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Catholic Church doctrine on the ordination of women

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The Catholic Church doctrine on the ordination of women, as expressed in the current canon law and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, is that: "Only a baptized man (In Latin, vir) validly receives sacred ordination."[1] Insofar as priestly and episcopal ordination are concerned, the Church teaches that this requirement is a matter of divine law, and thus doctrinal.[2] The requirement that only males can receive ordination to the diaconate has not been promulgated as doctrinal by the Church's magisterium, though it is clearly at least a requirement according to canon law.[3][4]

Doctrinal position and its supporters

In 1976, the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith discussed the issue of the ordination of women and issued a Declaration on the Question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood which concluded that for various doctrinal, theological, and historical reasons, the Church "... does not consider herself authorized to admit women to priestly ordination". The most important reasons stated were first, the Church's determination to remain faithful to its constant tradition, second, its fidelity to Christ's will, and third, the idea of male representation due to the "sacramental nature" of the priesthood. The Biblical Commission, an advisory commission that was to study the exclusion of women from the ministerial priesthood from a biblical perspective, had three opposing findings. They were, "that the New Testament does not settle in a clear way... whether women can be ordained as priests, [that] scriptural grounds alone are not enough to exclude the possibility of ordaining women, [and that] Christ's plan would not be transgressed by permitting the ordination of women."[5]

In recent years, responding to questions about the matter, the Church has issued a number of documents repeating the same position.[6] In 1994, Pope John Paul II declared the question closed in his letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, stating: "Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance…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."[7]

In 1995, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a clarification, explaining that Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, though "itself not infallible, witnesses to the infallibility of the teaching of a doctrine already possessed by the Church.... This doctrine belongs to the deposit of the faith of the Church. It should be emphasized that the definitive and infallible nature of this teaching of the Church did not arise with the publication of the Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis".[8] Instead, it was "founded on the written Word of God, and from the beginning constantly preserved and applied in the tradition of the Church, it has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal magisterium," and for these reasons it "requires definitive assent."[9]

The Church teaching on the restriction of its ordination to men that masculinity was integral to the personhood of both Jesus and the men he called as apostles.[10] The Roman Catholic Church sees maleness and femaleness as two different ways of expressing common humanity.[11] Despite the common academic phrase "gender roles," which implies that the phenomenon of the sexes is a mere surface phenomenon, an accident, the Roman Catholic Church teaches that there is an ontological (essential) difference between humanity expressed as male humanity and humanity expressed as female humanity.[12] While many functions are interchangeable between men and women, some are not, because maleness and femaleness are not interchangeable. Just as water is necessary for a valid baptism, and wheaten bread and grape wine are necessary for a valid Eucharist (not because of their superiority over other materials, but because they are what Jesus used or authorized), only men can be validly ordained, regardless of any issues of equality.[13]

Pope John Paul II, in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, explained the Roman Catholic understanding that the priesthood is a special role specially set out by Jesus when he chose twelve men out of his group of male and female followers. John Paul notes that Jesus chose the Twelve (cf. Mk 3:13–14; Jn 6:70) after a night in prayer (cf. Lk 6:12) and that the Apostles themselves were careful in the choice of their successors. The priesthood is "specifically and intimately associated in the mission of the Incarnate Word himself (cf. Mt 10:1, 7–8; 28:16–20; Mk 3:13–16; 16:14–15)."

Pope Paul VI, quoted by Pope John Paul II in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, wrote, "[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."

Concerning the "constant practice of the Church," in antiquity the Church Fathers Irenaeus,[14] Tertullian,[15] Hippolytus,[16] Epiphanius,[17] John Chrysostom,[18] and Augustine[19] all wrote that the ordination of women was impossible. The Synod of Laodicea prohibited ordaining women to the Presbyterate, although the meaning of Canon 11 has long been disputed.[20]

The Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued and published on May 29, 2008, in the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, a decree signed by Cardinal William Levada, on the existing ban on women priests by asserting that women 'priests' and the bishops who ordain them would be excommunicated "latae sententiae".[21][22]

Deaconesses and female deacons

The ordination of females to the diaconate is a matter of some controversy among Roman Catholic historians and theologians. At issue are two distinct but interrelated questions: whether some women in the early Church received true sacramental ordination, or whether all were merely so called for functional or honorific purposes; and, whether the prohibition against ordaining women to the diaconate is also a matter of unchangeable divine law, or potentially changeable ecclesiastical law. If some women did receive true sacramental ordination, then the current prohibition would be ecclesiastical rather than divine law.

