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Why the Church Doesn’t Ordain Women

When speaking before Catholic groups, I have found that one of the most frequently asked questions is, “Why does the Church not ordain women to the sacred priesthood?”

Most Christian denominations have long since admitted women to their ministries on an equal basis with men. Not to do so is almost universally seen today as a form of discrimination—this at a time when almost any form of discrimination is seen as the gravest of wrongs.

That not a few Catholics share this perception has frequently been impressed upon me. After a talk to a Catholic group on almost any subject, the first question raised during the question period is often still about why there is no female ordination. The questioner is almost always a woman, usually an older woman, and the question is typically posed in an aggrieved tone. Audience murmurs indicate that the concern is widely shared, including among some men.

A matter of great clarity

The fact of the matter, of course, is that women cannot be ordained to the Catholic priesthood. The Church’s magisterium, or teaching authority, has made that very clear. In an apostolic letter issuedMay 28, 1994, Bl. Pope John Paul II declared:

In order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s 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 held definitively by all the Church’s faithful (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis 4).

“No authority whatsoever. . . . To be held definitively. . . . In order that all doubt may be removed.” It would be hard to speak more plainly. The pope intended to settle the question once and for all. Moreover—perhaps because many voices continued to be heard imagining that the Church’s teaching might be changed anyway—the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the year after the pope’s declaration, on October 28, 1995, issued what it called a Responsum ad dubium (“Response to a doubt”) confirming the judgment of the pope.

This document was issued over the signature of the prefect of the doctrinal congregation, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI. In it he specified that the teaching excluding female ordination required “definitive assent, since, founded on the written word of God, and from the beginning constantly preserved in the Tradition of the Church, it has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal magisterium” (emphasis added).

That’s “infallibly.” Without error. The Church’s magisterium has been rather chary in recent years about using the word infallible, but here, suddenly, it appears. Ratzinger was not claiming that Pope John Paul II as an individual was teaching infallibly in issuing Ordinatio Sacerdotalis. Rather, the pope was reflecting what had long been taught by the Church’s “ordinary and universal magisterium.”

It’s not just the pope

The Second Vatican Council taught that it is not just the pope in his ex cathedra teachings who enjoys the Church’s charism of being able to teach infallibly in faith and morals. Both the First and Second Vatican Councils made this very clear, of course. And most Catholics know about the doctrine of the pope’s infallibility in certain circumstances. But Vatican II also taught:

Although the bishops, taken individually, do not enjoy the privilege of infallibility, they do, however, proclaim infallibly the doctrine of Christ on the following conditions: namely, when even though dispersed throughout the world, but preserving for all that amongst themselves and with Peter’s successor the bond of communion, in their authoritative teaching concerning faith and morals they are in agreement that a particular teaching is to be held definitively and absolutely (Lumen Gentium, 25).

This is the Church’s “ordinary and universal magisterium.” In his Responsum, Cardinal Ratzinger was reminding us that the Church’s unbroken, two-thousand-year-old practice of ordaining only males to the priesthood means that the Church’s teaching and practice in the matter have to be considered to be free from error. The Church’s hierarchy down through the centuries has not been mistaken about this. And Pope John Paul II, in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, was reflecting and repeating what the Church has always understood.

Ain’t gonna happen

Some people have declined to consider this conclusion final because in recent times a few bishops have questioned it. Nevertheless, it has been the “authoritative teaching” agreed upon by all the bishops in union with the popes for many centuries so that it now has to be considered an established infallible teaching of the Church. This is what Ratzinger was clarifying in the Responsum.

Despite the fond hopes of so many, then, women will never be ordained. Those who continue to think that this would be desirable (or even possible) evidently share contemporary ideas about unjust discrimination—in this case heavily influenced by a modern feminist ideology, some features of which are not easily compatible with Catholic teaching. The Church fundamentally disagrees that there is any discrimination here. The Church views the issue differently from the way many people see it in the current culture, and it is important to try to understand why this is so.

The principal explanatory document in the matter is “Declaration on the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood,” Inter Insigniores, issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (October 15, 1976). The key statement in this declaration is that “in fidelity to the example of the Lord, [the Church] does not consider herself authorized to admit women to priestly ordination”(Introduction, para. 5).

Not “authorized.” The similarity here to the language later employed by Pope John Paul II is apparent. That it is “in fidelity to the example of the Lord” that the Church is not so authorized is the essential point here.

The Church does not ordain women to the sacred priesthood because Christ did not include women among the select group of the Twelve to whom he gave the sacramental powers, which included ordination. After his Resurrection, Christ appeared to the apostles in the upper room and said to them, “‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained’” (John 20: 21-23).

No natural resemblance

In answer to the question of why Jesus did not include women in the college of the apostles, Inter Insigniores quotes St. Thomas Aquinas, who explained that “sacramental signs represent what they signify by natural resemblance” (Summa Theologica IV sent., dist. 25, q. 2, a.2, q.1; emphasis added). The ordained priest is a sacramental sign who acts in persona Christi (“in the person of Christ”), not merely in his name. To be able to act in this way a person needs to have a natural resemblance to Christ, who was a man.

This explanation of why women cannot be ordained to the priesthood seems deceptively simple, and some find it hard to accept that it is the real or the only reason. Upon careful reflection, it should become clear that it is a profound theological reason. In no way is it based upon, nor does it imply, any defect in the nature of women. Women are equal in their human dignity to men. They have a different role, though not a lesser one, than men. But they do not bear the natural resemblance to the man, Christ, that would enable them to act sacramentally in his “person.”

The priesthood does not entail a simple “function” that can be performed indifferently by just anybody (standing at the altar, pronouncing certain words, preaching, hearing sins confessed, etc.). Rather, the priesthood is a state of being initially conferred by Christ on the apostles and transmitted down through the generations of the ordained. It includes another one of those marks on the soul that we used to be told was acquired at baptism (“You are a priest forever”!).

Inter Insigniores also points out that Jesus did not limit his selection of apostles to men because of the culture of his times that denied leadership to women. Jesus was in no way bound by the culture of his times, as the New Testament attests. It shows that women formed a vital part of his followers; they were the ones, moreover, who stuck with him at the foot of the cross. Mary Magdalene was probably the first witness to the Resurrection.

Still, Jesus did not include any women among the apostles that he chose and set apart with special sacramental powers. Not even his mother, the human being whom the Church exalts above all others, was selected in this way. As the poet William Wordsworth wrote, she is “our tainted nature’s solitary boast.” As the responsorial psalm for the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe expresses it, “She is the greatest honor of our race.” Nevertheless, she was not ordained to the sacred priesthood.

From the beginning, in other words, the priesthood was understood to belong exclusively to men, who bore a “natural resemblance” to the man, Christ. Both the early Church and the medieval Church consistently adhered to this teaching and practice. Scarcely any question was ever raised about it until recent times, and especially since the rise of feminism. Nor was it ever the same kind of problem for the Protestants, because their ministry is not sacramental. It is notable that the Eastern Orthodox, who do have a sacramental priesthood, agree with the Catholic teaching and practice.

We really do, therefore, have to try to understand and accept that it truly is “in fidelity to the example of the Lord” that the Church does not ordain women to the priesthood.

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