Why Women Can’t be Priests

Eamonn Clark, STL

I recently had a lengthy exchange with a self-styled “feminist theologian.” We talked about a number of things, but of course we spoke about the perennially misunderstood issue of women’s ordination. Obviously, she was in favor. I was not.

I’ve ordered the famous text on women’s ordination by Fr. Manfred Hauke – as I don’t think this topic is going to be going away for another 20-30 years, and I want to understand it better. I look forward to reading it. In the meantime, here is the argument as I make it, in three parts. The definitive part is the revealed fact of the impossibility of ordaining women to the priesthood. (I will leave aside the question of women deacons, as it is actually slightly more complex; however, I would also argue that it is revealed that the entire sacrament of Holy Orders is reserved for men alone and that many of the arguments against women’s priesthood are operant in the solution to the question of women deacons – it’s just that the argument about the spousal relationship between the priest and the Church does not apply as strongly to the diaconate.) The theoretical part is the underlying theological and anthropological realities which order men toward this office and not women. The practical part is the circumstances of history which teach us about the will of God.

Definition

The universal ordinary magisterium (UOM) delivers us infallible teachings on faith and morals. This is a function of Christ’s promise to the Church, in the apostles, that the Holy Spirit would guide them “into all truth.” (John 16:13) What good is the Church as a teacher if She cannot guarantee that Her consistent and longstanding teaching and use are free from error in faith and morals? Since right belief is necessary for right love (“you can’t love what you don’t know,” etc.), a guarantee that the Church will be preserved from error in teaching is quite important. There are some borderline cases, but when the Church very consistently teaches and/or “uses” something over many centuries, the presumption must be that it is in fact part of UOM teaching and is thus infallible. (This differs from the ordinary magisterium of individual bishops, or of an individual pope, as I have explained elsewhere.) The fact that the Church has for so long and so consistently both taught that women cannot be ordained priests and has in fact not attempted this, since this has only been a practice among tiny groups cut off from mainstream ecclesiastical life and administration, indicates that this is a firm part of the UOM. This was forcefully explained by St. John Paul II in his text Ordinatio Sacerdotalis.

One can even make the argument, as one prominent American canonist does, that St. John Paul II actually used his extraordinary magisterium – the “papal infallibility” sort – when issuing that document, despite any statements to the contrary after the fact. It is an interesting argument, and it is possibly correct. However, we can at least state that it is a clear explanation of the UOM in a definitive way.

Theory

Men hunt, women gather. This is the basic dynamic between men and women from the dawn of civilization. It may mean something for understanding our diverse roles in ecclesiastical life.

In Eden, the man is created first. The woman comes from him, and this is a measure for how the order between men and women ought to be. St. Paul explains this very bluntly in two different sections of 1 Corinthians, with words that make the 21st century westerner bristle from the lack of political correctness. “A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head, because of the angels. Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.” (1 Corinthians 11:7-12) He continues on in chapter 14: “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.” (1 Corinthians 14:34-35)

Almost predicting the present-day near-complete irrelevance of so-called “feminist theology,” Paul says in the conclusion of this section: “But if anyone ignores this, they will themselves be ignored.” (1 Corinthians 14:38)

Likewise, in 1 Timothy, we read: “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.” (1 Timothy 2:11-14) Obviously, Paul attributes original sin primarily to Adam (1 Corinthians 15:22), but the fact that it was the woman who was deceived by the Devil leaves the progeny of Eve who are of her sex to be without a claim over official public teaching about God and righteousness (faith and morals). Adam was not deceived – he knew better but was just plain evil in his disobedience and pride.

St. Paul also gives us an order between men and women in the domestic sphere: “Wives be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. Because the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ is the head of the Church.” (Ephesians 5:22-23a) The corollary, explained immediately, is of course that men must love their wives as Christ loves the Church (which means immense self-denial, even unto laying down one’s life). It’s better seen as the relief of a burden for women, and a challenge for men.

All of this is to say that St. Paul does not believe in “women’s equality” in practical, temporal affairs. Thus, neither does the Church nor Her faithful children. However, temporal affairs are only the means to the end. When Paul says there is “no longer male nor female” in Galatians 3:28, he speaks of the reality that God is not a “respecter of persons.” (Cf. Acts 10:34, Romans 2:11) One’s love of God, and subsequent merit with Him, is completely independent of what station one has in this life. The greatest saint, the holiest human person ever to walk the earth, was a woman – Mary, the Mother of God. She was not complaining about “not being equal,” and now she is Queen of Heaven and Earth.

