The Catholic Left’s Latest Call for the Ordination of Women

In early December the independent and very liberal National Catholic Reporter weekly newspaper published a long, carefully reasoned editorial declaring that “The Ordination of Women Would Correct an Injustice.” If the Church were deliberately perpetrating an injustice in the matter of ordination, of course, it would be a serious matter. The NCR editorial was a response to the earlier “excommunication, dismissal, and laicization” of Roy Bourgeois, who as a Maryknoll priest had long and defiantly—and in spite of numerous warnings—engaged in what was officially described as a “campaign against the teachings of the Catholic Church”—he repeatedly and obstinately engaged in public agitation in favor of female ordination.

According to the NCR editorial, both the disciplining of Roy Bourgeois and the Church’s “failure” to ordain women constituted grave injustices that urgently need to be remedied. “The call to priesthood,” the newspaper wrote, “is a gift from God. It is rooted in baptism and is called forth and affirmed by the community”—not, significantly, by the Church, according to the NCR, but by the “community.” Characterizing the Church’s position of ordaining only men as “absurd,” while describing that position as being based on nothing more substantial than a belief that “anatomy is somehow a barrier to God’s ability to call one of God’s own children forward,” the editorial claimed that female ordination is not only favored by most Catholics today, but represents the true sensus fidelium, or “sense of the faithful,” of Catholic believers today.

The conclusion of the NCR editorial was that that “exclusion of women from the priesthood has no strong basis in Scripture or any other compelling a rationale,” and hence the NCR editors issued a clarion call to the Catholic laity to oppose the Church’s teaching on ordination, both publicly and strenuously: the laity need “to speak up in every forum available to us: in parish council meetings, faith-sharing groups, diocesan convocations, and academic seminars. We should write letters to our bishops, to the editors of our local papers and television news channels”—in other words, we should assume that Catholic teaching is established in the same way as political opinion in a modern democratic regime, that is, chiefly by political agitation and pressuring.

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When speaking before Catholic groups, I have often found that many Catholics today in fact do not understand why the Church does not ordain women. The NCR editors have hit upon a real sore spot here. Whether this indicates—or could—any kind of shift in the sensus fidelium, however, is another and very different question entirely.

In a society such as modern American society today, where almost any kind of discrimination, or supposed discrimination, is almost automatically considered to be the worst of injustices—and where for practically a good half century now, feminists and their allies have been hammering away at the idea that women have been and still are being discriminated against in American society (as well as within the Church)—in this kind of climate, perhaps the surprise is that there are not more voices protesting the Church’s position of not ordaining women and, like the NCR, calling for a revision of the Church’s teaching in the matter.

In view of what seems to be the widespread (but erroneous) popular opinion here, perhaps it is worthwhile briefly summarizing what the Church actually does teach about female (non)ordination.

The principal current explanatory official Church document in the matter is the Declaration on the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood, Inter Insigniores, issued by the Roman Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on October 15, 1976. The key statement in this document is the assertion that the Church, “in fidelity to the example of the Lord, does not consider herself authorized to admit women to priestly ordination.” The NCR editorial quotes the second part of this statement about the Church not considering herself authorized, but omits the first part about this being “in fidelity to the example of the Lord.”

Yet this is the principal reason offered by Inter Insigniores for the Church’s position: the Church does not ordain women to the sacred priesthood essentially because Christ did not include women among the select Twelve to whom he gave sacramental powers that were to be handed down in the Church to and through their successors, the bishops. The priesthood is acquired by means of a sacrament, the sacrament of Order. The bishops possess this sacrament in its fullness, which they share with their priests, and transmit to their successor bishops. If it is asked why they cannot also share it with women, the Church’s answer is that Jesus did not share with women membership in the group of the Twelve on whom he conferred sacramental powers.

In answer to the further question of why Jesus did not share the sacrament of Order with women, Inter Insigniores quotes St. Thomas Aquinas, who explained that “sacramental signs represent what they signify by natural resemblance” (emphasis added). The ordained priest is a sacramental sign who acts in persona Christi (“in the person of Christ”). Anyone who acts for Christ in this way needs to have a “natural resemblance” to him. Christ was a man and thus the priest who acts for him—not just in his “name,” but in his person—needs to be a man.

This explanation of why women cannot be ordained to the sacred priesthood seems deceptively simple on its face. Upon reflection, however, it should become clear that it is a rather profound theological explanation. The priesthood does not just entail a “function” that can be performed indifferently by anybody (standing at the altar, preaching, sitting in the confessional, etc.). Rather, it is a state of being with powers conferred by Christ and transmitted down through the generations in the Church. Think of the “indelible mark” you were told you acquired at baptism; what is acquired at ordination is similarly “indelible” (“You are a priest forever”!).

