Why can't women be priests?

By Diogenes (articles ) | Jul 22, 2005

When a puzzled Jewish academic asks me, "Why doesn't the Catholic Church ordain women?" I can give him a pretty satisfactory answer -- satisfying, that is, to the historical curiosity behind his question. It's largely a matter of laying out the nature of decision-making authority in the Church, reviewing the relevant tradition, and giving a synopsis of the authoritative decisions made. Within the terms of authority as that authority understands itself, the answer to his question doesn't admit of much doubt.

But very often today another question is asked: "Why can't women be priests?" And almost always the person who poses the question in those terms wants a different kind of answer than that which satisfied our Jewish professor. As the words "can't be" indicate, this questioner is usually asking for a deductive proof; he wants an explanation why -- given what we believe about the nature of the Trinity and the nature of women -- the doctrine on Holy Orders could not be otherwise than it is. In effect, he's making this demand: "Prove to me that God could not have included a female priesthood in His plan of redemption without acting contrary to His divine nature."

This challenge is perhaps impossible to answer, and as far as I know hasn't been seriously attempted. Most educated Catholics, including I think the greater number of bishops and priests, are keenly aware of this limitation. Since no deductive proof can be offered in response to the question "Why can't women be priests?" they tend to the belief that there is no valid theological argument at all for excluding women from Holy Orders, and consequently think that, sooner or later, shifts in cultural attitudes combined with new urgency of pastoral needs will bring about a change in the teaching.

But many solemnly defined doctrines are equally "vulnerable." Suppose we ask, "Why can't rye bread become the Body of Christ?" Is there a deductive proof that will satisfy the questioner? Is the nature of God such that, of all the cereal grains, wheat and only wheat could provide the matter of the sacrament? Such that rye by its nature as rye is ontologically unsuitable? Such that eucharistic doctrine could not be otherwise without an offense against reason or Trinitarian dogma?

Of course not. You can't put a pistol to the head of the Church and demand a deductive proof for the exclusive validity of wheat. The Church can only answer 1) that her use of wheat is fitting (it is appropriate in itself and doesn't contradict Scripture or other doctrines); 2) that it is consonant with her tradition (we know it has been used in the past and have no reason to believe the orthodox have used anything else); and 3) that every time a doubt has been raised, she has given the same answer. It's a humbler kind of suasion than a deductive proof, it doesn't silence personal doubt with the finality that a syllogism does, but the nature of the wheat-versus-rye question is such that no other kind of considerations could be tendered in reply.

Now when you examine the arguments that the Church proposes for restricting the priesthood to men -- laid out in Inter insigniores by Paul VI and reaffirmed by John Paul II in Ordinatio sacerdotalis -- you see they're of the "wheat-not-rye" variety:

"[The Church] holds that it is not admissible to ordain women to the priesthood, for very fundamental reasons. These reasons include: the example recorded in the Sacred Scriptures of Christ choosing his Apostles only from among men; the constant practice of the Church, which has imitated Christ in choosing only men; and her living teaching authority which has consistently held that the exclusion of women from the priesthood is in accordance with God's plan for his Church."

Deductively conclusive? No, but it doesn't pretend to be. It's congruent with, but not dictated by, ordinary human reason and the biblical data. You have to trust the Church is preserving God's sovereign freedom here as you have to trust her in the case of eucharistic matter. Once you suspect she's lying, or hiding a deeper truth that you (or your coterie) can recover, you step out into the Void.

A final word. I mentioned above that many churchmen, impressed by the lack of proof for the traditional doctrine, believe the Church will eventually bow to necessity and change her practice. Of course they're also aware of the feebleness of the culturally conditioned prudential considerations that individual clerics -- not infrequently they themselves at an earlier stage of enlightenment -- offered against women priests ("Women can't be priests because they don't know Latin. Women can't be priests because they can't keep a secret," etc). Often, by a kind of occult compensation, such men erroneously attribute these prejudices to the teaching Church, and then reproach her for irrationalities that she never indulged, though many of her ministers did.

When it comes to doctrine, then, you can either take the Church as a loving teacher, or you can take her as an opponent and reckon her defeated wherever and whenever she doesn't pin your shoulders to the mat. The injustice and unloveliness of her ministers often make the latter the more attractive option, but to those who mistrust her she has no gift to offer at all. None.

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  • Posted by: - Jul. 24, 2005 12:46 AM ET USA

    Fr. Donald Keefe's article "Sacramental sexuality and the ordination of women", published in Communio and available on this conference page, starts so: Christianity has a positive attitude toward the created world and sees God's presence revealed amid human history. Male-female differentiation is a good, not a tragedy; and indeed, the nuptial motif is the symbol par excellence of God's relation to the world and the Church.

  • Posted by: Duns Scotus - Jul. 23, 2005 4:40 PM ET USA

    The "iconic" argument has been given by many orthodox theologians, but I don't believe it has attained the status of dogma. Indeed, "Inter Insigniores," having given, at length, the response Diogenes gives here goes on to discuss briefly the "iconic" argument but prefaces it with this: "It is not a question here of bringing forward a demonstrative argument, but of clarifying this teaching by the analogy of faith." Such analogies don't work well with people who see the Church as an opponent.

  • Posted by: - Jul. 22, 2005 9:48 PM ET USA

    But there *is* deductive reasoning for it. The Church is the Bride of Christ. (Ephesians 5:25-28, Revelation, etc.) Priests act In Persona Christi. Biological law, created by God, makes women as bridegrooms impossible (even in Massachusetts). A woman bridegroom, like a square circle, is a "non thing." To steal from Sheed, "no thing is impossible to God." (This, btw, is why legislating same-sex "marriage" preceeds outlawing the Church.)

  • Posted by: dover beachcomber - Jul. 22, 2005 1:40 PM ET USA

    This is one of the clearest comments on this question, and others of its kind, that I've ever read. More, please!

  • Posted by: Fr. William - Jul. 22, 2005 12:51 PM ET USA

    Great catechesis on this topic, Diogenes. You helped me see how there really is an ideological agenda in just asking the second of the two questions, "why can't women be priests..." & your "wheat" and "rye" analogy will help me in catechesis amongst our few high school students who pose this question... It really does come down to trust & obedience & humility... Thanks for the wonderful insights, particularly: "to those who mistrust (the Church) she has no gift to offer at all. None."

  • Posted by: - Jul. 22, 2005 12:11 PM ET USA

    "This challenge is perhaps impossible to answer, and as far as I know hasn't been seriously attempted. Most educated Catholics, including I think the greater number of bishops and priests, are keenly aware of this" Well, I'm clearly not an educated Catholic so I'll take a stab at it. Maybe women are usually too busy learning (is that education?) about raising babies, taking care of houses, and all that other mundane stuff that educated, talkative male Catholics like you don't bother yourself wit

  • Posted by: - Jul. 22, 2005 12:08 PM ET USA

    A simple deductive reason - that Christ was a man and that the iconic argument mattered to him. The Eucharist's matter is now as it was then because the Incarnation and our redemption are real events that really happened. I am a woman and JPII/Mary Ann Glendon type 'Christian feminist'. I believe in equality of authority and subjection between spouses, cf: Mulieris Dignitatem. But I also believe men and women, to an equal degree, reflect different perfections of God. So no problem!