When the Vatican released its updated procedures for handling clerical sex abuse cases — and simultaneously added the ordination of women to the list of “more grave crimes” — it reignited a long-standing debate over the question of whether or not women should be able to serve as Catholic priests. 

From the Church’s perspective, the answer has been clear for centuries. Both the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Code of Canon Law clearly state that only men can receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders, and in recent years Pope Paul VI, Pope John Paul II and the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith have released documents affirming this teaching. 

Yet in spite of this continued reaffirmation — and the Vatican’s 2008 decree that any woman attempting ordination and the person ordaining her would be automatically excommunicated — advocates for female priests have remained vocal. The Women’s Ordination Conference has campaigned for women to be admitted to the Catholic priesthood since the 1970s, while a group called Roman Catholic Womenpriests claims to have “ordained” more than 60 women to the priesthood worldwide since 2002.

Christ’s intent 

At one time, Missionary Servants of the Most Blessed Trinity Sister Sara Butler counted herself among those who felt there was no legitimate reason for the Church to exclude women from the priesthood. But extensive study of the question led her to embrace the Church’s position as not one that denied women equal participation in the Church, but which recognized the will of Christ in his institution of the priesthood. 

“Ordination was reserved to those men who were chosen by Christ and continues to be a gift,” said Sister Sara, theology professor at the University of St. Mary of the Lake, Mundelein, Ill., and author of “The Catholic Priesthood and Women: A Guide to the Teaching of the Church” (Hillenbrand Books, $23). 

“His example was in choosing only men to be among the Twelve (apostles), and that example is thought to be fundamentally the fact that establishes his will,” she told Our Sunday Visitor. “We don’t have any scriptural text in which he says, ‘I am only choosing men for this role,’ but we have to read it off his example.” 

Such an explanation, how-ever, begs a deeper question that has been a topic of deliberation since the early days of the Church: Why did Jesus only choose men for the priesthood? 

“That the choice was made, that’s the evidence of the tradition,” Sister Sara said. “But why did Christ want men rather than women? That’s a theological question, and it is up to the Church and to theologians to explain why the choice is fitting.” 

Father Shawn McKnight, executive director of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat for Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations, told OSV that one likely explanation lies in the concept of Christ being the bridegroom of the Church. 

“If a priest is one who stands in the person of Christ, then they also in a sacramental and symbolic way express that nuptial relationship between Christ and his Church,” he said. “As Christ is the bridegroom, so is the priest or bishop.” 

Contrary to what many critics would suggest, the question of whether the Church deems women qualified to be priests is not a part of the equation. 

“It would be wrong to say that the Church has only chosen men because they are superior in any way,” he said. “Obviously, women are very gifted and very important to the life and mission of the Church. But it is about observing and preserving the traditions established by Jesus Christ.” 

Infallible teaching 

Despite the Church’s attempts to explain the reasons behind its teaching on women’s ordination, many have still refused to accept it. Historical accounts suggest that in the early centuries of Christianity, some believers attempted to grant women specifically priestly functions, like consecrating the Eucharistic bread and wine, but they were considered heretical by Church Fathers. 

And today many theologians continue to question the Vatican’s declaration that the teaching on women’s ordination is an infallible doctrine. 

But Father McKnight explained that the infallibility of the teaching on a male-only priesthood comes from the fact that it was a revelation of Christ himself, not simply from the leadership of the Church. 

“We as Catholics understand that we receive the gift of God’s revelation, the gift of the Church, the gift of the sacraments,” he said. “And while some elements can be organically developed, there are some things that can never change. And this teaching is one of them.”

Sacramental sign 

According to Sister Sara, many proponents of women’s ordination make the mistake of equating the priesthood with secular leadership roles rather than seeing it as a unique calling from God. Such characterization overlooks the sacramental nature of ordination, a teaching of Catholicism that differs from other Christian denominations in which women serve as ordained ministers. 

“The Church is not simply another human institution, and the priesthood is not simply a leadership position to which you are formally appointed,” Sister Sara told OSV. “It is a special gift by which Christ entrusts his ministry to certain members of the Church so that his presence is felt.” 

And as with any other sacrament, she said, even those chosen to lead the Church through ordained ministry do not have the authority to alter it. 

“Just as you couldn’t use something other than bread and wine for the Eucharist or you couldn’t use something besides water for baptism … the sign of the sacrament has a certain importance in the Catholic tradition,” she said. “The sacraments are instituted by Christ, and the Church can’t change their content.”

Scott Alessi writes from New Jersey.

Would Female Priests Have Prevented the Abuse Crisis? (sidebar)

Among the claims made by proponents of the ordination of women to the priesthood is the notion that if women had been allowed to serve as priests and bishops in the Catholic Church, the clerical abuse scandal and subsequent cover-up would never have gone on as long as it did. 

There is little evidence, however, to suggest that female priests and bishops would have been immune to the same faults that led to abuse problems in a male-dominated Church hierarchy. In fact, although they are much less prevalent than cases of abuse by priests, women religious have also faced accusations of sexual abuse and cover-up attempts. 

According to Sister Sara Butler, the argument that admitting women to the priesthood would have lessened the abuse crisis misses the mark. Such claims fail to address the Church’s actual teaching when it comes to women’s ordination, she said, and offer an unfounded argument in hopes of furthering the cause toward women’s ordination. 

“They are appealing to that (argument), but we really can’t say for sure what would have happened,” Sister Sara said.