Why Women Can Never Be Priests

I begin with the assumption that doctrinally the issue of women's ordination is settled. The papal statement and its subsequent clarification were clear, perhaps painfully so.

I know that not everyone in the Catholic Church agrees. Some feel since the declaration may not be infallible, it could be reversed in the future. Others consider that the doctrine must be "received," that is everyone or almost everyone has to agree before it becomes binding. And a few will point to the Galileo affair or slavery to argue that all teachings of the magisterium are open to revision.

Those positions, I am convinced, are wrong. However, I do not write this to refute them. Rather since I believe every Catholic must assent to this teaching, what I hope to do is to help some of my brothers and sisters make that assent which our faith requires.

The assent in question must not just be external: "I won't go against the pope from the pulpit, but in private I will express what I really believe." That tactic has advantages in the short term, but in the long run it will never do. Bernard Lonergan (Method, Insight) has shown that only common meaning can bring people together in a community. That is, we must share not only the same words but a like understanding. That can only happen in the Church by internal assent. I write this with the desire to remove some of the blocks to that vital assent.

First we must ask: Why is this teaching so difficult for us, especially as American Catholics? The answer is clear. Saying women can never be ordained, can never attain some position that is reserved exclusively for men, goes against the grain of everything our culture stands for. We believe in the equality of all people and that there should be no artificial obstacle to advancement. This doctrine is sometimes called "egalitarianism."

The Civil Rights movement of the last four decades has fought to enshrine egalitarian principles in legislation. The aim is to not only eliminate barriers but to undo the damage caused by past discrimination. Because of our basic philosophy, to accuse someone of prejudice or discrimination is a heavy insult. The accused can even be brought to court.

Still there is one major area where we do allow job discrimination in our society. It is very germane to the discussion of women's ordination, but I wish to save it till the end.

What I want to underscore is why we Americans have reacted so negatively to the pope's declaration. That reaction has led to a wholesale misunderstanding of papal teaching regarding women's role. To some it appeared the pope was denying their equality with man. That is patently not the case. I could quote pages of papal documents to the contrary.

To others it seemed the pope was upholding a disacredited patriarchy with all its negative connotations: wife abuse, male irresposibility, "machismo," etc. It can only be said that the pope, besides espousing woman's basic equality, has been an eloquent spokeman for restoration of respect for woman as woman and especially as mother (see Crossing the Threshold of Hope).

What is at stake in this debate is not woman's equality and dignity. I take them for granted, as does the pope, the Catechism, the whole magisterium of the Church. The issue is really much deeper. In fact the entire Bible hinges on it. God's revelation from the first chapter of Genesis to the last of the Apocalypse connects with this issue.

I need only cite Genesis 1 and Revelation 19 to make my point.

"God created man in his own image and like. Male and female he created them and said 'be fruitful and multiply.' (Gen 1:28)


"This is the wedding feast of the Lamb, and behold his bride has prepared herself." (Apoc 19:7)

Almost everything between those two verses ties in with the theme of the divine nuptials. From the creation of woman out of man's side to the blood and water flowing from Christ's pierced side. From the espousal of Yahweh with Israel to Jesus' dramatic announcement: "Wedding guests don't fast when the groom is present." (See John P Meier A Marginal Jew for a discussion of the importance of this verse.) These and many more texts show what the Bible is about. In them we see the very goal of all human history unveiled: The eternal wedding banquet of Jesus and his bride, the Church.

The Church is not feminine by some linguistic accident. It goes much, much deeper. As Thomas Merton said, "before God we are all feminine." He was not only echoing the great mystical tradition, but the core of divine revelation. C.S. Lewis in his brillant essay, Priestesses in the Church? makes that very point. He acknowledges all the logical reasons for women's ordination: the clergy shortage, the ability of women to better reach certain people, etc. (In fact his list, which was compiled 50 years ago, includes every reason mentioned in the current discussion.) However, he says, although it may be very logical, it changes the whole nature of what the Church is. Unfortunately the Anglican Church did not heed the words of its most famous son.

