Why I Believe in Women Priests (Sort of)

Moritz Calisch, Young Italian Woman Praying (1850)
Moritz Calisch, Young Italian Woman Praying (1850)

I. How Women Are (And Aren’t) Called to Be Priests

The Catholic Church quite famously only ordains men. And this Church teaching has not been without opposition. The so-called Winjgaards Center for Catholic Research argues the case this way:

The Catholic Church must continue to adapt itself to changing times in order to remain prophetic.

Is it not worrying that the Church still maintains a ban on women priests until this day, when the great majority of nations are striving to eliminate inequalities and promote gender equality throughout the world?

The times are changing and so must the Church!

It’s worth mentioning that a church always changing itself to keep up with popular culture is literally the opposite of “prophetic.” But there are deeper issues at hand. In a post I wrote back in 2014, I covered the major issues:

  1. The Catholic Church won’t ordain women, because she can’t;
  2. She can’t, because Jesus deliberately chose a male-only priesthood; and
  3. Jesus deliberately chose a male-only priesthood because He created the sexes to be distinct, each with their own unique gifts.

And this issue really is settled: the Church teaches it infallibly. The pro-women’s ordination side is (whether they realize it or not) actually calling for an end to the Catholic Church. The distinctive thing about Catholicism is exactly that we believe that the Church (and the pope speaking on behalf of the Church) can define doctrines infallibly. It’s why we don’t have the sort of interminable and irresolvable theological disputes that we see so often in Protestantism. When heresies arise – be it Arianism, Pelagianism, Jansenism, or women’s ordination – the Church eventually declares these teachings out of bounds. Without this authority, there would be no Church. So asking the Church to contradict one of her infallible teachings – or to declare it no-longer-infallible – is to ask her to deny herself.

But here’s the radical thing. In one sense, Christian women really are priests (or priestesses). And the Catechism of the Catholic Church actually teaches as much in CCC 783-84:

783 Jesus Christ is the one whom the Father anointed with the Holy Spirit and established as priest, prophet, and king. The whole People of God participates in these three offices of Christ and bears the responsibilities for mission and service that flow from them.

784 On entering the People of God through faith and Baptism, one receives a share in this people’s unique, priestly vocation: “Christ the Lord, high priest taken from among men, has made this new people ‘a kingdom of priests to God, his Father.’ The baptized, by regeneration and the anointing of the Holy Spirit, are consecrated to be a spiritual house and a holy priesthood.”

And again in CCC 1591-92:

1591 The whole Church is a priestly people. Through Baptism all the faithful share in the priesthood of Christ. This participation is called the “common priesthood of the faithful.” Based on this common priesthood and ordered to its service, there exists another participation in the mission of Christ: the ministry conferred by the sacrament of Holy Orders, where the task is to serve in the name and in the person of Christ the Head in the midst of the community.

1592 The ministerial priesthood differs in essence from the common priesthood of the faithful because it confers a sacred power for the service of the faithful. The ordained ministers exercise their service for the People of God by teaching (munus docendi), divine worship (munus liturgicum) and pastoral governance (munus regendi).

So every baptized Christian, male or female, really is made a sharer in the priesthood, prophetic office, and kingship of Jesus Christ. Both men and women are “consecrated” to this “holy priesthood.” So what’s the Biblical basis for this teaching? The primary New Testament bases are 1 Peter and the Book of Revelation:

  • 1 Peter 2:4-5, “Come to him, to that living stone, rejected by men but in God’s sight chosen and precious; and like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”
  • 1 Peter 2:9, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”
  • Revelation 1:5-6,To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.
  • And the hymn to Jesus in Revelation 5:9-10, “Worthy art thou to take the scroll and to open its seals, for thou wast slain and by thy blood didst ransom men for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and hast made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on earth.”

That’s not the same as the ordained ministry, of course. Christ didn’t choose any of His numerous faithful female disciples to become part of the Twelve Disciples, and none of the Apostles chose women as priests (“presbyters”) in the early Church (nor could they have).

