A priest is a man. A nun is a woman. Why is this the case? Our culture is making massive changes in the way we view gender. Is the church ignoring these changes? Are the traditions of the Church inhibiting her to change and replacing Christ’s example? I attempt to answer this through grappling with the question, “Why can’t women be priests?”
In 2013, Pope Francis spoke about the Roman Catholic Church’s ban on women being ordained priests, saying ‘that the door was ‘closed,’” according to an article written by Justin Scuiletti. Pope Francis recently was asked again about the ban. He said, “Concerning the ordination of women in the Catholic Church, St. Pope John Paul II had the last clear word on this, and it stands.”
The declaration Pope Francis is referring to, written in 1994, in sum, states women cannot be priests because the original Twelve Apostles were men. The Church wants to follow Christ’s example in this way, and, “‘does not consider herself authorized to admit women to priestly ordination.’”
There are three reasons I would argue against the validity of the declaration and advocate for women having the opportunity to be ordained to the priesthood. The first reason is Jesus had women apostles; the second reason is Jesus was, and is, a contradiction of masculinity; the third reason is serving God in any form should not be gender specific.
Reason #1: Jesus had women apostles.
Joan Mitchell, a Sister of St. Joseph, said women were a part of the original company of Jesus. “I think it’s been commonly accepted that there were originally 12 apostles; those were very important. But, for example, in Luke 8:1-3, there’s a list of men apostles, followed by 8:3, which is a list of the women who were part of the company.”
Not only were women a part of the original group, but they were also present at the Last Supper. Women were always part of Jesus’ community meals, so the Last Supper- a Paschal meal- was no exception. This is important because, according to a talk given by Dr. John Wijngaards, “the Council of Trent (1563) declared that ‘through the words ‘do this in commemoration of me’, Christ established the apostles as priests, and ordained that they and other priests should offer his body and blood.”
If women were also there, the words, “Do this in commemoration of me!” was meant for his male and female apostles.
“Jesus entrusted celebrating the Holy Eucharist in principle to both men and women. And this would imply that Jesus did not exclude women from the ministries” Dr. John said in his talk.
Reason #2: Jesus was, and is, a contradiction of masculinity.
In the gospels, the writers depicted Jesus as a feminine communicator and a feminist. He rejected competition, violence, aggression, and the patriarchy at the time. He promoted humility, peace, and quiet patience in the face of injustice and suffering, and openly had concern for all, especially the oppressed. If the priest’s role is to spread The Word and “do [works] in commemoration of [him]”, why is the Church making masculinity a norm for priesthood when Jesus contradicted masculinity himself?
“Jesus delegitimized the stereotypically male ‘virtues’ and the typically masculine approach to reality; he validated the stereotypically female virtues and lived a distinctly ‘feminine’ lifestyle. He challenged men to abandon both their assumption of human superiority and the grounds upon which they based that claim. And he challenged women to value the traits which they had been taught to despise in themselves because the qualities were despised by men,” said Sandra M. Schneiders in her lecture titled, Women and the Word.
Is the Church willing to take up this challenge? Today, Jesus would identify as a feminist, “that is, a person who believes in the full personhood and equality of women and who acts to bring that belief to realization in society and church” (Schneiders,62). One must ask, why is the church compelled to hold this masculine tradition in spite of Jesus’ feminism? If Jesus were alive today, what would be his response to the question of women being ordained priests?
Reason #3: Serving God in any form shouldn’t be gender specific.
Serving as a priest wasn’t always gender-specific.
“In the first thousand years of the church, women had these roles. They certainly were deacons, and a lot of scholars say they were more than that. They were often co-presiders, and co-leaders in these communities,” says Mitchell.
These women are mentioned explicitly in Scripture, such as Acts 1:12-14, 18:24-26 and Romans 16:1-16. Not only did the women have a priestly role in the church, but they were also highly significant as apostles in Jesus’ story.
“In Mark, there’s no mention of the women at all until Jesus has died on the cross. It says in 15:40 that the women had done three things: Come with him from Galilee, served him and followed him. So they’re at the cross standing at a distance. They [also saw] where he was buried, and they go to the grave that they find empty on Easter morning. So they are the witnesses to the main events which we still hold in the Creed;they are the primary witnesses,” states Mitchell.
