet! These sacraments are signs or symbols to be sure, but they are more than that. As “Inter Insignores” puts it, “They are principally meant to link the person of every period to the supreme Event of the history of salvation, in order to enable that person to understand… what grace they signify and produce.” The priestly ministry is not just a pastoral service as we see in Protestantism, but as the Church declares, “it ensures the continuity of the functions entrusted by Christ to the Apostles and the continuity of the powers related to those functions… therefore, the Church cannot abolish, on essential points, the sacramental reference to constitutive events of Christianity and to Christ himself.” The Church is accused of being “archaic,” in her sticking to her Traditions. No, she is simply faithful to the teachings of Christ and the Apostles.
6. The Ministerial Priesthood in the Light of the Mystery of Christ
Coming from the tradition I came from before I was Catholic, the Assemblies of God, where we ordained women in our communities, this point was crucial for me. In this our sixth point, we see some of the deeper theological reasons why women cannot be ministerial priests. While I would have certainly accepted on faith the fact that “the Church says it, I believe it, and that’s the end of it,” when it came to this issue, it was deeper refection on the reality and nature of Christ in relation to the Church that would win the day for me on an intellectual level. And indeed, I might add, I found and continue to find a deeper study of the Christ and the Church in general to be a key source of both grace and truth that continues to keep me nourished in Christ as well as in the bosom of Holy Mother Church, along with the sacraments.
At any rate, in the Catholic Church, as in Sacred Scripture, the priest does not act in his own name, or by his own power; rather, in persona Christi (cf. II Cor. 2:10; 17; II Cor. 5:20; Gal. 4:14). In the celebration of the Eucharist we are not only remembering a past event (though we are remembering a past event to be sure), but we are present with Christ in the upper room. This is done not only by the power of Christ conferred upon the priest, but in the person of Christ. The priest takes “the role of Christ, to the point of being his very image, when he pronounces the words of consecration.
As St. Thomas Aquinas said: “Sacramental signs represent what they signify by natural resemblance.” When we are talking about something as essential as sacraments, the faithful must be able to recognize the signs with ease. Not only is this crucial on a mystical level, as we will see in a moment, but on a psychological level. We would not want a woman playing General Patton in a movie! George C. Scott is simply a better fit! In fact, it would be absurd to even think of, let’s say, Julia Roberts playing Patton! Right?
Well, when we are speaking of a priest offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, we are not just talking about a play or a movie, we are talking about the central event in all of history that is our very salvation! The psychological aspect of humanity cannot be overlooked. Christ himself was, is, and always will be, a man. Therefore, it is fitting that his ministers who act in his person be men. But on a mystical level, this truth is only magnified as to both its significance, and its necessity.
This does not imply, as some critics say, that the Church is saying man has a natural superiority over woman. And it is not saying women are “not full members of the Church” or that they are “second-class Catholics.” Galatians 3:28 puts that to rest as does the constant teaching of the Church. There is an essential and undeniable equality of dignity between man and woman. However, equality does not assume or imply sameness. Man and woman are oh so very different! Anyone who has been married for more than a year—more than a month—knows this to be true! Different functions and abilities does not equal a difference in dignity.
In fact, I always say that if any argument could be made for superiority, it could more easily be made for the superiority of woman over man! Think about it in relation to procreation! Consider the fact that the man has the role of delivering the seed into the woman in the miracle of procreation while the woman receives the seed, gives life to and then nurtures that child for nine months! Who has the greater role here? Does that mean the woman is superior? No! But if there is an argument to be made, the woman has a pretty solid foundation from which to make her case…
I could talk all night about non-essential differences between men and women that give each advantages in certain circumstances. But what is most important for us to see here is the simple truth that there is a difference in roles and functions between the sexes, not in their essential dignity or essential equality. I think all of us could proclaim together, “Viva la difference!” Much of the beauty of mankind lies in the differences between the sexes!
At any rate, the crux of this point is this: The covenant relationship between God and mankind, from the Old Testament prophets onward, took on the “privileged form of a nuptial mystery” (quoting Inter Insigniores). In both the Old (Song of Solomon, Hosea 1-3, Jer. 2, etc.) and New Testaments (Eph. 5:22-23, I Cor. 11:2), the People of God are depicted as the spouse of God.
If we take even a cursory look at some examples among the many of how the New Testament (it is replete with examples) gives us insight into this nuptial relationship between Christ and his Church (cf. John 3:29, 14:1-6, Rev. 19:7-9, Mk. 2:19-20, Matt. 22:1-14), the truth of an all-male ministerial priesthood becomes undeniable. For example, Christ is clearly presented in these texts cited above as the groom and the Church is the bride. Need we even say that Christ would have to be a man and for obvious reasons? To be blunt: a woman cannot marry a woman! So the priest who acts “in the person of Christ” would simply have to be a man as well. He is the bridegroom and the Church is the bride!
