Roman Catholicism and the
Ordination of Women
By George Desnoyers
Could the Roman Catholic Church ordain women to the priesthood? And should it ordain women? Polls consistently show that most Catholics answer both those questions with a firm “yes.” But Pope John Paul II says “no.” Not only does the pope say “no,” but he also says that the answer will always be “no,” and has even forbidden all clergy from even discussing the matter publicly, fearing that just discussing the matter will encourage some Catholics to continue hoping for a change that can never happen.
I believe the Catholic Church could and should ordain women. I also believe that it will ordain women. If it doesn’t, there is a rule to remember: “When injustice is tolerated, there is hell to pay.”
Roberta Meehan, an expert on the biological polydimensional continuum,
teaches that "at least six factors (external genitalia, internal reproductive
organs, chromosomes, genes, nervous system, and hormonal system) go into
determining whether an individual is male or female. And no two people are in
the same place on all six factors. Furthermore, some of the biological factors
are fluid." A logical conclusion from Dr. Meehan's work, partially explained in
an article at
is that there are very likely many women priests now, all officially ordained by
There is already handwriting on the wall. If dwindling Church attendance is not enough, people are also beginning to talk about other steps, such as placing a note in the collection basket saying that so much is being donated weekly to a charity, and that, when women’s ordination is allowed, the weekly donation will be made to the Church. I’ve also heard the suggestion that parents just put pictures of their daughters in the collection basket. It ought not to be necessary for Catholics to have to consider such actions designed to get their point across. Shouldn’t the Church’s leaders be among our society’s leaders in battling for equality, democracy, freedom, and justice, rather than against the same?
Inter Insigniores, an important Church document approved by Pope Paul on Oct. 15, 1976, claims that the Church has no power to ordain women. But the Church does have the power to ordain women! How do I know? It has done it before, very many times, and over several centuries. I will give details below. For now let me just say that approximately thirty of the women who were ordained have been declared "saints."
Before I begin, let me say that anyone with access to the Internet who would like to view Inter Insigniores can go to http://www.newadvent.org/docs/df76ii.htm
If anyone wants to explore the Catholic position further, go to
http://www.ewtn.com/library/PAPALDOC/JP2ORDIN.HTM. That should bring you to "Ordinatio Sacerdotalis," the Apostolic Letter issued by Pope John Paul II in May, 1994.
"Ordinatio Sacerdotalis" demonstrates the emphasis the Catholic Church places on the example of the twelve original apostles, an emphasis that I will show later in this post is very peculiar.
Are women fit for spiritual leadership?
There is no question that women hosted Christian services in their homes during the Church’s first two centuries. At that time services were not held in dedicated church buildings, and there was no clear distinction made between clergy and laity. It is quite likely that the women hostesses were often the leaders of those services, and it is inconceivable that they were prohibited from participation in any rites, or from approaching and handling any sacred articles.
There is also no question that Scripture itself tells us that women are fit to be spiritual leaders. Consider Lydia, the spiritual leader in her home (Acts 16:14-15); and Chloe, the spiritual leader in her home (1 Cor. 1:11). But Scripture goes much further than showing women as fit for spiritual leadership only within their homes.
There are several lists in Scripture of ministries in the early church (e.g., 1 Cor. 12:28, Eph. 4:11, and Romans 12:6). The correct way to view these ministries is as functions rather than as offices. There is nearly universal agreement that the highest ministry was that of the apostle. In Romans 16:7 Andronicus and Junia are called apostles. Most Bible scholars believe that Junia was a woman, and the likely wife of Andronicus. This is an issue somewhat embarrassing to Rome.
[There are cases in which the Catholic Church is known to have altered earlier versions of Scripture to suit its opinions - mostly through changes within the Vulgate. It appears that this occurred in Romans 16:7 when, sometime in the ninth century, the female Junia was changed to the male Junias. The female name of Junia is well known to have been used in the New Testament (NT) period, but the male name of Junias is not seen in the NT period outside of Scripture. For a good treatment of this issue, see the book, Women in Ministry, Andrews University Press, 1998, page 47 of the text, and footnotes 11-13 on pages 54-56.]
Another of the highest ministries Christians could perform was to prophesy. To prophesy is, after all, to speak for God. We can be absolutely certain that women in the early Church prophesied (1 Cor. 11:4).
What about the Church’s claim that the priesthood has always been reserved to males?