If women are not permitted to teach in the Church on account of Eve, what is the implication for men? By inversion, we see that Adam’s sin provides the paradigm for the debt which men owe to God. Instead of defending his bride from the serpent (the text of Genesis implies he was standing right next to her when she was deceived), Adam was negligent and subsequently proud by direct disobedience. As part of the curse which Adam is put under, he must toil for his food. Additionally, Adam owes an infinite debt, and all humanity with him, on account of his enormous and special sin. This can only be done by offering something infinitely good back to God. We can certainly offer our own lives, as baptized Christians (the “priesthood of the baptized”), but we are of finite goodness. No number of finite sacrifices equals an infinite sacrifice.

From these points alone we can derive a strong argument for the reservation of the priesthood to men. It is the man’s special burden to make up for what Adam consciously failed to do – to offer himself as a sacrifice for his bride, putting himself between her and the Devil. This is the Mass, where the priest acts in the very person of Christ, offering the perfect sacrifice of Christ Himself on the Cross, by which work (“liturgy” literally means “work”) he procures the spiritual food of the Eucharist for him and his spiritual children. The progeny of Adam who share his sex are responsible for offering the infinite Sacrifice of Christ to atone for their first father’s sin, and for those of himself and the whole Church militant (Earth) and suffering (Purgatory), and to keep Christ’s Bride, the Church, in the souls of Her children, from succumbing to the forces of evil by begging God’s help through succoring Him through the means of this same sacrifice, in addition to offering their very selves in service for the People of God. It is this particular kind of imaging of Christ, precisely as the New Adam, which requires a man, rather than a woman.

There are other theoretical considerations. They are at least twofold: first, that men have a more positive religious inertia than women; second, men are more ordered toward public life than women.

We can notice a few facts, confirmed by empirical study. Women who are pious are generally unable to be pulled downward by their impious husbands, but nor can they pull their impious husbands upward. Women who are impious are generally easily able to pull down weakly pious men. (Thus the Torah’s stronger insistence on men not marrying foreign wives than women not marrying foreign husbands.) On the other hand, impious women are usually easily pulled upward by pious men. This teaches us something about the role of the male in religion: he is by nature meant to lead. It perfects him as a man. Leadership in religion does not correspond to perfecting the woman nearly to the same degree. This is intuitively sensed by children especially, who are far more likely to go to church their whole lives if dad goes than if just mom goes. The example is more psychologically moving, for whatever reason. Therefore, while there are plenty of screw-ups in the priesthood, at least they are male screw-ups. The bad men do less damage than bad women would, and the good men do more good than good women would.

This corresponds with the reality that men are generally more ordered to public life in general. This is for three kinds of reasons: biological, physiological, and psychological. First, the biological. Men do not need to be at home when having a child – the woman does, out of physical necessity. This limits the amount of public engagement that women can have over the course of their life. They cannot make long commitments to delicate, serious, long-term, time-intensive, and physically taxing work that men can. Next, the physiological. Men are bigger, faster, and stronger than women. Once again, men hunt, women gather. The demands of public life at the higher levels are extremely difficult for men to meet well, even though they have the propensity to endure more laborious conditions and be more intimidating to competitors. It is nearly impossible for women, except in special circumstances. This bread-winning gives men a kind of presumptive right to make more decisions about the common welfare of the society in which they live, as they are more effective in managing its affairs, will be called on to do so more often as a result, and are more familiar with what the public sphere is really like. Finally, the psychological. Men are by nature more aggressive and focused than women. They are also more drawn to dealing with problems and tasks related to “things” which they can “fix.” Women excel more with “people problems” which require empathy and high emotional intelligence. The male psychology is therefore much better suited to handling high-pressure situations which call for focus, aggression, and problem-solving ability. (Women, however, can perhaps more easily excel in those public affairs which are purely diplomatic in nature.)

This is not to say that women can’t be good leaders. But it is much harder for them to be effective administrators of public affairs at a high level, especially if they are bearing children. The priesthood is a public office of the Church which intrinsically involves administration, even if the priest is not actually an administrator of anything. (To drive home this point, a priest ordained on his death bed would still be conformed to Christ in view of sanctification and teaching, even if he never actually celebrates the sacraments or teaches anything.) Since the priesthood is a public administrative function in the Church, it is much more fitting that only men occupy the office. While there are some women who would be competent, the point is that the general higher competence of men for public affairs indicates the appropriateness of men alone being able to occupy the office.

Practice

I was informed in my discussion with my feminist friend that actually the reason why there weren’t women priests in the early Church was because of a rigid patriarchal culture in the Roman world, such that it was too difficult to have such women priests in practice. They wouldn’t have been accepted by all those sexist males who wanted to dominate the women because of their evolution-driven urge to do so. But now, she argued, women are socially equal and so should be free to be ordained.

