Can women be priests in the Catholic Church?
Lines of research are as follows:
What has been the position of women in the Church over the past two millennia?
FINDING. The position of women was greatly influenced by the cultures of the societies in which Christianity was established. Cultural prejudices became part of the presumed ‘Christian tradition’ and so continued to affect women. We provide a timeline of the past 20 centuries.
What ministries have women actually exercised in the Church?
FINDING. Although women were by and large excluded from the sacramental priesthood, they took part in six recognisable ministries.
- Sacramentally ordained women deacons (ca 50 – 1000 AD).
- Ministering widows in North Africa, Italy and Gaul (ca 100 – 600 AD).
- Women Presbyters in the South of Italy and Sicily (ca 100 – 800 AD).
- Conhospitae in Celtic Britain and Ireland (ca 100 – 400 AD).
- Freilas in Basque territories of Spain and Gaul (ca 400 – 1400 AD).
- Abbesses who were ‘priests’ (‘Sacerdos’) in Germanic lands (600 – 1300 AD).
Has Catholic scholarship examined the question of the ordination of women?
FINDING. It has. We provide a survey of texts by scholars for and against the ordination of women.
PART ONE. Sacred Scripture
Has modern scholarship established norms for the correct interpretation of Scripture?
FINDING. Yes, it has.
- Ten principles should be kept in mind when interpreting any text of Scripture.
- They mainly concern the ‘literal sense’, ‘literary form’, intended scope and rationalization.
Jesus chose only men for his band of apostles. Did he thereby rule for all time to come that women cannot be priests?
FINDING. The omission of women from the apostolic twelve does not prove that women were excluded from the priesthood for all time:
- In no way do the Gospel texts imply a permanent exclusion.
- Women receive equal baptism which implies openness to sacramental priesthood.
- Women too were empowered by Jesus to enact the Eucharist in his memory.
- Jesus chose only men because men were socially predominant at the time.
- Jesus’ words and deeds require a dynamic unfolding as time progresses.
What about the belief that Jesus as ‘God Incarnate’ knew everything and therefore, with full intent, excluded women from the priesthood for all time to come?
FINDING. Such beliefs rest on a misunderstanding of the incarnation. They ignore the true humanity of Jesus.
- Jesus was truly human.
- He grew in wisdom.
- He did not know everything.
- He left important decisions to the later Church.
- Jesus was open to women.
Does the Apostle Paul not impose restrictions on women, for instance by insisting that they wear a veil in the Christian assembly?
FINDING. On the contrary. Paul emphatically underscores the equality of women.
- He sees women and men as truly equal in Christ.
- He recognises the diaconal status of Phoebe of Cenchreae.
- His suggestion about the veil concerns cultural propriety.
Do the Pauline Letters not forbid women to be in charge of men, or to teach in the assembly?
FINDING. The Pastoral Letters, written by disciples of Paul, seem more hostile to women. On inspection they contain no ground for excluding women from ministry.
- 1 Timothy 2,11-15 should be understood within its anti-Gnostic context.
- 1 Cor 14,34-35 is an interpolation with a similar background.
What about Old Testament texts excluding women from exercising authority?
FINDING. In Old Testament times women were considered subject to men. This should not affect their status in our time.
- Male dominance is a social fact presumed throughout the Old Testament.
- The creation stories need careful interpretation.
- Sirach 25,13 – 16,18 reflects the typical Old Testament bias against women.
PART TWO. Tradition
What kind of tradition in the Church can be a norm for establishing the content of the Deposit of Faith?
FINDING. The tradition must be biblical and informed. It may be latent, and is open to dynamic growth in the course of time.
What is the origin of the ‘tradition’ of not ordaining women as priests?
FINDING. An analysis of the available sources shows a systematic cultural prejudice against women in especially three areas:
- Women were considered to be inferior to men both by nature and in law.
- Women were held to be in a permanent state of punishment.
- Women were deemed ‘unclean’ because of menstruation.
What do the Fathers of the Church say about women and ministry?
FINDING. The Fathers of the Church take for granted that women should not be ordained priests. They generally base this on women’s presumed inferiority and sinful state.
- St. Ignatius of Antioch
- St. Irenaeus
- St. Clement
- St. John Chrystostom
- St. Jerome
- St. Augustine
- St. Isidore
Were rules about women laid down in local church synods?
