I have a follow-up question about priests. Why no women?


My wife is Catholic and is encouraging me to investigate the Church. You’ve written on why priests are unmarried but now a follow up question: Is there a scriptural reason why women cannot become priests? Is it because Jesus’ disciples were all men? Your reference to 1 Corinthians says a MAN should remain unmarried as a priest; by inference does that mean a woman cannot become a priest? Your recent inclusion of the article regarding American Sisters pretty much shows that the Vatican will not soon authorize women priests. Is it canon or dogma that it cannot happen? Thanks much for your interesting blog!


Dear RH,

Where to begin!?! In just one simple paragraph, you’ve opened the lid on a two-thousand year old argument, one that seems to be an insistent thorn in the Church’s side, or more recently, a hydra that grows two more heads each time they lop one off.

The issue began in the first centuries after Christ, when the Gnostics and a few other sects began ordaining women. The Church was in its infancy, without an explicit policy on the matter, and so they established one. They decided that if Jesus had meant for women to be priests, he would have chosen some as Apostles. They labeled the practice of ordaining women a heresy, and it has remained that way in the eyes of the Church for two thousand years.

So the simple answer to your question is: yes, the Catholic Church refuses to ordain women as priests because, after a night praying to his Father in Heaven, Jesus chose the Twelve for his mission, and those Twelve were men (Luke 6:12). In the Catholic Church, this was the beginning of apostolic succession, the idea that those Twelve were the first bishops, through whom the message of Christ and the traditions of the Church have been handed from one bishop to the next in an unbroken line for two millennia.

Reading the official Church stances, there are very few references to the Bible to support the argument against women priests. There are a few places in the Pauline letters where Paul says women should not teach—I think in Timothy, and somewhere in First Corinthians—but these are not the main sources for the Catholic Church in establishing their argument for a male-only priesthood.

Instead, they cite Jesus’ actions, as well as the opinions of (often ultra-orthodox) Church fathers through the centuries, men like St. Irenaeus, Tertullian, Hippolytus of Rome, Epiphanius, and St. Augustine. They also cite the fact that Eastern Orthodox churches have refrained from allowing women to be priests. There are a few more nuanced, more philosophical elements to the argument (for example, priests are stand-ins for Jesus while celebrating the mass, Jesus was a man, ergo priests should be men so people can make the connection more easily), but it’s mostly about preserving the tradition begun by Christ.

To understand why that would matter to the Church, one must understand the role of tradition in the Church. Tradition is one of the two sacred and foundational pillars of the faith, the other being Holy Scripture. When I was young, I can remember my mother telling me that it is because of a commitment to tradition that the Catholic Church has been able to withstand the march of time. You don’t change just because times change; you stick to your traditions, especially if you believe that God instituted those traditions as his plan for the salvation of the world.

You ask whether the prescription against female priests is canon law or dogma, but neither of those two terms are used to describe it in the research that I have done. Instead, it is called “infallible doctrine,” a term that was only applied in 1995. It seems that the issue was quiet for a long time (centuries, multiple centuries). But over the course of the last 50 years—unsurprisingly coinciding with the women’s liberation movement—external pressures have forced the Catholic Church into a dialogue about the practice, and so they’ve issued several treatises to buttress themselves from these attacks. In these treatises, they have refined where the practice falls in Catholic teaching.

In 1976, the Vatican issued the Inter Insigniores, a declaration about why the Roman Catholic Church must continue excluding women from the priesthood. An apologetic in every way, the document traces and affirms the tradition of the male priesthood and rebuts several claims of those in favor of ordaining women. While Inter Insigniores acknowledges the rapid social change happening in the world and asserts that working for gender equality is right and just, it claims that the priesthood is not the place to do it since priesthood is a matter of divine law, above and beyond the sphere of human and social law.

That document must not have quelled the debate in the way that the Vatican had hoped, because in May of 1994, Pope John Paul II issued his Ordinatio Sacerdotalis. In it, he reasserts the arguments in the Inter Insigniores and goes on to “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.” Only a missive from God himself would make that possible, JP II seems to say, so don’t hold your breath.

But that didn’t seem to do the job either. So to put the nail in the coffin of the discussion, there was another statement from the Vatican in October of 1995, this time signed by Joseph Ratzinger, more commonly known now as Pope Benedict the XVI. In it, he declares JP II’s Ordinatio Sacerdotalis “infallible doctrine,” and therefore an immutable fact of Catholic life.

Given that progression, it seems that in the face of criticism, the Church tightened its grip on practice, and with the “infallible” label, it is much closer to dogma than canon law. The traditional line is that now Catholics should accept this teaching and desist arguing about the matter. As Bishop Anthony M. Pilla, head of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops when the “infallible” label was applied, said, “I ask you now prayerfully to allow the Holy Spirit to fill you with the wisdom and understanding that will enable you to accept it.” Stop fighting this fight, please, stop fighting this fight.