But all of this, including the distinction between the “common priesthood,” and the ministerial priesthood, actually goes back much to the Old Testament. In Exodus 19:5-6, God promises to the whole people of Israel:

“Now therefore, if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my own possession among all peoples; for all the earth is mine, and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words which you shall speak to the children of Israel.”

Yet He then chooses a specific lineage – Aaron and his male descendants – to serve as His ministerial priests, with the other Levites assisting them. One of the Levites, a man named Korah, rebels from this, denouncing Moses and Aaron (Numbers 16:3): “You have gone too far! For all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them; why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?” In other words, since the whole people are priestly, how can there be a restrictive ministerial priesthood?

This is almost the exact argument that Martin Luther used in his Open Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, trying to pit 1 Peter and Revelation against the distinct ministerial priesthood; and it’s almost the exact argument that the women’s ordination crowd uses today (for example, arguing for women’s ordination on the basis that “It is the call of every female and male Christian to image Christ; and it is the call of every female and male Christian to see Christ in every person”). Worth noting: Korah’s argument was wrong, his rebellion angered God, and he and his followers were struck dead (Numbers 16:31-32).

So we are called to believe in two types of priesthood: a ministerial priesthood, limited to only those men called by God through the Church; and a common priesthood, which all of us are called to participate in through Baptism. At the heart of both is the one true High Priest, Jesus Christ (Hebrews 3:1; 6:20).

II. Women’s Unique Participation in This Catholic Priesthood

By this point, you might be thinking that the title was a misleading way to start a discussion about the existence (and distinction) of the common and ministerial priesthood. But there really is a way that only women can participate in this priesthood.

Understanding this is closely linked with how well we understand the common priesthood. What does it mean to say that we’re called to be “priests,” and how can women uniquely do this? St. Paul gives the answer to the first question in Romans 12:1-2,

I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

A priest, by definition, is one who offers sacrifice. That’s the distinctive task of a priest. It’s what the Jewish priesthood was called to do, it’s what Jesus did perfectly on Calvary, it’s what the priest does at every Mass, and it’s what each and every one of us is called to do. We can offer spiritual worship to God by making our bodies living sacrifices. And this is a thing that women can do uniquely through childbearing. Quite likely this is one of the things St. Paul had in mind when he speaks of how “woman will be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty” (1 Timothy 2:15).

Women like St. Gianna Beretta Molla, who laid down their lives to bring forth life, participate in Christ’s priesthood in a radical way for which there’s no obvious male parallel (the closest would be perhaps something like St. Maximilian Kolbe going to his death in the starvation chamber in Auschwitz to spare the life of one of the Jews).

I think that there are two reasons (other than ignorance!) that Catholics sometimes get squeamish about sharing what should be very good news for women. The first is for fear that it trivializes women by treating them as nothing more than child-bearers. The second is that it might be hurtful for those women who can’t have children for whatever reason.

To the first, I’d say this: of course women are more than child-bearers, more than mothers, etc. But what a bizarre thing to say! If you invested a dollar in a project and it produced six dollars for you, you wouldn’t ask, “Yeah, but what else is it good for?” If a man regularly saved human lives, we wouldn’t constantly temper our praise for him by asking whether or not he’s also a great conversationalist or a good basketball player. Nobody was trivializing Captain Sullenberger for praising his life-saving manuevers over the Hudson rather than his Masters’ degree in psychology. All of that is to say that if, at the end of her life, a woman can “only” point to having borne, birthed, raised and taught and catechized her children, that’s no small thing, and not a thing to which we need to tack on a long list of other accomplishments (even though many women do have other accomplishments, of course).

That’s not a way of reducing the other great things women do, but of recognizing the startling fact that every biological mother is the locus of a Divine encounter with earth, and a true echo of the Garden of Eden. The God of the Universe created a new immortal soul in her womb!