FINDING. Rules about women in local synods reflect the acceptance of women’s subject status and reveal preoccupation with their presumed ‘unclean’ condition.
- Didascalia Apostolorum
- Canons of Dionysius
- Local Council of Gangra
- Synod of Laodicea
- Canons of St. Basil
- Apostolic Constitutions
- Apost. Constit. Book VIII
- Council of Carthage
- Synod of Orange
- Statuta Ecclesiae Antiqua
- Synod of Epaone
- Synod of Auxerre
- Synod of Rouen
- Canons of Bishop Timothy
- Penitentiary of Theodore
- Capitulary of Theodulf
What did theologians think about the ordination of women during the Middle Ages?
FINDING. The medieval theologians exclude women from priestly ordination. They too subscribe to women’s subject status and adduce spurious reasons to explain why women may not be priests.
- Rolandus Bandinelli
- Sicardus of Cremona
- Johannes Teutonicus
- ALBERT THE GREAT
- THOMAS AQUINAS
- Richard Fishacre
- St. Bonaventure
- William of Rothwell
- Henricus de Sergusio
- Henry of Ghent
- Gertrude of Helfta
- William of Rubio
- Richard of Middleton
- John Duns Scotus
- Antonio Andreas
- Francis of Meyronnis
- Durandus a Saint-Pourçain
- Guido de Baysius
- Joannes Andreae
- John of Bassolis
- Peter de la Palude
- Thomas of Strasbourg
- Antonius de Butrio
- Thomas Netter of Walden
- Dennis the Carthusian
Was the exclusion of women from the sacramental priesthood incorporated in church law?
FINDING. The ancient prejudices became part of the church’s official code of law.
What about the post-scholastic theologians?
FINDING. They just repeated the ancient prejudices against women – at times to excess. A few representative examples:
- H. Kramer and J. Sprenger
- John Knox
- Robert Bellarmine
- Cornelius a Lapide
- Anonymous Author: “Are women human beings?”
Have there been indications in tradition that women should be considered for priesthood?
FINDING. Yes, there have been of various kinds, namely:
- The practice of ordaining women as priests in some regions;
- Mary Magdalen was seen as a woman minister;
- Mary, the mother of Jesus, was perceived as having ‘priestly’ functions.
What kind of priesthood was attributed to Mary, the mother of Jesus?
FINDING. According to this tradition, Mary took part in Jesus’ own sacrificial priesthood.
- Jesus’ priesthood is given in tradition as the reason for hailing Mary as a priest.
- Mary participated in Jesus’ sacrifice, even on Calvary.
- Priests looked upon Mary as their model especially regarding the Eucharist.
- Traditional prayers to Mary Priest express it all.
- In traditional art Mary was at times presented as an ordained priest.
Was the devotion to Mary Priest widespread?
FINDING. We find it from early times to well into the 20th century.
- (633 – 733) St. Germanus of Constantinople
- (660 – 740) St. Andrew of Crete
- (690 – 750) John of Damascus
- (650 – 750) Epiphanius II
- (826) Theodore the Studite
- (400 – 1000) The Fathers on Mary’s priestly dignity
- (1090 – 1153) St. Bernard of Clairvaux
- (1200 – 1280) St. Albert the Great
- (1225) Ubertinus of Casalis
- (1250 – 1331) Engelbert of Admont
- (1389 – 1459) St. Antoninus of Florence
- (died 1501) Jan Mombaer
- (1492 – 1540) Francis of Osuna
- (1486 – 1555) St. Thomas of Villanova
- (1491 – 1556) St. Ignatius of Loyola
- (died 1610) Jacques le Vasseur
- (1615) Juan de Cartagena
- (died 1628) Christopher of Avendaño
- (died 1637) Charles de Condren
- (died 1643) J. Duvergier de Hauranne
- (1575 – 1646) Ferdinand Chirino de Salazar
- (1608 – 1657) Jean-Jacques Olier
- (1585 – 1662) F. Bourgoing
- (died 1666) Jacques Biroat
- (died 1671) Joseph Oudeau
- (1604 – 1675) Ippolito Marracci
- (1599 – 1676) Jean de Machaut
- (died 1676) Félix Ceuillens
- (died 1692) Lazare Dassier
- (died 1694) Nicolas de Dijon
- (1608 – 1697) Antonio Vieira
- (1633 – 1715) Julien Loriot
- (died 1754) Sébastien Dutreuil
- (1684 – 1759) Francesco Pepe
- (1696 – 1787) St. Alphonsus of Liguori
