Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Vocation Spotlight: Will the Church Ever Ordain Women Priests?

by Chris DiTomo

Objection: Women’s roles in society have changed a lot. Women used to have few roles. Now women are successful lawyers, doctors, and politicians. Women have a lot of skills that would make them good priests.

Response: Unfortunately, many people misunderstand many aspects of the mystery of the Church by viewing the Church as they would any other social institution. The holy priesthood is not a profession like a medical or legal practice. The priesthood is not primarily a job that involves certain tasks and skills. It is true that the priesthood does involve certain tasks, skills and training. However, Holy Orders is a sacrament first and foremost. The sacrament of holy orders configures a man in a special way to act in the person (Latin: in persona Christi) of Jesus Christ as he dispenses the sacraments to the faithful. As the priest utters the words of consecration (“…This is my body, given up for you…”) it is truly our Lord who is saying those words. He is simply speaking through the priest. The same is true when our Lord speaks to us the words of absolution in the sacrament of penance, etc. The priest must be a man so that he can image Jesus Christ (who is—of course—a man). Scripture often refers to Jesus as the bride groom who espouses his bride the Church (Ephesians 5:23-33; John 1:28-30). All sacraments involve form and matter—formal words and prayers and specific material that is to be used (oil, water, unleavened bread). In order to have a valid reception of holy orders, a bishop must ordain a man with the laying on of hands and specific prayers. Would the compassion of a woman make her a merciful confessor? Perhaps,… but the priesthood is not primarily about skills, tasks, and temperment. The priesthood is centered on a unique sacramental configuration to Jesus Christ so that Christ can be made present in the sacramental ministry of the Church. The priest is, above all else, an icon of Christ.

Objection: But gender differences of male and female have no relevance for the Christian. Even St. Paul says: “for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:27-28).

Response: That passage refers to the promise of justification. It does not mean that there is no longer any meaning attached to being male or female. God created men and women as different though of equal dignity. Men and women have unique gifts that complement one another in order to fully together image the mystery of the God who is love. It is modern society and radical feminism that tries to erase the distinction between men and women (to the detriment of both).

Another point to consider: in God’s wisdom, it was granted to women—not men—to have the awesome and unique role of carrying a newly created human life in the womb. Men could complain that it is not fair to be excluded from that, but to what avail? That is a physical reality. The man’s ability to image Christ as a sacramental priest is a spiritual reality—but it is no less real.

Objection: Where in the Bible does it say that only men can be priests?

Response: The Church has historically pointed to the Last Supper as the institution of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and the priesthood (he told the apostles to “do this in memory of me”). Scripture clearly shows that Jesus chose only men to be his apostles. In turn, his apostles passed on their ministry through the laying on of hands to other men. I am sure that Jesus could have chosen some women disciples who were holier than Judas, for example… or of a stronger faith that Thomas,… or more reliable than Peter. Jesus could have chose Martha and Mary, Mary Magdalene, the Samaritan woman at the well (Jn 4), or even the Blessed Virgin herself. Jesus is God—and he was not bound by cultural norms that would have dictated his choosing only men. Jesus often turned cultural norms on their head. In deed, his very treatment and respect for women was revolutionary. Still, he chose men to be his most intimate co-workers in the ministry. Throughout the history of the Church we also have record of only men being ordained.

Objection: The Church has always oppressed women. By not ordaining women, the Church just continues to keep women down.

Response: Once again, the idea that women must hold positions as priests and bishops in the hierarchical leadership of the Church in order to have dignity is a by-product of the democratic modern secular culture which tells us that a person’s value comes from holding power. Jesus did not share this view of leadership roles. For our Lord, leadership was not about power. At James’ and John’s request to sit at his right and left in the kingdom, Jesus replied: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and the great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave. Just so, the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mt 20:25-28). To put it more succinctly: “The one who is least among you is the one who is the greatest” (Lk 9:48). To be a leader means to humble oneself.

We also must dispel the notion that authentic leadership can only be found in sacramental ministry or hierarchical leadership. Anyone who has conducted an even cursory study of Church history would see that women have always had tremendous impact in leadership roles. Look at all of the women saints and martyrs that have been celebrated throughout the history of the Church—the most venerated among them, of course, being the Blessed Virgin Mary. St. Therese of Lisieux and St. Theresa of Avila are listed among the 33 doctors of the Church (those recognized for their outstanding theological contributions). Who could deny their legacy in the development of spiritual theology? Women religious have led spiritual revolutions through the creation and reformation of religious orders. For centuries lay and consecrated women have been leaders in the field of health care, care of the poor, education, and evangelization. St. Catherine of Sienna had the moral authority to command the pope himself to leave the temporary home of the papacy in Avignon, France to return to his rightful place in Rome. Think of the legacy of leadership that someone like Blessed Mother Theresa of Calcutta has left behind. This was a nun with little overt political power. Yet, her true power resided in her holiness and zeal. She was able to accomplish amazing things because she allowed the Holy Spirit to work through her and demand action from other people!

