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Why Can’t Women Be Priests?

1. Why doesn’t the Church allow women to be priests? I know plenty of women who could give a more moving homily and be more understanding in the confessional.

There aren’t many issues within apologetics that require as much sensitivity as this one. In a culture where opening the door for a woman can be seen as an act of misogyny, it’s no surprise that male-only ordination strikes some as sexist on the Church’s behalf.

It can’t be denied that there are women who could be more moving orators than some priests and provide more consolation within the confessional. But the debate over ordination is not over who could be a better priest but over who could be a priest at all.

So, if a woman’s abilities are not in question, what’s keeping the Church from ordaining her? For one, it should be noted that Jesus did not ordain any women. He selected all of his apostles, and none were women.

Some say that he was bound by the cultural norms of his era to suppress the roles of women, but no one has been able to prove that this was his motive. Furthermore, this accuses Jesus of sexism and it paints an inaccurate portrait of Christ, who had no qualms about shattering the cultural norms regarding interaction with women (Matt. 9:20; Luke 7:37; John 4:27). The idea of priestesses was not unknown to him, since it was a common practice in religions of his time and culture, though not Judaism. (If Jesus had wanted women as priestesses, he would have had the ideal candidate in Mary. Here was a woman who could have spoken the words of consecration literally: “This is my body. This is my blood.”)

There were other roles that Christ had in mind for women. For example, they played a key role in the spread of the Gospel, being the first to spread the news of the risen Christ. They were also allowed to pray and prophesy in church (1 Cor. 11:1–16), but they were not to assume the function of teaching in the Christian assembly (1Cor. 14:34–38; 1 Tim. 2:1–14), which was restricted to the clergy.

Two thousand years later, no one—including the pope—has the authority to change the designs of the Church that Christ instituted. Specifically, the Church is unable to change the substance of a sacrament. For example, a person cannot be baptized in wine, nor may a substance other than bread be used for the consecration at Mass. If invalid matter is used, then the sacrament does not take place. Likewise, since the priest acts in the person of Christ, the Church has no authority to confer the sacrament on those who are unable to represent the male Jesus Christ.

2. Wouldn’t ordaining women take care of the vocations crisis?

If the Church allowed the ordination of women, there could very well be more ordinations that take place. However, these wouldn’t aid the Church because the ordinations wouldn’t be valid. So, invalid ordinations are not the solution to the “vocations crisis” that we hear so much about.

But is there a crisis at all? In so many words, the Vatican has declared that the vocations crisis is over. Figures from the Church’s Statistic Yearbook for 1997 were given in a June 4, 2000 Zenit News Agency report, which stated, “In 1978 there were 63,882 seminarians; at present there are 108,517, an increase of 69.87 percent. The increase in Africa and Asia, in fact, is incredible. Over the last twenty years, these two continents have seen an increase of 238.50 percent and 124.01 percent, respectively.” Over the past twenty years, vocations have increased in every continent around the globe. In America, the number of seminarians has increased from 22,011 to 35,000 in the last two decades.

3. Didn’t Paul say that there is neither Jew nor Greek, servant nor free, male nor female, since we are all in Christ? So why should our gender matter to God? We should all have equal rights.

Whenever a verse is paraphrased to defend a particular position, take the time to find that passage and read it in context. When Paul wrote about there being neither male nor female in Christ (Gal. 3:28), he is discussing our justification through faith, not our roles in the Church. Even in 1 Corinthians 12, when Paul speaks about there being Jews, Greeks, slaves, and free being baptized into the one body of Christ, he mentions that within this one body, there are different parts:

“There are varieties of service, but the same Lord . . . All these are inspired by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills. For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. . . . If the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. . . . If the whole body were an eye, where would be the hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the organs in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single organ, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. . . . Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles . . . Are all apostles?” (1 Cor. 12:5–29).

So, while Paul acknowledges the universality of God’s plan for salvation, he’s clear that there are different roles within the body of Christ. Men and women are equal in the eyes of God, but this equality is not synonymous with sameness. They play different roles within the Church, as there are different instruments within an orchestra. Just as the instruments are arranged for a symphony, God has “arranged the organs of the body” (1 Cor. 12:18), and we are not to reconstruct the design that he has established.

Since God is the one who has appointed the different roles within the Church, no one can claim a right to any position within the body of Christ. This is especially the case with sacraments. No one—male or female—has a “right” to be a priest. It is not like a governmental office that anyone can run for. It is a sacrament, and no one has a title to grace. It is an unmerited gift from Christ.

This may strike some as unfair, but realize that God has given women other gifts that he has not given to men. For example, women bring the body of Christ (souls) into the world one birth at a time. Men do not have this privilege. Priests bring the body of Christ (Eucharist) into the world one Mass at a time—a gift reserved to them, acting in the person of Christ.

4. Didn’t the early Christians ordain women?

If you walk into any secular (and perhaps even Catholic) bookstore, you’ll inevitably run across any number of books that claim to have unearthed ancient evidence in favor of the Catholic Church ordaining women to the priesthood. The average Catholic might not know where to begin when refuting these texts, but a review of what the Church Fathers said on the matter is a good place to start.

Some early Christian women belonged to orders of virgins, widows, and deaconesses, which are all forerunners of modern nuns. However, none of these orders were ordained to the priesthood. Since there were sects in the first centuries, especially within Gnosticism, that allowed women to become priestesses, the Church Fathers too the question under consideration but rejected the idea as incompatible with the faith.

5. But isn’t it possible that the Church could come around on this issue?

Certain aspects of the sacraments may change over time, such as the language of the liturgy or the manner in which penance is received. However, male-only ordination is something that has never changed, nor can it ever be changed. The Church’s attitude may appear archaic, but it is one of fidelity to a universal tradition in both the East and the West, extending throughout the history of the Church.

In 1994, Pope John Paul II declared, “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. Luke 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” (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis 4).

One year after this was written, the Church ruled that 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)” (Response of Oct. 25, 1995).

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