This is my Body,
This is my Blood..."
Pope Leo to Flavian, Archbishop of Constantinople
Questions and Answers About Women's Ordination
I thought Jesus ordained men and so only men can be priests. How can women be ordained if this is so?
Jesus didn't actually ordain anyone. In fact, priesthood and eucharistic worship did not resemble what we know until the fourth century. Jesus came in the rich prophetic tradition of Israel to call Judaism to repentance and fidelity to the new reign of God being born through him. In this context, Jesus appointed 12 apostles as new leaders for the 12 tribes of the restored Israel. The category of "the Twelve" was limited to Jesus' time, and was not continued by the early Christian communities. These grew rapidly in the Gentile world and most converts were not Jews. Worship nevertheless developed along the lines of Jewish table fellowship in house churches, often the homes of women. Worship was prophetic and charismatic in style, and both women and men provided leadership. This was in keeping with what the first followers of Jesus had known of him and his person and mission.
While Jesus did not ordain anyone, he did call both women and men to discipleship. Luke's gospel (8:1-3) reports that Mary Magdalen, Joanna, and Susanna were among the women who travelled with Jesus, and supported his ministry from their own resources. That these women are mentioned by name is significant. Women are normally not mentioned in ancient writings because they were valued solely because of their relationship to the male patriarchal household. If a woman is mentioned by name in first century writings it is either because she had significant wealth, or had achieved some social prominence.
Mary of Magdala figures prominently in all four Resurrection accounts and has been called "The Apostle to the Apostles." It is upon her testimony that the proclamation of the Resurrection rests. Women disciples are the last to see Jesus at this death, and the first to see him risen. This is regarded as one of the most telling arguments for the historicity of the Resurrection accounts. Had the accounts been fabricated by over-zealous male disciples, women would never have been featured witnesses because in Judaic culture only men were able to give legal testimony. Paul's writings (which pre-date the Gospel accounts) show women serving as prophets (Philip's daughters), deacons (Phoebe), missionaries (Prisca), and leaders of local communities (Lydia). One is even called an apostle (Junia). Women in the Pauline churches clearly were called and chosen for discipleship and leadership.
Is it true that we've never had women priests in the Church?
There is significant evidence that there were churches in the fourth to sixth centuries that remained in communion with Rome and also had women priests. Dr. Giorgio Otranto, Director of the Institute for Classical and Christian Studies at the University of Bari, Italy, discovered iconographic evidence of women presiding over the Eucharist in ancient catacomb frescos. Otranto cites a letter from fifth century Pope Gelasius I scolding bishops in southern Italy for allowing women "to officiate at the sacred altars, and to take part in all matters imputed to the offices of the male sex..." He also points to the letters of a ninth century Italian bishop, Atto of Vercelli, substantiating the use of the word "presbytera" to refer to women priests.
In the early 1970s Roman Catholic married and women priests were ordained in Czechoslovakia by Bishop Felix M. Davidek to meet the needs of the underground church, in which single males were highly suspect, and to minister to Catholic women in prison.
Historically, the Church has made many changes in what had previously been regarded as authoritative teachings from tradition. One example in the early Jewish-Christian community was the decision not to require circumcision for Gentile converts. Later examples include changes regarding usury, slavery, the revolution of the earth around the sun, evolution, the respect due the Jewish people, and the use of Latin in seminaries and for worship.
St. Paul says that all Christians, both male and female, share in and make up Christ's risen body, not by imaging the maleness of Jesus, but by participating in the paschal mystery through Baptism. Galatians 3:28, an early Christian Baptismal formula, tells us "There is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female...all are one in Christ Jesus." Both women and men image Christ.
Is there a shortage of priestly vocations?
There is no shortage of vocations if we count everyone who experiences a call to priestly ministry. There are numerous married and single women and men who feel called to priesthood, but not necessarily to celibacy. Many qualified women experience a call to priestly ministry, but because of their gender, have never been given the opportunity to test their vocation. They have received the same or more advanced academic degrees as male candidates, and have met the psychological, spiritual, and pastoral prerequisites for ordination. If we were to stop excluding so many of our members from consideration for ordination; respect celibacy as an option for those called to it, rather than impose it on everyone; and restructure ourselves along lines of equality and mutuality, the "vocation shortage" would disappear.
Is it true that only women in the United States are concerned about ordination?
Women in all parts of the world feel called to priestly ministry. In her book Like Bread, their Voices Rise (1993), Sr. Frances Bernard O'Connor, CSC, shares her interviews with women from Bangladesh, Uganda, and Brazil. Women in all of these countries state that they too feel called to ordination, and believe women should be allowed to exercise priestly leadership. Women and men from England, Ireland, Belgium, Australia, Germany, France, Canada, and the Netherlands have organized to work for women's ordination.