- (died 1796) C. L. Richard
- (1780) Jean Puy
- (1790) Pierre Claude Frey de Neuville
- (1800 – 1823) Pope Pius VII
- (1806) M. J. Scheeben
- (1822) C. E. Berseaux
- (1843) F. Ambrosj
- (1843) J. M. Raynaud
- (1850) H.Oswald
- (1850?) P. J. de Clorivière
- (1852) F. Coulin
- (1857) F. W. Faber
- (1858) Auguste Nicolas
- (1792 – 1861) Joachim Ventura
- (1861) Philpin de Rivière
- (1861) Hubert Lebon
- (1866) F. Maupied
- (1866) Cardinal Wiseman
- (1867) J. B. Lemarchal
- (1807 – 1870) St. Antonio María Claret
- (1846 – 1878) Pope Pius IX
- (1875) Cardinal Pius
- (1876) H. Perreyve
- (1876) J. B. Petitalot
- (died 1876) Gaetano Guida
- (1884) J. B. Causette
- (1884) Sp. Marmien
- (1884) Cardinal C. L. Place
- (1884) J. de Ravignan
- (1804 – 1891) P. Jeanjaquot
- (1891) Cardinal Maury
- (1878 – 1903) Pope Leo XIII
- (1903) Cardinal C. Gennari
- (1904) Cardinal Vannutelli
- (1905) Cardinal Vivés y Tuto
- (1911) Bishop J. L. Morelle
- (1903 – 1914) Pope Pius X
- (1914) Bishop J. Nazlian
- (1914 – 1922) Pope Benedict XIV
- (1851 – 1926) Cardinal Mercier
- (1922 – 1939) Pope Pius XI
PART THREE. Theology
What is the main theological reason why women are held to be incapable of priestly ordination?
FINDING. The main theological reason given is that the priest acts “in the person of Christ”. Since Christ was a man, it is argued, only a male priest can signify Christ at the Eucharist.
What is the history of the argument that only men can act “in the person of Christ”?
FINDING. The argument derives from a wrong understanding of biology. Following Aristotle, the Fathers of the Church and medieval theologians believed that only the male contributed a ‘seed’ at conception. A pregnant woman was no more than a field nurturing the seed. This is why Thomas Aquinas, for instance, excluded women from the priesthood, because women cannot express ‘eminence of degree‘.
Can women represent Christ in the administration of the sacraments, and particularly the Eucharist?
FINDING. Women surely can. The quality signified by the priest is not Christ’s maleness, but his role as mediator. This can be signified also by women who are priests.
- Women receive an equal baptism which implies openness to all sacraments.
- Women are equal in Christ.
- Women too bear Christ’s image.
- Women already are ‘another Christ’ when administering baptism and marriage.
- Women reflect better Christ’s feminine traits.
- Women too can represent Christ’s love which is the essence of his priesthood.
What about the argument that, in the symbolism of salvation, Christ is the Bridegroom and the Church is his Bride — and therefore only a man should represent Christ in the priestly ministry?
FINDING. The argument has no validity.
- The nuptial imagery does not extend to the sacramental priesthood.
- Christ as the groom in the Eucharist leads to absurd implications.
- At the Eucharist the priest acts also in the person of the Church.
Since no one can claim priestly ordination as a right, can the Church not exclude women without infringing human rights?
FINDING. Though no individual has a right to be ordained, excluding a whole class of baptised persons from the priestly ministry constitutes real discrimination, especially since there are no valid arguments from Scripture and Tradition.
What is the significance of the fact that other Christian Churches have begun to ordain women to the priesthood?
FINDING. It is highly significant. Vatican II clearly stated that the Holy Spirit is also at work in other Christian Churches and the fact that so many, after carefully studying the sources of revelation, have decided to ordain women establishes a strong argument in its favour.
What to make of the Catholic women who feel themselves called to the priesthood?
FINDING. It is an indication that the Holy Spirit is at work in the Catholic community. There is no valid reason to consider a man’s “inner call” of greater value than that of a woman.
