Is there such a thing as a “right” to priesthood? If so, is it by law, by nature, or by tradition?
“The hour is coming and in fact has already arrived, for the vocation of woman to be fulfilled in plenitude, the hour in which woman acquires an influence in the world, a weight and a power never before reached until now. Therefore, at this moment in history in which humanity is experiencing such a profound change, women filled with the spirit of the Gospel will be able to greatly help humanity from falling.” 1
I’ll never forget the day I encountered a man who assured me that women would soon be able to be priests. I was at a weekday Mass. A kind, elderly man in the pew in front of me turned to me after mass, said hello and exchanged a few words with me. Then he said, in an apologetic tone, that hopefully one day soon, the Church will change its stance so that I can become a priest. I smiled and responded that I didn’t really want to be a priest. It got me wondering why he thought I wanted to be a priest.
I also thought about the idea that women should be priests is so prevalent in society. Is it because women are considered more spiritually sensitive and active in Church affairs? Or is it to bring about greater equality between men and women? Maybe it’s actually because some consider the priesthood as the best way for women to gain influence and power? But how are we to understand this “right” to priesthood? Is it by law, by nature, by tradition?
Does a woman have a just claim to the priesthood by law?
According to the Bible, mankind in his fallen nature needed laws so as not to turn away from God. God, who is Goodness and Truth, was quickly forgotten when his people were doing well. Even after Moses led the chosen people out of Egypt, freeing them from slavery, they began to worship golden calves.
Therefore, God entrusted the law to Moses on Mount Sinai. In addition to the Ten Commandments, many other laws were given to Moses concerning slaves, personal injury, property damage, and other social and religious laws (cf. Exodus 19-24). The people said that they would do all that the Lord commanded. They made an altar, an ark for the covenant, and a dwelling tent in which to house these sacred objects.
Of the twelve tribes of Israel, the Levites were chosen as the priestly tribe. Each of the other tribes was permitted to learn trades, raise cattle, serve in the military and work with the exception of the Levites. Only men from this tribe would offer sacrifice on behalf of the people, making atonement for them, and only the Levites were to care for the dwelling tent, the sacred vestments, and the Ark of the Covenant. Through Moses, they were given other instructions regarding ritual purity, sacrifices, codes of legal holiness, the ceremony of ordination for priests, etc. Moses was the representative of God’s will for the chosen people. Moses was the instrument through whom God manifested his desires.
God knows the hearts of each of his servants. As the first priests, God chose Aaron and his sons. When his chosen priests did not show themselves worthy, God punished them. The older two sons, Nadab and Abihu, were ordained with Aaron. Yet, their service was not pleasing in the sight of the Lord because they offered up profane fire, not authorized by the Lord. Therefore, they were struck dead. Aaron’s other two sons, Eleazor and Ithamor, were then chosen as priests to offer up sacrifice for the people.
In carrying out the law entrusted to Moses, the norm that only the Levites would function as the Priestly clan remained unchanged throughout the entire Old Testament. It is stated in Dt 10:8-9, “… the Lord set apart the tribe of Levi to carry the ark of the covenant of the Lord, to be in attendance before the Lord and to minister to him, and to give blessings in his name, as they have done to this day. For this reason, Levi has no share in the heritage with his brothers; the Lord himself is his heritage, as the Lord, your God, has told him.”
The law remained unchanged during the time of Christ. The apostles were chosen by Jesus, as stated in Mk 3:13,“He then went up the mountain and summoned the men he himself had decided on, who came and joined him.” These men were called by Christ, the Son of God, who is one with God. He sought them out. “As he was walking along the Sea of Galilee he watched two brothers, Simon now known as Peter, and his brother Andrew, casting their nets into the sea. They were fishermen. He said to them, ‘Come after me and I will make you fishers of men.’ They immediately abandoned their nets and followed him” (Mt 4:18-20).
Then, Jesus chose men to be present at the Last Supper, entrusting them with the celebration of the Eucharist, as shown in Lk 22:19. Jesus singled out some of the beautiful things women had done for him, such as the anointing at Bethany, when a woman entered the room where he was reclining at table, and proceeded to anoint Jesus with an expensive aromatic nard. He made sure that her kindness towards him would be recalled “wherever the good news is proclaimed throughout the world” (Mk 14:3-9). After the Resurrection, the first appearance was to Mary Magdalene, who faithfully stood by Christ at the foot of the cross. She was entrusted with the mission of announcing the news of the resurrection (Jn 20:17). These women were given an irreplaceable role, but they were not chosen to be present at the institution of the priesthood.