It can be verified that the term "deaconess" was employed in late antiquity; the word, like "deacon", comes from the Greek word diakonos (διάκονος), meaning "one who serves" (literally, "one who runs through the dust" after his master). The earlier term for women who served in the Church was diakonos. The term "deaconess" came to be used to refer to women who assisted the priest in receiving women into the Church for baptism by full immersion (which is still practiced by the Eastern Catholic Churches and by some parishes in the Western or Latin rite as well). These women also minstered to sick women and often served in similar positions to male deacons.

Further historical evidence points to women serving as deacons in many areas of the Church in the West as well as in the East. Monastic women deacons in the East received the stole as a symbol of their office at ordination, which took place inside the sanctuary.[23] Historical-theological work by K. K. Fitzgerald, Phyllis Zagano, and Gary Macy argue for the sacramental ordination of women as deacons.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith wrote in 1977 that the possibility of ordaining women as deacons was "a question that must be taken up fully by direct study of the texts, without preconceived ideas."[24] The opinion that women received sacramental ordination (in certain times and places) is given by Roger Gryson,[25]. In response, Aimé Georges Martimort contends they did not.[26] Both Gryson and Martimort argue from the same historical evidence. For example, the ecumenical First Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325) stated that deaconesses: "do not receive any imposition of hands, so that they are in all respects to be numbered among the laity."[27] However, 126 years later, the ecumenical Council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451) decreed: "A woman shall not receive the laying on of hands as a deaconess under forty years of age, and then only after searching examination."[28] Gryson argues that the use of the verb cheirotonein and of the substantive cheirothesia clearly indicate that women deacons were ordained by the laying on of hands."[29] Martimort argues that the "laying on of hands" refers only to a special blessing.

Until rather recently, the theologians and canonists who addressed the question almost unanimously considered the exclusion of women from ordination, including to the diaconate, as having a divine origin and therefore remaining absolute. Only in recent decades have any theologians or canonists entertained the theory that the prohibition of women from the ordained diaconate was a matter of merely ecclesiastical, rather than divine law.[30] This renewed theological assessment was spurred on by the Second Vatican Council's revival of the permanent diaconate, which lifted the question from a purely theoretical matter to one with immensely practical consequences.[31] Based on the theory that some deaconesses received the sacrament of Holy Orders, and based on the fact that some writers in the Middle Ages exhibited a certain hesitancy concerning the ordination of women stemming from knowledge that there had been deaconesses in antiquity,[32] there have been modern-day proposals to ordain female permanent deacons, who would perform the same functions as male deacons and be like them in every respect.[31]

In 2003, Father Ronald G. Roberson gave a presentation on the diaconate in the Latin Church to annual meeting of the U.S. Oriental Orthodox-Roman Catholic Consultation. He summarized the state of deaconess issue as follows: "The possibility of ordaining women to the diaconate is still an unsettled question in the Catholic Church. Latin rituals for ordaining deaconesses exist from as late as the 10th century, but the precise sacramental nature of these ordinations has not yet been determined authoritatively. There are recent indications that the Holy See intends to continue the exclusion of women from this office."[33]

Ordination and equality

The Roman Catholic Church states that the hierarchical structure that includes the ordained ministerial priesthood is ordered to benefit the holiness of the entire body of the faithful, and not to ensure the salvation of the ordained minister.[34] There is no additional benefit in terms of automatic holiness that comes about through ordination. Ordination is not required for salvation, nor does it effect salvation in the one ordained. In other words, a priest can go to Hell just as easily as a layperson. Likewise, sainthood is equally open to men and women, lay or ordained. For example, the Blessed Virgin Mary is venerated as the Queen of all Saints. Furthermore, there are female Doctors of the Church.

