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The Ordination of Women to the Catholic Priesthood

Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Presented at the Canon Law Convention,
Worcester, MA., May 2, 1974

I wish to address myself to the subject of the ordination of women to the Catholic priesthood. My reason for making the subject so specific is to cut through so much of the ambiguity that surrounds the question.

Notice, this is not merely the ordination of women, which is common practice in many Protestant denominations. It is not merely the elevation of women to the ministry, which is quite consistent with Catholic Faith and practice. It is the ordination of women in the Catholic Church to apostolic succession in the presbyterate and (logically) the episcopate, deriving from Christ’s ordination of the twelve apostles on Holy Thursday night, and conferring on them and their successors the threefold Messianic power of administering all the sacraments, notably the Eucharist, of ruling the people of God in His name, and of authoritatively teaching them His message of salvation.

In order to capsulize as much content as possible into a small span of time, let me divide what I plan to say into three parts and give each part a title—together with an explanatory subtitle.

  • Sociological Phenomenon, which answers to the question, “Why has the issue arisen in the first place?”

  • Theological Speculation, which will briefly review the question, “What are they saying in favor of ordination?”

  • Doctrinal Principle, which responds to the question of “How should the proposal to ordain women be evaluated on the premises of Catholic doctrine?”

Sociological Phenomenon

Why has the question of the possible ordination of women to the priesthood become so prominent? The reason is a cluster of reasons, but they are all primarily sociological.

They can be synthesized in two cameo pictures, which compare the women of yesterday (then) and women of today (now). In former days, so the sociologists explain, women lived in a sort of immutable destiny, in the framework of an idealized pattern set by men which remained invariable. She was supposed to be docile, faithful, resigned, hard-working—but all within well-defined limits and sheltered from the drafts and winds of the outside world.

But now a new type has been born—modern woman. She does not passively accept her fate—she takes charge of it. Much of the credit for this welcome change, Cardinal Suenens believes, can be given to Marxism, and specifically to Lenin.

According to Suenens, “Lenin was able to write, ‘The experience of all movements of liberation proves that the success of a revolution depends upon the degree of participation by women.’” Catholics are reminded by Suenens, “This is a phrase not to be forgotten. Christianity is the greatest and most radical revolution in all history.”

We may, therefore, say that the sociological roots at the basis of the current drive for the ordination of women are bifocal. One root is the recognized and unstartling fact that women in all parts of the world are coming more and more into their own, to find their places alongside of men in business, in the professions, in education and the sciences.

Another root is not so much factual as ideological. It argues from a massive discrimination of women by men, and urges women to revolt against the discrimination. Spearheaded by women, so the ideology states, such drastic changes will be introduced into society as only the vision of an egalitarian community of partners—instead of competitors—can produce.

Theological Speculation

Not surprisingly, the sociological undercurrent does not receive much attention. Most of the literature on the subject is called theological. In the more than one hundred hours of reading and research that went into the writing of this paper, practically every book, or monograph, or article consciously studied the question from biblical, patristic, conciliar and canonical—in a word from what might be broadly termed a theological perspective.

Yet, while allowing the adjective “theological,” I would say it is essentially speculation. By this I mean reflection by sincere and well-intentioned writers who analyze a topic—here the ordination of women—subjectively without the date of objective revelation.

What they have to say is often worth reading. It is fascinating literature in the futuribles of the Catholic religion. It seeks to explore what might have been or could possibly be, but without building on the revealed premises of Christianity.

Let me give a sample listing of some of the arguments of theological speculation favoring the ordination of women.

  1. In Christ there is neither Greek nor Jew, neither male nor female. All are alike objects of the divine mercy. Consequently women have as much right as men to a full participation of the hierarchy, which includes priesthood and the episcopacy.

  2. Catholic Christianity has become wedded to the Aristotelian theory of man’s superiority to woman. Once it is disengaged from these Aristotelian categories, the Church will be ready to ordain women who are not inferior to men.

  3. Eastern asceticism has also influenced the Church’s present attitude toward a severe separation of the sexes, except in marriage. But as we change this ideal of an angelic, sexless life, new spiritual relationships between men and women in the priesthood are available. Men priests and women priests will cooperate in a beautiful harmony of great ecclesial potentialities.

  4. Having received the message of freedom from the Savior, the Church has progressively abandoned the principle of Christian freedom in its application to the life of women within its own ranks and concerns, and in areas that could conceivably have escaped secular prejudice and social pressure. Instead it adopted the principle of harmony with secular society. Once the Church is emancipated from this dependence on the secular model of state or culture, it will be ready to open the doors to the ordination of women.

  5. Deaconesses are clearly referred to in the New Testament. In addition to the more explicit references to Priscilla, Lydia and Phoebe, it is not unlikely that the women who followed Jesus may well have been deaconesses, and that the seventy (or seventy-two) disciples may well have included women. While the precise nature of women’s deaconate is unclear, there is enough data to suggest that after nineteen centuries what had been deacons in apostolic times might well become priests in our day.

  6. Mary, too, must be seen as not only a symbol of motherhood but of discipleship. As Mariology develops, it is not unlikely that the role of Mary will come to be seen as not only maternal but priestly, and women will be able to imitate the Mother of Christ as also a priest of Christ.

  7. No doubt some of St. Paul’s statements about women in the Church are difficult. But modern Exegesis is showing that Paul did not teach what he is charged with teaching: men’s rights to dominate women and women’s required passivity. Rather Paul stresses the complementary character of the Christian man and woman in Christ. As Pauline studies open still further horizons, the way will be paved for women’s ordination to the priesthood.