Certainly, the roles of women leaders in the Church might not be as publicly recognized or glamorous as that of a cardinal in Vatican City. But again, authentic Christian leadership is not supposed to be about political power and public accolades. Before anyone charges the Church with a misogynistic oppression of women, they should be force to read Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem (On the Dignity and Vocation of Women) [read on line at:

Objection: Some women say that they are called by God to be priests. The Church should not deny them something that they have a right to.

Response: No one individual has a “right” to the sacrament of holy orders. God’s call comes to individuals through prayer, but His call also always comes through
and is ratified through the Church
(including the laity and the hierarchical leadership, of course). This point is made clear in the liturgical rite for priestly ordination. Perhaps some of these women really do have an authentic call by God to serve Him and His Church in a special way. However, they may be missing their true calling because they are thinking with the mind of the dominant culture. The vocation to live out one’s baptismal priesthood in a life of service does not require ordination and ministry as a sacramental priest (even if the latter is considered more accomplished).

Objection: By I have heard on the news that women have already been ordained as deaconesses and priests.

Response: These ordinations are considered invalid. The Code of Canon Law (canon 1024) states that "A baptized male alone receives sacred ordination validly." In other words, these women are not real ordained deacons and priests. It is similar to a case where two men were to stage a “Catholic wedding.” No matter what ritual is performed, even if it were performed by a priest, the marriage would be invalid because 2 men cannot enter into holy matrimony.

Objection: Fine, women cannot be ordained now, but the Church might change its mind in the future.

Response: The Church (in the Latin rite) could change its discipline about reserving priestly ordination to celibate men and open up ordination to married men as a norm. This is a matter of discipline—which the Church can change. The reservation of ordination to men, however, has been interpreted by the Magisterium as a matter of doctrine—which cannot change. Sensing some lingering doubt, Pope John Paul II wrote the following in his 1994 apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis:

“Although the teaching that priestly ordination is to be reserved to men alone has been preserved by the constant and universal Tradition of the Church and firmly taught by the Magisterium in its more recent documents, at the present time in some places it is nonetheless considered still open to debate, or the Church's judgment that women are not to be admitted to ordination is considered to have a merely disciplinary force.
Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church's divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful.”

When there was still lingering questions after Pope John Paul II’s document was released, then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) wrote the following clarification in 1995:

“Dubium [Latin = doubt]: Whether the teaching that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women, which is presented in the Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis to be held definitively, is to be understood as belonging to the deposit of faith.
Responsum [Response]: In the affirmative.
This teaching requires definitive assent, since, founded on the written Word of God, and from the beginning constantly preserved and applied in the Tradition of the Church, it has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium (cf. Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium 25, 2). Thus, in the present circumstances, the Roman Pontiff, exercising his proper office of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32), has handed on this same teaching by a formal declaration, explicitly stating what is to be held always, everywhere, and by all, as belonging to the deposit of the faith.”

Basically, Pope John Paul II seems to have been exercising papal infalibility in this pronouncement. Those who still desire women's ordination should really consider whether they are really within the bosom of the Church. My prayer would be that they would reconcile with the Church and surrender to her wisdom. Then, I suggest that they study what the Church teaches about the unique dignity and greatness of women.


Examples of dissenting groups that press for women’s ordination:

Another good example of flawed reasoning:

news article: 2 women participate in phony ordination:

Another news article (phony ordination on Danube river):


Faith Facts: Why not Women Priests?

Women and the Priesthood (Catholic Answers)

Women’s Ordination—No Chance, Joanne Boggle

Women Priests? (via EWTN)

The Male Priesthood: The Argument from Sacred Tradition, Mark Lowery, PhD.:

On Women’s Ordination (part I), Fr. William Saunders:

On Women’s Ordination (part II), Fr. William Saunders:

Being True to the Holy Spirit, Fr. Raymond J. de Souza

Catholic Women—A Case of Oppression?, Joanna Bogle

"A Pro-Woman Pope", Elizabeth Fox-Genovese

“Whether Christ Changed the Role of Women”, an award-winning essay by a 16 year old!

Ordinatio Sacerdotalis. Apostolic Letter on Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone:

Concerning the Teaching Contained in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis: Responsum Ad Dubium, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (1995) (Cardinal Ratzinger)

Decree of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the Attempted Priestly Ordination of Some Catholic Women:

Vatican Warning on Mock Ordination of Women:

Women for Faith and Family’s Statement on Ordinatio Sacerdotalis:

New Perspectives on Paragraph 5 in the "Affirmation for Catholic Women"Ordination: Reviewing the "Fundamental Reasons"
by Sister Sara Butler, MSBT

40,000 Women Say “No” to women’s ordination in 1987:

Faith Facts: Addressing the Priest Shortage

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