Women Priests: Why Not? An Introduction

     In recent years there has been a renewed push by some members of the Church to ordain women to the ministerial priesthood. While I understand some of the natural reasons people give for this push I can’t understand how they seriously entertain the idea because the Church has always held the privilege of ordination to be reserved for men. While the Church has not spoken on this reservation frequently in Her history, Her relative silence is more due to the fact that this teaching has not been frequently challenged. The Church’s teaching on women’s ordination is clear. Pope John Paul II, in his 1994 apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, taught definitively: “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.”[1]

     In a 1976 response letter to the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, Pope Paul VI laid out three primary reasons for why the Church is not able to ordain women; namely, the witness in Scripture of Christ calling only men, the constant practice of the Church, and the constant teaching of the Church.[2] While the Church cannot ordain women, She does not degrade women through Her reservation of the ministerial priesthood for men. This short response aims to give a glimpse into the Church’s reservation of the ministerial priesthood to men through the three reasons laid out by Pope Paul VI and attempts to show how the Church’s reservation does not violate the dignity of women.

     Pope Paul VI’s first reason for why ordination is reserved only for men is that Christ only called men. In the three gospel accounts of the calling of the 12 apostles[3], we see Jesus, after a long night of prayer,[4] freely choose[5] only men in union with the will of Father through Holy Spirit.[6] While some argue that Jesus choose only men to be members of the 12 apostles because of the social structure of the time this argument fails for two reasons: namely Jesus was counter-cultural and He was perfectly free, not bound by social structures. There are numerous examples of Jesus going against cultural trends to interact with women—as He did with the Samaritan woman at the well[7] or with the women who traveled with Him and remained with Him at the cross when all His other apostles departed in fear.[8] The many biblical examples of Christ’s interaction with women demonstrate that Jesus did not bind Himself to the social norms of His times. The argument that Jesus did not choose women because it was socially unacceptable not only fails against the biblical evidence of Jesus’ interaction with women but also implicitly makes the problematic claim that Jesus was bound by cultural norms and thus was not free. Jesus is both God and man. Simply stated, it is impossible for any restriction to be placed on God, thus Christ had to be totally free to choose women and would have chosen women if it would have been the will of the Father.

     Pope Paul VI’s second reason for the reservation of the ministerial priesthood to men rests on the constant tradition of the Church. From the moment Christ called the first 12 apostles, only men have been admitted to the ministerial priesthood. If Christ’s plan were to allow women to be ordained, either Christ or one of the apostles certainly would have ordained the Blessed Virgin Mary. What better priest could there have been than the most perfect Mother of God? Yet the Bible clearly shows that the Blessed Virgin was never a priest and did not consider herself a priest. While Mary was present when the Holy Spirit descended upon the apostles she did not go out and preach with the other apostles.[9] Even though some people have tried to point to instances in history where women appear to have been ordained, by pointing to the “ordination of deaconesses” and odd circumstances in history where vague evidence may suggest women were ordained, there is no concrete evidence the Catholic Church ordained women, but rather overwhelming evidence shows that, while many heretical sects like the Gnostics ordained women, the Church continued to reserve the ministerial priesthood only for men.[10]

Pope Paul VI’s third position rests on the constant teaching of the Church. From the earliest days, the Church has constantly held Her position not only in practice but also in Her teaching in the face of many heretical sects that were attempting the ordination of women.[11] While at certain moments in the history of the Church, She did not mention the reservation of ministerial priesthood for men, one should not hold that she supported it, but rather should see from the history there was very little serious opposition to the position of the Church and thus no need to readdress a settled topic. It was not until people began to rechallenge the Church’s position in the modern era that the Church had to defend herself clearly, which she did with the Declaration Inter Insigniores from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith in 1976, and most definitively with Pope John Paul II’s 1994 Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalies.

     While some see the Church’s reservation of Holy Orders exclusively for men as sexist they completely miss the point. The Church’s reservation does not degrade women in any way. While there is an essential difference between men and women the reservation of Holy Orders does not claim that men are greater than women. Just as the Church’s requirement of bread and wine for the sacrament of Eucharist does not mean there are not greater substances than bread and wine available neither does the Church’s reservation make any claim about men being greater than women. The reception of Holy Orders does not automatically make one holier than others: rather, each of us is called to grow in holiness in our respective vocations.[12] While women have many natural qualities that are a great asset to the Church, they simply cannot be admitted to Holy Orders. The Church’s reservation of Holy Orders to men says nothing about the dignity of women but rather recognizes Christ’s actions, the universal practice of the Church and the constant teaching of the Church. Women have an irreplaceable role to play in the Church but that does not mean they need to be priests to live out their role in the Church.


[1] Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, Paragraph 4 (22 May 1994), at The Holy See, http://www.vatican.va.

[3] Mt 10:1-4, Mk 3:13-19, Lk 6:12-16

[4] Lk 6:12

[5] Mk 3:13-14

[6] Acts 1:2

[7] Jn 4: 27

[8] Jn 19:25

[9] Acts 2:14

[10] A full analysis of these claims is not possible in this short response, but if someone would like to challenge this position I am happy to discuss specific cases.

[11] See Irenaeus Against Heresies 1:13:2, St. John Chrysostom The Priesthood 2:2 and Augustine Heresies 1:17.

[12] Second Vatican Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes (7 December 1965), §5, in Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, ed. Norman P. Tanner, S.J. (London: Sheed &Ward, 1990), 880-884.

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