Now here is where the issue gets murky. You can react to the Anglican decision in a variety of ways. Some would say, "It's about time! Welcome to the Twentieth Century." Others could say that this gives a home to Catholics who favor woman priesthood. In fact, one could ask, Why don't they just join the Anglicans? After all, if I went into a McDonalds and told the waitress I wanted deep fried chicken with lots of spices, she would simply tell me, "Sir that is not on our menu, but there is a KFC right across the street." I have actually said as much to some of my friends who feel so strongly that they say that the pope is unjust.

I hope we can get beyond the rhetoric of justice and injustice in talking about this issue. Those words, as well as oppression, dictatorial, etc. assume that the Church is a kind of sovereign nation. It is not. It is a completely free association. You can accept or reject your baptism. We have no police or court system to make you comply. We cannot levy taxes and force you to pay for them.

I lived in a country for seven years where injustice meant something so terrible that it seems a mockery to apply that word to the Catholic Church. A woman thrown arbitrarily in jail where she is made fun of by the guards and humiliated by the officers is an injustice, especially when there is no calling to account of perpetrators. However, a professor losing his job because what he teaches is opposed to the institution paying his salary is done no injustice. A woman who has hundreds of opportunities, but one of them is not a low paying, high stress, twenty four hour a day job is not a victim of injustice. I am sorry if I offend, but I do not know how to make that point any plainer.

If we are not talking about justice, what are we dealing with in this debate? What is at stake is the integrity of Jesus message and the Church he founded. The most comon argument against women's ordination is that Jesus did not choose them as part of his Twelve apostles. (Even though the full blown structure of bishop-priest-deacon was not completely clear until some decades after Jesus resurrection, Vatican II teaches that it was part of Jesus will in the election of apostles whose successors are bishops and priests*.)

Here we must be extremely careful of arguing that Jesus in choosing only men was limited by his culture. First, the Incarnation means that from all eternity He knew he would be born a first century Paletinian Jew. He chose that culture. But second, and this is most to the point, he often went against the norms of his culture. The Gospel is one of the great counter-cultural documents, not just for us twenty centuries later, but at the very time and place the words were spoken and written. Jesus had a lot of smart and zealous women disciples (some of them pretty good contributors to boot). However he selected only men for the Twelve on which he would found the new Israel, his Church. That choice cannot have been an accident that Jesus would have easily revised if he had forseen our American Republic and its civil rights laws.

A "reductio ad absurdam" is sometimes used at this point. His disciples were not only men, they were all Palestinian Jews. Should only Jews be priests? I'm afraid that this hits on one of the really big scotoma (blind spots) of our culture. I heard a women say, "In one way I am glad I am female because I can understand how blacks feel." You don't. At least by virtue of being a woman, you do not. The two experiences are radically different.

The earliest Church was composed entirely of Palestinian Jews but quickly accepted the Hellenists and finally the uncircumcised Greeks. When each group entered, the men brought their women with them--and vica versa. And they all accepted the male priesthood as an essential part of Jesus' plan for our salvation.

I think you can see where I am going. The male priesthood is necessary because Jesus the Bridegroom had to be male. Only a male can represent him at the altar, the renewal of the great act of sacrifice by which he gave himself totally for his Bride. After talking about marriage and the mystery of human sexuality, St. Paul says, "There is a great sacrament (misterion) here. I take it to apply to Christ and his Church." The very reason God created sexuality and made that theme run through his creation and his Bible, is to suggest, to foreshadow, to signify what will endure when this passing world is gone. The wedding feast of the Lamb and his beautiful bride.

I see no offense to women in this. In fact, what girls everywhere dream of is being radiant and lovely, of wearing a beautiful garment. Of entrusting herself into loving and protecting arms. Of being fruitful and bringing forth children of her own. Of being deeply reverenced for her fertility, her motherhood. An education, a good job can fit into those dreams, but not replace them. (Those dreams can be realized in another sense by a direct consecration to the Bridegroom himself, but that is another topic.)

