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Why the Catholic Church cannot ordain women

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 Contents - Oct 2009AD2000 October 2009 - Buy a copy now
Editorial: Anglican Communion's moment of truth - Michael Gilchrist
Priestly Identity: Renewing the priesthood in the Year for Priests - Fr Anthony Denton
News: The Church Around the World
Community Life: 'Progressive' leadership and the demise of religious life - Br Paul Macrossan
Youth: RISE: restoring integrity and sexual ethics to Australia's secular culture - Br Barry Coldrey
Episcopacy: Bishop Luc Matthys: on being a bishop - Bishop Luc Matthys of Armidale
Poetry: A Morning Poem - Bruce Dawe
Seminary Life: Spiritual direction at Sydney's Good Shepherd Seminary - Fr Paul Glynn SM
FOUNDATIONS OF FAITH: Cutting edge moral issues for the third millennium - Br Barry Coldrey
Priesthood: Why the Catholic Church cannot ordain women - Kathleen Wood OAM
Letters: Liturgy reform - Paul Martin
Letters: Healthy families - John Carty
Letters: Marriage and divorce - Arnold Jago
Letters: Christian divisions - Jack Blair
Letters: Galileo debate - David Walker
Letters: Prayer for Priests - John Schmid
Letters: Thanks from India - Fr. S. John Joseph
Books: THE QUEST FOR SHAKESPEARE, by Joseph Pearce - Michael Daniel (reviewer)
Books: THE CASE FOR CHRISTIANITY: St Justin Martyr on Religious Liberty, Robert Haddad - Br Michael McMurray CCS
Books: AFTER THE HEART OF GOD, by Bishop Julian Porteous - Br Michael McMurray CCS (reviewer)
Update: The 2009 Fighting Fund
Books: This month's selection from AD Books
Reflection: The Mass: priest and people offer sacrifice - Bishop Edward Slattery

Kathleen Wood OAM is very highly qualified in music: she won the Dr V.H. Cooper Memorial Prize for piano performance while at the University of WA, and is organist at St Mary's Cathedral, Perth. She has a Graduate Diploma in Theological Studies from Murdoch University and presented a paper to the Catholic Bishops' Committee for Justice, Development and Peace when it visited WA.

This brief outline does not examine every aspect of the question of eligibility for priestly ordination in the Catholic Church. Many books have been published on this subject. The present article confines itself to summarising the reasons the Church advances for not ordaining women.

For further reading, Sr Sara Butler's The Catholic Priesthood and Women is recommended. It is available through Freedom Publishing (see page 19). A bibliography for this article is available on request from the editor.

The Catholic Church's position on ordaining women to the ministerial priesthood has always been clear throughout its long history, even if many inside and outside the Church remain unconvinced.

In light of increasing dissent on the question, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued the document Inter Insigniores in l976, stating that the ordination of women to the priesthood could not be considered due to the undeviating tradition of the Church, which "in fidelity to the example of Our Lord, does not consider herself authorised to admit women to priestly ordination".

The document acknowledged the integral part played by women in the growth, nourishment and consolidation of the Church, but despite this the Church did not have the power to go against the Lord's example in choosing only men as His twelve apostles, who in turn were prefigured by the Twelve Tribes of Israel. The apostles likewise appointed only men as their successors.

The Church remains loyal to this tradition initiated by Our Lord, and it is for this reason that the ordination of women is not possible.

Traditionally, a deacon at his ordination to the priesthood is endowed with the capacity to represent Christ, Head of the Church, by virtue of Christ's triple office of King, Priest and Prophet, through which means was fulfilled the messianic hope of Israel. Christ's high-priestly act is, and must be at once heavenly and earthly, according to the order of Melchizedek.

The role of King is witnessed by the action of a bishop when a male, having been tried and tested by the Church, is presented to receive the Sacrament of Holy Order, together with the special grace of the Holy Spirit administered by the Bishop in his role of Old Testament King. With the Laying on of Hands and Consecratory Prayer, the authority to be Christ's instrument for His Church is given and received.

