"Only a baptized man (vir) validly receives sacred ordination."  The Lord Jesus chose men (viri) to form the college of the twelve apostles, and the apostles did the same when they chose collaborators to succeed them in their ministry....The Church recognizes herself to be bound by this choice made by the Lord himself.  For this reason the ordination of women is not possible. (1)
The fact that the Catholic Church does not ordain women to the ministerial priesthood is no secret.  In fact of all the Church's policies it is one of the most widely criticized!  Yet the actual reason why the Church confers the Sacrament of Holy Orders only on men is less well known.

Is Sexism the Reason?

One usually hears the charge that this policy arises from a deeply entrenched "sexism".  Yet our Faith is not sexist!  The Catholic Church teaches that women are equal to men in human dignity, capacity for salvation and potential for spiritual growth and holiness - not bad for a "patriarchal" religion.  She also teaches that the highest creature is the Blessed Virgin Mary - a woman!  It is difficult to find "sexism" in such doctrines.

Though a few medieval writers tried to argue against women priests on the basis of an allegedly "inferiority" or "state of subjection" to man, this was only their personal opinion, not the Church's official dogma.

In 1977, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith released its Declaration of on the Question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood (Inter Insignores).  This document, which rejected the idea that women could be priests, also stated that "the Scholastic doctors, in their desire to clarify by reason the data of faith, often present arguments on this point (women's ordination) that modern thought would have difficulty in admitting or would even rightly reject" (2).  This is a clear reference to any argument which would posit some alleged "female inferiority"!

Finally, consider all the liturgical roles which the Church has opened to women and girls in the past few decades.  Many Catholic parishes currently have female readers, special ministers of the Eucharist, parish coordinators, even altar servers.  The pope permitted the latter despite the strong protests of many traditionalists.  The Church has done much to include women in the liturgy, even at the risk of angering and losing many of her members!  Why then does she not also ordain women to the ministerial priesthood?

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So Why No Women Priests?

The simple reason is that she just cannot do it, as her documents clearly state.  According to Inter Insignores, the Church "does not consider herself authorized to admit women to priestly ordination" (3).  And in his recent letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, Pope John Paul II authoritatively writes:  "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" (4).

So it is not that the Church can but will not; rather, she does not because she cannot!

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A Common Argument against Women's Ordination

The most common argument put forth against female priests contends that, since God became incarnate in the male sex, only men can represent Christ and so only men can become priests.  Though not untrue, this argument is incomplete and open to misunderstanding.  It may give the impression that women are not Christlike, and are thus "second-class Christians".

Nothing could be further from the heart and mind of Mother Church!  The witness of countless female saints in Scripture and Church history refute this notion, as does the modern example of such Christlike souls as Mother Teresa.  In fact, the one saint who is most like Jesus is His holy Mother, Mary.  The Blessed Virgin is even more Christlike that Saint Francis of Assisi, for she is the sinless New Eve whose entire life mirrors perfectly that of the New Adam.  So this argument obviously needs further clarification to prevent any false conclusions.

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A Clash of Worldviews

A major reason why this issue is so controversial could be that each side is approaching the question from a different worldview.  The feminist worldview, for instance, states that all differences between male and female roles arise from male domination and oppression of women.  Thus the Church's exclusion of women from Holy Orders must be another example of such "patriarchy".

But is the feminist worldview valid?  One can hardly deny the existence of unjust discrimination against women throughout the centuries and even today.  But does that mean that all social and religious distinctions between men and women are necessarily unjust?

For instance, let us examine woman's traditional role as homemaker.  Most feminists seem to believe that this role was arbitrarily forced on women by men who wanted to keep their wives under thumb, at home, "barefoot and pregnant" in the kitchen, rather than allowing them equal and competitive access to outside employment.

Though almost axiomatic in modern Western society, this notion is highly questionable.  This role differentiation undoubtably originated with our earliest ancestors.  Lacking that modern convenience known as the grocery store, they had to go out and hunt their food, which often involved killing large animals.  Their children were always breastfed, since mothers did not have the option of bottlefeeding with store-bought formulas (and even today, nursing in "less advanced" societies usually continues far beyond the first year).

Now, it is a simple fact of nature that the average man tends to possess more upper body muscular strength than the average woman.  It is also obvious that women have an innate capacity to bear and nurse children, a gift which men do not share.  In prehistoric times, such basic biological facts would have naturally dictated men's and women's roles.  The males, whose strength suited them well for killing large game, would logically be the ones who went out on hunting expeditions.  The women, being the bearers of and sole source of nourishment for their young children, necessarily had to stay closer to home with their offspring.