Before addressing that claim, let me say that what can be truly said is that there have always been males who would have liked the priesthood to be reserved to males. Consider the attitudes displayed in the following two quotes:
The first is from the Gospel of Thomas. This gospel was too Gnostic to be accepted into the canon. But, in general, it is a highly regarded text from the first century, probably predating Mark. Some early Christians, including Peter, couldn’t accept Jesus’ inclusion of women into the circles of folk with whom He would converse, travel, and dine. So this “saying” of Jesus was placed into the Gospel of Thomas in an effort to show that Jesus believed in male supremacy:
“Simon Peter said to them, ‘Make Mary leave us, for females don’t deserve life.’ Jesus said, ‘Look, I will guide her to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every female who makes herself male will enter the domain of heaven.’” (Gospel of Thomas, 114:1-2)
Of course it is unlikely that anyone in his/her right mind would now believe Jesus said those words. But the inclusion of that “saying” of Jesus into the Gospel of Thomas shows how far male supremacists would go in promoting their views.
The second quote relates an interesting event recorded in the also highly regarded but non-canonical Gospel of Mary, an event that has more of a ring of truth about it than did the above “saying” from the Gospel of Thomas. The setting is a discussion being held by a group of disciples, including Mary (of Magdala), immediately after the departure of Jesus who had been teaching them. It appears that only Mary and Levi had understood the Lord’s teaching. In the course of the discussion, Mary tells the others of a vision and private teaching she had received from Jesus. Objections are raised by Andrew and Peter, but Mary is then defended by Levi. Here is the text, beginning with the end of Mary’s relating the vision and private teaching received from Jesus:
“When Mary said these things, she fell silent, since it was up to this point that the Savior had spoken to her.
“Andrew said, ‘Brothers, what is your opinion of what was just said? I for one don’t believe that the Savior said these things, because these opinions seem to be so different from his thought.’
After reflecting on these matters, Peter said, ‘Has the Savior spoken secretly to a woman and not openly so that we would all hear? Surely he did not wish to indicate that she is more worthy than we are.’
“Then Mary wept and said to Peter, ‘Peter, my brother, what are you imagining about this? Do you think that I’ve made all this up secretly by myself or that I am telling lies about the Savior?’
“Levi said to Peter, ‘Peter, you have a constant inclination to anger and you are always ready to give way to it. And even now you are doing exactly that by questioning the woman as if you’re her adversary. If the Savior considered her to be worthy, who are you to disregard her? For he (Jesus) knew her completely and loved her devotedly. Instead we should be ashamed and, once we clothe ourselves with perfect humanity, we should do what we are commanded. We should announce the good news as the Savior ordered, and not be laying down any rules or making laws.’ After he said these things. Levi left and began to announce the good news.” (Gospel of Mary, 9:30-10:14)
The above is from the Greek. It has been said that the Coptic version (which I don’t have) makes clearer that the challenge to Mary was more because she was a woman than because the private teaching she had related was unfamiliar.
What can we learn from these quotes? The male supremacy that eventually led to the Roman Catholic Church’s male-only priesthood was always present in the church, and probably, as the relating of the above incident in the Gospel of Mary seems to show, was a point of contention even in Jesus’ inner circle of disciples. (We know from disputes reported in Acts that the disciples - including the apostles - did not fully understand the will of God even after the special pouring out of the Holy Spirit beginning with Pentecost.)
But was the priesthood in fact always reserved to males?
Regardless the ever-presence of believers in male superiority, we know that there were women who served in the capacity of priests well after the time of the apostles. In 494 CE, Pope Gelasius wrote a letter to the bishops of Lucania, scolding the bishops for allowing it:
“Nevertheless we have heard to our annoyance that divine affairs have come to such a low state that women are encouraged to officiate at the sacred altars, and to take part in all matters imputed to the offices of the male sex, to which they do not belong.”
Interestingly, however, women were sacramentally ordained to the priesthood for several hundred years, and with the approval of popes as well as bishops. That is because the Church ordained women to be deaconesses. The diaconate was, and still is, considered an order of the priesthood. The women were ordained with prayers of ordination and ceremonies very similar to those used for the ordinations of males. At least about thirty women deacons have been declared saints. To learn more about women deacons (priests), go to http://www.womenpriests.org/traditio/deac_ovr.htm The site is very good, loaded with pertinent information, and well worth some time!
What about recent times? Any women priests?
