An All Male Priesthood: A Major Obstacle to Christian Unity?

Moira Shea SJ FAITH Magazine March-April 2003


The Early Days of Christianity

Women have suffered second-class citizenship for so long that it is hardly surprising if nowadays we are suspicious that it is not God but man who continues to debar us from the priest­hood. Although the Church has opened up to the extent that both laywomen and laymen now take some part in the Mass as readers and ministers of Communion, nevertheless it still remains that women, even religious sisters who have dedicated their lives to God, may not be priests. It seems unlikely that this decision will be reversed for the fore­seeable future, even though this creates a major obstacle to unity with Anglicans just at a time when that long-sought unity seemed close.

And yet . . . the more I look at the arguments put forward as to why women should be admitted to the priesthood, the more I have to concede that there is little of substance in them.


That there were no women at the Last Supper cannot be used, it is argued, as a reason why women may not be priests because neither were any Gentiles present, and being a Gentile has never been grounds for excluding a man from the priesthood. But on the other hand neither can the inclusion of Gentiles be used as an argument for the inclusion of women; all it does is to raise the question, why was this distinction made in the first place? Was it just a presumption on the part of the apostles? or had Jesus given specific instructions on this? It would not be the first time he had explained things to them in more detail than is recorded in scripture, as the evangelists themselves note.

The Old Testament and the New

The idea of women priests was not foreign to the times, as is suggested: although it was foreign to the Jews there were priestesses and vestal virgins in pagan religions in the world around them. Nor would the fact that among the Jews it was not acceptable for women to hold positions of importance or authority have deterred Jesus from opening the priesthood to women, because he did not hesitate to overturn other Jewish observances when he saw fit.

He entered into discussion with women, even with a Samaritan woman – unthinkable for a rabbi – and he allowed women to be among those accompanying him as he went about, so he was not insistent that their place must always be in the home. Even though in the early days of Christianity it may have been impractical or unsafe for women to travel around preaching the gospel, women could have been ordained to celebrate the eucharist and minister to established Christian families in the locality in which they lived, but there is no evidence of this.

St Paul ruled that when Christians meet together for worship women should keep their heads covered (1 Cor.11:5-6), and although not so very long ago in this country a hat or a headscarf was a "must" for a woman going to church it is now the exception rather than the rule. Paul also said that women must keep silence in church (1 Cor.14:34-36), but nowadays we have women readers, and on other occasions too women may be called upon to speak. So if rulings such as these which discriminate against women can be abandoned, why not also the one which excludes women from the priesthood?

But this does not follow when the reasons Paul gives for the first two rulings are taken into account. He says it would be "disgraceful" for a woman to go with her head uncovered because "it is the same as if her head were shaven" – which was the treat­ment the mosaic law laid down for a foreign woman taken captive and about to be forced into marriage (Deut.21:10-12). It would be "shameful for a woman to speak in church" because, Paul explains in a letter to Timothy, "Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived, and became a transgressor" (1.Tim 2:12-14). These rulings relate to the Old Testament; the priesthood of Christ does not.

In the early days of spreading the gospel Paul is evidently concerned with avoiding practices which would be unacceptable to orthodox Jews strict in their observance of the Law, just as elsewhere he shows equal concern that Jewish laws should not be forced upon Gentile Christians.[1] In his epistle to the Romans (where Adam gets the blame for our fallen state) Paul insists that conscience must be the ultimate guide in such matters both for Gentiles and for Jews, and he wrote similarly to the Galatians, explaining that "Before faith came we were confined under the law; kept under restraint until faith should be revealed. So that the law was our custodian until Christ came, that we might be justified by faith." (Rom.14:1-15:3; Gal.3:23)

Receiving . . .

Jesus was a human being, not simply male, it is argued; there is therefore no reason why women, who are equally human, may not stand at the altar today in his place offering his sacri­fice to his Father and ours.

At first sight there does seem to be no reason; it is when this argu­ment is pushed further that difficulties appear. It is said that to insist that only a man can take Christ's place in offer­ing the sacrifice of the Mass leads to the conclusion that only the male sex has been redeemed, and here it becomes obvious that the difference between receiving and responding, to which St Paul pointed specifically, has been ignored.

To the Galatians Paul wrote: "in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were bap­­tized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus." (3:26-28) – words frequently quoted as a scriptural basis for the ordination of women to the priesthood. But it is clear from the con­text that here Paul is talking about what we receive from God when we "have put on Christ": in this all are of equal dignity in the eyes of God. It does not follow that women as well as men are equally entitled to serve God as priest; nor does it create a good impression when the context of Paul's words is disregarded.