This arrangement would later evolve into the familiar male=breadwinner/female=homemaker role division.  To our modern society, these roles may seem arbitrary and unfair, since there is no reason today why a man can't stay home and bottlefeed a baby while the mother goes to work.  But our distant ancestors did not have that option!  (Imagine a cavewoman handing her newborn to the father and saying "Here, you nurse the baby while I go bag a bison."  It would never have worked!)

So the traditional male=breadwinner/female=homemaker roles were not arbitrary ones imposed on oppressed females by evil males.  They grew out of basic necessity and common sense in a primitive, hostile world.  They were not founded in sexism, but survival!  Thus the feminist worldview admittedly is in error on this point.

If it errs on this point, might it not err on others as well?  Perhaps the lack of women priests in the Catholic Church is not rooted in sexism or misogyny either.

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The Catholic Worldview

The Church, too, has a "worldview", as does any religion.  Hers is rooted in the Bible and Sacred Tradition, which she believes to be Divine Revelation.  If we examine the Church's worldview, perhaps we will understand why she does not consider herself able to ordain women.

(I recognize that many readers are not Catholic, and therefore will not agree with the Church's worldview and the conclusions drawn from it.  But please recognize that this a legitimate religious worldview, cherished and developed over the centuries, not a modern excuse fabricated to "disempower" women.  If you do not accept our worldview, I ask you to at least try to understand and respect it.)

Scripture tells us that, in the beginning, God created man and woman (Genesis 1:27; Matthew 19:4).  The Church believes and officially teaches that the human race originated with this human couple, whom Scripture calls "Adam" and "Eve".

God created two sexes because His Plan for the human race requires that male and female cooperate in the transmission of life.  The Creator originally intended for our first parents to transmit to all their descendants both physical life and the supernatural life of grace.  After the Fall, however, they could pass on only physical life doomed to die and spiritual death-that is, original sin, the lack of sanctifying grace in the soul.

So that the new creation might correspond to the original, God ordained that in the order of grace a New Adam and a New Eve should together restore supernatural life to the human race.  Scripture tells us that Jesus is the New Adam (Romans 5:12-19).  By restoring to us the grace forfeited by the first Adam, He has become the Head of a new, redeemed humanity (even as Adam is the father of all humanity).

This is why Jesus assumed male flesh in His Incarnation.  His Resurrection did not abolish His physical sex, so Christ is still male and masculine in His Sacred Humanity.  Jesus "was and remains a man" (5), He is still the New Adam. But according to the Divine Plan, He must transmit new life to us with the help of a female "counterpart", a New Eve (being God, He could certainly do it all by Himself, but He has willed to do otherwise).

This "New Eve" is the Holy Mother Church, the Bride of Christ (Ephesians 5:24-31; CCC 796).  She is His suitable helper in the work of redemption as Eve was the suitable partner of Adam (Genesis 2:18).  Scripture never portrays her in masculine terms, only feminine, for she is mystically "feminine":  our spiritual Mother (Galatians 4:16; CCC 757) who gives birth to us in the Sacrament of Baptism (John 3:5; CCC 694, 1238).

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Alter Christus: Father and Bridegroom

The Catechism tells us that the priest acts "in persona Christi Capitis"; in the person of Christ, the Head of the Church (CCC 1548).  Though a mere man by nature, by the Sacrament of Holy Orders he represents the New Adam in the midst of His Mystical Body and Bride (II Corinthians 5:20; CCC 1152-1153).  Thus the priest has traditionally been called an alter christus - another Christ!

The Sacrament of Orders bestows on the priest a mysterious participation in Christ's role as Bridegroom.  This is expressed in the saying that priests and bishops are "married to the Church".  This statement conveys a deep truth of which few are aware: a priest or bishop actually has a mysterious "spousal" relationship to the Bride of Christ!  (Bishops even wear a ring to symbolize their "marriage" to their diocese, which is a microcosm of the universal Church.)

John Paul II writes in Mulieris Dignitatem, that the Eucharist, "expresses the redemptive act of Christ the Bridegroom towards the Church, the Bride" (6).  The priest, therefore, in celebrating this Sacrament, acts in persona Christi in a "spousal" role toward Holy Mother Church!  As Christ, the New Adam, is married to the Church, so each alter Christus mysteriously shares in His nuptial relationship to the New Eve.

As the spouse of Mother Church, the priest is the spiritual father of all her children.  In Baptism he confers on us the life of grace and then nourishes that life in our souls by the other Sacraments, particularly Holy Eucharist.  He also blesses and counsels us, prays for and admonishes us.  In all these things he displays his fatherhood toward the faithful, which is a participation in Christ's own Fatherhood of Grace.

So we Catholics call our priests "Father" not merely as a clerical honorific like "Reverend", but because the ministerial priesthood is a true fatherhood, and each member of the priesthood a true spiritual father!

