Why an All-Male Priesthood Remains

In May 1994, Pope John Paul II issued his apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis to deal with one specific issue: the Church’s ban on the admission of women to the ministerial priesthood.

The Catholic Priesthood and Women: A Guide to the Teaching of the Church
Sara Butler, Hillenbrand Books, $23, 132 pages
In May 1994, Pope John Paul II issued his apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis to deal with one specific issue: the Church’s ban on the admission of women to the ministerial priesthood — a ban first articulated in the 1976 Vatican declaration Inter Insigniores.
In October 1995, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, reaffirmed the doctrinal status of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, stating that the ban on women priests was “taught infallibly.” While the doctrine is settled, deep resentment continues in some quarters over the Church’s insistence upon an all-male priesthood, and most Catholics still cannot articulate the Church’s reasons for the teaching.
Enter The Catholic Priesthood and Women: A Guide to the Teaching of the Church. It attempts to provide a new generation of young Catholics, most especially seminarians, with an understanding of the Church’s teaching and to give them a “theological orientation” to the topic that engages the chief objections. The primary focus of the book is a consideration of what its author, Sr. Sara Butler, MSBT, terms the “fundamental” versus the “theological” reasons regarding the ban on women priests.
The fundamental reasons in Inter Insigniores begin with a statement that the Church has no authority to admit women to the priesthood. The Church is bound to follow an original gesture of Christ when He established the sacrament of Holy Orders. When Christ called only men to the company of the Twelve, we are confronted by Christ’s will. The all-male priesthood begins with Christ, is continued by the apostles, and is part of the unbroken tradition of the Church. The document explains: “The Church intends to remain faithful to the type of ordained ministry willed by the Lord Jesus Christ and carefully maintained by the apostles.”
Many argue, however, that Christ was subject to the historical conditions of His day. Now that times have changed, they say, the Church is free to abandon a practice that discriminates against women.
Butler points out that Inter Insigniores and Ordinatio Sacerdotalis both insist on Christ’s sovereign freedom in His choice of male apostles. Behind the fundamental reasons is a christological one and, while the Church’s documents insist on Christ’s freedom, it is the theologian’s task to explain why this is important. Unfortunately, Butler does not offer this much-needed explanation. {mospagebreak}
Butler does provide some helpful responses to the most common objections to the Church’s teaching, but occasionally her responses lack a necessary depth. For example, in her response to the accusation that the Church’s exclusion of women to the priesthood is unjust, Butler states that no injustice exists so long as the Church does not prevent anyone from attaining personal holiness. Such responses cannot bear the weight of the complaint and leave the reader rather dry. Sometimes the author relies on the perfunctory and expected answer, as when she responds to objections with the dismissal that not ordaining women is the Church’s tradition.
Christ’s will is not arbitrary, which is why the theological reasons are absolutely essential, lest His example remain shrouded in an unfathomable mystery that makes no sense to believers.
Butler emphasizes that the “Church’s living tradition provides the proper context for discovering Christ’s will. One could imagine that things might be arranged differently, but the ecclesial discernment is rooted in the concrete events of biblical revelation and is bound by fidelity to Christ’s manner of acting.”
Butler correctly insists that the fundamental reasons for Church teaching need to be better appreciated. However, in a book that seeks not only to interpret the Church’s “settled doctrine” but explain it, the theology should not be far behind. Indeed, the so-called theological reasons as articulated, for example, in Inter Insigniores do not seem to be as secondary to the fundamental reasons as Butler argues. The theology of an all-male priesthood has to do with the complementary, nuptial meaning of human sexuality and Christ’s masculine identity as bridegroom to the Church — a marital I-Thou relation that forms the very order of the covenant of salvation itself.
As important as the fundamental reasons are for the all-male priesthood, these reasons must be doctrinally grounded. In the chapter that deals specifically with the fundamental reasons, Butler recognizes that, doctrinally, the male gender of Christ and the apostles “is not arbitrary, but significant.” Thus a close connection does exist between the fundamental and theological reasons for Church doctrine. Indeed, the doctrine and the theology overlap and begin to merge into one another. This merger is rooted in the fact that the priest acts in persona Christi — not simply a theological argument, but the doctrine of the Church. Acting in the person of Christ means to act in His role as head to the Church. Eucharistically, Christ cannot simply be identified with the Church. He is the head that causes the Church. Christ’s gender is a sign of His headship; His masculinity a sign of His life-giving difference-in-relation to His people.
Indeed, Butler’s discussion of the theological significance of Christ’s male gender as presented by John Paul II in Mulieris Dignitatem is the book’s strongest section. The quick summaries of and responses to the major arguments against the Church’s teaching are very helpful, and Butler makes a real contribution when she investigates the Church’s teaching within John Henry Newman’s development of doctrine. The book is thus a welcome addition to those works that seek to explain and defend the all-male priesthood.


  • Monica Miller

    Monica Miller, Ph.D., is the Director of Citizens for a Pro-life Society. She holds a degree in Theatre Arts from Southern Illinois University and graduate degrees in Theology from Loyola University and Marquette University. She is the author of several books including The Theology of the Passion of the Christ (Alba House) and, most recently, The Authority of Women in the Catholic Church (Emmaus Road) and Abandoned: The Untold Story of the Abortion Wars (St. Benedict Press).

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