In the Code of Canon Law, specifically Canon §235, it stipulates that young men, who intend to enter the priesthood, are to be given suitable spiritual formation. In all the numbers that refer to clergy and the priesthood, the reference is to men, not women. In Pope John Paul II’s Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, he clarifies it by saying: “In order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) 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.” 2 That said, it’s important that the matter of the male priesthood not be reduced to canon law. The richer meaning behind the all-male priesthood is the image of Christ giving his life for his Bride, the Church (cf. Eph 5:22-32). The priest acts in persona Christi, hence the maleness of the minister is appropriate.
According to both Canon Law and Old Testament law, given by God, who is Goodness and Truth, the ordained priesthood is a service carried out by men. The service of the priesthood depends on election. Men can be ordained priests, yet, it is God who chooses those men to be His priests. In the Old Testament, it was God who chose the tribe of Levi, and it was God who chose the particular men from that tribe. In the New Testament, it was Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who called certain men to become fishers of men. It is God who, today, chooses and calls his priests.
Does a woman have a just claim to the priesthood by nature?
Having seen that the law reserves the right of the priesthood to men, we can move on to the next source from which one can derive a right: from nature.
The nature of the priesthood lends itself to be carried out by someone of a masculine psychology and masculine traits. Peter Kreeft puts it very well when he writes, “Why is Christ’s maleness essential? Because he is the revelation of the Father, and the Father’s masculinity is essential.” 3 Simply by the use of the word “essential”—meaning of, or constituting, the intrinsic, fundamental nature of something—one can see that masculinity and the priesthood are inseparable. Why is this? The role of the priest reveals to us the love of God the Father.
In the Old Testament, God is most often referred to in the masculine form. The only God for the Jews was “he,” never “she,” nor “it.” God makes it clear for the Israelites that they are to worship him alone, and place no other gods or idols before him (cf. Dt 13:5). He offers his only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, to ransom us from sin. The Son is the one who offers his body and blood as a sacrifice for the Redemption of all mankind. A woman, Mary was chosen to be the mother of the Son, to carry the son in her womb, thus becoming the first tabernacle of the Lord.
Women have a special call to motherhood, physical and spiritual, just as a man is called to fatherhood. Motherhood and fatherhood complement the physical and psychological traits of each sex. Physically, a woman’s body is made to carry a child. A mother receives the gift of life given by the father. A man could not claim the right to get pregnant. It simply would not work. His body would not support carrying a child to term. Men are called to be fathers, with the role of the priest created to draw others to God, the Father. This is best accomplished through a physical father-figure.
Furthermore, it would be psychologically difficult for a woman to carry out the mission of the ordained priest, who is called to offer atonement for sinners, to hear confessions, and to live a life that in many cases is rather solitary. A woman’s psychology experiences stronger emotions and passions, and is more sensitive. Her tendency is toward dialogue and communication; she needs to be understood. Masculine psychology is oriented toward efficacy, achieving goals, protection and providing. Rather than discussing problems, men need silence and isolation to sort through them. Let’s apply this to one aspect of the priesthood, that of hearing confessions. In this sacrament the priest bears the weight of others’ sins and burdens. The silence required on the part of the priest could prove very taxing on feminine psychology. This is just one element that points to the fact that the psychological make-up of a man lends itself to carrying out certain functions of the priesthood, whereas feminine psychology lends itself to other types of service in the Church.
The Catholic Church does not discriminate against women because their nature is different than men’s. Rather, the Church exalts woman in her femininity, in her role as mother, called to instill spiritual values in the family, and in children. She is the teacher of the domestic Church. Her sensitivity lends itself to observe and respond to the needs of her family. Her capacity for communication, observing needs and responding to them with a delicate touch, are indispensable in the home, in the workplace, and in the Church!
