On the Ordination of Women and the Priesthood of Christ

Last Supper, by Phillippe de Champaigne (1602-1674).

In the past half century, discussion about women priests in the Christian Churches has intensified. Most Churches, in particular, the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches, have held firm to the traditional view that only males may be ordained priests. Other Christian communities, in particular, Anglicans, have gone the other route, and have ordained women as priests and even as bishops.                        

The present writer has no intention of questioning the decision of the Roman Catholic Church to abide firmly in the tradition that it maintains she has received from Jesus Christ as mediated by the Apostles. Among recent documents in this regard may be mentioned, in particular, the “Declaration on the Question of Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood” (Inter Insignores), issued by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on October 15, 1976, and the Apostolic Letter “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis of John Paul II to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone,” issued on the Solemnity of Pentecost, May 22, 1994. Nor does the present writer wish to call into question the validity of any of the arguments advanced in these official documents. Rather, the present writer wishes to advance a new consideration of the priesthood of Christ that does not seem to have been used heretofore in arguing for an exclusively male priesthood: the intimate connection between Christ as priest and Christ as Son.

Two statements from Inter Insignores may be adduced in support of an attempt to present additional reasons against ordaining women to the priesthood:

It is true that these facts (sc., a number of facts presented under the heading “The Attitude of Christ”) do not make the matter immediately obvious. This is no surprise, for the questions that the Word of God bring before us go beyond the obvious.

As we are dealing with a debate which classical theology scarcely touched upon, the current argumentation runs the risk of neglecting essential elements.

The present article explores one aspect of the mystery of Christ as regards his priesthood, not in the light of classical theology, but in the light of Scripture. This is done on the supposition that Scripture is prior to theology in importance, just as theology, in the argumentation of the Declaration, is prior to other important fields of study relevant to the question at hand, such as “the history of institutions and customs, of sociology and of psychology.”

The aspect to be explored is the relation of Christ as Son to Christ as priest. This exploration will be done with regard to the Epistle to the Hebrews, the only New Testament writing in which the priesthood of Christ is explicitly considered. Further, the exploration is done on the basis of the present writer’s understanding of the epistle, a writing on which there is much difference of opinion. Since all exegesis of Scripture can result only in a plausible interpretation, unless there is some authoritative source with the competence to give a definitive interpretation, what follows can only claim to be plausible at best, and nothing more.

In Hebrews 10:1-18, there is a summary contrasting the inefficacy of the Old Testament sacrifices with the implied efficacy of Christ’s offering of his own body in sacrifice. The once-for-all offering of Christ’s body is sufficient to remove all mankind’s sins, no matter when they were committed. (Cf. Hebrews 7 and the priesthood of Melchizedek, which is used as an illustration of Christ’s priesthood. Christ’s priesthood, because of Christ’s resurrected body, now exists outside of time, as it were, and, hence, is applicable to men and women of all times and places.) The passage in Hebrews 10:1-18 ends by linking Christ’s offering of himself with the prophecy of Jeremiah about the New Covenant, which, in turn, implies the Eucharist, for the prophecy of Jeremiah about the New Covenant is used exclusively as regards the Eucharist in the New Testament.

A word that compares the relative inefficacy of the Old Covenant sacrifices with the efficacy of the New is the Greek word anamnêsis (“remembrance”). In Hebrews, this word occurs in Hebrews 10:3 to indicate the inefficacy of the Old Testament sacrifices to forgive sin. In Luke 22:19, the word occurs in connection with the Eucharist. The implication is that the sacrifice of Christ, that is, his offering of his own body, is not being remembered abstractly, but is remembered efficaciously, so that its saving effects are inserted into history whenever and wherever the Eucharist is celebrated. Thus, the saving effect of Christ’s sacrifice is made present. The passage about the Eucharist in 1 Corinthians 11:23-34 indicates how Paul understood the celebration of the Eucharist as effecting the real presence of Christ. Those who defend the practice and teaching of the Church about the need for a male to celebrate the Eucharist maintain that, inasmuch as Christ offered himself as man to the Father in sacrifice, only a male could fittingly take Christ’s part. But this is to equate “male” with “man,” which, in the context, is not a real answer to the problem. For “man” in this instance is equivalent to “mortal,” and women are just as mortal as males.

But this argument against the validity of a woman who can make the offering of Christ as Victim is not really plausible, for it was not simply Christ as male who was making the offering, but Christ who was a divine Person who was the one offering. This is quite clear in the Epistle to the Hebrews, for from the opening lines, the author of Hebrews insists that Christ is the divine Son. Natures do not act rationally, persons act rationally. It was the divine Son, insofar as he was a mortal man, who was a divine Person acting freely, i.e., rationally.