It is not the case, though, that the priesthood could never have been, theoretically, conferred on a woman because of her supposed interior nature or something of that sort. That is emphatically not the Church’s view of the matter. In the Church’s view, women are fully equal to men in their dignity as human persons. But in point of fact, the apostles Jesus chose who were to be given his sacramental powers were all men.

Inter Insigniores explains that Jesus did not limit his selection of apostles to men alone because of the culture of his times that did not admit women to leadership positions in society. The document affirms what the record of the New Testament attests to in any case, namely, that Jesus was in no way bound by the culture of his times. In fact, he regularly treated women as the equals of men. The New Testament record clearly shows that women formed a vital part of his following; and were the ones, moreover, who stuck with him at the foot of the cross—just as Mary Magdalen was probably the first witness of the Resurrection.

Still, Jesus did not include any of them in the special group of apostles that he appointed, not even his mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the human being whom the Church exalts above all others. Jesus seems to have believed that women and men, although equal in their human dignity, had somewhat different roles in the family and in society.

However that may be, it is quite remarkable how both the early Church, and the medieval Church always consistently adhered to a male only priesthood. Scarcely any questions were even raised about it until modern times. Today, however, not only because of the rise of feminism with its numerous supporters, but also perhaps because most Protestant churches have accepted women as ministers, the question of possible female ordination has arisen and has become quite insistent. Inter Insigniores was issued precisely in order to deal with the question.

However, it should immediately go without saying that not all of the demands of contemporary feminists have proven to be either true or just. The Church is in no way obliged just to go with the fashions of the times. She has her own ways of acting and operating, some of them literally going back to the time of the apostles. And as for the Protestant acceptance of women ministers, it should be recalled that the Protestants rejected the very notion of a sacramental priesthood, and thus they are not constrained in the same way as the Catholic Church (and the Eastern Orthodox Churches), acting “in fidelity to the example of the Lord.”

In this perspective, the National Catholic Reporter’s call for agitation by the Catholic laity in favor of a change in the Church’s teaching on ordination must be seen as profoundly misguided. This is not how Catholic teaching is arrived at or verified. The same thing is true of the idea that women have some kind of a “right” to ordination, or that they are somehow being unjustly “discriminated” against by being excluded from it. These are ideas imported into the Church from the reigning secular liberal culture; they simply do not apply to the kind of sacramental ordination practiced by the Catholic Church. Similarly, the idea that a Maryknoll priest should be allowed to go on publicly agitating against the Church’s teaching can in no way be justified.

But is the inability to ordain women to the sacred priesthood really a definitive Church teaching? In his apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, issued on May 29, 1994, Blessed Pope John Paul II confirmed the teaching of Inter Insigniores, and, indeed, went beyond it, when making the following declaration:

In order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s 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 confirm priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be held definitively by all the Church’s faithful.

“No authority whatsoever…to be held definitively…” It would be hard to think of stronger language by which the mind of the Church could be made more clear, yet opposition to the Church’s teaching as well as arguments in favor of female ordination continued on then and continue on now. More than a year after Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, on October 28, 1995, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, over the signature of Cardinal Ratzinger, issued a Responsum ad dubium specifying that “this teaching requires definitive assent, since, founded on the written Word of God and from the beginning constantly preserved and applied in the Tradition of the Church, it has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium” (emphasis added).

That’s “infallibly.” The teaching will not and cannot be changed. Women cannot be ordained. Yet none of this prevented the NCR from launching its campaign anyway, claiming all the while that its position represented the sensus fidelium. Such are the times.

It is ironic that the NCR issued its claim to represent the sensus fidelium on December 3, 2012. For on December 7, 2012, four days later, Pope Benedict XVI, in an address to the International Theological Commission, in effect issued an “answer” to the NCR editorial (although the pope could well have been entirely unaware of it). The pope said:

Today…it is particularly important to clarify the criteria used to distinguish the authentic sensus fidelium from its counterfeits. In fact, it is not some kind of public opinion of the Church, and it is unthinkable to mention it in order to challenge the teachings of the Magisterium, this because the sensus fidei cannot grow authentically in the believer except to the extent in which he or she fully participates in the life of the Church, and this requires a responsible adherence to her Magisterium.


  • Kenneth D. Whitehead

    Kenneth D. Whitehead is a former career diplomat who served in Rome and the Middle East and as the chief of the Arabic Service of the Voice of America. For eight years he served as executive vice president of Catholics United for the Faith. He also served as a United States Assistant Secretary of Education during the Reagan Administration. He is the author of The Renewed Church: The Second Vatican Council’s Enduring Teaching about the Church (Sapientia Press, 2009) and, most recently, Affirming Religious Freedom: How Vatican Council II Developed the Church’s Teaching to Meet Today’s Needs (St. Paul’s, 2010).

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