The Male Priesthood: The Argument From Sacred Tradition
by Mark Lowery, Ph.d.
In May of 1994 John Paul II promulgated
which declared definitely that the Catholic priesthood is reserved
for males. That document nonetheless contained some language that
was difficult to interpret. As a result, Cardinal Ratzinger made
an official clarification () in November of
1995, making it quite clear that the Church has taught infallibly
on this matter.
Hence, the question of the priesthood in its relation to
sexuality-a question usually posed more simply as "Why can there
not be women priests?"-has now been answered in a definitive way.
There is no longer any doubt that reserving Holy Orders to males
is part of the deposit of faith. While Catholics are not to
question the teaching of the Magisterium on this matter, the time
is ripe for all interested to come to a deeper understanding and
appreciation of the Church's teaching.
The documents themselves are not meant to provide such theological
information for us. Although they contain and allude to
theological arguments, they are not primarily meant as theological
documents. The situation is similar to the role of , the 1968 encyclical on the regulation of birth. As Janet
Smith has aptly noted, that encyclical was not meant to provide a
full philosophical and theological rationale for the Church's
position. Rather, it alluded to some of the central arguments,
presuming that philosophers and theologians would flush them
out. Similarly, (issued by the Congregation
for the Doctrine of the Faith under Pope Paul VI in 1976), the
the exist not primarily as theological
explanations, but as teaching documents making clear the Church's
position, containing an implicit invitation to theologians to
flush out the arguments. In this article I propose to present the
argument from Sacred Tradition in favor of the male priesthood.
In considering that argument, we want to examine Tradition
says, the factual or empirical side of the question. This
Tradition contains three aspects, as aptly summarized in
no. 1 when it quotes a 1975 letter of
Paul VI to the Archbishop of Canterbury: "the example recorded in
the Sacred Scriptures of Christ choosing His Apostles only from
among men; the constant practice of the Church, which has imitated
Christ in choosing only men; and her living teaching authority
[Magisterium] which has consistently held that the exclusion of
women from the priesthood is in accordance with God's plan for his
Church." Let us consider each of the three points.
The Action of Jesus
Jesus clearly called only 12 men to be His apostles. Judas
abandoned his call; when he was replaced, as described in Acts 1,
it is interesting to note that no women were considered for his
position, even though there were many women who would have fit the
bill as faithful followers. Instead, Matthias was chosen (cf.
, no. 14).
As John Paul II makes clear in it is
especially remarkable that Mary was not chosen:
... the fact that the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God and
Mother of the Church, received neither the mission proper to the
Apostles nor the ministerial priesthood clearly shows that the
non-admission of women to priestly ordination cannot mean that
women are of lesser dignity, nor can it be construed as
discrimination against them. Rather, it is to be seen as the
faithful observance of a plan to be ascribed to the wisdom of the
Lord of the Universe.
The pope goes on to mention the important and dignified roles that
women have played throughout the history of the Church (also noted
in , no. 6), and then makes the following
Moreover, it is to the holiness of the faithful that the
hierarchical structure of the Church is totally ordered. For this
reason, the Declaration recalls: "the only
better gift, which can and must be desired, is love (cf. 1 Cor 12
and 13). The greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven are not the
ministers but the Saints (no. 3).
Such a perspective helps immensely in dealing with a delicate
matter: the fact that a variety of women today feel called to the
priesthood. They may well be confusing a desire for the priesthood
within them with a more authentic and a higher calling, the call
to holiness. no. 35 notes that "there is a
universal vocation of all the baptized to the exercise of the
royal priesthood by offering their lives to God and by giving
witness for his praise."
Many argue that Jesus' choice of men only was conditioned by the
historical context: people of the time simply could not accept
women as leaders. But this argument is unsound. Jesus was very
quick to re-figure or even dispense with Jewish customs (as
opposed to essential of Judaism, such as monotheism, or
MALES IS I the moral law as found in the Ten Commandments). Why
not dispense with the Jewish custom of a male priesthood? no. 11 and 12, from which we paraphrase, gives some
examples of Jesus' behavior:
1) He showed His concern for a Samaritan woman an 4:27)-Samaritans
were shunned by much of Judaism of the time.
