Crises, Tidings, and Revelations: Why Women Can’t Be Priests

On the solemnity of Pentecost, Pope John Paul II signed Ordinatio sacerdotalis, an apostolic letter in which he stated that “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. Luke 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.”

The question of ordaining women priests in the Catholic Church is of very recent vintage. Church Fathers refer to it only to condemn the practice among early heretics, mainly Gnostics. Classical scholastic theology did not address the matter, nor did contemporary writers until about 25 years ago. This is a modern theological question which arose in the social climate favoring the emancipation of women and seeking for them an often long-overdue equity on all levels of society.

That there is nothing on the subject in Scripture has no probative value. The Catholic concept of Revelation rests upon the twofold pillars of Scripture and oral tradition from Apostolic times, each reciprocally communicating divine truth to the People of God.

Order is one of the several sacraments received in the Church as divinely instituted. A sacrament is an outward sign of the inward reality which is divine grace. Sacraments beget in worthy recipients some resemblance to Jesus Christ, Who is their author. Sacraments effect what they signify and signify what they effect.

Thus, for example, a person cannot be baptized with oil, because baptism is a cleansing, and this is not signified by oil. Similarly, one cannot be anointed with water, because anointing signifies healing and sanctification, which are not signified by water.

The human is the only corporeal creature created for its own sake. Hence, every human characteristic is significant. Among these is sexuality, which establishes a profound, indeed metaphysical, difference between men and women. Dr. Alexis Carrel pointed out that if testosterone, the male hormone, were blue, then boys and men would be blue.

These fundamental differences cannot be changed by intervention, much less by fiat. Sex-change operations are cosmetic, not genetic. Unisex haircuts affect appearances, not natures. In maternity wards, men are only on the visitors’ side of the partitions. This does not make them any less parents. All mothers are women; all fathers are men; everyone needs one of each.

Points have been extrapolated from the metaphysical differences between the sexes which are opposed to right reason and fundamental justice. Based upon gender, unequal pay for equal work is simply a form of theft. And similarly, it would be seriously unjust to withhold from a woman a sacrament instituted for everybody.

Sacraments are conferred only upon humans by humans. We bless pets but we baptize only people. That is because only humans are made in God’s image and likeness, and there is no difference in kind or degree in that image according to gender.

Although equally images of God, men and women are not equally images of Jesus Christ. That is because Jesus Christ was a man. He had something in common with men that he did not share with women. And his mother has something in common with women that she does not share with men. These differences are profound and radical, not merely genital.

Holy Orders confers the priesthood of Jesus Christ upon its recipients. That priesthood partakes essentially of His nature because the priest acts in persona Christi, and that persona is masculine, not feminine. Thus, attempting to ordain a woman priest would be like trying to baptize someone with oil or to anoint someone with water. The requisite significance simply isn’t there, and it cannot be made to be present.

It may be objected that females are conformed to Christ in baptism. Indeed, both males and females are conformed to Christ the Savior in baptism, but not to Christ the Priest. That conformation comes only through the sacrament of Order, and only to those capable of acting in persona Christi, i.e., men.

Differences in gender are themselves sacramental, albeit with a small s, because they are outward signs of a different interior reality, and these differences are essential to the proper signification of the priesthood.

The masculinity of the Catholic priesthood, which is Christ’s priesthood, is derived from His own masculinity. No one has a claim upon it or a right to receive it. But whoever does receive it must be metaphysically capable of signifying what the sacrament of Order effects. Consequently, the recipients are, as they always have been, only men. To attempt to have a woman play the role of a priest is to make of her an ambiguous phenomenon, “an unclear, indefinite or equivocal” sign.

There are, unhappily, many examples of injustice to women based upon gender, but not ordaining them priests is not among them.


  • Thomas C. Donlan, O. P.

    After extensive graduate studies, ordination to the Order of Preachers and a doctorate in theology from Catholic University, Fr. Donlan returned to Fenwick to teach theology. He was the first Catholic priest to be awarded a Fulbright Scholarship. He also served as Executive Editor of the Catholic Digest and Director of Education for the Catholic Relief Service.

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