Women’s ordination has been in the news twice this week. The major story was that the Anglican Communion, which has allowed women to be ordained priests for some time now, has just announced that they will start ordaining female bishops. On this side of the Tiber, Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley caused something of a stir when 60 Minutes aired an interview in which he said, “If I were founding a church, I’d love to have women priests.”
So let’s talk about it. Why won’t the Catholic Church just ordain women already?
|François-André Vincent, The Greek Priest (1782)|
One mistake that women’s ordination supporters tend to make is starting off with the wrong question. I mentioned the Cardinal O’Malley interview, but it’s important to give his fuller response to the question of women’s ordination: “If I were founding a church, I’d love to have women priests. But Christ founded it, and what he has given us is something different.”
Some Catholics have chided him for this answer, viewing it as a sort of passing the buck, as if the Cardinal is saying, “Don’t blame me, blame Jesus!” I disagree. I think he’s making an important point: before we get to the question of whether the Church should ordain women, we need to first know if the Church can ordain women. O’Malley’s answer reminded me of something that I heard Cardinal Pell say recently about divorce and remarriage (the 2:03 mark here):
As Christians, we follow Jesus. And I could confess, I perhaps might have been tempted to hope that Jesus might have been a little bit softer on divorce. But He wasn’t, and I’m sticking with Him.
Both Pell and O’Malley are making the same point. It’s not a simple matter of what you or I would like. I might wish gluttony weren’t a sin, or that eating an entire box of doughnuts weren’t bad for my health, but my wishing it doesn’t change reality. If I’m contemplating pursuing my dreams, I should probably know at the outset whether or not my dream is even possible.
So, the better, more fundamental question is: can the Church ordain women? And the answer to that is clear. Pope John Paul II invoked his authority as the pope to clarify that the Church’s teaching on the male-only priesthood is infallibly settled, and that the Church can’t ordain women:
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.
So the Church won’t ordain women, today, tomorrow, or ever, because she can’t. That answer is perfectly clear, but I imagine it’s not entirely satisfying. Why can’t the Church ordain women?
|Illustration of Jesus and the Apostles from the Siysky Gospel (1340).|
A second mistake that women’s ordination supporters tend to make is treating the Church as all-powerful, as if she can simply change dogma. But she can’t, and Vatican II explicitly teaches that she can’t:
This teaching office [the Magisterium] is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed.
There are certain things that are just manmade policies within the Church, and those can be changed, if the circumstances demand it. But there are other things that are given to us by God, and we can no more change those than we can throw out the Ten Commandments. These are instances in which our only choices are to listen to Jesus and obey Him, or ignore Him and disobey Him.
As St. John Paul II made clear, women’s ordination is one of those things that we don’t have the power to change. Jesus was intentional about creating a male-only clergy. Ironically, a good place to see this is in the open letter to Cardinal O’Malley that Erin Saiz Hanna and Kate McElwee of Women’s Ordination Conference recently issued, in which they said:
In all four gospels, Mary Magdalene was the primary witness to the central event of Christianity — Christ’s resurrection. In John’s Gospel, Jesus called on Mary Magdalene — a woman — to preach the good news of his resurrection to the other disciples. The Scriptures also mention eight women who led small house churches, including Phoebe, Priscilla, and Prisca. And, not least of all, Mary of Nazareth, who answered her vocational call from God and first brought Jesus, body and flesh, into our world.
Now, the details of these claims aren’t right. Mary Magdalene witnesses the first of Jesus’ post-Resurrection appearances, but she doesn’t witness the Resurrection itself. Priscilla and Prisca are the same person, and while she and her husband Aquila let the Church meet in their home (1 Corinthians 16:19), neither she nor Phoebe are described as having “led small house churches.”
But those errors aside, Hanna and McElwee are pointing to something important: women play an important role in early Christianity. Jesus Christ is unafraid to interact with women, even ones with a bad reputation, like the Samaritan woman of John 4, who is initially shocked by Christ’s boldness in speaking to her (John 4:9). The New Testament authors are nonchalant about the fact that it was Mary Magdalene who first witnessed the Resurrection Nor does this stop on Easter morning: both Acts and the letters of Paul reveal that women played important roles in spreading the Gospel from the very beginning.
|Guernico, Jesus and the Samaritan Woman at the Well (1641)|
But in pointing this out, Hanna and McElwee show the impossibility of their own case. For Scripture is equally clear that none of these prominent women, not even the Virgin Mary, were ever considered Apostles or priests. Consider how the Women’s Ordination Conference (that Hanna and McElwee represent) attempts to address that difficulty:
The decision not to include women among his twelve apostles says nothing about women as priests except that Jesus, as a Jewish male of his time, knew that the custom and tradition of his day did not allow women to assume leadership roles. By following the prevailing custom Jesus was not precluding a time when women, along with men, could be ordained.
In other words, WOC’s position is that Jesus didn’t ordain women because He felt constrained by social norms that kept women out of leadership roles. But this excuse doesn’t work, for three reasons:
- It’s contradicted by everything about Jesus: His claim to be God was surely more upsetting to the social order than female leadership. Jesus regularly fraternizes with Gentiles, with women, with tax collectors and sinners (Matthew 9:10), even with lepers (Luke 7:22, 17:11-19). Christ is unafraid to embrace those on the margins of society, even when it outrages the Pharisees (Mt. 9:11). Where do we ever see Him sell out to appease “the custom and tradition of his day”?
- There are several important women in the New Testament: Remember that Hanna and McElwee just finished telling us about several important women in the early Church. So Christ isn’t afraid to give a voice to women. After all, it’s the witness of Mary Magdalene who leads Peter and John to the Tomb (John 20), in an age in which women’s testimony wasn’t even admissible in court. And there are several other instances in which Christ bucked the sexist views of His culture.