2) When the woman suffering from hemorrhages approached Him (Mt 9:
20-22) He took no notice of her state of legal impurity.
3) He allowed a sinful woman to approach Him in the house of Simon
the Pharisee (Lk 7:37ff).
4) He pardoned the woman caught in adultery, showing that one must
not be more severe towards the fault of a woman than towards that
of a man (Jn 8:11).
5) He challenged the chauvinism in Jewish law that allowed men to
divorce their wives. "He does not hesitate to depart from the
Mosaic Law in order to affirm the equality of the rights of men
and women with regard to the marriage bond (cf. Mk 10:2-11; Mt
6) In His ministry Jesus was accompanied not only by the Twelve
but also by a group of women: "Mary, surnamed the Magdalene, from
whom seven demons had gone out, Joanna the wife of Herod's steward
Chuza, Susanna, and several others who provided for them out of
their own resources" (Lk 8:2-3).
7) The Gospels present women as the first witnesses and believers
after the Resurrection.
Given these facts, it would seem quite natural, then, to have
women apostles, and hence women priests. The fact that Christ
retained the Jewish practice in this area suggests that there is
more behind it than a mere custom. As John Paul II notes in his
, Christ acted . In doing so, he exercised
the same freedom with which, in all his behavior, he emphasized
the dignity and the vocation of women, without conforming to the
prevailing customs and to the traditions sanctioned by the
legislation of the time. Consequently, the assumption that he
called men to be apostles in order to conform with the widespread
mentality of his times, does not at all correspond to Christ's way
of acting (no. 26).
We must also consider the consequences of claiming that Jesus did
not intend, in calling twelve men to be apostles, the priesthood
to be reserved for males. Consider this line of argument:
a) If in fact there is no doctrinal barrier to women becoming
priests, then 60 generations of women have been wronged. Whether
or not they wanted to become priests is not at issue. They should
have been allowed the priesthood.
b) Now if this is the case, the cause for 60 generations of
injustice is that Jesus appointed only male disciples. (Some might
say the leaders of the early Church were the cause but clearly
they were motivated by Jesus' action, which then remains the first
c) Hence, Jesus made a mistake on a very crucial matter. If so,
His divinity is seriously called into question.
d) The other possibility is that Jesus did God the Father's will,
but that God the Father Himself did not foresee that such an
action would result in so much discrimination. Of course, then God
is not omniscient, and hence not God.
e) In a word, the argument for female priests denies either the
Incarnation, or the omniscience of God.
In sum, Jesus' own action is at the heart of the argument from
A Constant Tradition
The second part of the argument from Tradition is that the
apostles and their successors throughout history imitated Christ.
The mentions the question of
the male priesthood in one article, which articulates the first
and second parts of the argument from Tradition:
"Only a baptized man () validly receives sacred ordination."
The Lord Jesus chose men () to form the college of the
twelve apostles, and the apostles did the same when they chose
collaborators to succeed them in their ministry. 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 (no. 1577).
Although Jewish society may not have welcomed a female priesthood,
the Gentiles to whom Paul and others preached would certainly have
been open to it. The Greek mystery cults, for instance, included
priestesses. Hence, if the male priesthood was only a custom,
conditioned by the historical setting of Jesus, then it seems
likely that the early Church would have abandoned this custom
among Gentile Christians (especially since the Council of
Jerusalem made the momentous decision that Jewish customs need not
be embraced by Gentiles converting to Christianity). That she did
not again suggests that there is more behind the male priesthood
than mere custom. is well worth quoting at
length on this point:
When [the apostles] and Paul went beyond the confines of the
Jewish world, the preaching of the Gospel and the Christian life
in the Greco-Roman civilization impelled them to break with Mosaic
practices, sometimes regretfully. They could therefore have
envisaged conferring ordination on women, if they had not been
convinced of their duty of fidelity to the Lord on this point. In
the Hellenistic world, the cult of a number of pagan divinities
was entrusted to priestesses.
The apostles certainly had available good candidates for
priestesses if they had so chosen: In fact we know from the book
of the Acts and from the letters of Saint Paul that certain women
worked with the Apostle for the Gospel (cf. Rom 16:3-12; Phil
4:3).... All these facts manifest within the Apostolic Church a
considerable evolution vis-a-vis the customs of Judaism.
