Catholicism: Empowering Women for 2000 Years (Part II: But Women Can’t Be Priests!)

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Last week I shared how understanding the Marian doctrine of the Catholic Church empowered me to celebrate my femininity. If you missed Part I: The Blessed Virgin Mary, go back to start there.

But Haley!” you might be thinking. “Empowered? Really? Women can’t be equal to men in the Church because they can’t be priests!” We’ve all heard about this issue in the media lately ad nauseum. Certainly, Marian doctrine can give us another perspective.  Pope John Paul II wrote in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis,

“[T]he fact that the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God and Mother of the Church, received neither the mission proper to the Apostles nor the ministerial priesthood clearly shows that the non-admission of women to priestly ordination cannot mean that women are of lesser dignity, nor can it be construed as discrimination against them. Rather, it is to be seen as the faithful observance of a plan to be ascribed to the wisdom of the Lord of the universe.”

If Our Lady, first among Christians and saints, the Queen of Heaven, wasn’t included in the priesthood, it doesn’t bother me at all that I can’t become a priest, either.

But furthermore, perceiving the non-admission of women to the priesthood as a degradation misses the richness of Catholic teaching on the idea of vocation. There are four vocations: Priesthood, Religious Life (monks and nuns), Marriage, and Single Life. Lumen Gentium states that all Christians are called “to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity.” All vocations are paths to this end and all are equal and necessary to the Church. A priest is not holier than a married or single woman because of his status as a priest. A celibate priest doesn’t get “extra credit” while God shakes his head disapprovingly at the carnal existence of a married couple. Marriage is not base. It is just as holy and sacred as a priestly vocation. The same is true of the vocation of a woman who chooses single life or religious life.

But there is the undeniable truth that the Church sees men and women as different from each other and therefore fulfilling different roles. The reasoning behind having a male priesthood is partially because Christ our Lord and High Priest was a man and a priest stands in persona Christi, he represents Christ in a special way. Furthermore, there’s the inescapable fact that when Our Lord Jesus chose his apostles, he chose twelve men. This is the model he gives to his Church for ordination.

It’s notable that although Our Lord had many faithful female followers, like Our Lady, they were not included as one of the twelve disciples. Among these devoted women are St. Mary Magdalene, the first person to see Our Lord after the Resurrection and the women at the tomb who are first told of the Resurrection on Easter morning. These women show a deep love for Christ and faith in Him that seems to surpass that of the twelve disciples who respond to the news that Jesus is risen with shock and skepticism. So certainly, the exclusion of women from the priesthood has nothing to do with a woman’s capacity for holiness. It’s not that the Church doesn’t respect women and wants to be a grumpy ol’ stick in the mud instead of progressively getting with the times. The Church doesn’t have the authority to ordain women. Christ revealed his plan for the priesthood by example and the Church trusts in his plan.

I don’t feel oppressed because the Church says I am different from a man and fulfill a different role. I am different. I can no more be a priest than my priest could be a mother. Saying women are no different from men is truly insulting. I love my womanhood as it is honored and celebrated by the Church. I love that the Salvation of the world was born of a woman. I love that my unique biology makes it possible for me to participate in the creation of life in a way that no man has ever experienced. I am different and I want that to be celebrated, not ignored.

By affirming that women cannot take on the role of priest, the Church does not mean that women are second-class, less intelligent, less holy, less capable, etc. As I will discuss in more detail in Part III of this series (The Saints), women are not relegated to home and hearth. There are so many different paths women may choose for their lives that are lauded by the Church! Are there Christian sects in which a woman’s role is rigidly narrow, even to the point of keeping some women from using their God-given talents for his glory? Unfortunately, yes. But this is not the case in the Catholic Church.

I grew up in a Protestant church in which there were no women clergy; however, in addition to women being excluded from being in pulpit, a woman was not even allowed to teach a bible study that included men. Regardless of her skill as a teacher or theologian, “Women don’t have a teaching role in the church like men do,” I was told. Does it matter that the woman who wants to teach a study on one of the Gospels is the only scholar of biblical languages in the congregation? Nope, no woman can teach a man on matters of faith. So where does that leave women who aren’t great at making lemon bars for the church bake sale, but are skilled differently? The truth is that some of us feel painfully out of place. (Nothing against lemon bars. Although, I prefer a good chocolate chip cookie if anybody’s asking.)

I don’t share this experience to be overly critical of loving and faithful Christian brothers and sisters, and I want to make it clear that this exclusion of women from any teaching role is NOT the case in every Protestant congregation by any means. Other Protestant churches I attended differed widely on this matter and some even had female clergy. But I give this example to distinguish between affirming that women cannot be priests and boxing women into such a narrow role that some are left wondering, “Where is the place for me?” I am grateful to have found a place in the Catholic Church that celebrates and honors the various and valuable gifts of women and their contributions to the Church.

(Part III, coming soon)

Edit: please see the helpful comments below that clarify the vocations. Single life cannot be chosen as a secular vocation (outside of religious vocations) without choosing a life of consecrated virginity.