PART FOUR. The Teaching Authority
Has the Magisterium of the Catholic Church spoken on women and priestly ordination?
FINDING. Yes, recent Popes and Vatican departments have, since 1976, repeatedly pronounced against the possibility of ordaining women to the priesthood.
- We provide the full texts of 26 relevant documents.
- Once or twice these documents have asserted that the exclusion of women has been ‘infallibly decided by the Universal Ordinary Magisterium’, that is: by the bishops of the whole world.
- On other occasion the formulation was that the matter has been ‘definitively’ decided.
Can the claim of an infallible decision in this matter by the Ordinary Universal Magisterium be substantiated?
What has been the reception by Catholic scholars of the claim that the matter has been decided ‘infallibly’ or ‘definitively’?
FINDING. Catholic scholarship has rejected the claim. Samples of the assessment follow:
- The Catholic Theological Society of America
- Nicholas Lash, professor of divinity, Cambridge University, UK
- Francis A. Sullivan SJ, emeritus professor Gregorian University Rome
- Elizabeth A. Johnson, C.S.J., professor of theology at Fordham University, New York
- Gisbert Greshake, professor of theology at the University of Freiburg, Germany
- Ann O’Hara Graff, professor of theology at Seattle University, Washington
- Peter Hünermann, professor of theology at Tübingen University, Germany
- Sidney Cornelia Callahan, pastoral theologian, USA
- David Knight, pastoral theologian, Memphis, USA
- Richard Gaillardetz, associate professor, University of St. Thomas, Houseton, USA
- Klaus Nientiedt, in Herder Korrespondenz 9 (1996) pp. 461-466.
- John H. Wright, in America 171 (July 30-Aug. 6, 1994) pp. 16-19.
- Fourteen Indian Religious Sisters, theologians and academics.
- Joseph Moingt SJ, editor of Recherches de Science Religieuse.
- Hugh O’Regan, editor of the on-line magazine, San Francisco Bay Catholic.
- The commission on “Woman and the Church” of the Belgian Bishops’ Conference.
How have the ordinary faithful received the claim that women cannot be ordained priests?
FINDING. Statistics through the decades show that in countries with a high level of education, the sensus fidelium overwhelmingly rejects such a claim. In spite of official church teaching, up to two-thirds of Catholics believe women can be ordained.
But what about the claim that the Teaching Authority can never err?
FINDING. It simply is not true. The teaching authority has often failed in the past. Examples follow.
- The condemnation of taking interest on capital loans.
- 19 centuries of the teaching authority condoning the practice of slavery.
- The teaching authority asserting that there is no salvation outside the church.
- 65 questions on which the teaching authority changed its position.
Is the Teaching Authority gradually changing its position regarding women?
FINDING. During the past century we have witnessed a gradual crumbling of official church prejudices against women.
- There have been improvements in church law.
- The admission of women to church choirs is an instructive example.
- The toleration of women as mass servers presents a similar tale.
What is the correct Catholic response to a teaching authority that errs?
FINDING. Theologians and the faithful have a duty in conscience to voice their disagreement when the Teaching Authority fails.
- This is the teaching of Vatican II.
- It was the conviction of theologians like Joseph Ratzinger before he became Pope.
- It is the conviction of many responsible Catholics.
We welcome any contributions to our lines of inquiry, whether in the form of observations, critiques, submission of new material or the suggestion of other topics for research.
The Ordination of Women in the Catholic Church. Unmasking a Cuckoo’s Egg Tradition by John Wijngaards (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 2001), 204pp.; also published in the USA (Continuum 2001), India (Media House 2002).
Dutch edition: Het Niet-wijden van Vrouwen in de R.-K. Kerk. Een koekoeksjong in het katholieke nest (Gorinchem: Narratio, 2002);
Italian: Nè Eva, Nemmeno Maria. L’ordinazione sacerdotale delle donne nella Chiesa cattolica, (Molfetta: Meridiana, 2002);
Japanese, Akashi Shoten, Tokyo 2006;
French, L’Ordination des Femmes dans l’Église Catholique (Paris: Chrétiens Autrement, 2006).
Did Christ Rule Out Women Priests? by John Wijngaards (Great Wakering: McCrimmons, 1977, 2nd edn in 1986), 104pp.; Indian edition, ATC, Bangalore 1978; Dutch edition, KBS, Brugge 1979.