Catholic Classroom: Women and the Priesthood
In discussions around the priesthood today, a topic that often comes up is women’s ordination. The Church teaches that the priesthood is reserved for men, and that women cannot be ordained. However, this is not an archaic or sexist rule—it has its roots in the theological foundations of the priesthood. The Church, in fact, does not have the authority to ordain women (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis 4). Even if the leaders of the Church wanted to ordain women, they would not be able to because of the truths given to us by Jesus himself.
When Jesus instituted the priesthood, he called his apostles, who were all men, to be priests. Even though there were many faithful women who followed him and embraced his teachings, including the Blessed Virgin Mary, Jesus did not call them to the role of priest. Part of the reason for this is that when a priest offers the sacrifice of the Mass, he is acting in persona Christi (in the person of Christ). Jesus is specifically male in the Incarnation, and so it follows that someone acting in the person of Christ would also be male. When the apostles in the early Church ordained new priests, they also ordained men. The Church Fathers upheld this tradition, as has the Church ever since then.
It is important to emphasize in this conversation that reserving the priesthood for men in no way means that women have less dignity. Before God, all people have equal dignity, regardless of sex. This does not mean, however, that all our roles are the same. Women have important roles to fill in the Church, without which the Church could not survive. The priesthood is just not one of those roles. Women can still make their voices heard and contribute to decision-making, but they cannot carry out the jobs that only a priest may do.
Another important point in the discussion of women’s ordination is that we should be careful to avoid clericalism. No one, either male or female, should pursue the priesthood for the sake of gaining power. To do so is to dishonor the office of priest by stripping it of its unique call to be a servant. In any vocation, we are called to serve God and His Church using the particular gifts he has given us—not to gain a title for ourselves.
Though the Church’s teaching on women’s ordination might appear hurtful or unfair on the surface, the truth behind it reveals the deeper reality Jesus has given us. In instituting the priesthood, Jesus gave us a gift that perfectly carries out God’s plan, whether or not we understand why. The best way to respond is to be grateful for this gift and to respond generously to the specific way in which he is calling us.