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:
- The Catholic Church won’t ordain women, because she can’t;
- She can’t, because Jesus deliberately chose a male-only priesthood; and
- 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.