On December 28, 1970, a Czech woman, Ludmila Javorova, was ordained a priest by Bishop Felix Davidek (1921-1988), a brilliant scholar, linguist and medical doctor who was consecrated with Vatican approval to serve the underground Church. Bishop Davidek ordained Ludmilla after he became aware of a need for a sacramental ministry to imprisoned women which male priests could not fill, and after calling a secret Synod composed of bishops, priests and laity to consider the ordination of women. After heated debate, the decision was made to proceed. In 1991, it became known that a total of five or six women had been ordained as priests, but only Ludmila has let her ordination be widely known. In addition to the five or six women priests, other women were ordained as deaconesses, i.e., to a different order of the priesthood. For more information on this story, visit http://homepages.iol.ie/~duacon/javorova.htm
More recently, the following item having to do with [women] deaconesses was placed on the Vatican website:
(Start of recent notice on Vatican website)
NOTIFICATION ON THE
DIACONAL ORDINATION OF WOMEN
VATICAN CITY, SEP 17, 2001 (VIS) - Made public today was the following
Notification by the Congregations for the Doctrine of the Faith, for
Divine Worship and the Discipline of Sacraments and for Clergy, signed
by the respective prefects, Cardinals Joseph Ratzinger, Jorge Arturo
Medina Estevez and Dario Castrillon Hoyos. The Notification was approved
by the Pope on September 14.
"1. Our offices have received from several countries signs of courses
that are being planned or underway, directly or indirectly aimed at the
diaconal ordination of women. Thus are born hopes which are lacking a
solid doctrinal foundation and which can generate pastoral
"2. Since ecclesial ordination does not foresee such an ordination, it
is not licit to enact initiatives which, in some way, aim to prepare
candidates for diaconal ordination.
"3. The authentic promotion of women in the Church, in conformity with
the constant ecclesial Magisterium, with special reference to (the
Magisterium) of His Holiness John Paul II, opens other ample
prospectives of service and collaboration.
"4. The undersigned Congregations - within the sphere of their proper
authority - thus turn to the individual ordinaries, asking them to
explain (this) to their own faithful and to diligently apply the
.../NOTIFICATION DIACONATE WOMEN/... VIS 010917 (200)
(End of recent notice on Vatican website)
It seems only reasonable to ask, why can’t women be ordained as deaconesses? The Church approvingly ordained women as deaconesses for about 500 years in the Western Church, and for much longer in the Eastern Church.
Reasons cited by the Catholic Church for not ordaining women
If they are fit, and if there have been women priests before, why does the Church oppose the ordination of women?
Original reasons for not ordaining women
Originally the Church opposed the ordination of women to the priesthood for two reasons: (1) the (alleged) inferiority of women, and (2) the (alleged) impurity of women. That these were originally the two dominant reasons for the male-only priesthood can easily and forcefully be documented beyond any question, and, in fact, the Catholic Church has acknowledged, e.g., in Inter Insigniores, that such reasons, based on prejudice, were used to justify the reservation of the priesthood to men.
Did the Church really believe in the inferiority and immorality of women? Yes and yes!
First of all, it’s taken for granted throughout the Bible. That was why women who gave birth (even Mary, who gave birth to the divine Jesus – see Luke 2:22) needed ritual purification, and why women who gave birth to girls were “unclean” twice as long as women who gave birth to boys (Lev. 12:2-5). [That such ideas are found in the Bible shouldn’t be surprising. It is well known that the idea of male superiority was already old when the Bible was being written, and at least many hundreds of years old during the time of Christ.]
Second, the leaders on whom the Church most relied in establishing its teachings and practices regarding sexuality and gender believed in the inferiority of women. Augustine (354-430) was by far the Church’s leading authority on sexuality and gender from the fourth though the twelfth centuries. Unfortunately, Augustine’s Manichaean past, and his personal hang-ups that resulted from it, things which should have disqualified him from even having input on a lot of sex and gender issues, were the very reasons why the Church held Augustine’s ideas on sex and gender in such high regard. What did he believe?
Augustine believed that women were useless other than for their role in procreation: "I don't see what sort of help woman was created to provide man with, if one excludes the purpose of procreation. If woman is not given to man for help in bearing children, for what help could she be? To till the earth together? If help were needed for that, man would have been a better help for man. The same goes for comfort in solitude. How much more pleasure is it for life and conversation when two friends live together than when a man and woman cohabitate." (De genesi ad litteram 9, 5-9, emphasis mine)
Perhaps someone will say that the above quote of Augustine is not close enough to the point. Look at this quote of Thomas Aquinas (1225 - 1274), the theologian who replaced Augustine as the Church’s leading authority on matters of sex and gender - "Since any supremacy of rank cannot be expressed in the female sex, which has the status of an inferior, that sex cannot receive ordination." (Summa Theologiae Suppl. Q. 39r). Is that quote enough to the point?
[Aquinas was canonized in 1323, had his doctrine declared sound in 1342, and was made a doctor of the church in 1568. After the urging of Pope Leo XIII (in 1879) that Catholics study the philosophy and theology of Aquinas, most Catholic colleges structured many of their philosophy courses around Aquinas' writings and ideas. He is still considered by many educated Catholics to be the Church's greatest philosopher and theologian.]