Mary Magdalene was the first witness of and the first to announce the Resurrection of the Lord, which Christians deem the most important event in Christianity.
Many skeptics may say it doesn’t matter- Jesus appointed the Twelve, and that is what matters the most. In response to this idea, it’s important to note most elements in Jesus’ appointment of the Twelve do not stand today.
“The number Twelve [was] soon abandoned in the Apostolic Tradition; Jesus gave [the apostles] power to drive out demons and cure the sick (that power did not last long after Jesus’ death); Jesus told the Twelve Apostles to wear no sandals and to have no money in their belts: such instructions were soon modified to suit new situations. At his last appearance on a Mount in Galilee Jesus commissioned the Eleven to baptize all nations, but we know now that everyone can baptize validly…” (Dr. John, 2011)
If many of the elements Jesus gave to the original 12 are invalid now, why has the element of the masculinity of the group been perpetuated and prolonged? Jesus did not mention, “All my apostles must be of the male sex.” Jesus also did not “establish the hierarchical order of bishops, priests, and deacons that arose in later times” (Dr. John, 2011). He did not define what a priest is and should do, especially not as the church leaders understood it in later times. Jesus also didn’t perform all the sacraments like marriage or confirmation, and he didn’t “order the writing down of the inspired books of the New Testament” (Dr. John, 2011).
What one can conclude from all the evidence is that the Church is not relying on Jesus’ example to make the decision to ban women priests. The Church is instead relying on “massive prejudices on behalf of ecclesiastical leaders” (Dr. John, 2011). Some past prejudices against women priests have been that women are inferior to men and incapable of such power; their monthly periods would contaminate the altar and sanctuary, and they would be “a source of seduction just as Eve had been” (Dr. John, 2011). The Church may not believe these beliefs anymore, but the institution of the church is still holding on to the same tradition as the men who used these claims. Why? Mitchell has a theory:
“The priests are educated in an all-male world- many live much of their lives without adult women around them as close colleagues. It seems to be beyond what [the male leaders in the church] can imagine.”
The change would be significant, and certainly against the tradition. But didn’t Jesus fight against many traditional “values” in the Gospels? It’s interesting that the Church leaders avoid contradicting past leaders and tradition, yet Jesus lived a life of contradiction. If the Church’s goal is to follow Jesus’s example, it should embrace change, not run away from it.
Some may ask, why is this important? Does it matter what gender priests are? Yes, I believe it does. On an objective level, the church “is facing a shortage of priests” says John L Allen Jr. in a Time article. If the Church eliminated the masculine requirement and allowed women to serve as priests, the shortage may minimize. On a moral level, the practice of only ordaining male priests causes one to reflect on what the Church believes best represents Christ-ness. The patriarchal system in the Church gives the impression that the Church thinks only men can best exemplify Christ. What does that mean for Christian women? Are they to accept that they are less like Jesus merely because of their gender? “Christ-ness” does not imply masculinity (if it did, women wouldn’t be able to be baptized). But based on the patriarchal system, it seems like masculinity is a form of Christ-ness or at least closer representation of Christ-ness.
“How long do women have to wait to be considered equal and worthy of receiving the same welcome by the official Church as men?” asks Allen. When is the church going to stop clinging to a decision that was made more than 1,000 years ago and follow Jesus’ example? He appointed female apostles; he promoted feminine characteristics and denounced typical patriarchal behaviors. Is the Church representing Jesus as a whole or just the parts that best fit with their tradition?
To conclude with a sense of hope, Pope Francis did “approve a commission to study the role of women as deacons in the church, a move which some believed could be a move to end the Catholic Church’s long-standing practice of excluding women from the clergy” (Justin, 2016). Maybe this is the starting point. In the meantime, we must increase the awareness and keep the faith. Joan Mitchell encourages us:
“It’s not a quick change. And I don’t know that the change will come from the top. It maybe has to emerge, like evolution, from the bottom; and you have to survive along the way–whatever gives you life and strengthens your faith.”