Further, how often is the word of God depicted as a “seed” in Scripture (cf. Luke 8:5-8, I Peter 1:23, etc.)? It is the man who delivers the seed; it is the woman who receives the seed and brings forth life. It is Christ who comes to us as “the Word” in the flesh. He is the true “seed” from heaven that brings forth life. But he needs a bride in order for that seed to bear fruit. Hence, the Church is his bride. If the priest acts as Christ for us, he must be a man just as Christ was so that he may deliver the “seed” of the Word to his bride which is the Church.
One final note on this point: Remember folks, the Church is the “Family of God” (Eph. 3:15). When we are gathered around the table (the Eucharist), we are a family. According to Exodus 12, when Moses instituted the Passover, it was the father who presided at the Passover sacrificial meal and nourished his family as father and head of the family. The Eucharist is our Passover. Jesus fulfilled the Passover in Matt. 26, Mark 14, and Luke 22 on Holy Thursday. He now presides over his Passover family as father. Our priests are called to act in the place of Christ, for Christ, and even more, “in the person of Christ,” in order to continue the Passover to all generations (Luke 22:19, I Cor. 5:6-8, I Cor. 11:23-29). As such, once again, the priest must be a “father” in order to preside over his Passover family at the Eucharist, which is our Passover.
7. The Ministerial Priesthood Illustrated by the Mystery of the Church
In the modern era, we in the West are all-concerned with “rights.” We have this right and that right, and “don’t you dare tread on my rights!” Unfortunately, many will use Gal. 3:27-28 to “prove” that women have a “right” to the priesthood.
For as many of you as have been baptized in Christ, have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek: there is neither bond nor free: there is neither male nor female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Actually, this text has nothing to do with ministerial priesthood! This is talking about the essential equality of all in Christ as I said above. The obvious reference is to baptism, which is the “circumcision of Christ” according to Col. 2:11-13. Only free, Hebrew males could be circumcised in the Old Testament. But now all can be baptized, demonstrating the essential equality of all. However, the calling to the priesthood is just that: “a calling.” As Jesus put it, “You did not choose me, no, I chose you; and I commissioned you…” (John 15:16; cf. Heb. 5:4) To think of the priesthood as a right is to miss the boat. Baptism does not give anyone a right to the ministerial priesthood. This is a calling. Jesus prayed all night (cf. Luke 6:12) and called “those he wanted” (Mark 3:13). It is Christ who knows what is best for his bride, the Church. It is our duty to hear the voice of the Master and obey him.
Perhaps, it is in this role of “hearing and obeying” that “woman” is most crucial. It is the ultimate “woman,” Mary, who teaches us what it is to be the true bride of Christ, the Church, in Luke 1:37-38, when she says, “Let it be done unto me according to your word.” As “woman,” Mary knows better than any man what it means to receive the “seed” of the Word both into her womb and into her innermost being. As man more naturally fits into the role of apostle and minister of the Word, woman more naturally fits into the role of recipient of the Word who hears the word of God and brings life to it. This is the essence of what it means to be a saint–to be the Church. And, as “Inter Insigniores” says, “The greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven are not the ministers but the saints.”
This that I have presented is basically the teaching of the Church on this issue. But I believe the problem of women’s ordination and the “demand” from some quarters for these “ordinations” betrays a deeper problem, or deeper problems that we would do well to consider. In the case of abortion, what we are combating is more than just an argument of whether or not a baby in the womb, is, in fact, a baby. The problem is deeper than that. We must combat a “culture of death” that has infected every area of our lives in Western Culture (that is a matter for another day!). We must deal with the religious issue to be sure, but also the sociological, scientific, anthropological, moral, legal, political, and philosophical undercurrents if we are to truly make headway when it comes to this issue. There is no doubt that “the culture of death” must be confronted with an entire “culture of life”.
Thus, in closing, I believe we must understand we are dealing with a similar situation when it comes to the feminist movement and the “feminization” of culture, if you will, that underlies the question of “women in the priesthood.” We must be able to deal with this issue by having answers that understand some of the root causes for the passion that surrounds this matter.
I recommend the book, “Women in the Priesthood,” by Fr. Manfred Hauke, and published by Ignatius Press, as an excellent starting point for equipping all involved for the dialogue that must be had here. Fr. Hauke does a fantastic job at presenting the arguments for women’s ordination very well and then in demonstrating the weaknesses of the arguments. And he deals with the issue from an anthropological, social, theological, religious, scientific, as well as a theological standpoint.
And I also recommend that if you really want to dive deeper into this discussion, you should click here for much more information.