. . . and Responding

When St Paul writes elsewhere of our response to God – the work to which those who have been baptized into Christ are called – he says that "there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in every one. . . . . . For the body does not consist of one member but many. If the foot should say 'Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,' that would not make it any less a part of the body . . . . . . . . ." (1 Cor. 12:4-31)

According to St Paul, therefore, while everyone, male or female, is of equal dignity in the body of Christ which is the Church, it does not follow that all are equally entitled to claim the right to serve God in identical ways. Priesthood is a calling – a vocation – not a right; it is for Christ to choose through whom he will act. Although there are women who genuinely feel themselves called to the priesthood, it is difficult to draw any conclusion from this because there are also men who likewise feel they have this vocation, only to discover – often only when well on the road to ordination – that they were mistaken. Perhaps it is to some other work that God is calling them.

Complementarity in nature

In nature male and female are complementary: equal in importance but not identical. They complement each other not only sexually but in that, generally speaking, men have the greater physical strength and the more aggressive[2] nature needed, particularly in earlier times, for coping with the challenges of the environment and the situation in which they found themselves, while women have the maternal qualities needed for bringing up children during the long years of infancy. Because childbearing and rearing made women vulnerable they needed the protection of their menfolk, but equally masculine strength and aggressive­ness­ needed the gentling, civilizing, influence of feminine qualities.

Mistaken ideas that might is right and that gentleness and pity are weaknesses may well be at the root of male attitudes going back to the very early days of humankind. Because their greater physical strength enabled men to predominate they came to think of themselves as superior to women in every respect, intellectual included – an ongoing attitude to which the clergy would not necessarily be immune even while accepting that all are equal in salvation.

But it was not an attitude which has always predominated in the Church. The first martyrs honoured as saints were women – SS Agnes, Cecilia, Agatha, . . . In the early days of monasticism double orders of monks and nuns in various parts of Europe were often under the authority of an abbess, and surviving manuscripts show that at least in the first millennium nuns as well as monks were well educated, as were some laywomen.[3] In Anglo-Saxon England St Hilda (AD 614-680) was appointed abbess of a monastery founded by another woman, Heiu, and several years later went on to found a double monastery at Whitby where she ruled for many years, where even kings and princes came to ask her advice, and from where five men went on to becomebishops.[4] And yet there is nothing to suggest that any of the educated and highly respected women of those times was ordained to the priesthood.

Complementarity in redemption

Although a man can do much of the work of a mother – he is capable of caring for children and seeing to their needs – nevertheless he cannot be a mother, for he cannot give birth to those children in the first place. Was it just taken for granted that likewise even though a woman can undertake much of the work of a priest, she cannot herself be the priest who offers the Sacrifice of the Mass? a presumption countered now by pointing out that Mary, the Mother of Jesus, shared with her Son in offering his sacrifice, as she, in anguish, stayed with him at the foot of the Cross.

But although the Church honours Mary as mediatrix and even co-redemptrix, this cannot be taken in the sense that Mother and Son had an equal priestly role in offering the Sacrifice of Calvary, because Mary had herself needed to be redeemed. Although conceived immacu­late this was "by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race",[5] even though at the time of her Immaculate Conception Calvary was in the future as we see things.

Mary is honoured with these titles because her role as Mother of the Redeemer was an essential preparation for Calvary, a preparation which began with her whole­hearted consent despite the diffi­culties her motherhood would entail, including from the outset facing the world with her inexplicable pregnancy. After this came the heavy responsibility, shared with Joseph, of bringing up her Son prepared, as man, to do his Father's will at all times, followed by her continuing "manifold intercession" for us from heaven. None of this "obscures or diminishes" the unique mediation of Christ.[6]

In nature male and female are complementary – each needs the other but their roles are different – so too it seems that our redemption was, by God's design, a comple­ment­ary work of male and female. Had God become incarnate as a woman, born of a woman, our redemption would have been an entirely feminine work. A woman standing in sacramental identity with Christ at the altar today offering the sacrifice of Calvary in our here and now would create the same imbalance.

Women priests in the Church of England

After many years of consultations, ARCIC (the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission) eventually reached agreement on the Eucharist. In the meantime the Church of England has opened the priesthood to women, so why does the Catholic Church still hold back if our understanding of the Eucharist is essentially the same?

The Anglican Common Worship book which, because it was introduced in the year 2000, could be expected to reflect the ARCIC I & II Agreements on the Eucharist, fails, however, to do so. Although many of the liturgical prayers are very similar to those of the Mass there is a crucial difference following the conse­cra­tion. Here, in every eucharistic prayer where offering is mentioned (one or two of the many alternatives offered in the Common Worship book omit it) it is our gifts, not Christ's sacrifice, which the ordained minister offers to the Father: our praise and thanks­giving, our duty and service . . . .

Yes, in the Eucharist we too offer our gifts, our work, our praise and thanks­giving, the bread and wine made by human hands, but we bring these offerings that they may be taken into Christ's offering of himself to his Father on Calvary. After the consecration it is that sacrifice, become present because Christ himself has become present "body, blood, soul and divinity" in the former bread and wine, which is offered up, and it is here that the wording of all four eucharistic prayers reveals a crucial difference between the Catholic Eucharist and the Anglican. In the Common Worship book, as already noted, although Christ's sacrifice is remembered and celebrated the offering made to the Father after the consecration remains that of our gifts. Christ's offering, which then follows, is to usin holy communion.