Finally, we can look to the Encyclopedia of Catholic Social Thought, where it states that, “…the maleness of Jesus’ sacred humanity is inseparable from the entire mystery of his incarnation, and Jesus is the icon of the priesthood and the individual priest, the sexuality of the priest is likewise indissolubly linked to the mystery of the priesthood, for in fact the priest acts in the name and person of the God-Man in such a way so as to represent him as the Bridegroom espoused to his Bride, the Church.” 4 The mystery of the Incarnation is the revelation of God the Father, becoming man for us, in the form of the second person of the Blessed Trinity. God did not become a woman. God was carried in the womb of a woman. God the Son was offered up as a sacrifice for our sake. The male priest offers up the sacrifice of Christ in his place to perpetuate the presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. He becomes an icon of Christ, the priest. By nature, women cannot claim a right to the priesthood, which belongs to the Son. Men cannot claim the right to the priesthood either, as God chooses and calls his priests. But, by nature, they have been bestowed with this service.
Does a woman have a just claim to the priesthood by tradition?
One day in January of 2004, as I attended an audience with Pope John Paul II, in the hall dedicated to Paul VI, I engaged in conversation with a woman sitting beside me. She noted a large group of about 400-500 seminarians entering and taking their seats toward the front of the auditorium. “I can’t believe this! It’s terrible!” she said, “Look at all those priests. I can’t wait for the day when women will be ordained to the priesthood.” I must admit that when I heard this, I was rather surprised and took an interest in her perspective. We spoke about this topic for quite awhile. She listed off names of women bishops, unfamiliar to me, who had been ordained in the early Church. I had studied theology and Church history, but I couldn’t recall any of those names.
I took the liberty of looking more deeply into the matter, discussing it with people who have thoroughly studied the Church’s tradition. I have not found a single reference to a woman bishop. There have been deaconesses in the early Church. This was a common practice due to the fact that baptism was first performed in the manner of full immersion, in which those to be baptized would disrobe. For the sake of modesty, female deaconesses would administer this sacrament to women. That was the extent of their sacramental participation.
I also looked at what the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches. Number 1577 of the Catechism is a response to the question, “Who can receive the sacrament of Holy Orders?”
“‘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. (cfr. Mk 3:14-19, Lk 6:12-16, 1Tim 3:1-13, 2 Tim 1:6) The college of bishops, with whom the priests are united in the priesthood, makes the college of the twelve an ever-present and ever-active reality until Christ’s return. 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.”
Finally, I looked into some of the fathers of the Church, such as Basil, Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch. Clement of Rome, the third successor of St. Peter as the bishop of Rome from approximately 90-99 A.D., writes about the origins of the Roman primacy. He wrote a letter to the community of Corinth in Greece which contains “…an authoritative intervention by the Church of Rome in the internal affairs of the Church of Corinth where the presbyters, i.e., the elders of the community, had been deposed by a rebellion of some unidentified young upstarts.” 5 Here, he manifests an awareness of Roman primacy, based on the authority of the founding apostles, Peter and Paul. This directly points to the fact that the mention of presbyters refers to men who acted in succession to the apostles. In chapter three of St. Paul’s first letter to Timothy, he expounds on the qualifications of various ministers. There is consistent use of the masculine pronoun in reference to bishops: “He should be a good teacher. He must not be addicted to drink. He ought not to be contentious, but, rather gentle, a man of peace…” (1 Tim 3:2-3).
Another Church Father, Ignatius of Antioch, who was bishop of Antioch in the early years of the second century, developed the doctrine concerning the role of the bishop in the Christian community. In the writings of Beatrice, it is noted that: “Ignatius vigorously and repeatedly reaffirms the fundamental and irreplaceable role of the bishop, the sign of the unity of the local church and the one who fosters the holiness of its members.” 6 At that time, all the bishops were men. He does not mention women as bishops in any of his writings. Throughout the development of the Church, the bishops who are in communion with the Holy Father have unanimously maintained the unity of the Church’s traditional teaching on the fact that men were called by Christ; they are the ones to be ordained to the ministerial priesthood. This teaching has been reiterated by all of our Roman Pontiffs.
The privilege of the priesthood
These ideas move us to note that women, though highly appreciated and valued by the Church, cannot claim the “right” to the priesthood. They also show that men, though they can be priests who offer sacrifice to the Father, cannot claim the “right” to the priesthood.
The priesthood is a privilege, bestowed by God alone. He chooses and calls his priests. Pope Benedict XVI recently affirmed the importance of the ministerial priesthood during an audience with participants of the Congregation for the Clergy’s general assembly on March 16, 2009. He said, “God is the only treasure that, definitively, mankind wishes to find in a priest.”