To the second point, that not every woman is called to be a mother or capable of becoming one, that’s entirely true. Some women, and all men, are incapable of participating in this particular priestly activity, just as some men, and all women, are incapable of becoming ministerial priests. That’s okay. The fact that an ordained priest is called to in a different way than a mother, or that a mother is called to in a different way than an infertile woman or a single woman or a religious sister or a layman, etc., is secondary to the fact that each of us are called to be priests of the Most High God in the way that He has prepared for us. St. Paul says it best in 1 Corinthians 12:14-19,

For the body does not consist of one member but of many. 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. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, 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?

The last thing that you would want to do is let the fact that you’re not able to be a mother or an ordained priest prevent you from being the kind of priest that God is calling you to be.

12 Comments

  1. The Church it its wisdom presents Truth in ways to help us understand and gain a closer relationship with Christ. In this case it is the the gift of complimentary. Together men and women help build the kingdom of earth, each bringing to bear their own unique gifts.

  2. I wonder how often you hear about Junia and Rom 16:7. I have dealt with the issue before, but it is the only verse that may be taken to mean that there were female Apostles.

    Personally, I think Junia was a guy as it was not universally a women’s name.

    1. St Thomas Aquainas apparently knew it as Junias, a man’s name:

      Then he says: Greet Mary, who has worked hard among you to restore concord among them, and when she failed in her endeavor, she notified the Apostle: “The fruit of good labors is renowned.” (Wis 3:15). Then he says, Greet Andronicus and Junias, whom he describes, first, from their race when he says: my kinsmen. This shows that they were Jews, about whom he said above (9:3): “They are my kinsmen by race.” Secondly, from the suffering they endured for Christ, saying” and my fellow prisoners. For they had been in prison once with the Apostle: “with far more imprisonments” (2Cor 11:23). Thirdly, from their authority when he says: they are men of note among the 599 apostles, i.e., noble among the preachers. Fourthly, from the time, when he says: and they were in Christ before me. For they had been converted before the Apostle and thus were owed greater respect: “Do not rebuke an older man, but exhort him as you would a father” (I Tim 5:1).

      St. Epiphanius appears to have known the name Junias:

      “Junias, of whom Paul makes mention, became Bishop of Apameia of Syria.”

      Origen appears to have known the name as Junias:

      “Andronicus and Junias and Herodian, all of whom he calls relatives and fellow captives”

      St John Chrystostom appears to have known this person as Junia, i.e. a woman:

      Ver. 7. Salute Andronicus and Junia my kinsmen.

      This also looks like an encomium. And what follows is much more so. And what sort is this of? And my fellow-prisoners. For this is the greatest honor, the noble proclamation. And where was Paul a prisoner, that he should call them my fellow-prisoners? A prisoner indeed he had not been, but he had suffered things worse than prisoners, in being not an alien only to his country and his family, but in wrestling with famine and continual death, and thousands of other things. For of a prisoner the only misfortune is this, that he is separated from his relations, and often has to be a slave instead of being free. But in this case one may mention temptations thick as snow-flakes, which this blessed person underwent by being carried and taken about, scourged, fettered, stoned, shipwrecked, with countless people plotting against him. And captives indeed have no further foe after they are led away, but they even experience great care from those who have taken them. But this man was continually in the midst of enemies, and saw spears on every side, and sharpened swords, and arrays, and battles. Since then it was likely that these shared many dangers with him, he calls them fellow-captives. As in another passage also, Aristarchus my fellow-prisoner. Colossians 4:10 Then another praise besides. Who are of note among the Apostles. And indeed to be apostles at all is a great thing. But to be even among these of note, just consider what a great encomium this is! But they were of note owing to their works, to their achievements. Oh! How great is the devotion (φιλοσοφία) of this woman, that she should be even counted worthy of the appellation of apostle! But even here he does not stop, but adds another encomium besides, and says, Who were also in Christ before me.

      A minority of the Church fathers believe Junia(s) was a woman, but most take the name Junias, a man. There are, unfortunately a majority of Modernist scholars who, due to the bias of their feminist philosophy, wish to doctor the evidence to this person being not only a woman, but also (and yet more intolerably) an Apostle. I would instead trust the early Christians of the 9th century, who upon adding Greek accents and transcribing the scriptures into Latin with no bias but to remain faithful to the ancient Tradition, nearly unanimously took the name Junias, a man.