This suggests that there is no real agreement on the manner of Christ's presence in the sacrament, which in turn puts "priest" in a different light. If, as evidently in the Anglican service, it is our gifts which are being offered to the Father as a present-day commemoration and thanksgiving for Christ's sacrifice offered long ago on Calvary, then there is little to differentiate the ministerial priesthood from the "priesthood of the faithful" except that the ordained minister presides, is authorized to preach, and is the minister of Communion.

This also means that the writings of Anglican feminists cannot be drawn upon, as is done on occasion, by Catholics seeking to substantiate arguments for the ordination of women.

The Sacrifice of the Mass

Not infrequently the arguments put forward for the ordination of women to the priesthood reveal a deficient understanding of the Sacrifice of the Mass. The priest, for example, is often spoken of as "representing" Christ in the Eucharist, which could be taken to mean no more than standing in for Christ comparable with when an ambassador or other dignitary represents the Queen at some function. If the priest did no more than represent Christ, then Christ's sacrifice would likewise be represented and not "made present" in a way which "transcends all time", which is the Church's teaching.[7]

Nor is the Mass a commemoration of a past event. To the risen Christ, no longer subject to the time/space limitations of the mortal world (as evidenced by the gospel accounts of his appearances after his resurrection) and become present in the context set by the words of the liturgy – the context of Last Supper/Calvary/Resurrection – we are present and so too is every eucharistic celebration in every time and place; the presence of the risen Christ unites the whole so that "The sacrifice of Christ and the eucharistic sacrifice are one single sacrifice".[8]

Christ, who promised to be where two or three are gathered in his name, is already present as people assemble for Mass­, present even more in the liturgy of the Word, present in a "mounting mystery of presence"­ [9] until, in the context of the eucharistic prayers, he becomes present in a "unique" way: "presence in the fullest sense".[10] Speaking through the ordained minister Christ offers himself to his Father, uniting us in our here-and-now with his sacrifice on Calvary: "This is my body which is given for you"; ". . . This cup which is poured out for you . . .[11]

No argument for the ordination of women can stand up if it shows failure to appreciate the reality of Christ's presence in the Eucharist, and that the priest "offers the Holy Sacrifice in persona Christi [which] means more than offering 'in the name of' or 'in the place of' Christ. In persona means in specific sacramental identifi­cation with 'the eternal High Priest­.'"[12]

Bridegroom and Bride

If from the foregoing it already seems inappropriate for a woman to act in persona Christi, this becomes even more unthinkable in the perspective which scripture presents of Christ as the Bridegroom and the Church as his bride, a theme "prepared for by the prophets and announced by John the Baptist": Jesus spoke of himself as the bride­groom (Mk2:19, Mt.9:15, 25:1-13, Lk5:34); St Paul "speaks of the whole Church and of each of the faithful, members of his Body, as a bride 'betrothed' to Christ the Lord so as to become but one spirit with him".[13] The priest acts "in persona Christi capitis, in the name of the Bridegroom (Jesus) towards the Bride (the Church) in the nuptial act, which is the Mass."[14]

In this context it seems that, just as the role of Christ's Mother was a complementary one but nevertheless absolutely essential for enabling the sacrifice of Calvary to be offered, so too it is for all women: a complementary role not only as mothers – without whom there would be no priests to act in persona Christi today – but also in many other ways such as those to which St Paul pointed, and which are all essential for the good of the whole body in which all are "one in Christ".

[1] cf Introduction to the Letters of St Paul in The Jerusalem Bible (Popular edition with Abridged
Introduction and Notes. Darton Longman & Todd 1974), 194-195.
[2] For the distinction between benign and malignant aggression, see Konrad Lorenz, On Aggression.
[3] Régine Pernoud, Those terrible Middle Ages! Debunking the myths (Ignatius Press, San Francisco
2000), 104-111.
[4] Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Penguin Classics 1990), 243-247.
[5] Pope Pius IX. CCC, 491.
[6] CCC, 968-970.
[7] ibid, 1085.
[8] One Bread, One Body (Catholic Bishops of England, Wales, Ireland & Scotland, 1998) n 36.
[9]Raymond Moloney SJ, The Eucharist (Geoffrey Chapman 1995), 185.
[10] CCC, 1373-4.
[11] The words quoted are as in CCC,1365. In the liturgy Christ's words are in the future tense:
"This is my body which will be given up for you", a translation which obscures the time-transcendence of Christ's action.
[12] Pope John Paul II, The Holy Eucharist, Letter to all the Bishops (CTS 1980), 24.
[13] CCC, 796, 808
[14] Joseph Fessio SJ, The Mass of Vatican II (Faith, May/June 2001), 23.

Faith Magazine

March - April 2003