The Case for Women's Ordination in the Roman Catholic Church from the points of view of Tradition, Scripture, Theology, Church History, Canon Law and Common Sense
A custom without truth is merely ancient error. ~ St Cyprian of Carthage
As recently as one hundred years ago, women had little standing in either Church or society. In society, we could not vote or own property. In the Catholic Church, not only were women banned from priesthood, we were forbidden even from touching sacred objects like the chalice, the paten and altar linen. The reasons for are rooted in ancient cultural prejudice against women. For centuries a patriarchal hierarchy consistently has refused to admit women to leadership roles in the Church and adduced faulty theological notions to justify their exclusion. Women were told to 'keep silent in church' (1 Cor. 14:34). Misogynist theologians denied that women were made in the image and likeness of God and declared that they were defective human beings. In the Church, we were considered to be:
- inferior to men in every way (this view was supported by science of the time. For more, see here: Of Godly Men and Medicine: Ancient Biology and Christian Fathers on the Nature of Women).
- ritually unclean
- and the source of sin (Eve took the blame for this.)
Science of the time supported the view that had we turned out perfectly at birth, we would have been born as men. We were misbegotten men (this was how Aquinas described women) and as such, less than perfect human beings. How could anything less than perfect approach the altar? While in church, our heads had to be veiled. We could not distribute holy communion. We were forbidden from receiving communion during times of menstruation. After giving birth (an act which besides menstruation led to a state of ritual uncleanliness) we needed to be purified or churched before we could enter a church again. Canon law prohibited women from:
- entering the sanctuary except to clean it
- reading scripture from the ambo
- singing in a church choir
- serving at the altar
- becoming full members of organizations of the laity.
Changes Start Happening
In the twentieth century, things started to change.
In the 1800's, scientists discovered that procreation involved active ingredients from both man and woman ... and not just the man. (Previous to this, belief was that life was contained in the sperm. A woman's role was merely to provide the receptacle where human life of a child could come to fullness. The power of generation was in the man alone.)
Society began to undergo deepening awareness about human rights and eventually women's equality. Women's suffrage, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Civil Rights movement, feminism, to name just a few have all been factors influencing the move forward in work for equality between women and men.
In society, women gained the right to vote. We can now own property and work in the professions, too. The Church began to see changes, also. Women can now be commissioned -- though only on a temporary basis -- to be lectors, ministers of Holy Communion, and altar servers. (Men can be permanently installed as same.) We can now be cantors, preachers, leaders of certain kinds of prayer services, and ministers of baptism. We can be canon lawyers and even chancellors of archdioceses.
But the most glaring inequality persists: we are still banned from the priesthood. Because priesthood is a prerequisite for most roles in Church government, our voices are excluded from decision making and formulation of doctrine and direction for the Church.
But Priesthood Is Not a Human Right
Arguments are made that priesthood is not about a right but instead about a calling. We agree: no one, neither woman nor man, has the right to be a priest.
But... the people of God are entitled to the priests God calls for us. The people of God should not be deprived of many of our priests simply because men in power refuse to acknowledge or even consider that God may be planting calls to priesthood in women.
Human rights come into play when assessing the reasons behind the refusal to assess women's callings. They also come into play when understanding the systemic discrimination that happens in the Church when women are shut out of positions of service on account of the fact that membership in ordained priesthood is a prerequisite.
While no one has the right to be ordained, excluding a whole class of baptised people from priestly ministry is discrimination especially when there are no valid arguments from either scripture or tradition to justify this exclusion.
It is wrong that Church law and doctrine applied against women rests on formulations that come from an all male, celibate, clerical hierarchy. It is wrong that women play no part in decision making about Church rules and law.
It is wrong that our Church leadership refuses to test women's callings for authenticity. A woman who hears a call to priesthood should, just like men, be welcomed to have her calling considered. And if the calling is true, then she, like any man with a true calling should be welcomed and supported in answering the call to service in the priesthood.
But A Male Only Priesthood is What Jesus Wanted and Besides -- It's Part of Tradition!
Or Is It?
An argument is made that a male only priesthood is what Jesus wanted and that it is part of Church Tradition. Is this really so? Troubling about this insistence are facts that include:
- growing scholarship and archaeological evidence shows that a sacramental ministry by women did exist in the early Church and that it was eventually suppressed as cultural prejudice against women began to predominate the Church.
- even today, Mary (a woman) is considered to be a model for sacramental priesthood
- in 1976, the Vatican's own Pontifical Biblical Commission found no Scriptural grounds to deny priestly ordination to women
- since 1994, the Vatican has officially banned discussion about women's ordination. Although the Vatican now suggests that this was simply a closure of the question, the fact is that open dialogue about women's ordination has never been allowed
- in the last 50 years, the Vatican has given a panoply of shifting attempts to justify exclusion.
- to date, besides the ban on discussion, the Vatican has given never given a lucid or cogent or comprehensible justification for the ban on women in priesthood. If truth is on the side of exclusion, then why the ban on discussion? Who has what to lose by allowing freedom in discussion? Why the shifting sands when attempting to justify exclusion?
Where We Stand Today
Awareness of the need to work for women's equality in the Church is growing within the international community of Catholic faith. Questions about the proper place of women have moved from the grassroots right through the entire Church...including the Vatican. Supported by scholarship in scripture, Church history, theology, archaeology and Tradition, the work for women's equality, justice and in particular, the work for our inclusion in priesthood is beginning flourish in the Catholic Church.
The work for women's equality is not something new. Instead, we now know that this work is emerging from seeds planted by Christ at the beginning... and which for reasons of social prejudice has been suppressed.
As we develop our website, we will with help from one of our international member groups, womenpriests.org include on our website a nutshell summary of the case for women's ordination.