Pope John Paul II wrote, in Mulieris Dignitatem: "In calling only men as his Apostles, Christ acted in a completely free and sovereign manner. In doing so, he exercised the same freedom with which, in all his behaviour, he emphasized the dignity and the vocation of women, without conforming to the prevailing customs and to the traditions sanctioned by the legislation of the time."

In Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, John Paul wrote: "the fact that the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God and Mother of the Church, received neither the mission proper to the Apostles nor the ministerial priesthood clearly shows that the non-admission of women to priestly ordination cannot mean that women are of lesser dignity, nor can it be construed as discrimination against them. Rather, it is to be seen as the faithful observance of a plan to be ascribed to the wisdom of the Lord of the universe."

The Roman Catholic Church does not regard the priest as the only possible prayer leader, and prayer may be led by a woman. For example, outside the context of a Mass and in the absence of a priest or deacon, laypersons (both men and women) "are to be entrusted with the care of these [Sunday] celebrations."[35] This includes leading the prayers, ministry of the word, and the giving of holy communion (previously consecrated by a priest).[35] Also during these assemblies, in the absence of an ordained minister, a layperson may request God's blessing on the congregation, provided that the layperson does not use words proper to a priest or deacon, and omits rites that are too readily associated with the Mass.[36]

Women are also able to live the Consecrated Life as a nun or abbess, and throughout the history of the Church it has not been uncommon for an abbess to head a dual monastery, i.e., a community of men and women. Women today exercise many roles in the Church that they were previously not able to participate in. They can run catechetical programs in parishes, do spiritual direction, serve as readers and Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, and teach theology. Also, in 1994, the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship decided that women could assist at Mass as altar servers. Still many people see the Church's position on the ordination of women as a sign that women are not equal to men in the Catholic Church, though the Church rejects this inference.[37]

Dissenting views

The arguments for the Catholic ordination of women[38], include the one based on equality. Some sacramental theologians have argued that ordaining men but not women creates two classes of baptism, contradicting Saint Paul's statement that all are equal in Christ.[39]

Another argument is based on the theological position that there is a fundamental unity between the different levels (deacon, priest, and bishop) of the sacrament of Holy Orders, as taught by the Second Vatican Council.[40] So, if history shows that the deaconesses known to have existed in the Early Church had actually received the sacrament of ordination, then because of the fundamental unity of Holy Orders, women can also be ordained as priests and bishops.[41] (This same argument is sometimes used in reverse, against the historical possibility that deaconesses received sacramental ordination.)[42]

Whatever argument is used in favor of the priestly ordination of women, there is the problem of reconciling this position with Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (or ignoring it, if the arguer so wishes). Based on the statements from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the official point of view is that Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, without itself being ex cathedra,[43] authoritatively and bindingly teaches that: (1) the Church cannot ordain women as priests due to divine law; and that (2) this doctrine has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal magisterium. A dissenting view is that, according to section 25 of the Second Vatican Council's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, the "ordinary and universal magisterium" is exercised by "the Pope in union with the bishops". In other words, according to the Congregation, it is an instance of the Pope 'publicising' what he and the other bishops, as the ordinary and universal magisterium' have already consistently taught through the ages.

Since the encyclical Humani Generis, it is well known that the Roman Pontiff can, by his own authority, settle a theological question via a fallible papal teaching that is nonetheless sufficiently authoritative to end all debate on the matter, at least under Church law.[44] This is clearly what has occurred with Ordinatio Sacerdotalis in regard to point (1).[45] Thus, theological debate on whether women can be ordained as priests is no longer seen by the Church as permitted for Catholics, and the arguments in favor of ordaining women to the priesthood in this section are termed a "dissenting position". However, several noted dogmatic theologians have questioned how this same alleged debate-ending authority can apply to point (2), which is a matter not of faith or morals, but a factual matter relative to teachings promulgated by all the bishops of the Catholic Church over her two thousand year history.[46] These dogmatic theologians find it especially problematic that, concerning this point, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis gives no indication of what historical facts are sufficient to ensure infallibility by the ordinary and universal Magisterium, nor any indication of how those historical facts were verified. Because of these issues it is argued that, if it is indeed possible for the Church to ordain women to the priesthood, this would not contradict the Church's dogma regarding infallible teachings.