Here are a few more quotes by very influential Christian theologians of the past.
Clement of Alexandria (c.150 - c. 215) - "A woman, considering what her nature is, must be ashamed of it."
Turtullian (c. 155 - c. 220) - Women are "the gateway through which the devil comes."
Epiphanius, the bishop of Cyprus (c. 315 - 403 A.D.) - "Women are easily seduced, weak and lacking in reason. The devil works to spew his chaos out through them."
Synod of Paris (829) - "In some provinces it happens that women press around the altar, touch the holy vessels, hand the clerics the priestly vestments, indeed even dispense the body and blood of the Lord to the people. This is shameful and must not take place...No doubt such customs have arisen because of the carelessness and negligence of the bishops." [Emphasis mine. Wasn't that awful? They handed robes to the priests.]
Albert the Great, well-known teacher of Thomas Aquinas (thirteenth century) - "Woman is less qualified [than man] for moral behavior. For the woman contains more liquid than the man, and it is a property of liquid to take things up easily, and to hold onto them poorly. Liquids are easily moved, hence women are inconstant and curious. When a woman has relations with a man, she would like, as much as possible, to be lying with another man at the same time. Woman knows nothing of fidelity. Believe me, if you give her your trust, you will be disappointed. Trust an experienced teacher. For this reason prudent men share their plans and actions least of all with their wives. Woman is a misbegotten man and has a faulty and defective nature in comparison with his. Therefore she is unsure in herself. What she herself cannot get, she seeks to obtain through lying and diabolical deceptions. And so, to put it briefly, one must be on one's guard with every woman, as if she were a poisonous snake and the horned devil. If I could say what I know about women, the world would be astonished. Woman is strictly speaking not cleverer, but slyer (more cunning) than man. Cleverness sounds like something good, slyness sounds like something evil. Thus in evil and perverse doings, woman is cleverer, that is, slyer, than man. Her feelings drive woman toward every evil, just as reason impels man toward all good" (Quaestiones super de animalibus XV q. 11).
Would you like your church to allow the ordination of women like that? Neither did Albert the Great and St. Thomas Aquinas. Incidentally, Aquinas believed at least most of the above teaching, and quoted from it on multiple occasions. The feeling expressed in the last quote, that woman was a misbegotten man, was a teaching of Aristotle that was truly believed by Albert and Aquinas. The whole teaching included the idea that the woman is a flowerpot for the man's semen (the role of the ovum in regeneration was not conclusively demonstrated until 1827). If conception took place during moist south winds, the excessive amount of water produced defective humans instead of the intended perfect humans (men) (Summa Theologiae I q. 92 a. 1). Aristotle taught that too much moisture would lead to defective humans in this increasing order of defectiveness: a male that looks like the mother, a female that looks like the father, or a female that looks like the mother. This teaching was held by many for centuries because it was supposedly based on scientific experiments, e.g., the dissection of pregnant animals.
St. Bonaventure (thirteenth century) - Wrote that since only the male was made in the image of God, only the male can receive the godlike office of priest.
Other quotes and beliefs like the above could be given, but I think I have provided enough. I have omitted quotes regarding the menstruation of women, often considered the source and evidence of their impurity. Although Leviticus 15:19-30, as it relates to the female's discharge, has its parallel in the consideration of the male's discharge in Lev. 15:2-18, the temple-related practices of the Jews did not reflect the similarities in the treatments of males and females in Lev. 15. The patriarchal Jews placed much tougher restrictions on women due to the supposed impurity linked with their menstruation. Many of the women-restricting Jewish temple practices were later incorporated into the thinking of the Christian church. Women were, as a rule, kept away from all things holy. For instance, since it was thought that choirs should be behind or aside the altar, many bishops in the early church required eunuchs to sing the higher pitched (feminine) parts. Eunuchs were not viewed favorably, but they were considered superior to women. Several of the Catholic Church's rules to keep women away from the "sacred" articles of the church lasted until well into the twentieth century.
Modern reasons for the Church’s refusal to ordain women
What about the Church’s more modern positions, its stances on the example of the original twelve [male] apostles, and on the symbolic role of priests?
Since the Church’s first two arguments (from the inferiority and impurity of women) have become laughable, the Catholic Church needed to come up with new arguments to support the same conclusion. After all, the Church (read popes, or teaching authority - the "magisterium") could not err on a serious matter. What did the Catholic Church come up with? First, that the Church has no power to ordain women because Christ made only men His original apostles; second, men have the image of Christ; and third (similar to the second), the priest has the role of the male bridegroom, representing Christ, while the Church is the female bride. I am not making this up.