The priest is also given authority to exercise the Seven Sacraments of the Church, among them the Sacrament of Penance, the Anointing of the Sick, and the Holy Eucharist, all three being crucial to the everyday life of the Church.

The role of Prophet is established when the power to become an authorised teacher of the Faith is conferred upon a priest at ordination.

Anglican Church

However, with the ordination in Australia of women priests in 1992 (and later bishops in 2008) by the Anglican Church, the pressure from some quarters to change Catholic teaching was intensified.

In response, in 1994 Pope John Paul II issued the Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, confirming that Christ's example and the Church's constant and universal tradition have determined that ordination to the priesthood is for men alone. The Pope concluded: "Therefore the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women. This judgement is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful."

The initial reaction from those seeking change was shock and dismay. They saw the document as perpetuating the Church's disregard for basic issues of justice and equality, as recognised in secular society, by continuing to exclude women from the priesthood.

However, the constant use of the word "rights" in this context is inappropriate and misleading since the Church has always emphasised the equal dignity of men and women in terms of faithfulness and devotion. Vocation to the priesthood is not about justice and equal rights within the Church. No one has a "right" to be ordained - and many men are turned away.

Some contemporary thinking suggests that 2,000 years of priesthood, which has been limited to men only, ought now be altered to bring the Church into line with secular trends. Such thinking disregards the fact that fidelity to uninterrupted tradition remains integral to the structure of the Church and its sacra- mental character.

Traditions regarding central doctrines must remain intact, whatever the questioning, discussion and challenge. The Pope has stated that he, too, is subject to authority and is not at liberty to make changes on fundamentals of the Faith.

Christ promised to be with His Church until the end of time, and guaranteed the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit to lead the Church into all truth. Every authentic Church tradition asserts the guidance of Christ and the Holy Spirit, and thus may not be tampered with.

While the Gospels bear witness to the fact that Jesus did not call any woman to be an apostle, feminists claim this practice was conditioned by the culture of the time, making it impossible for Jesus to have acted otherwise.

Strangely, feminists appear silent on the quite impossible thought that had Jesus become incarnate as a female child, "she" (because of the culture of the day) would never have faced the extreme penalty of crucifixion, because this terrible fate was reserved for men. Moreover to question and object to the gender of the Child of the Incarnation of the Word in Jesus (as some feminists do) is to place the limits of human thinking upon God.

Galatians 3:28 speaks of there being no difference between Jew/ Greek; slave/free; male/female, "for you are all one in Jesus Christ". This passage refers specifically to baptism, and is not to be misconstrued to accommodate debate on the ordination of women. Galatians is complemented by Colossians 3:11 where again the emphasis is not on equality in terms of race, status or gender, but of being one in Christ.

The equality conferred at baptism is to do with the exercise of the "royal priesthood", the receiving of spiritual gifts and diverse vocations open to all believers. Ministerial priesthood involves an act of Consecration entrusted with a distinctive mission to a tried and tested male to represent Christ, after having received the Sacrament of Holy Orders.

The Gospels also reveal that Jesus broke with cultural prejudices many times, by overriding discrimination against women. Hence, his non-appointment of women as apostles may seem inconsistent, since priestesses were everywhere within pagan cults of the day.

But this was not a matter of remaining within the law for Jesus. Rather it demonstrated his acceptance and adherence to God's plan for His Church, wherein the physical and spiritual differences in the nature of men and women were and are of prime importance.


Feminine and masculine gender are of the natural order of God, in that men and women were created to live together in complementarity. However, the Church does not defend the argument on the basis of sexual complementarity. It does so by tradition, as stated earlier.

By virtue of Christ loving His spouse the Church, and it being referred to as "the Bride of Christ", the feminine character of the Church has been as deeply formed in tradition as has the privilege of the apostolic office belonging to the male.