The Epistle to the Hebrews together with 1 Corinthians 11:23-34 leaves the faithful reader with the realization that the Eucharist, as understood by Scripture, demands that the Son of God with a body exists outside of time in heaven at God’s right hand, i.e., enjoying the legitimacy, and the authority, and the power, that he shares with his Father. And within time, the same Son of God exists as victim whom he offered freely when he had a mortal body in time. This divine Person as victim now bears within him the fruits of that victimhood. These fruits include the expiation of all sin, and the power to sanctify all those who approach the Eucharist with the necessary dispositions: faith and the informed desire to experience these fruits.

Further, this Eucharistic reality implies that, wherever Christ exists in time, there is need of an intermediary in time to act on behalf of the eternal Son as his agent. This agent in time is a person with the authority bestowed on the Church by the Son to effect the presence of the Son in time by an efficacious evocation of the Son’s sacrifice. It is the Son, as Son, who effects the Eucharist because he acts as a Person (Son), and not as a nature (man). This can be seen from the fact that the act results in the Real Presence of a Person (Son), and not just a nature (man). It is this Person who is primary, for this Person assumed a human nature as man, and not vice versa. And this person is, and forever has been, and forever will be, a Son, a fact that is more appropriately expressed by a human, who is a son, than by a human female, who can never be a son.

But something more is needed to arrive at a convincing argument in favor of the non-ordination of women to the priesthood. Such an argument is based on a continuation of the argument above, and rests on the Catholic/Orthodox belief in the Real Presence, i.e., the Real Divine Presence, in the Eucharistic Victim on the altar. A woman priest would not unambiguously witness to the Divine Presence. By the very fact that the Son as Victim is present in the Eucharistic species, his presence as man is clear to the eyes of faith. But his presence as divine is not as unambiguously clear. Precisely as Son, he has no body. A male priest, who is witness to the Sonship as no woman can ever be (every man is, perforce, a son), is an unambiguous witness. Hence, a male priest is a link in the chain of legitimacy, not only as a son, but as a male as well, once the sonship is presumed.

In this context, the absence of any mention of the Mother of Jesus in the Epistle to the Hebrews is noteworthy. Arguments from silence are notoriously tricky, of course, and more than plausibility is not being claimed for this one. It was only the flesh and blood of Our Lady that enabled the divine Son to be a sacrificial victim on the cross, and a Eucharistic Victim on the altar. But mention of her would clearly distract from a key message of Hebrews (and of the Church) that this Eucharistic Victim is just as divine as the High Priest seated at God’s right hand.

All of the above argumentation that, admittedly has aimed only at plausibility, has been based on the exercise of faith regarding the Son as Eucharist, Priest, and Victim in the abstract—about whatness. The supposition all along has been that the witness value of the priest as son and male for legitimacy is appropriate, based on the witness of Scripture. But once this argument is taken out of the abstract, and placed in the context of the concrete, i.e., out of the realm of whatness, and into the realm of thatness, certitude is possible for those who believe. For the Church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, has constantly taught that for validity, it is not only appropriate, but essential, for a male to officiate at each celebration of the Eucharist. In other words, the Holy Spirit, in guiding the practice of the Magisterium of the Catholic Church, has authoritatively and definitively given certitude to the arguments based on a plausible interpretation of Scripture given above as regards the general conclusion about the need for the ordination of priests as sons to be valid: thatness has sealed whatness for those who have faith. Whether the details of the argumentation based on Christ the Priest as Son is certain must remain for the same Magisterium to decide, if said argumentation is worthy of study at all. Fides quaerens intellectum—“Faith seeking understanding.” It remains an open question if thatness will seal whatness with certitude in this regard.

Fr. James Swetnam, SJ About Fr. James Swetnam, SJ

Fr. James Swetnam, SJ, entered the Society of Jesus in 1945. He was ordained in 1958 and spent 50 years in Rome at the Pontifical Biblical Institute. During his Jesuit training, he acquired licentiate degrees in philosophy, theology, and Scripture, and a doctorate in biblical studies from the University of Oxford. He maintains a website, www.jamesswetnamsclosereadings.com, and is now in residence at Jesuit Hall in St. Louis, Missouri.


  1. Would an additional argument be that a male is “ordered” toward generating life while a female is more “ordered” to receptivity? Of course we have to avoid too much sexual imagery, but I wonder if there’s something to that angle that is also important to the male-only priesthood.