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The Ordination of Women in the Catholic Church


Ordination of Women

In May 1994 Pope John Paul 11 issued an apostolic letter whose goal was to end for all time any discussion in the Catholic church about ordaining women to the priesthood. The solemn declaration has a ponderous Latin title Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, which marks it as a pronouncement of the highest order.

The papal message deals with “the reservation of priestly ordination for men only.” John Paul leaves no doubt about his message:  “In order that all doubt be removed about a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution, I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgement is to be held definitively by all the Church’s faithful.”

So, that is it – the matter is now verboten. The highest authority has spoken categorically on the subject. The many women who feel called by the Spirit to serve as priests must be delusional because Rome has spoken in unambiguous language.

The church, of course, is a human institution always functioning in a particular time and culture, responding to the pulls and pushes of its members as well as outside influences. For instance, deferring to the Catholic powers in the 19th century, popes and their moral experts had no problem approving slavery long after it was condemned by Protestant Britain and some other European countries.

There were serious objections to the pope’s declaration on women priests with many pointing out that it should be seen as representing the perspective of a conservative Polish leader. In 1997, a report by the prestigious Catholic Theological Society of America declared “There are serious doubts regarding the nature of the authority of this teaching.” This harsh critique by theologians of the pope’s assertion was approved by 216 of the 248 experts.

Meanwhile, John Paul was canonized after Rome decided that he was an exceptionally holy man, worthy of sainthood. Then, last year the Vatican published a 450-page report on how Theodore McCarrick ended up with a cardinal’s hat, despite repeated reports of sexual abuse of boys and young men. John Paul knew all about these allegations. They were set down in a letter to the pope by Cardinal John O’Connor, and one of his victims confronted him with the details of his abuse. Amazingly, the pope disregarded this information and promoted McCarrick.

It can be fairly argued that John Paul’s failure to protect innocent children has nothing to do with his major apostolic letter on women’s ordination, but few would deny that the credibility of his signature teaching statement on this vital issue has been diminished in the light of the revelations in the Vatican McCarrick document.

Should a man who, despite clear and unambiguous evidence, could not deal maturely with a child predator in his ranks be accorded gravitas in other moral pronouncements? Can the Vatican claim that the same Spirit that allegedly guided the pope’s deliberations on women priests was somehow, “asleep” when he failed to protect vulnerable children?

In 1976, the Episcopalian church, after lengthy deliberations, decided to ordain women for priestly ministry. This caused major problems in the ecumenical field because Rome was strongly opposed to this move.

Around the same time, the Pontifical Biblical Commission (PBC) appointed seventeen top biblical scholar – all of whom were male and in good standing with the Vatican – to examine the issue of women’s ordination in the Catholic church. Their report includes three significant insights on the matter.

First, it declares that the New Testament doesn’t settle the question one way or the other. Second, they voted 12 in favor and 5 opposed to the statement that scriptural grounds alone would not justify female exclusion. And third and most prophetically, they asserted that Christ’s plan for the church and for humanity would not be transgressed if women were ordained and administering the sacraments.

Today, there is no mention of this important PBC report in the Vatican archives, but copies were preserved by some of the participants.

Precedent is very important in the history of the Vatican because they view all statements on moral and dogmatic issues that they make as being touched by infallibility. There is no doubt that John Paul believed that his statement about women’s ordination was a final unchangeable judgement made with divine approval.

So, not surprising, when Francis was asked about the issue, he referred the questioner to his predecessor’s statement. He had nothing to add. In fact, even after a clear majority of the all-male and all-clerical members of the Amazon synod recommended that women deacons be allowed to provide the Eucharist for the poor people in the Amazon region, Francis’ response was that he would think about it. We are still waiting!

The main argument used against women-deacons centers on the puerile slippery slope contention – make them deacons today and next year they will be crying out for full ordination. Give these women an inch and they will want a mile!

Slavish adherence to papal precedent was best illustrated by Paul V1’s encyclical Humanae Vitae, published in 1968. That is the encyclical that prohibits married couples from using any kind of contraceptives. The pope appointed a commission of distinguished Catholics, lay and clerical, to advise him on this important matter. The vast majority counselled Paul that there is no moral problem with a married woman planning her family while disentangling pregnancy from sex by taking the contraceptive pill.

But Paul had to take into account an encyclical called Casti Connubi written in 1930 by Pius X1. At that time, the Lambeth Conference, the central decision-making body in the Anglican church, had allowed married couples to use contraceptives in limited circumstances. Pius raised the flag of traditionalist thinking, ruling out completely any form of artificial birth control. To discredit the Lambeth thinking he quoted Augustine, a fourth century saint, to bolster his assertion that all sexual acts had to be open to procreation.

However, while Pius’ view was accepted by most Catholics in his time, by the sixties, the sexual revolution had arrived and previous prohibitions were disregarded. Very few Catholics paid any heed to Casti Connubi, and, in fact, a man using a condom was seen as behaving responsibly by ensuring that his partner would not have to deal with an unwanted pregnancy.

In 1968 Pope Paul faced a difficult dilemma: follow the advice of his commission and allow that sex must not always be tied to procreation, or re-affirm the Augustinian wisdom of his predecessor. He decided to affirm Pius’ teaching. It was a momentous decision because as a result priests and bishops all over the world had to preach that conjugal love ruled out contraceptive use – a preposterous teaching.

It was impossible for Paul to persuade the faithful that using a condom was an immoral act. However, very importantly, he maintained the Catholic tradition, true to Pius X1’s thinking and congruent with St. Augustine. Paul has since been canonized!

Moving forward to our time, Francis faces a similar dilemma. America, the prestigious Jesuit magazine, published a poll recently of the views of Catholics in the United States, which showed that 59% favor women priests. The reality is that this figure will increase and heighten the consequent alienation of young people from the church. Now only 14% of millennials call themselves Catholics.

Anglicans, Episcopalians and other Christian denominations are functioning well with female priests and bishops. The belief that only Rome is in tune with the New Testament in this area is increasingly difficult to maintain.


  1. Good on you, Gerry - you're quite the man. Sorry we never had a chance to have a conversation of real import, but that would be difficult to do in the midst of a ceili at the Kerry Hall. You may not recall me - I am a priest back in active ministry after a long leave of absence from active ministry. I am also a set dance for many years and a cousin of Anne Myers Buckley if that helps you to place me at all. I hope you and yours have weathered these days of COVID in good health. And who knows, I may have the privilege of co-ministering with a woman at the altar at some point - some thing to look forward to anyway.


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