- Women already had leadership roles in Roman and Jewish society. The final problem is that the WOC’s position assumes that Romans and Jews would have been scandalized by female leaders. But the Romans had plenty of priestesses during this time period, and the Jews had prophetesses (cf. Luke 2:36), and the Gnostics (who tried to present themselves as Christians) had priestesses. So Christian priestesses wouldn’t have been a scandalous or unheard of innovation. What would shock pious Jews would be for Jesus to open the doors of salvation to the uncircumcised Gentiles… but He does that.
So we’re supposed to believe that Romans and Jews wouldn’t accept women as religious leaders (even though they both did), and so Jesus basically sold women out? Is that even a plausible explanation of the Gospel?
The WOC has a second answer to Jesus’ male-only priesthood: “For if women were to be permanently excluded then why not Gentiles?” But the difference here seems to be obvious. Each of the Twelve Apostles is Jewish because they represent the fulfillment of the Twelve Tribes of Israel (Matthew 19:28) and, as Jesus says to the Samaritan woman, “Salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22). In other words, there’s a theological basis for the Twelve being all-Jewish, to show the continuity between the Old and New Covenants. But the Apostles are also instructed to bring in the Gentiles, fulfilling the role prophesied of them in the Old Covenant, and so we quickly see Gentile clergy, but not female clergy.
There’s a second reason to consider, as well. There likely weren’t a lot of Gentiles in the pool to draw from: the earliest believers appear to have been all (or almost all) Jewish. Given that, it’s unsurprising that the Apostles and earliest clergy were Jewish. But as Hanna and McElwee point out, there were a number of believing women who faithfully followed Christ from early on in His public ministry (Luke 8:1-2, Matthew 27:55, Luke 24:10, Acts 5:14, Acts 8:12, etc.). We must therefore treat Christ’s creation of a male-only priesthood as an intentional act, and one that can’t be written off a mere concession to culture.
So the Church won’t ordain women, because she can’t. And she can’t, because Jesus deliberately chose a male-only priesthood. But that still leaves an important question: why would Jesus do this?
This brings us to the third (and in my view, the largest) mistake commonly made by women’s ordination advocates: treating the priesthood as an occupation, rather than a vocation.
|Cristóbal Rojas, The First and Last Communion (1888).|
That’s an important distinction. If being a priest is like being a surgeon, then it’s inexcusable for qualified women to be excluded. And this occupational view of the priesthood can be seen in several of the rationales favoring women’s ordination: for example, in treating the priesthood like a position of power (thereby “empowering” women), or as an individual’s birthright. But, as Simcha Fischer has explained, if you think you’re worthy of the priesthood, you’re wrong. Cardinal Ratzinger said it best:
Furthermore, to understand that this teaching implies no injustice or discrimination against women, one has to consider the nature of the ministerial priesthood itself, which is a service and not a position of privilege or human power over others. Whoever, man or woman, conceives of the priesthood in terms of personal affirmation, as a goal or point of departure in a career of human success, is profoundly mistaken, for the true meaning of Christian priesthood, whether it be the common priesthood of the faithful or, in a most special way, the ministerial priesthood, can only be found in the sacrifice of one’s own being in union with Christ, in service of the brethren. Priestly ministry constitutes neither the universal ideal nor, even less, the goal of Christian life. In this connection, it is helpful to recall once again that “the only higher gift, which can and must be desired, is charity” (cf. 1 Cor. 12:13; Inter Insigniores).
That’s because being a priest isn’t like being a surgeon. It’s like being a father. In fact, that’s the exact image that St. Paul uses to describe his priesthood several times (1 Corinthians 4:15; 1 Thessalonians 2:10-12; Philemon 1:10). It’s also closely tied to the servant-leadership model to which the Jesus calls the Apostles in Luke 22:25-27. And being a father isn’t something that you earn, or are due.
A woman can no more be called to be, or qualified to be, a priest than she can be called to be, or qualified to be, a husband and father. Likewise, a man is not called to be (or qualified to be) a wife, or a mother, or the Mother Superior of a religious order. Men and women are different, and fatherhood is uniquely masculine. This point is sometimes overlooked, sometimes denied, in modern society. So let’s re-establish some basic facts. Men and women are different. Even our brains are different, differences that begin before we’re born. Fathers and mothers are different, and at least some of these parenting differences are genetic in origin, not the result of simple social norms.
And Christ uses our unique gifts and talents in special ways, and He calls upon the sexes for different things. Women alone are given the power to grow new life within their wombs. Men alone are given the ability to turn bread and wine into Jesus Christ. He established a Church in which the Church herself is described as feminine, and has an essentially-feminine (and essentially-Marian) spirituality and relationship to God (cf. Ephesians 5), but has exclusively-male clergy.
There’s much more that could be said, particularly on this point, which I think is worthy of a deeper examination. For now, however, we’ve arrived at what I hope is a satisfactory three-part answer: (1) the Church won’t ordain women, because she can’t; (2) she can’t, because Jesus deliberately chose a male-only priesthood; (3) Jesus deliberately chose a male-only priesthood because He created the sexes to be distinct, each with their own unique gifts.
Having said this, perhaps it’s worth adding an important caveat. Over the last few decades, the hierarchy of the Church has been more intentional about listening to the views of women, and I think that this is an important development. Women often offer a unique perspective that men, including clergymen, lack. But this contribution is key precisely because men and women aren’t the same. So for the same reason that it’s heartening to see things like the Synod on Marriage inviting laymen and women to come speak, it’s worth rejecting any push to treat men and women as basically interchangeable.