If the priesthood is essentially a spiritual fatherhood toward believers and a mystical espousal to Mother Church, we can see why women cannot become priests.  A woman cannot be a father, nor can she validly marry another female (despite what any human court may decide!).  Since marriage is the union of male and female, and Mother Church is "female/feminine", her "spouse" can only be male/masculine!  Hence only men can be priests.

A woman can, of course, be a mother, but the ministerial priesthood is not a spiritual motherhood.  She can represent Mother Church, she can be a "bride of Christ", but she cannot represent Christ the Bridegroom, she cannot spiritually "father" us nor metaphysically "marry" the New Eve.

So this is what the statement "Christ is male so only males can represent Him" actually means.  Not that women cannot be Christlike (they can in many ways not related to sex or gender), but only men can represent Jesus specifically in His role as the New Adam, Father of the New Humanity and Husband of Mother Church.

So the exclusion of women from the priesthood in no way implies any "inferiority" of women.  A mother and wife is clearly not inferior to a father and husband, just different.  Nor are women inferior to men because they cannot be spiritual fathers or husbands.  All Christians are equal though they have different roles in the Body (I Corinthians 12:14-30).  All cannot be priests; the laity are necessary too. And the laity, female or male, are certainly not "second-class Christians"! (7)

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Power or Service?

Feminists often argue that women should become priests in order to gain "power" in the Church.  There are a number of problems with this attitude.

First, the average parish priest does not have much "power" in the Church.  He himself is under obedience to the bishop and is not part of the Magesterium.  He also has only partial Holy Orders; the bishop has full orders.  (In fact, Jesus actually made His Apostles bishops, not mere presbyters (priests).  Since Holy Orders actually began with the episcopate, the idea that women could start as priests and "work their way up" is clearly backwards!)

Second, many Catholic women throughout the centuries have enjoyed positions of power and influence without being clergy.  Medieval abbesses often exercised tremendous authority; in the early Middle Ages they sat in on synods with the bishops and answered to the pope directly, with no one above them.  Though they did not have Orders, their temporal power often equalled that of the bishops.  Those in charge of double monasteries had both nuns and monks under obedience to them, so some abbesses even had authority over men!

Female saints such as Hildegard of Bingen and Catherine of Siena wrote prophetic letters to popes, cardinals, bishops, priests and kings admonishing them to do God's will, and Saint Birgitta of Sweden once instructed a group of male theologians in Naples (8).  These women all had some influence or authority in the Church without Holy Orders-in fact, they even opposed the "ordination" of women!

Last, the feminist quest for "power" is most problematic because it violates the spirit of the Gospel.  Jesus said that whoever would be great in the kingdom of God must become the least and the servant of all (Matthew 20:26-27).  Leadership in the Church is actually servitude.  Anyone, man or woman, who seeks a leadership position in the Church in hopes of acquiring "power" should not receive that position, for that desire conflicts with that of Christ, Who came "not to be ministered to, but to minister" (v. 28)

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A Higher Goal

In closing, we must consider that though the ordained hierarchy is important to the Church on earth, it is only temporal.  The Church Triumphant in heaven consists of an everlasting hierarchy based not on the Sacrament of Orders but on personal holiness. Both women and men find a place in this heirarchy, and, as we have seen, the highest of them all is neither an ordained priest nor a man, but a lay woman, the Virgin Mary.  She is hardly an "inferior" female:  Mary is greater than any mere man (9); greater than any priest, bishop, cardinal or pope; greater even than Her earthly husband, Saint Joseph!  Name another patriarchal religion which teaches that a woman could rise so high in sanctity as to surpass all its male clerics and even her own husband (I doubt you will find one!).

The all-male hierarchy will cease on the Last Day, but the hierarchy of holiness will last eternally.  So women who seek ordination seek merely a temporary position of authority.  How much better to lay up ones treasures in heaven (Mt 6:20) where one can reign forever in the ranks of the saints!

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  1. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1577.
  2. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, (1976) Inter Insignores
  3. Ibid.
  4. John Paul II, (1994) Ordinatio Sacerdotalis.
  5. Inter Insignores
  6. John Paul II, (1988) Mulieris Dignitatem 26.
  7. Some arguments favoring women's ordination actually betray a certain "hyperclericalism", for they are rooted in the assumption that the only worthwhile role one can play in the Church is a liturgical one.  Since this role has traditionally been reserved for priests, the only way the laity can serve the Church is to become clergy, or at very least "quasi-clergy", like readers or Eucharistic ministers.  Whether proponents of this view realize it or not, it is actually a subtle denigration of the lay state and its own important standing in the Body of Christ.
  8. Rhonda De Sola Chervin, A Treasury of Women Saints (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant, 1991): 191.
  9. Christ is not a mere man, but God Incarnate.  Thus He is infinitely greater than Mary - not because He is male but because He is God!

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