The following is the substance of a question I received on-line, and my response:
Q. Why does the Church not allow women to hold positions of power and why cannot women be priests?
A. Your question consists of two very different subjects: the first concerns women holding positions of power in the Church, and the second concerns women serving in the priesthood.
First, women do hold positions of power throughout the Church – as leaders of religious communities, principals of Catholic schools, directors of religious education, presidents of Catholic hospitals, heads of Church commissions, and so on. Women hold many leadership positions throughout the Church. This is true on the local level, and in the Vatican as well.
The second part of your question regarding the priesthood is an entirely different matter, and the best way to respond is to treat it like any other question about Church teaching. In other words, why does the Church teach anything? Whatever the Church teaches, she does so because such teaching is recorded in Holy Scripture, passed on through the ages by Sacred Tradition, and continues to be upheld by the Magisterium of the Church (the pope and the bishops in communion with him). This is what comprises authentically Catholic teaching, and it is the God-given responsibility of the Church to maintain and defend this “deposit of faith,” even to the shedding of her own blood. Catholic teaching cannot be invented out of thin air, simply at the whim or threat of an individual, whether pope or president. If a teaching truly belongs to this sacred deposit, then, in spite of political and social pressure, in spite of the world’s love for constant change and novelty and hatred for absolutes, the Church must stand by that teaching. So, in Matthew 28:18-20 – called the Church’s Great Commission – Jesus said to the Apostles,
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and behold, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”
This is the perpetual mission statement of the Church. Notice the all-important responsibility – to teach all that Christ commanded. And Christ taught by both word and example. That which He taught must be maintained always, or else the Church would be unfaithful to her divine Founder and the mission He gave to her.
Parallel to this, in Ephesians 4:14, Saint Paul warned about being like “children, tossed back and forth and carried about with every wind of doctrine.”
The difficulty that daily faces the Catholic Church is the temptation to fall from this commission and fail to uphold that which belongs to the faith she has received. Yes, some things can change, such as local customs or traditions that are not essential to the faith itself, but the Church must always be careful not to change merely because of pressure from the world to conform to the latest fad or fashion. The failure to withstand such pressure can be seen in the many Christian denominations that have changed essential beliefs and practices, in accord with the times and in submission to the world. Examples of this include the acceptance of contraception, divorce and remarriage, abortion, homosexuality, and same-sex “marriage”. Many denominations that once regarded these as grave sins now permit them, in conformity with the secular culture around them. To a person who dislikes the faith, this is called “progress”. But it is, rather, the result of cowardice, of the refusal to uphold the faith in spite of opposition. Did our Lord not warn us:
“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before you. If you were of the world, the world would love what is its own. But because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I have spoken to you: No servant is greater than his master. If they have persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (John. 15:18-20).
How, then, can the standard of Christians be to conform to the world and gain its approval? Does anybody respect such a characteristic in a person – this unwillingness to maintain one’s principles, in spite of threats from others?
Now to the topic of Holy Orders. Jesus Christ gave us the priesthood in order to continue through the ages His ministry among us. Just as our Lord once preached the Gospel, pronounced sinners forgiven, exorcised the possessed, anointed and healed the sick, and transformed bread and wine into His own Body and Blood, so too would priests. As He said to His Apostles on the night of His Resurrection,
“As the Father has sent me, even so I send you” (Jn. 20:21).
These sacramental actions pertain to the ministers of the Church, and they can be effectively performed only by the power of Holy Orders; in other words, they require ordination to the priesthood. No ordination, no priestly powers; no priestly powers, no Holy Eucharist or Penance. The priest, then, is rightly called “another Christ” (in Latin, “alter Christus”) in that he serves in the place of Christ, doing for the faithful as Christ did 2,000 years ago, and bringing to the faithful the truth and grace of Christ. The priesthood, then, is not primarily a position of power, but rather, a vocation of service and sacrifice in imitation of Christ. As our Lord said,
“…the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Mt. 20:28).
This statement sets the standard for every good and holy priest.
Holy Scripture repeatedly uses marital imagery in describing Christ and His relationship with His beloved Church; the Church is called His “bride”. Hence, the person serving in His place must be a male. If that person is a female, then the marital imagery actually signifies lesbian relations between a female priest and her bride, the Church. If this seems merely like an argument from poetry or imagery, it’s actually much more. Biblical language is never arbitrary or accidental. In this case, it reveals specifically what Christ wanted for the priesthood in the future – that it must continue to reflect this same complimentary marital relationship between husband and wife. Essential to this complimentarity is its natural fruitfulness. Yes, priests are meant to be fruitful, to have spiritual children who have benefitted from their priestly ministry. Hence, the ordination of women would represent a type of naturally barren same-sex “marriage,” and would be used as a sacramental argument in favor of it. Not coincidentally, the women’s ordination movement supports same-sex “marriage”. This would certainly be an appropriate image for a sterile Church that no longer believes in making converts, in leading people from false religion or unbelief to true religion and right belief. But Christ founded His Church to do just that – to make converts of all nations, cultures, philosophies, and religions.