Example of the original twelve [male] apostles
Let’s deal with the example of the original twelve apostles first. Besides being male, they were also married. But the Church never insisted that all priests be married. On the contrary, it demands that priests [ordinarily] be celibate. Why is it wrong to follow the example of the original twelve apostles being married, but necessary to follow the example of their all being male?
[It’s interesting that, in Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, a 1967 papal encyclical on priestly celibacy, Rome almost totally ignored the fact that males overseeing the early church were usually married. That document does have buried in the body of its text a few words stating that celibacy was not a requirement for the original twelve apostles. But then, look at what else the encyclical does. First, it almost completely ignores two Biblical texts that directly relate to the subject of the encyclical, 1 Tim. 3:2-5 and Titus 1:6, mentioning them – without quotation - in a single footnote. Both of those texts explicitly say that a man overseeing the church should be the husband of one wife.
Second, the encyclical totally ignores what is probably the very most important text, 1 Cor. 9:5, a text which certainly should have prevented any and all honest popes from trying to impose celibacy. In that text Paul speaks of a “right” to take a wife just as the original apostles did. If it is a “right,” how can the Church take it away? The RCC, through alterations in the Vulgate, altered 1 Cor. 9:5 to make it appear that the apostles took along sisters in the faith as housekeepers or aides. But the oldest and best versions of the text make it clear that Paul was speaking of wives, as most Catholic scholars (and the most important English version of the Catholic Bible, The New American Bible) now agree.
Third, the encyclical then argues for priestly celibacy by relying on Matthew 19:11-12, cited four times, and 1 Cor. 7:7-40, cited three times - two texts that have nothing at all to do specifically with priests or ministers, and which most scholars feel do not impose celibacy on anyone.]
The symbolic role of priests in representing Christ
Now let’s consider the issue of the “image of Christ.” One of the things that makes the Catholic Church's view so mind-boggling is that the Church maintains that the priest must be male both because he represents Christ in Christ’s role as the bridegroom, and also because he represents Christ in Christ’s role as the head of the Church, the bride. Rome’s position is that a man is so much better at representing the head of the bride than a female can be, that we have to outlaw women's ordination. After contemplating that for just a little while, how could anyone out there fail to think that forbidding women's ordination carries the symbolism too far? Why couldn't a woman at least represent a male (Christ) when he was in the role of representing [the head of] a bride?
One of the Church’s primary errors of the past has been to place so much emphasis on the symbolic role of the priest. One need not be adept at reading between the lines to understand that concentrating on the symbolic role betrays a focus on the office, rather than on the function, of ministry. Ministry is service. When the focus is placed on function, the only relevant question is whether women can do the job. In light of many accomplishments of women that we are all aware of, no one should need any proof that they can do the job. But if one does need proof, there is the evidence of thousands of successful women ministers in other Christian denominations.
There’s another reason why the Church’s focus should be on the function rather than office of ministry. There is no evidence in Scripture that Christ appointed the original twelve to any office at all. There already were priests and official teachers of religion in Israel. Considering Jesus' words concerning the official church leaders of His time, it is ludicrous to think it was a goal of His to make more of them. Christ did give the original twelve instructions to perform certain functions, but the performing of those functions was later open to all Christians, not just a few leaders. Scripture's only mention of a priesthood in the Christian church is a reference to the priesthood of all believers (1 Pet. 2:5).
Are women just making a grab for power?
One of the silliest ideas heard nowadays is the charge that today's women are simply making a grab for power when they seek the same opportunities for service that men have had. I like this statement of Garry Wills from chapter seven of his book, Papal Sin:
"It is not so much that women are clamoring to become priests (especially as the priesthood currently exists), but the perpetuation of this ban [against the ordination of women] keeps alive the whole ideological substructure on which it is based. It is the last fierce bastion where the great Christian lie about women has entrenched itself."
Isn’t the Church leadership trying its best to do right?
Wills, a history professor at Northwestern
University, goes on to say that the greatest injustices in this area, injustices
by men like Augustine, Albert the Great, and Thomas Aquinas, were made because
these men lived in cultures that provided them little opportunity to know they
were doing wrong. But the Catholic Church, and others, who are making the same
mistakes today have no excuse. Their circumstances are different. Theirs is
not invincible ignorance; polls show that most people don't even share it.
Theirs is cultivated ignorance. They are culpable. It is because of this kind
of religious cultivated ignorance that, in many areas, today's secular society
is outperforming the Church in the promotion of equality, democracy, freedom,
and justice. Our children have noticed.