      1. The Didache has some interesting regulations defining how to distinguish an authentic ‘apostle’ from a fraudulent one. Apparently, the term ‘apostle’ extended far beyond the 12 apostles of Jesus, and was used to identify those Christians who were themselves eye witnesses to the teachings of Christ while He taught throughout Judea and Galilee. It seems that these eyewitnesses wandered around as itinerant missionaries telling the stories that they were witness to. The Didache insinuates that there were some growing problems in the early Church with various fraudulent ‘missionaries’ transmitting invented tales for the sake of gaining vain popularity and a free meal. The Didache teaches the early Christians how to test and recognize such con artists so as to expose their deception.

        However, this of course is not to lessen the authority of the actual 12 apostles. Wherever the gospel was preached it was clearly understood by it’s very teachings that it was the 12 Apostles who were the preeminent authority in the early years of the Church.

  3. Great post Joe,

    The demand that women be ordained as priests is only one symptom of our modern society that screams for “equality”. Somehow they have lost the notion that we can all be equal and worthy while acknowledging and retaining our created differences.

    It’s interesting to note that another common complaint is that of the Bible describing God in the masculine sense. This also has ruffled some modern feathers so much so that some newer Bible translations are gender-neutral (TNIV)!

    I found 5 reasons why God being described as masculine is completely appropriate and divinely inspired and wrote about it here:
    http://simplecatholictruth.com/2016/10/30/why-is-god-portrayed-as-masculine-in-the-bible/

    Blessings in 2017!

  4. In analyzing the subject of woman in the ‘ministerial priesthood’ I think that many people discount the dignity inherent in the ‘natural law’ that has been a part of the development and evolution of not only humans but all other animal life as well. Humans are not the only male and female creatures out there, and a consideration and understanding of all the other male and female animal life, and their particular biological roles and habits, should be taken into consideration if we will have a proper respect for God’s excellent creation. And, in particular, a study of mammal life and habits, should be considered to discover how the roles of female mammals as a whole differ from their male mammal counter parts in the natural world. This is how we can get a better idea as to why it is that God chose only men for the ministerial priesthood, wherein it might not be such a theological reason as a physical or biological reason.

    In mammals, the most evident difference between the sexes is that all female mammals are created with the capability of both conceiving, and caring for until suitable maturity, new life for their particular species. And for this reason they are provided by natural law, through God, both the physical and instinctual capabilities for these two functions; but not, however, without some loss of other physical attributes, instincts and natural gifts, that their male counterparts are provided with.

    Female mammals, due to both pregnancy and menstruation, are naturally more in need of nourishment for their bodies in consequence of the loss of blood, vitamins and other essential biological nutrients used by their bodies for the conception and growth of their offspring. And this is why virtually all female mammals are smaller physical size than their male mammal counterparts throughout the world. This difference in physical size has many social and behavioral consequences in the life of all mammals. Smaller females are more likely, due to their lesser physical strength, to become prey for, or attacked by, other animals, and particularly during the times of their pregnancies. That is to say, males have evolved with with larger bodies and corresponding physical strength because the do not lose the nourishment that the females do in the reproductive development processes of their particular biology. Males also need not spend much time caring for the progeny, because it is the female that breast feeds their offspring, and again, losing their own nourishment through the production of milk, along the way. The females also must care for their immature offspring. They need to clean them, and teach them important skills necessary for survival. And all of this makes them vulnerable as prey for other animals, or natural enemies, that are always hunting them or their offspring, for their next meal.

    The males, on the other hand, are naturally larger than females, and so are capable of aiding and protecting the females in various ways, but mostly by attacking the most dominant enemies of their species. By reducing the population of potential predators of the females and their offspring, the males support the survival of their own progeny and species. This is seen for instance with male lions, who will kill hyenas and wild dogs on site so as to reduce their populations. They will even kill other smaller cats, such as cheetahs and leopards for the same reason, so that their lion progeny will not end up as a meal for these smaller cats.