What is the origin of the notion of women’s priestly ordination? Is it found in the words or actions of Christ, Sacred Tradition, or the Magisterium? No. It comes primarily from the ideology of feminism. And by the term “feminism,” I certainly do not mean the cause of women voting or receiving equal pay at work. I mean the ideology of radical feminism, a system of belief that includes doctrines and morals directly contrary to the Gospel. So, Pope Benedict XVI called this radical feminism “another gospel.” Feminism claims that, as a matter of justice, the Church must ordain women. But what sort of “justice” is this, and what is its source? After all, feminism fanatically supports abortion. Does this sound like Christian justice? Certainly not; rather, it’s the so-called justice of an ideology that is at variance with many fundamental doctrines and morals of the Christian religion. Hence, feminism is constantly demanding that the Church change many of her teachings.
In light of the example of feminism, should I too demand whatever I want of the Church, and then insist that my demand is a matter of justice? For example, I’m a married man, and married men cannot become priests. Am I suffering from injustice too? Has the Church rejected me or denied my dignity, simply because she won’t ordain me? Absolutely not! But should I demand that the Church change to satisfy my present opinions and desires, so that I can have another career option open to me, or gain power and leadership opportunities? This notion of the Church as an institution for personal advancement is utterly contrary to her nature as a religious society that, first and foremost, serves God and His truth, rather than personal, professional, and ideological fulfillment.
The Church must not bow to such an ideology, no matter how much pressure is put on her, because feminism is not a source of Catholic teaching. If she were to so bow, then the obvious question would be: what’s next on the long list of demands? If people insist next that the Church must accept abortion, euthanasia, same-sex “marriage,” polygamy, incest, prostitution, and so on, then must she change regarding these as well? If she did so change, then she could no longer be identified as Christ’s Church, because she would have abandoned the Great Commission Christ gave her. And besides, does anybody really need such a Church, such a compromised teacher? Why would anyone respect a religious institution that took its orders directly from the world? Who needs another cowardly religion that will say only what others have said?
When I was outside the Church, I was in favor of women’s ordination; or at least, for a few years I was indifferent to the issue. I attended years of Protestant services led by female ministers, and I worked for one as well as an organist. I had no problem at all with the idea. But I did notice substantial differences between male and female ministers, between their respective theologies and sermons. I noticed that the women were consistently more progressive, liberal, and even New Agey. Their presentation of the Christian religion seemed overly adjusted and adapted to the feelings of the times, and the more I reflected on this, the more I came to shudder at their reckless audacity in taking such liberties with the Holy Gospel. What if they were wrong about these adjustments and adaptations? Clearly, these ministers felt entitled to alter to their liking whatever they wanted, adding and omitting as they pleased. This completely undermined the notion of Christianity as a revealed religion.
An army of preachers and teachers commissioned by God with upholding a set of beliefs cannot allow itself to be deeply influenced by a contrary set of beliefs. This will only result in the undermining of the first by the second. The Church cannot serve two masters.
In my opinion and based on my own experiences, I believe feminism would be catastrophic to the Catholic religion, and feminism is the foundation of the women’s ordination movement; the two are inseparable. Women’s ordination would place within the sanctuary of our parishes an ideology that is not merely different from, but in many ways directly opposed to, the Christian faith. It would turn the faith upside down and inside out. We wouldn’t even recognize the religion that was preached from the pulpit. It would be the unholy gospel of paganism, the very lies and superstitions from which Christ had come to set us free.
Those in favor of ordaining women often present biblical passages to “prove” that such a practice is actually in accord with Scripture. A popular passage is Galatians 3:28:
“There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Allegedly, this passage means that God is indifferent to gender so that both men and women should be ordained. But the context has nothing to do with the priestly ministry. Saint Paul is writing about faith and salvation. Regarding these, God does not care whether a person has a Jewish or a non-Jewish background, whether they are slaves or free people, men or women. Regarding salvation, heaven is open to all people who accept the Gospel and live in accord with it. The passage has nothing to do with priestly ordination.
It’s also claimed that, although Christ chose only Jews as His Apostles, the Church soon ordained non-Jews – Gentiles. So, why can’t the Church also change in her choice of persons for ordination to include women as well? The answer is that Christ first established the Gospel mission among the Jews only, but He later sent the Church to the Gentiles as well. Yet, the first proofs that Christ was truly the longed-for Messiah would have to come from the Old Testament, and this would require Jewish men who were knowledgeable in Old Testament prophecy. God’s covenants started with the Jews, and so Christ said, “salvation is from the Jews.” He stated in various ways that all things salvific would begin with the Jews, but He also taught that there would one day be an expansion of the Church’s mission to include all the nations, all the pagans. He said,
“And I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd” (Jn. 10:16).
