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 Christs 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 titletogether 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?
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-workingbut all within well-defined
limits and sheltered from the drafts and winds of the outside world.
But now a new type has been bornmodern woman. She does
not passively accept her fateshe 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 partnersinstead of competitorscan produce.
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 canonicalin 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 topichere the ordination of womensubjectively
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.
- 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.
- Catholic Christianity has become
wedded to the Aristotelian theory of mans 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.
- Eastern asceticism has also influenced the Churchs 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
- 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.
- 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 womens 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.
- 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.
- No doubt some of St. Pauls statements about women in the Church
are difficult. But modern Exegesis is showing that Paul did not teach what he is charged with teaching:
mens rights to dominate women and womens 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 womens
ordination to the priesthood.
- 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 Jewsis 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.
- 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.
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 womens religious communities possess
So much for theological speculation, which is profoundly erudite, often done
with consummate scholarship, and, with rare exception, exempt from emotionalism.
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?
- 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
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!
- 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 Christs 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 isfervent 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
From another perspective, suppose we took the opposite position, advocated
by proponents of womens 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
But then what follows? It follows that the Catholic Church and its supposedly
divine office of mediation of grace stand fixed in a social ethosthat of the
first centurywhich 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 urgingmoral archaisms that had meaning and relevance
in former days but are no longer meaningful and certainly not mandatory in our
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 Gods 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 whowould you believesometimes 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
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