    In human life, males have evolved in a similar fashion, as from the beginning there has always been warfare and a competition for suitable lands and places to survive in this harsh world. And God gave the male humans various gifts to both provide food for their families, and also protect them. Part of protecting their families, has been the ability to associate and work well together with other humans, and especially with their own relatives. In this way towns and villages were created to aid in human survival. And men, like other mammals, have been given the instincts and physical and mental strength to protect their families. They have evolved to become the leaders in human society. This is to say,that while the women are occupied with raising children, the men are busy making swords, hunting for meat, fishing, constructing homes with their superior strength, designing plows and tools for agricultural purposes, and raising and breeding livestock to aid in the survival of their families and villages.

    Men have always been the leaders of adult human social life, due to these essential functions. It’s not to say that females don’t have a portion of these same talents, it’s just that men are superior to woman in many ways regarding defense and protection, strategic planning and hunting, weapon and tool development, invention and innovation, logical reasoning and artistic design, music composition and philosophical and spiritual literary works.

    In view of all the various biological traits given by God to male humans, it is easy to see why the male priesthood has always, if not exclusively, predominately been a role for the male sex. This is how it has been throughout history, throughout the Bible, throughout the centuries since Christ was born into this world. And it is suitable for it to remain so for the future of the human race.

    The are just some biological reasons in support of a male only priesthood, which is under attack by progressive Catholics and Christians in our modern world.

    Please correct me if I have gotten any of this wrong. Most of it is just common sense, after analyzing both biological functions in nature and human history.

    1. Now, I sort of see what you are saying in the first few paragraphs, but then, do you seriously think that men in general are superior to women in “invention and innovation, logical reasoning and artistic design, music composition and philosophical and spiritual literary works”? Did you actually mean to say that women are less intelligent, and can’t write books, do artwork or compose music as well as men? I mean, it is clear to everybody that men are (in general) physically stronger than women; and this is very useful and necessary too, especially in less developed times and cultures, as you pointed out. But what has the brain to do with all of this? Are you saying you need brains to hunt deer, but not to raise children? Whence do you take your assumption that women are inferior to men in “logical reasoning” or anything like that? And, by the way, it’s simply not true that “men have always been the leaders of adult human social life”. There actually exist even matriarchal societies on earth. Or think of queens like Isabel of Castille, Theodelinde (a queen of the Langobards, I think she’s a Blessed), Empress Maria Theresia of Austria, Mary Tudor, Elizabeth I., Mary Stuart, or all the prince-abbesses (I hope that’s the right translation) in countries such as the Holy Roman Empire. These are all examples from Christian times. Or think of women like St. Catherine of Siena or St. Hildegard of Bingen. Christianity doesn’t have a problem with learned, intelligent women, women writing books or doing artwork, or women ruling a country. Priests represent Christ, which is why we have an all-male priesthood (apart from the obvious reason that Christ only chose men and we just follow the leader). It’s not that women are less apt at logical reasoning. (The same even goes for the Old Testament, by the way, where we have prophetesses like Miriam, leaders like Deborah, but no female priests.)

  5. Thanks for this piece and fine arguments. Most of them I’ve heard before…and appreciate them!

    For me as a convert, and ‘growing into’ understanding Catholic doctrine/dogma, it was, eventually, sex, that resolved the argument.

    Once I came to terms with the Bride and Bridegroom, and Who penetrates and impregnates whom, to produce offspring and Father, the male priesthood made complete sense. You’ll forgive the graphic depiction, but it really is what settled the issue for me.

    Thanks again.

  6. Both traditions in recent years have stressed the common priesthood as they seek to call forth the gifts of all the baptized. Both traditions then face the common challenge of articulating clearly and persuasively the proper relationship between ordained ministry and the common priesthood. Thus both Catholics and Lutherans need to clarify further the relation between the universal or common priesthood of all the baptized and the special ministry conferred by ordination. Differences between the traditions on this point are not church-dividing. On the contrary, here is an example of a non-divisive difference in which particular insights and struggles of Catholics and Lutherans can help each another toward their shared goal.

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