Why Women Can't Be Priests

Author: Mary DeTurris


Lost in the debate over women priests is the reason for the Church's teaching. A top woman theologian explains why the Church has always believed what it believes

By Mary DeTurris

Shouts of rage and whispers of schism have irrupted in the month since the Vatican issued a brief confirmation of the Church's long-held teaching that it cannot ordain women to the priesthood.

Yet lost amid the rash of reports of rebellion and frustration is a chorus of voices singing out in support of the clarification of Church teaching, published Nov. 18 by the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith with the approval of Pope John Paul II.

These supporters argue that critics, confused Catholics and others, would do well to study what the Church has really said about the reasons for barring women's ordination, which have nothing to do with "gender equality" and everything to do with Jesus and the history of the Church.

"It seems so patently unreasonable and unfair to people that they can't imagine this, and they don't even give it a chance," said Sister Sara Butler, a Missionary Servant of the Most Blessed Trinity.

Admittedly, at one time Sister Butler would have been an unlikely supporter of the Church teaching. And she understands firsthand the frustrations of those advocating women's admittance to the priesthood.

In the 1970s, she was among the numerous theologians who spoke out publicly in favor of women's ordination. But Sister Butler, currently a theologian at Mundelein Seminary in Illinois, said she was forced to change her mind as her study of the issue drew her deeper into Scripture and Church history.

Now, after years of continual study of the questions, she is one of the American Church's leading authorities on the issue. And she believes that Pope John Paul II's argument is "the only possible reading of the tradition" of the Church.

Original choice

"Catholics have always insisted that the ordained ministry has its origin in Jesus' own choice of the Twelve [Apostles] and that they are the foundation of the Church," she explained in a recent interview.

Following Jesus' example of choosing 12 males to be His apostles, the Church from the earliest days has reserved the priesthood to males.

Sister Butler acknowledges that this requirement is not spelled out directly in the Bible, "as if Scripture, as if Jesus, said, 'I don't want any women to be priests.' "

History, however, shows that the first Christians believed that Christ intended a male- only priesthood.

"We know it is so because early in even the second and third centuries some people went ahead and admitted women to at least priestly functions, if not to ordination, and those people were considered heretics," she explained. "The response was that this was not what Christ willed, and it's against apostolic teaching."

, a 1976 declaration by the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, details the early Church's response to the Gnostics and other radical Christian sects that supported women priestly roles. The Fathers of the Church, the Vatican said, "immediately censured this step, judging it a novelty which should on no account be accepted into the Church."

The declaration, which was approved by Pope Paul VI and remains the Church's most explicit explanation of its teaching on women's ordination, recounts that beginning with early Church leaders such as St. Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen and St. John Chrysostom, and extending through the Middle Ages down to the current popes, the male-only priesthood was an unquestioned tradition.

Even the Oriental or Eastern churches, which split with the Roman Church over many theological issues, never questioned that tradition. The question came up with the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. The Protestant churches effectively abandoned the idea of the priesthood in favor of "a pastoral ministry" in which men and women could participate.

Nevertheless, the Catholic Church and the various Eastern Catholic churches have held true to Christ's original plan.

As Sister Butler said, "The reason is we don't think Jesus intended this for the Church, and this judgment has been made repeatedly and definitively by the Church of our own ancestors. It's a universal, unbroken tradition."

Anti-woman bias?

Nonetheless, critics of the ban on women priests insist that it has always reflected anti- woman bias in the Church, and that if Jesus were living in an age with a greater appreciation of women's dignity and gifts, He would have chosen female disciples and ordained women priests.

This is another argument that holds little water for Sister Butler, based on her study of the issue and the history, even though she once felt that the Church's main objection to women priests was based on its belief that women were inferior and should be subordinate to men.

"The Vatican did clarify its teaching about women's equality and has been very specific," she said. "Pope Paul VI very specifically reiterated what Vatican II had said about the absolute equality of women and men, and Pope John Paul II has been very lucid in many, many places clarifying women's equality with men."

In fact, Pope John Paul has written and spoken often about the equality of women, their unique gifts and their role in the Church. In 1988, he devoted a 116-page apostolic letter, , to the subject of the dignity and vocation of women. And last year he wrote an open letter to the women of the world in which he acknowledged that women have been oppressed and discriminated against and that some of the "blame" for this can be laid on "not just a few members of the Church."

In apologizing for discrimination by some Churchmen, the Pope affirmed women's central importance in history and said the Church believes the Gospel message of Christ is "ever relevant" when it comes "to setting women free from every kind of exploitation and domination." In , the Pope's 1994 apostolic letter reaffirming the Church's teaching on ordination, he was careful to spell out that the decision to deny women access to the priesthood is not based on a belief that women are less competent than men.

"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 nonadmission of women to priestly ordination cannot mean that women are of lesser dignity, nor can it be construed as a discrimination against them," the Pope wrote. "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."

That wisdom is sometimes called into question by those who campaign for the ordination of women. Many who support a female priesthood claim that there is no connection between today's bishops and priests and Jesus' choice of the Twelve Apostles.

That view, according to Sister Butler, is something "quite alien" to Catholic tradition. "They really intend to suggest that the ordained ministry is the creation of the Church, something that it developed for self-organization," she said. "Once you have done that, you have completely emptied out the whole idea of the Catholic sense of this Church."

Since the very beginning of the Church, she continued, the authority of bishops and the priests under them has been seen as an extension of "the authority of Christ, who acts through His ordained ministers who exercise His authority in a way that other baptized Christians cannot."

This authority structure ensures that what the Church teaches remains true to the teaching of Christ, and that is why the teaching authority of the popes and the bishops is at the heart of the question concerning women's ordination.

And the authority of the Church has been "absolutely consistent" on the issue of the male-only priesthood, Sister Butler said. "Theologians have thought through the centuries that it belongs to the deposit of faith, and that's what the Holy Father is saying now, and it does." The "deposit of faith" is the body of unchangeable teachings entrusted by Christ to the apostles and handed on by them to the Church.

"When you tell people that this is what Christ willed for the Church, they often say, 'If He were alive now, He would do it differently.' He is alive now. Don't we believe that the Lord is living and acting in the Church, that these teachers are not just acting on their own judgment but are trying to be absolutely faithful to the teaching that they are entrusted with and doing that against tremendous odds?"

While she believes in the Church's authority and believes that the Church is teaching the doctrine of Jesus on the ordination question, Sister Butler worries that reaction to the Vatican's recent statement is focused so much on the authority question, which is "misleading to the average person," and misses the real reasons for the Church's teaching.

"My expectation is that there will be a lot of talk about the pope's authority," she said. "But what we really need is a deeper theological investigation of the reasons."

DeTurris is a senior correspondent for Our Sunday Visitor

This article was taken from the December 17, 1995 issue of Our Sunday Visitor. To subscribe write Our Sunday Visitor, Inc, Huntington, In 46750.

Our Sunday Visitor is published weekly at a subscription rate of $36.00 per year.