Of course, the modern world is not what it was in the early days of the church. Obeying authority simply because it is authority fell out of vogue decades ago, and this is evident in the number of people who defy the Church’s teachings on things like how often a Catholic must go to confession and more contemporary issues like birth control. Despite the fact that the Vatican would rather we all fell in line and stopped talking about it, the debate is still raging. Some groups are more radical, with rogue bishops ordaining women (before all are promptly excommunicated); other groups attempting to lobby from within the church to effect change. A simple google search will reveal dozens of websites with articles from prominent theologians on both sides of the issue, still hotly contesting whether Jesus chose men as part of the divine plan, or out of necessity in an era when women would not have been accepted as spiritual leaders.

Who knows where the issue will go from here. A 1995 article in the New York Times said that 61% of Catholics think women should be ordained. I’m not sure of who they polled or where, and I have no idea how that number has changed in the succeeding 17 years. But I do know that the church is by nature reactionary, and as with the married priests issue, I think it would be internal pressures (not enough priests, or less conservative priests infiltrating the highest ranks) rather than public opinion that would precipitate the change. And to be honest, I could foresee a split–a sort of Reform Catholicism–before I see the bishops and the cardinals and the popes sharing their access to power with women.

And I know you did not solicit my opinion on the matter, so forgive me, but I can’t help but share a few of my own thoughts on the matter. To be blunt, I find the Church’s stance untenable in light of its historical reality. Claiming that apostolic succession is an unbroken and holy vessel that carries the truth of Christ through the millennia clangs in the ears of anyone who has studied history–the papal schisms of the 12th century, anyone? or the Inquisition?–or is aware of the current sex abuse scandals. I also believe that it is problematic to follow tradition for sake of tradition; it may be stable to do so, but that does not make it just.

With all of this said, I hope you are able to explore the Church with your wife with an open mind and with the knowledge that a shared spiritual practice can be an incredibly strong bond. I have seen it in my own parents. And despite what I see as many and various flaws, the Catholic Church is a spiritual anchor in a difficult world, for me and another billion or so people around the world. As our beloved Mormon Girl has shown us with her characteristic honesty, any faith tradition has its demons, and our lot is to wrestle with those demons and prove that we can come out on top, as more loving, more compassionate, more enlightened souls.

All best,
Carmen, a Catholic Girl


6 thoughts on “I have a follow-up question about priests. Why no women?

  1. As someone who came from a protestant denomination that ordains women (I have several female pastors in my family), this has always bothered me. I have discussed it with my husband and other Catholics and the response is always “The priest is a stand in for Christ and Jesus was a man”. That logic doesn’t make sense to me because being Christlike has nothing to do with physical anatomy. It has to do with a purity of heart. I guess this was one thing that even though it bothers me I decided wasn’t a make or break. I will continue to debate and support women in leadership roles where I can. Though I agree with Carmen that I don’t see the Church ever changing and ordaining women priests, I can see them eventually ordaining women deacons. In scripture the ONLY deacon mentioned by name in the NT was a woman (Phoebe). I don’t really see how they can deny women that role when it is obvious the early church did not. If that happens in my lifetime, I will be ECSTATIC!!! However the joke is that it takes the Church about 200 years to actually change… hence why the Mass was still said in latin until the 1960s.

  2. Keep up the great job with this blog. I absolutely love to read your answers. This one in particular. Talking about the schisms etc is so important regarding this matter. I don’t like people who try to cover up everything.
    You once said that there will be a topic about evolution. Are you going to write this one soon? Since science and faith is such a hard thing for me, I’d love to read something about that topic.

    • Thanks, Stephanie! I think one of the other Catholic girls was going to do the evolution post, and I’ll follow up and see if we can get that up sometime soon. Thanks for following and for your support. It’s nice to know we have a vibrant, engaged, questioning community of readers who are interested like we are!

  3. Great answer! I agree, this isn’t changing anytime soon, as much as I think it should. I get goosebumps when I read the stories of women being ordained on boats, as water is exempt from diocesan lines. I love that Mary Magdalene was the first to discover the empty tomb, signifying her importance to Jesus’ ministry. And I love that Jesus was a true radical, and that women played a big role in funding his ministry. Everything I know about Jesus makes me feel in my heart that he held women in equal esteem to men, and I read the lack of women in obvious leadership roles throughout the scriptures as a reflection on the patriarchal society of that time period.

    I do wonder though, what effect the current shortage of priests will have on this, and I think SG is on to something when she talks about women being ordained as deacons. The diocese I grew up in that my grandma still attends has 1 priest for 5,000 families. It’s insanity, the work on the shoulders of the priests since there just aren’t very many. Coupled with the abuse scandals…I don’t think it’s an issue that the church will NOT be able to ignore for another 2,000 years.

    • I read something the other day about the recently deceased Cardinal of Milan (Carlo Maria Martini–how’s that for an awesome Italian name?!) who, on his deathbed, said, “The Church has remained 200 years behind the times. Why has it not been shaken up?” Seriously, Father Martini, seriously.

      As for female deacons, apparently there is precendent for that, so maybe, just maybe, that’s a little crack that could eventually lead to a bigger opening for women. We can always hope, can’t we?

  4. Pingback: Can a liberal Catholic offshoot last? | Ask Catholic Girl

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