There are two huge problems with this argument from a purely practical point of view, leaving aside the Eurocentrism (or Western-centrism) which animates the thought that women are now socially equal to men, as in most of the world that thought is laughable.

First of all, one must assume that the apostles and their immediate disciples had a serious lack of courage to proclaim the Gospel in its entirety, which would naturally include the right ordering of liturgical worship. Given that these men and women usually knew that the lions likely awaited them in the arena if they were found out by the unfriendly emperor (etc.), this argument is laughable. If one is refusing to worship the local deities, such as in Rome, one becomes an enemy of the state. (The classical pagan pantheons were often seen as being integral to the flourishing of civil society – so appeasing them was important enough to legally enforce the practice of offering sacrifice to them. To refuse to do so was like fomenting insurrection.) One would have to state that St. Peter or St. Andrew, for example, were fine with being martyred for preaching unique salvation in Christ, but it was just a step too far for them to have a woman presiding at the altar. It does not make sense psychologically, and it is even mildly blasphemous.

The second problem is even more fatal. The fact is that presiding at liturgies was one of the only major public functions which women held in the ancient Mediterranean world. Rome, Greece, Persia, Egypt… They all had priestesses in their various cultic paradigms. If Christians had priestesses, this would have been utterly uncontroversial. So the fact that the early local churches did not produce priestesses, as evidenced by the complete absence of any documentation of such a practice, especially the non-existence of a tradition of priestesses enduring after the apostolic age, indicates that it was a conscious choice (or a complete non-choice which merely recognized the right practice and implicitly rejected the wrong practice) that came from something intrinsic to Christianity rather than a decision made from external coercion.

The synthesis of the feminist argument about rigid patriarchy and the early Church: the apostles and their first disciples were so cowardly that they were ready to face martyrdom over preaching Christ, except for allowing for a practice which was totally uncontroversial in the surrounding culture. This is about as good as a reductio ad absurdum can get.

The problem gets even worse when applied to Christ. If it is mildly blasphemous to suggest that the apostle St. Bartholomew was fine being skinned alive but just not for taking the risk of putting women in their God-given place at the altar (despite that being the norm in the pagan world), then it comes close to serious blasphemy to suggest that the Lord was constrained by cultural paradigms in commissioning the first priests in the Upper Room at the Last Supper. If the incarnate Son of God is so beholden to cultural norms of patriarchy that He just can’t find a way around it, then He’s not God. As St. John Paul II explains in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, the Lord acted with total freedom in choosing only men to be conformed to Him as priests. In fact, the more natural choice would have been to choose all the women who were much more faithful to Him. Instead, He consciously chose a bunch of men, most of whom would abandon Him – with one selling Him in an act of betrayal, and the leader of them all denying Him three times within earshot. So clearly the Lord is unconcerned with the “natural choice.” Had He chosen the women, they would have been easily accepted by the ancient world as cultic leaders. True, as teachers it would have been more of a struggle, but as soon they had started healing the blind and raising the dead, people would have listened. God can teach and preach through whomever He wants – through rough, uneducated fishermen, or through women. They were both naturally unfit for the task of conquering the Mediterranean world. And yet conquer it they did.

Conclusion

Women’s ordination is likely to be a peripheral pastoral concern for the next generation, but it seems to be reducing in popularity. This is because those younger women who are attracted to serious Catholic life are not swept up with the cultural revolutionary sentiments of the 1960’s and 70’s. They may even perceive that the idea of “women in the workplace” as it’s been tried over the past 50 years has not been the liberating blessing that women were told it would be. And vanishingly few men are concerned with this perceived “inequality problem.”

The most attractive daughters of Christ are those who fully embrace their femininity – to be happy to love the Lord and their husband (perhaps one and the same) and embrace that most fundamental of virtues, obedience, in a special way. They realize they are off the hook, by and large, for worrying about the affairs of the world and of the Church. They focus on their own sons and daughters, their own neighbors, and their own selves, to make saints. While men must usually hunt in order to realize their full potential as men, normally women need only to gather.

Our Lady of the Rosary, pray for us.

2 thoughts on “Why Women Can’t be Priests

  1. This issue of whether women can be ordained as ministerial priesthood really focuses on the doctrine of “persona Christi” and how God choose to provide His grace to us through the Sacraments. Jesus is acting through the priest when consecration of the host during every Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and it is Jesus acting through the priest in giving absolution of forgiving our sins in confessional. Old and New Testament, Jesus is the bridegroom. Jesus took on human nature as a biological man. (hypostatic union – Jesus is fully man and fully divine) Only a man can be a bridegroom and only a man can act persona Christi. To claim a women can be a man or act in personal Christi is contrary to nature and divine law established by God.

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