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Why Can’t Women Be Priests?

(Reprinted from the February 2009 edition of The Catholic Truth Newsletter)

This question comes up a lot, especially from Catholics. Unfortunately, it shows a misunderstanding of the ministerial priesthood and the structure of the Church. In rebutting this argument, we need to point out that the Catholic Church is not run like a business. There isn’t an organizational structure where lay people report to priests. We all have different “jobs”, but we shouldn’t think of one group being better than another. Clergy, religious and the laity all have different roles to play in advancing the Kingdom of God (Rm 12:3-8). The fact that it isn’t possible for women to be ordained priests doesn’t imply that they are inferior to men.

One piece of little known information is that all baptized Christians already share in the priesthood of Christ. This priesthood is referred to as the common priesthood. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

Lay people share in Christ’s priesthood: ever more united with him, they exhibit the grace of Baptism and Confirmation in all dimensions of their personal, family, social, and ecclesial lives, and so fulfill the call to holiness addressed to all the baptized.
(CCC 941)

This common priesthood is different than the ministerial priesthood (transmitted through Holy Orders), but it is vitally important to the mission of the Church. Priests aren’t in our workplaces or homes and therefore we are expected to work “in the fields” and preach the Good News to all whom we encounter. When we unite all of our work with the priestly sacrifice of Christ, we are indeed “priests” although not in the ministerial sense.

While it’s difficult to address this topic in the limited space available, it is important to point out a few facts. Jesus chose twelve men to be His Apostles. These men became the first priests. He could have easily chosen some women to be part of that group, but He did not. His Blessed Mother would have been the most likely candidate, but she was not chosen. Jesus certainly went against the grain many times and would not have hesitated to do this if He so desired. The argument that women weren’t chosen because they were “second class citizens” in the time of Christ just doesn’t make sense. Jesus repeatedly broke the rules and associated with tax collectors and sinners. He certainly was never afraid to make waves. In her infinite wisdom, the Church has interpreted the actions of Christ to mean that only men can be ordained to the ministerial priesthood. Additionally, when a priest offers the sacrifice of the Mass, He is literally “standing in” for Christ, who is a man. Having a woman perform that task would be similar to a director casting Meryl Streep to play Martin Luther King in a movie. It just isn’t a good fit.

Finally, it’s pointless to debate whether or this will ever change, as it has been settled once and for all by Pope John Paul II in his 1994 Apostolic Letter, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis. In answer to the question of whether women can be ordained priests, the late Holy Father stated:

Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I 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.

That infallible declaration ensures that this matter is settled and will never change. If we encounter someone who disagrees with this definitive proclamation, we should simply recommend that they trust in the Holy Spirit’s protection of the Church’s teaching. The same Spirit who was present at the first Church Council in Jerusalem, in which the Apostles declared that Gentile Christians were not bound by the Mosiac Law (Acts 15:28), continues to guide the Church today.

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