  8. There is no clear New Testament reference to a professional body of Christian priests, whether Male or female. It is Tradition, not Scripture, which endows bishops and presbyters with a priestly character. The epistle to the Hebrews revolutionizes the priestly concept. No longer-as among the Jews—is priesthood fleshly. Thus any restriction of the Christian priesthood to the fleshly, i.e., to male and not female, is to contradict this basic teaching of the Hebrews. The Catholic Church has mistakenly taken a fleshly approach to the priesthood, and only now shows promise of being liberated from its own preconceptions.

  9. The ecumenical movement, vis-à-vis Protestantism, would be immensely enhanced if the Catholic Church followed the pattern set by the Churches of the Reformation in ordaining both men and women to the ministry.

  10. The pastoral needs of our day call for an ever deeper and more official involvement of women in the life and work of the Church. These needs will not be adequately met until women receive priestly ordination. They must have jurisdiction which is inherent in sacred Orders and not merely what some ancient abbesses enjoyed as special privileges, or what superiors of women’s religious communities possess today.

So much for theological speculation, which is profoundly erudite, often done with consummate scholarship, and, with rare exception, exempt from emotionalism.

Doctrinal Principles

We now come to the third part of our analysis, the doctrinal principles. There are two ways that these principles can be handled. One is to evaluate on doctrinal grounds the arguments offered for the ordination of women to see how sound they really are. This is possible and needs to be done. May I suggest a few approaches?

  1. Any ambiguity on the nature of the priesthood in the Catholic Church is sure to lead into doctrinal error. To so stress the ministerial or service function as to minimize the cultic and ritual is to reduce the priesthood to a functional ministry. I remember serving as consultant to a theological commission of the American Baptist Convention, which was studying the advisability of discontinuing all ordinations in that denomination. My advice to the convention was to retain ordination, even though no sacrament was believed to be conferred and no sacred powers to be received. But that is not the faith of historic Catholicism.

    Most proponents of ordination of women in the Catholic Church concentrate on the ministerial or pastoral benefits to be derived. They are remarkably silent about the advantages of a woman (and not only a man) pronouncing the words of consecration or the formula of absolution!

  2. Any implication that the Catholic priesthood is a later development of the Church by the Church, and not a sacrament of Christ instituted by Christ, is an invitation to doctrinal chaos. If, contrary to the explicit teaching of the magisterium, it was not Christ but the Church which established what we call the priesthood, then the ordination of women is a minor issue and almost of trivial consequence. In that case, the Church could not only ordain women, but could redefine ordination to exclude the power of offering the Eucharistic Sacrifice, of transmuting bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood and, in fact, could, if it wanted to, discontinue ordination altogether.

    On a more positive level, however, our doctrinal principles tell us some sobering facts that reduce the ordination of women to what it really is—fervent speculation and zealous, but unfounded, anticipation.

    The plain fact of salvation history is the selectivity of Christ and the early Church. It is known did not hesitate to contravene the Law and sociological customs of His times. Yet He selected only men as His apostles, on whom He conferred the priestly powers at the Last Supper.

    From the beginning, and all through its history, the Catholic Church has done the same. The unbroken practiced Tradition of the Church has excluded women from the Episcopal and priestly office. Theologians and canonists, building on the teaching of the Fathers, have been unanimous in considering this exclusion absolute and of divine origin.

We therefore conclude that this constant tradition and practice is of divine law, and is of such a nature as to constitute a clear teaching of the infallible ordinary magisterium of the Church. Though not formally defined, it is irreversible Catholic doctrine.

From another perspective, suppose we took the opposite position, advocated by proponents of women’s ordination. If the choice of men by Christ and by the Church has really been only time-conditioned and changeable, then indeed very unpleasant consequences could be drawn.

This attempted solution proceeds from the idea that Jesus, if He had lived in another time and in another land, could have also chosen women. This theory thus grants that there could be another time (or place) in which women could be completely appropriate for the fullness of the hierarchical and sacerdotal office.

But then what follows? It follows that the Catholic Church and its supposedly divine office of mediation of grace stand fixed in a social ethos—that of the first century—which stands diametrically opposed to the ethos of the century in which the Church now lives.

Grant this hypothesis and no single teaching of the Christ or the apostolic Church remains normative for all times. Instead of transcending time, Christianity would become the slave of time. The Beatitudes and the whole Sermon on the Mount, the precept of monogamy and the prohibition of adultery would become –as not a few are now urging—moral archaisms that had meaning and relevance in former days but are no longer meaningful and certainly not mandatory in our day.

If someone objects that the ordination of men by Christ and the early Church was simply a contingent fact; that it could have been otherwise, I grant the observation. But since when are Christians to stand in judgment on why God did what He did, like become man, when the world could have (absolutely speaking) been redeemed without the Incarnation; or why God does what He does, like nourish us with His own Body and Blood when our spiritual life could (absolutely speaking) be sustained by other means if He had so chosen?

One of the great blessings I see coming from the present discussion about the ordination of women is our deeper realization of God’s wisdom in providing for a variety of ways He can be loved, and a bewildering diversity of ministries by which He can be served.

It is for us to stand in awe, and not in judgment, on the ways of God who chose a woman and not a man by whom to enter the world. If this was selectivity, and it was, it was not discrimination. God never does things without good reasons, even when these reasons escape or elude us who—would you believe—sometimes want to instruct God.

(Title Page: The Ordination of Women to the Catholic Priesthood
by Rev. John A. Hardon, S. J.

Jesuit School of Theology of Chicago

Presented at the Canon Law Convention,
Worcester, MA., May 2, 1974)

Imprimatur: +Humberto Cardinal Medeiros
Archbishop of Boston
March 6, 1975

Printed by the Daughters of St. Paul
50 St. Paul’s Ave.
Jamaica Plain, Boston, MA  02130

Copyright © 2004 Inter Mirifica

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