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.

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.

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:

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.

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.

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.

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.

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:

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.

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.

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.

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:

Have there been indications in tradition that women should be considered for priesthood?

FINDING. Yes, there have been of various kinds, namely:

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.

Was the devotion to Mary Priest widespread?

FINDING. We find it from early times to well into the 20th century.

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.

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.

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.

Can the claim of an infallible decision in this matter by the Ordinary Universal Magisterium be substantiated?

FINDING. It cannot because the five conditions for such an infallible decision have not been met in the case of admitting women to the ordained priesthood.

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:

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.

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.

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.

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.