Some supporters of women's ordination have asserted that there have been ordained female priests and bishops in antiquity.[47] The official Church position on this is that, although "a few heretical sects in the first centuries, especially Gnostic ones, entrusted the exercise of the priestly ministry to women: this innovation was immediately noted and condemned by the Fathers who considered it as unacceptable in the Church."[48] In response to that position, some supporters of women's ordination take the position that those sects weren't heretical, but, rather, orthodox.[49]

Some arguable evidence that not all ordinations in the Catholic tradition have been those of males exists. For example, the Pope Gelasius I apparently condemned the practice of women officiating at altars; inscriptions near Tropea in Calabria refer to "presbytera," which could be interpreted as a woman priest or as a wife of a male priest.[49] Furthermore, a sarcophagus from Dalmatia is inscribed with the date 425 and records that a grave in the Salona burial-ground was bought from presbytera Flavia Vitalia: selling burial plots was at one time a duty of presbyters.[49] There have been some 15 records so far found of women being ordained in antiquity by Christians; while the Vatican insists those are ordinations by heretical groups, the Women's Ordination Conference contends that those were orthodox Christian groups.[49]

There is also the church of Santa Praxedis, where Theodora Episcopa—Bishop Theodora, with the word for "bishop" in feminine form—appears in an image with two female saints and Mary. That church's pastor alleges that the church was built in honor of Pope Pascal I's mother by her son, who graced her with the title "Episcopa" due to her being the mother of a Pope. However, Theodora wears a coif in the image, suggesting that she is an unmarried woman.[49]

Setting aside these theological considerations, advocates for the ordination of women have pointed to vocations declining in Europe and North America and have made the utilitarian argument that women must be ordained in order to have enough priests to administer the Sacraments in those areas. Supporting this argument, they made public the story of a Czech woman Ludmila Javorová, who, in the 1990s, said that she and four or five other women had been ordained by the late Bishop Felix Maria Davídek in the 1970s, as priests in the underground Catholic Church in Czechoslovakia. Javorová ceased to practice as a priest at some point.

There is at least one organization that calls itself "Roman Catholic" that ordains women at the present time, Roman Catholic Womenpriests;[50] and, several independent Catholic jurisidictions have been ordaining women in the United States since approximately the late 1990s. These organizations are independent of and unrecognised by the Roman Catholic Church. There are several others calling for the Roman Catholic Church itself to ordain women, such as Circles[2][3], Brothers and Sisters in Christ,[51] Catholic Women's Ordination,[52] and Corpus,[53] along with others. Recently (April 19, 2009), Womenpriests elected four bishops to serve the United States: Joan Mary Clark Houk, Andrea Michele Johnson, Maria Regina Nicolosi, and Bridget Mary Meehan. The Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a decree in 2008 clarifying that such "attempted ordinations" were invalid and that Canons 1378 and 1443 apply to those who participate in these ordinations.[54] Edward Peters, a doctor of canon law, explains that this is a newly enacted excommunication[55] and not just the clarification of canon law that had existed previously. In response, Womenpriests said its members are "loyal member of the church who stand in the prophetic tradition of holy disobedience to an unjust law."[56]