During the supreme function of the priest in celebrating the Eucharist, Jesus Christ and the priest meet, the priest acting in persona Christi. Theological grounds for the restriction of the priesthood to men centre on this reality, namely that the priest acts in the person of Christ, thus representing Him as the Incarnate Word who was indisputably male for reasons of God's choosing.

A woman is unable to image the maleness of Christ. In fact to impose a male form of ministry on a woman is to fail to respect her specific God- given sexuality, her dignity and her special gift of femininity. Within the Church, as with society at large, because something may be possible does not necessarily make it permissible.

The natural roles of men and women are not interchangeable. A man cannot be a mother. He may act with an equally nurturing ability of love and compassion, but he cannot be mother. Men and women have received their particular sexuality from God, regardless of the way in which history records the cultural subordination of women, and in fact the continuing oppression of both men and women in many cultures to the present day.

The Incarnation of the male child Jesus took place due to Mary's "yes" to God long before any apostolic role came into existence. This event signified not only the sanctity in her physical maternity, but in the total acceptance of her calling.

It has been said that in this supreme act of divine intervention into the human condition, God called upon a woman's consent, and dispensed with the male altogether! Nevertheless, Mary's "yes" did not make her eligible to become an apostle. Her central role in history was prior to and distinct from that of the apostles.

With Mary as model, the role of a woman within the Church is surely one of freedom and response, her true fulfilment stemming from the acceptance of the order of creation and her own nature. This does not deny her any opportunity to employ her abilities and qualities to their fullest potential within the Church.

Since the revision of The Code of Canon Law in l983, women have been making inroads into decision-making and areas of lay ministry, bringing with them their own gifts and talents which are, and always have been, indispensable.

Women of history such St Catherine of Siena, St Teresa of Avila, St Thérse of Lisieux and St Hilda of Whitby bring to mind countless other women whose example and courage in the life of the Church through the ages says a great deal about the enormous contribution they have made.

The only acts both men and women of the laity may not perform are absolution, blessing and consecration which belong to the sacramental nature of the priesthood. Lay people may exercise other ministries in the calling and privilege of being Christian.

An objection often heard is that if a woman cannot represent Jesus because he was male, Jewish and wore a beard, neither then can a clean- shaven, non-Jewish male represent Jesus. But only gender is central to being human. Nationality or physical appearance are merely incidentals.

Indeed, there is no historical record of any controversy over the admission of non-Jews to apostolic ministry. Gentiles were baptised and faithfully served their communities. But from the very beginning of Christianity there was never any question of admitting women to the ministerial priesthood however prominently women served and were recognised in the life of the Church.

New creation

St Paul affirms the status of becoming a Christian as a new creation when he asserts, "I live, yet no longer I, but Christ who lives in me" (Gal:2.20); and in this sense both male and female can represent Christ. But a woman cannot be the sacramental image of Christ in the Eucharist; for in the celebration of the Eucharist the priest makes present to us, through the power of the Holy Spirit, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, whose real presence during this time, remains male.

"Not so," is the cry of the feminists. "The Risen Christ", they assert, "represents all of humanity in the Eucharist, where human differences and divisions are transcended." Of course the Risen Christ represents all, but in so doing He remains male and has not become androgynous in the process of glorification!

When the priest says, "This is my body; this is my blood", the event of Christ's paschal sacrifice is renewed in our midst, by the placing of His offering into the care of the Church by means of the priest who acts in the person of Christ, that is, as His image, as authorised by the Church through the ages.


In our introduction to Kathleen Wood's article in the October AD2000, page 12, the impression could have been conveyed that Kathleen was the regular organist at Perth's St Mary's Cathedral. This was incorrect. While Kathleen has played in the Perth Cathedral, as in other cathedrals and churches over the years, she is not the regular organist there. We apologise for any confusion caused (Editor).

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Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 22 No 9 (October 2009), p. 12

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