Nevertheless at no time was there a question of conferring
ordination on these women.
Interestingly, Paul himself uses different formulas, as noted in
no. 17, when referring first to men and women
who help him in his apostolate ("my fellow workers," Rom 16:3,
Phil 4:2-3) and second to those set apart for the apostolic
ministry and preaching of the Word such as Apollos and Timothy
("God's fellow workers," 1 Cor 3:9,1 Thess 3:2).
It is true that there were some heretical sects in early
Christianity that had priestesses (see , no.
6). These were Gnostic sects, and one hallmark of Gnosticism is a
refusal to see any inherent goodness in the created order.
Maleness and femaleness are closely bound to our creatureliness,
and Gnostics were unable to see any meaning infused into such
realities. It is understandable, then, that their ministry would
A common complaint about the early Church is that a certain
misogynism is found in the writings of some of the Church Fathers,
but as no. 6 notes it is not clear that such
prejudice had any influence on their pastoral activity. It is
always important to distinguish the doctrine taught by personnel
of the Church from their own opinions on various matters. Christ's
gift of infallibility means that the Magisterium will not err on
matters of faith and morals, not that representatives of the
Church will be perfect in all respects.
Also of import is that fact that the Eastern Catholic Churches
have taught unanimously the same points as the Roman Catholic
Church. As no. 9 notes, "Their unanimity on
this point is all the more remarkable since in many other
questions their discipline admits of a great diversity." For
instance, priestly celibacy is a disciplinary, not doctrinal
matter, in Catholicism. East and West practice differently on this
matter. That the East shares the doctrine of male priesthood with
us is a signal that the teaching is not in the realm of custom or
In sum, the Tradition has been so firm throughout the centuries
that, as no. 8 notes, "the Magisterium has not
felt the need to intervene in order to formulate a principle which
was not attacked, or to defend a law that was not challenged. ...
each time that this tradition had the occasion to manifest itself,
it witnessed to the Church's desire to conform to the model left
to her by the Lord." But of course such principles and laws have
been challenged in the past thirty years. Hence, the recent
Magisterium has had to respond, and it has done so carefully,
patiently and firmly. And so, we now turn to the third aspect of
the argument from Tradition. (Keep in mind that the arguments
presented here simply establish the data about what Tradition has
The Dogmatic Status of the Male Priesthood
We clearly see an unbroken tradition regarding the male
priesthood. There is every reason to believe that it constitutes
part of the dogmatic and infallible deposit of faith. Still, we
must inquire about a teaching enters the actual deposit of
faith, and how this particular teaching is dogmatically taught.
This teaching is infallible by virtue of-here is a mouthful-the
ordinary universal episcopal Magisterium.
The authority of Christ is found in the apostolic succession
throughout the Christian centuries. Such an understanding is
rooted in a sacramental view of reality that sees the human realm
as capable of bearing absolute truth. The apostolic succession
consists of human beings specially guided by the Holy Spirit. When
we turn to the Magisterium, we are turning to the apostolic
succession living in our own time. (For a fuller treatment of the
concept of Tradition, see "Tradition: the Presence of Christ
Echoing Across Time," , Nov./Dec. 1995).
It is by virtue of the ordinary and universal Magisterium that the
doctrine of the male priesthood is infallibly taught. When a) all
bishops throughout the world, at any particular time in history,
have b) concurred on some matter of faith and morals, c) teach it
definitively, and d) in union with the teaching of the Bishop of
Rome then that matter is considered to be infallibly
Note that it is not defined infallibly, as would be the case if
there were an exercise of the extra ordinary Magisterium. Whether
infallibly or infallibly, the matter is still
just as infallible.
Matters that are infallibly were taught infallibly prior
to the extraordinary definition. Usually what causes a matter to
be raised to the level of an infallible definition is some type of
crisis requiring a more official definition. It is always a
question of prudence as to whether or not to define a matter that
is already infallibly taught by the ordinary universal episcopal
Magisterium. Hence, the pope have used the occasion of
to formulate an infallible
definition, but he chose not to for prudential reasons. Likewise,
the recent encyclical could have been the
context within which the pope defined infallibly the Church's
teaching on the sanctity of human life, on abortion, and on
euthanasia. Instead, the pope (wisely in this author's opinion)
used the encyclical to point out, in the midst of carefully
reasoned argumentation, that these matters are already
infallibly by the ordinary universal episcopal Magisterium. If
some bishops today have taught otherwise, they themselves stand in
conflict with the tradition, and in a sense are standing outside
the apostolic tradition at least on a particular issue.