However, even though during His earthly mission Jesus showed an openness to women far beyond the norms of Jewish practice, nevertheless, He said nothing about ordaining them in this later Gentile mission. Women would be teachers of the faith, but not ordained priests. Nor did any of the Apostles suggest there would be such a change.
Another argument is to claim that, in choosing only men as Apostles, Christ merely conformed to the patriarchal Jewish culture of His time. But Christ did no such thing. As the fearless Suffering Servant of the Lord, He preached a body of truths that profoundly offended both the Jewish authorities and the Jewish common folk. He repeatedly violated their traditions and contradicted their beliefs. He broke with Jewish dietary and Sabbath customs and claimed to have the authority to do so. He interpreted the Mosaic Law in ways that contradicted the respected teachings of the rabbis. He publicly pronounced sinners forgiven. He said the pagans would be welcomed into the Kingdom. He openly criticized the Pharisees for hypocrisy and even ignorance of their own Scriptures. And among other things, He showed an openness to women that violated current rabbinical custom. And what’s the definitive proof for all of this? It is the fact that He was accused of blasphemy by the Sanhedrin Council and then executed as a criminal by the Romans. No, Christ was not a cultural conformist, but just the opposite. If he wanted women to be Apostles or priests, He simply would have chosen them as Apostles or priests, regardless of what others might have said or thought. That He didn’t do so is proof that He wanted only men. After all, He had two superb candidates – the Blessed Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene, as well as the other holy women. Yet, none of these were called by Christ to be Apostles or priests. Yes, Mary Magdalene was sent by Christ to announce to the Apostles His resurrection, and feminists claim this was an honor and office given to a woman, suggestive of ordination. But this is an illogical leap. Yes, Mary was honored with such a mission, but it was one specifically to the Apostles, without anything being suggested regarding the priesthood.
There are also many practical problems with the ordination of women that shouldn’t be overlooked. When Jesus first sent out His disciples to teach and prepare the towns and villages for His Gospel, He instructed them to remain entirely focused on their important work. They were not even to greet people along the way in the traditional eastern manner which was quite generous and potentially time-consuming. Another sign of this necessary dedication to the Gospel cause was the state of celibacy, of giving up wife, children, home, and all the joys (and complications) of married life for the sake of the Kingdom of God. Jesus taught celibacy as the ideal for the priestly ministry, as did Saint Paul, and what Christ taught by both word and example and Saint Paul supported, the Church has simply established as a rule for all: priestly celibacy.
Now, in light of priestly celibacy, try to imagine both male and female priests functioning together. What would parish and rectory life look like – single men and single women living under one roof? But that’s cohabitation. And would we expect under such circumstances that there would never be a fall – meaning, an unintended romance? Surely the recent clerical sex scandals reminded us that priests are subject to the same temptations as the rest of us – if not worse, because of the devil’s special hatred for them. Even on the merely practical level, the ordination of women would cause countless complications in an already difficult ministry. Because of the obvious temptations, then, priestly celibacy would have to be ended and priests would then have their own spouses, families, homes, and all the related problems that are part and parcel of family life, contrary to the ideal Christ established for the priesthood. Is this how we reform the priesthood – by complicating the personal life of the priest with a thousand worldly responsibilities and concerns? Is this how we reform the Church – by distracting her ministers with endless interests outside the Church?
It’s obvious that Christ chose one gender for many good reasons, and one of them is not that the male gender is better than the female! If anything, men need the priesthood and its celibacy more than women, for their own sanctification. Christ’s arrangements for the priesthood are not accidental, arbitrary, or culturally conditioned. They are meant to create the ideal circumstances for a fruitful priestly ministry, so that priests may in turn best serve God and His Church.
The various movements in favor of the ordination of women have little interest in what’s best for the priesthood, nor in God’s truth and grace, since these same movements are constantly petitioning for radical cultural and religious changes, especially in sexual morality. These changes would be a direct assault on a main purpose of the priestly ministry, which is to help the faithful grow in holiness.
The ordination of women to the priesthood is a part neither of Christ’s doctrine and example, nor of Sacred Tradition, nor of the teaching of the Magisterium. It is not merely disciplinary but infallibly belongs to the deposit of faith that Christ willed that only men should be priests, and it is the God-given duty of the Church to expound and defend this truth. As the highest teaching authority in the Church has affirmed,
“This teaching requires definitive assent, since, founded on the written Word of God and from the beginning constantly preserved and applied in the tradition of the Church, it has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal magisterium. Thus, in the present circumstances, the Roman Pontiff [Pope Saint John Paul II], exercising his proper office of confirming the brethren, has handed on this same teaching by a formal declaration, explicitly stating what is to be held always, everywhere, and by all, as belonging to the deposit of the faith.”
Please note the word “infallibility”. This is defined and settled teaching.