What will happen to ecumenism if women are ordained?
Virtually all Protestant denominations, as well as reformed Judaism, have women serving as priests, ministers, or rabbis. The Second Vatican Council's Decree on Ecumenism acknowledges the action of the Holy Spirit in other denominations (Ch. 1, Art. 3); and states "Whatever is wrought by the grace of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of our separated brothers and sisters can contribute to our own edification." (Ch. 1, Art. 4). It would seem that Catholicism has something to learn in our journey to ecumenism.
Will parishes close if nothing is done?
By the year 2005 there will be a 40% decline in priests, according to demographers Schoenherr and Young in their book, Full Pews and Empty Altars (1993). At the same time there will be a 65% increase in Catholics. We will have more and more priestless parishes and more and more substitutions of communion services for the Eucharist. Catholics will have the same worship service for which the Council of Trent condemned Martin Luther in the 16th century. By doing nothing, we are essentially saying that the male celibate priesthood is more important to us that the Mass.
How can I do anything? The Church is not a democracy... doesn't loyalty to the Church require silence?
There are many things we can do as loyal Catholics. True loyalty to the Church requires us to speak out when we believe we are not living up to the ideals and practice of Jesus. Both Vatican II and the Revised Code of Canon Law affirm the rights of the laity to make their needs and views known on matters which concern the good of the Church. (Lumen Gentium 37; Canon 212, par. 3).
Here are some ways you can help in the ongoing reform and renewal of our pilgrim Church:
- Join one or several Church reform groups working on including women in a renewed priestly ministry. (For example: Women's Ordination Conference, Call To Action, FutureChurch, Priests for Equality, or Catholics Speak Out.)
- Write or visit your local bishop and express your concern. Write to the Women's Committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Send them a copy of this flyer and tell them of your belief in the equality of women in ministry and Church decision-making.
- Start a church reform organization in your area. Contact WOC (703/352-1006), CTA 773-404-0004/), or FutureChurch (216/228-0869) for information about how to proceed.
- Make these brochures available in your faith community, and invite a local speaker to give a program to you parish group, base community, or prayer group. (See local contact stamped below). Consider using this information to write an op-ed piece or letter to the editor in your hometown newspaper.
British Broadcasting Company. "The Hidden Tradition: The Ordination of Women." 1993. Available from WOC, PO Box 2693, Fairfax, VA 22031.
Brooten, Bernadette. "Junia...Outstanding Among the Apostles." (Romans 16:7) Women Priests. New York: Paulist Press, 1971.
Fiorenza, Elisabeth Schüssler. In Memory of Her. New York: Crossroad, 1983.
___________. "The Twelve." Women Priests. New York: Paulist Press, 1971.
Johnson, Elizabeth A. She Who Is. New York: Crossroad, 1993.
Kaufman, Phillip. Why You Can Disagree and Remain a Faithful Catholic. Bloomington, Ind.: Myer-Stone Press, 1989.
The New York Times. Saturday, August 10, 1991.
O'Collins, G. and Kendall, D. "Mary Magdalen as Major Witness to Jesus' Resurrection." Theological Studies. 48:1987.
Schneiders, Sandra M. Women and the Word. New York: Paulist Press, 1986.
__________. "Did Jesus Exclude Women From the Priesthood?" Women Priests. New York: Paulist Press, 1977.
Viladesau, Richard. "Could Jesus have Ordained Women? Reflections on Mulieris Dignitatem." Thought. Vol. 67, No. 264, March 1992.
Witherington, Ben. Women in the Ministry of Jesus. London: Cambridge University Press, 1984.
___________. Women in the Earliest Churches. London: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
This brochure is a project of RAPPORT and Friends. It was compiled and written by Christine Schenk CSJ of FutureChurch (15800 Montrose Avenue, Cleveland, Ohio 44111). RAPPORT (Renewing a Priestly People: Ordination Reconsidered Today) is a Christian base community existing within the larger Women's Ordination Conference. It is comprised of women who, by virtue of call, discernment, education, pastoral skills and years of ministerial experience, seek ordination to a renewed priestly ministry within the Roman Catholic Church.
Cover quote adapted from the letter of Pope Leo to Flavian, Archbishop of Constantinople.
Further references available upon request.
Nothing in this article is meant to convey legal information or advice.
For legal information, consult an attorney.
This project is a joint endeavor of FutureChurch and Call To Action.