Let's be honest. What upsets women is not so much male domination, but our irresponsibility, our lack of consideration and respect. In a secularized city like Seattle the Promise Keepers filled the Kingdome with almost 60,000 men who want to assume their proper roles as leaders of their families. And their wives were pushing them to go and praying for them while they were there. They would gladly follow Paul instruction, "Wives, obey your husbands." But they also want their husbands to heed the words, "Love your wives as Christ loved the Church. He gave his life for her..." (see Eph 5)

Women will of course take on "male" responsibilities--when men drop the ball. They have no other choice, but I have yet to meet a woman who likes it that way. But here is precisely the dilemna we are facing in the Church. You don't need to do a sociological study to see the Church is largely constituted by women who do the greatest share of the everyday work. Furthermore they have qualities of care, constancy, spirituality which would make them more effective than many of our present male priests (present writer not excluded). Especially when people see so many of us abandoning ship or whining about how hard the priesthood is, the question naturally arises: Why not ordain some women?

Furthermore--and this is where the "justice" argument might have some force--if we say the Eucharist is the "source and summit" of the Christian life, how can we settle for priestless Sunday services when we exclude half the human race from the priesthood? (I must note there can be a certain hypocrisy here. Do those who use this argument actually take advantage of present opportunities for Eucharist, even on Sunday? The recent Women's Ordination Conference wound up rejecting not only Eucharist but apparently theism itself.)

Inevitable duplicities aside, the questions are good. But I can only say they are secondary to the ones raised previously: the meaning of sexuality in creation and above all the New Creation. We men must stand up straight and accept the burdens, as well as the privileges, of our sexuality. And women must do the same. There is no other way.

Now we are back to our original dilemna. How can we reject a "division of labor" all the way along, but embrace it at this point. Call it what you like, theologize till the cows come home, is it not after all a case of discrimination?

As I said in the beginning, there is one area where job discrimination is allowed, even demanded in our society. That is Hollywood, Broadway, the symbolic presentation of inner struggles and triumphs. Take "Gone with the Wind." I cheerfully admit I would be a lousy Rhett Butler. But even with my bald head, skinny body and whimpy voice, I would do better at it that any woman. Than any woman. For sure there are women more "macho" than I... Well, I won't conclude the sentence. I think you get my point.

Let me say also if the director were somehow so desperate as to cast me as Rhett, the opposite qualification would be essential for the one portraying Scarlett.

Rhett and Scarlett and the millions of variations on the theme are indeed what creation is about. And where it is going. The priest at the altar with the congregation gathered around him does not just represent Christ. The groom acts through him to form the bride which will be his for all eternity.

Fr. Phil Bloom
November 1996 (Updated December 1998)


*"This Church, constituted and organized as a society in the present world, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him." (LG8)

A Different View of the Priest Shortage

Mercy vs. Tolerance: A Reflection on the Priest Shortage.

For more on the struggle between watered down Christianity (dissent) and its full-bodied version (orthodoxy) see my review of Flawed Expectations.

For a beautiful presentation of the theme of the divine nuptials (complete with pictures from Christian art) please see The Bridegroom Web. It is part of the Catholic Page for Lovers.

CIN's Fr. Mateo gives a more concise explanation why there cannot be women priests (Also explains why we call the priest "father.")

Exchange of Letters with Luis T. Gutierrez and Diarmuid

Letter from Chas Walker

Letter from Ruth Dupre

Papal Quotes re Women

Women and the Priesthood What Early Christian Writers Say

Vocations to Priesthood and Religious Life

From Karen: An argument for women priests and an American Catholic Church

Letter from an Anglican Priest

Boston Globe's Misleading Article on Catholic Church

Hitler's Pope: Comic Book Approach to Church History

Germaine Greer on Birth Control