It is well worth noting that all moral matters that have
infallible status are taught, not defined, infallibly by the
ordinary universal episcopal Magisterium. Examples include the
items noted above contained in . To these we
could add the Church's teachings on the nature of the conjugal act
as unitive and procreative, which affects issues such as
homosexuality, adultery, fornication, contraception, and some of
the new birth technologies. This is an opportune occasion to
unmask one of the most popular arguments put forth by dissenters
on such issues. You can quiz yourself by trying to find the
fallacy in the following line of argument:
a) It is argued that no matters of morality have ever been defined
infallibly by the Magisterium.
b) Therefore, all matters of morality are in the realm of fallible
teachings that do not demand our assent of faith, but rather
assent of mind and will.
c) Such teachings have changed in the past. For instance, the
teaching that condemned religious liberty was not infallible, and
it changed at Vatican II.
d) We are in the midst of another such change regarding the issue
of contraception and other related issues. Hence, while giving due
respect to the Magisterium, it is legitimate to dissent from these
Answer: Point "a" is correct in what it states, but errs by
omission. Matters of morality have not been defined infallibly,
but they have been taught infallibly. One whole category of
infallible teaching is ignored in this argument. Points "ten and
"c" are true, but irrelevant, and point "d" is a false conclusion
because some of its premises are irrelevant or incomplete.
What about the dogmatic status of the male priesthood? Until June
of 1994, the question of the dogmatic status of the male
priesthood was unresolved. Since it had not been challenged before
recent decades, the Church had not had an opportunity for careful
theological reflection on the nature of maleness and femaleness
and how that might affect the priesthood. Certainly the current
crisis has born and will continue to bear fruit in
that regard. Up until , it was probable
but not definitive that the teaching was infallibly taught. Those
in legitimate doubt about the infallibility of such teachings
still were required to give the (reverent
obedience) that asks of us for non-infallible
With , we find a clarification on the
matter. Consider the final statement of the letter: Wherefore, 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
judgement is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful.
While it is clear that the teaching is to be held definitively,
the letter did not specify (as was done on the three issues noted
above in ) that the teaching was infallibly
taught by the ordinary universal episcopal Magisterium (though the
word "definitively" echoes one of the criteria by which a teaching
of the ordinary Magisterium is to be considered infallible).
Rather, the final statement gave the impression of being just on
the verge of being an definition-the word "define"
is conspicuously absent, but everything else is there!
One can understand the confusion this caused. Clearly the teaching
had not been defined infallibly, and since it only came close to
doing so, it made it appear as if the teaching might not be
infallible. And since the document did not make clear reference to
the other mode by which the teaching could be infallible-the
ordinary universal episcopal Magisterium -the faithful were left
somewhat in a state of perplexity. Hence, the official request for
clarification and the response from the Congregation for the
Doctrine of the Faith. Cardinal Ratzinger made it clear in this
brief statement that the teaching was infallibly by the
ordinary, universal, episcopal Magisterium.
Dr. Lowery is Associate Professor of Theology at the University of
1 Humanae Vitae: A Generation Later (Washington D.C.: Catholic
University of America Press, 1991), pp. ix-x.
2 These examples and several others are also reflected upon in
John Paul II's Mulieris Dignitatem no. 13 (On the Dignity and
Vocation of Women).
3 Some feminist exegetes argue that the Gospels contain a sexist
and patriarchal distortion of Jesus' teaching/practice. Such
arguments are based on conjecture, and are contrary to the
Church's teaching that the Gospels are true to history as they set
forth to give theological interpretation of that history.
4 This argument is creatively expressed by Sheldon Vanauken,
"Women Priests Denies the Incarnation," New Oxford Review (March,
5 This is the argument popularized by Fr. Charles Curran.
This article was taken from the May/June 1996 issue of "The
Catholic Faith". Published bi-monthly for 24.95 a year by
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