See also


  1. Codex Iruis Canonici canon 1024, c.f. Catechism of the Catholic Church 1577
  2. [This citation is to what, exactly?] "The Catholic Church has never felt that priestly or episcopal ordination can be validly conferred on women," Inter Insigniores, October 15, 1976, section 1
  3. Canonical Implications of Ordaining Women to the Permanent Diaconate, Canon Law Society of America, 1995.
  4. Commentary by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the Declaration Inter Insigniores.
  5. Pierre, Simone M. The Struggle to Serve: the Ordination of Women in the Roman Catholic Church. Jefferson: McFarland and Company, Inc., 1994.
  6. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: Inter Insigniores, October 15, 1976; Pope John Paul II: Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, May 22, 1994; Pope John Paul II: Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem, August 15, 1988.
  7. John Paul II in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis , c.f. Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles Laici (30 December 1988), 31
  8. Letter Concerning the CDF Reply Regarding Ordinatio Sacerdotalis by then-Cardinal Ratzinger
  9. The Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, Response of 25 October 1995 c.f. Lumen Gentium 25:2.
  10. Inter Insigniores section 5
  11. Catechism of the Catholic Church 355, 383, 369–72, 1605, 2333.
  12. Gaudium et Spes 12,4
  13. For a similar analysis, see "Mulieris Dignitatem," 26–27
  14. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1:13:2
  15. Tertullian, "Demurrer Against the Heretics" 41:4–5; "Baptism" 1; "The Veiling of Virgins" 9
  16. Hippolytus, "The Apostolic Tradition" 11
  17. Epiphanius, "Against Heresies" 78:13, 79:3
  18. John Chrysostom, "The Priesthood" 2:2
  19. Augustine, "Heresies" 1:17
  20. Synod of Laodicea canon 11
  21. Vatican says will excommunicate women priests from Reuters
  22. Vatican sends threat over women priests From CNN
  23. (page 5)
  24. Commentary by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the Declaration Inter Insigniores
  25. The Ministry of Women in the Early Church, Collegeville, MN, Liturgical Press, 1976.
  26. Deaconesses: An Historical Study, translated by K. D. Whitehead, San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 1986.
  27. Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils First Council of Nicaea, canon 19
  28. Council of Chalcedon, canon 15 from New
  29. The Canonical Implications of Ordaining Women to the Permanent Diaconate, Canon Law Society of America, 1995, p. 19.
  30. Commentary by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the Declaration Inter Insigniores
  31. 31.0 31.1 The Canonical Implications of Ordaining Women to the Permanent Diaconate, Canon Law Society of America, 1995.
  32. Commentary by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the Declaration Inter Insigniores
  34. "Catechism of the Catholic Church" 1120
  35. 35.0 35.1 The Congregation for Divine Worship: Directory for Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest chapter 2, paragraph 30.
  36. The Congregation for Divine Worship: Directory for Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest chapter 3, paragraph 39.
  37. Rausch, Thomas P. Catholicism in the Third Millennium. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 2003.
  38. Seven Reasons why
  39. One priesthood in Christ
  40. Lumen Gentium, 28.
  41. Ordained as Deacons
  42. Theologische Bedenken gegen die Diakonatsweihe von Frauen (= Theological objections to the diaconal ordination of women), by Hans Jorissen, in Diakonat: Ein Amt für Frauen in der kirche—Ein frauengerechtes Amt? (= Diaconate: a ministry for women in the Church—one suited to women?), 1997, pp. 86–97, as described in The diaconate—a ministry for women in the Church
  43. "This language comes very close to that of a solemn definition, but we are assured by Cardinal Ratzinger that it was not the intention of John Paul II to speak ex cathedra," from Creative Fidelity: Weighing and Interpreting the Documents of the Magisterium, by Francis A. Sullivan, p. 22.
  44. ibid., p. 22.
  45. "The language used by Pope John Paul II in his recent apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis would clearly fulfill, or even surpass, the conditions mentioned by Pius XII," ibid., p. 22
  46. Theologians Assess ‘Ordinatio Sacerdotalis’
  47. [1] article by Fr. William Most from Catholic Culture, retrieved on August 21, 2006
  48. Inter Insigniores, section 1
  49. 49.0 49.1 49.2 49.3 49.4 Women's Ordination Conference
  50. Roman Catholic Womenpriests :: Welcome!
  51. Brothers and Sisters in Christ
  52. Catholic Women's Ordination
  53. Corpus
  56. editors, "In the Beginning," National Catholic Reporter May 1, 2009, 4.

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