The Pope urged those present at the assembly to discover the centrality of Jesus Christ who gives meaning and value to the ministerial priesthood. He added, “As Church, and as priests, we announce Jesus of Nazareth, Lord and Christ, crucified and risen, Sovereign of time and history, in the joyful certainty that this truth coincides with the deepest hopes of the human heart..” 7 The priest announces Christ to us. As such, the priesthood is a gift to be highly treasured by all members of the Christian faithful, men and women alike.
The privilege of being a woman
There are many great advantages to being a woman, with many qualities that a woman can add to society. The feminine heart has been delicately formed to love deeply, perceiving human values. A woman is fulfilled in her gift of self to a spouse, a child, a vocation, a career. Her personal touch makes the world more human, less cold, and unfriendly.
First and foremost, a woman can transmit love to her family. She can make a tremendous impact in her own home by raising and educating her children, and spending quality time with them.
In addition, this self-giving can be manifested to those with whom she works. There are a variety of contributions a woman can make in the business world. She has a capacity to motivate and stimulate others for an ideal, nurture teamwork, be observant, intuitive, communicative, and enterprising. She is capable of tactfully dealing with situations, building human relations using refinement, cordiality, and good manners. All in all, a woman is capable of making the working environment more human.
These qualities carry over to the world of medicine, where the feminine touch shines, due to her capacity to recognize the sick as people, communicate in a human way, defend and promote life, be open to transcendent values, and attend and sustain the sick.
Additionally, worthy of mention are the values that women can add to the industry of mass media. A woman is most beautiful when she transmits God’s love by giving herself. She can produce and inspire music and art, which can be used to direct the spirit to beauty.
In today’s modern world, society needs the feminine to complement the masculine, not to supplant it. These words, from a recent address of Pope Benedict XVI to Angolan women, attest to the dignity of women and the valuable contribution they can make to society.
…the dignity of women is equal to that of men, no one today should doubt that women have “a full right to become actively involved in all areas of public life, and this right must be affirmed and guaranteed, also, where necessary, through appropriate legislation. This acknowledgment of the public role of women should not however detract from their unique role within the family. Here their contribution to the welfare and progress of society, even if its importance is not sufficiently appreciated, is truly incalculable” (Message for the 1995 World Day of Peace, 9). Moreover, a woman’s personal sense of dignity is not primarily the result of juridically defined rights, but rather the direct consequence of the material and spiritual care she receives in the bosom of the family. The presence of a mother within the family is so important for the stability and growth of this fundamental cell of society, that it should be recognized, commended and supported in every possible way. For the same reason, society must hold husbands and fathers accountable for their responsibilities towards their families.8
Looking at God’s action in history, I observe that he entrusted the priestly ministry to men, who have faithfully carried out this ministry over time. God has been the protagonist in calling priests, investing them with the qualities needed to fulfill their function. It seems clear to me that, as a woman, I can’t claim the “right” to become a priest. But, I can influence society in a number of ways, serving God and the Church, in the way that God has planned for me. For equality to exist between men and women, there is no need that women become priests. Equality demands that both men and women be treated with dignity and respect. In the Mass, both are present in the congregation. The ideal man and woman are presented to us in Christ, the man, who sacrifices himself on the altar; and, in Mary, the woman, who accompanies and sustains him with her prayer.
- Gloria Conde, New Woman (A message of Council to Women, Dec. 8, 1965) 137. ↩
- www.vatican.va… ↩
- Alice Von Hildebrand and Peter Kreeft, Women and the Priesthood (Steubenville: Franciscan University Press, 1994) 27. ↩
- Coulter, Krason, Myers, Varacalli. Encyclopedia of Catholic Social Thought, “Social Science, and Social Policy” (Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2007) 876. ↩
- Pier Franco Beatrice. Introduction to the Fathers of the Church (Vicenza: Edizioni Istituto San Gaetano, 1983) 20. ↩
- Beatrice, ibid., 25. ↩
- “Pope Cautions Against Dilution of Priestly Ministry Encourages Solid Doctrinal Education Among Clergy”; Mar 16, 2009. ↩
- “Pope’s Address to Movements on Promotion of Women”, Mar 22, 2009. ↩