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  1. LJ says

    So beautiful! Thank you for your reflections! 🙂

    “If Our Lady, first among Christians and saints, the Queen of Heaven, wasn’t included in the priesthood, it doesn’t bother me at all that I can’t become a priest, either.”

  2. says

    There are two Popes recognized as Doctors of the Church and there are four Female Saints. Holiness has nothing to do with being a Pope – we recognize that being Pope has nothing to do with ones holiness. As long as the Catholic Church teaches that both men and women can claim the same reward for a holy life than I see them as equal.

    It has actually surprised me how little issues surrounding the priesthood bother me since my conversion – the Pope, and even priests, bishops and cardinals are just a small sample of the entirety of the religious life (whether those called to the religious life or those in the laity) in the Church that it really doesn’t bother me. Not every male religious gets to be a priest, but that doesn’t mean they are demeaning men – in fact there have been many saints who have refused to become priest, bishops, etc.

    • Haley says

      Definitely going into the wonderful example of the saints and female doctors of the Church in Part III. Great points, Molly.

      • stophelia says

        I love your posts! But I just wanted to add that the true doctrinal reason women aren’t priests isn’t because Christ chose men as apostles, but as you touched on earlier, Christ is the bridegroom and the church is his bride, so in essence all faithful take on the feminine aspect.
        God Bless and keep up the good work : )

  3. Kim Chrisman says

    I just love this series! I am sharing it with my Southern Baptist Deacon husband and he likes it also. You really have a way with words and you have have the sweetest spirit about you. I can’t tell you how important that is when trying to reach a non catholic like my husband (and me:)

    Kim Chrisman

  4. Maura says

    Great post! I was just wondering –does it ever say anywhere that being single is an acceptable, life-long vocation? Obviously everyone is, for some time or another, but my understanding is that it’s not acceptable to ever pick that as your vocation. (Unless you’re taking some kind of vow of chastity, even if that’s within a lay order like Opus Dei.) Otherwise, your life is always simply determined by you. I always thought Christian men & women were under obligation to make some kind of sacrifice/ offering of their time and sexuality… Of course, some people get married very late, or pass away before they marry; I just didn’t think anyone could *choose* bachelorhood.

    • says

      I believe (and could be wrong) that traditional vocations either give themselves to a spouse, directly to God (religious orders) or to the Church because we believe that everyone is meant to attached to one of these three areas – so that a unconsecrated single is not considered a chosen vocation because it doesn’t not attached you directly to one of these two things. However, it get’s tricky because it is possible to miss your opportunity or dedicate your life to choosing marriage as your vocation and never have a partner appear, etc.

      I think the key is that a single person should not choose to be single just to live life for themselves – just as a married person is called to live for their family, a religious is called to live for God, a person who chooses or finds themselves single is still called to serve others.

      It’s a tricky subject, and this doesn’t cover every aspect of the issue – but I think the key is whether you never feel called to marriage or religious life or if you do feel called to one or the other and the opportunity never arises, etc. that you are always called to find some way to serve the Church and others.

    • Haley says

      I’m really glad you brought that up, Maura, because I wasn’t entirely clear on that (still a newbie Catholic over here!). I wanted to distinguish between single folks who have a religious vocation like monks and nuns and single folks who live a “secular” life since some aren’t called to marriage or the convent. Obviously, single folks are to abstain from sex but I don’t know much about whether you have to take a vow of chastity if you are called to single life outside of an order. You bring up a great point about how each vocation calls for self-sacrifice. I’d like to learn more about the specifics? Anybody have more to share? (Enjoyed your insights, Molly!)

    • Haley says

      Thanks for sharing that, Catherine! That really helps clear it up for me. When I get a chance, I’ll update the post and link to it.

  5. The Atomic Mom says

    Can I get an AMEN to this post? I am not a Catholic, I am a Mormon and we are not ordained in our preisthood either, and I know t makes some of the sisters very angry. I think the good Lord has given men and women different jobs to do here on this earth, but that does not mean we are all not dear to him. Equal does not mean the same. I sometimes feel, because God lets us gals be moms he might love us a smidge more, but that’s just me. No matter who we are, though, we all have the duty to be good, follow the Savior and to help each other. Again, delightful readings!

  6. says

    Sigh, a little late to comment on this one. But I loved it, especially: “It’s not that the Church doesn’t respect women and wants to be a grumpy ol’ stick in the mud instead of progressively getting with the times. The Church doesn’t have the authority to ordain women. Christ revealed his plan for the priesthood by example and the Church trusts in his plan.” YES. I had such a hard time with the no-women-priests teaching for a long time. The explanation that Jesus was a man, and priests are meant to be in persona Christi, wasn’t really enough for me – he was also an only child, and a Jew, and, you know, GOD. None of which are requirements for the priesthood. But I was in Mass one day (at a VERY progressive church) and the priest gave a homily on feminism. He said “women can’t be priests because Jesus didn’t do it. Simple. He just didn’t do it.” And it suddenly made perfect sense – of COURSE Jesus established the priesthood, and of course women were not given that role. Done and done, good enough for me!
    This is why I so love our faith – it doesn’t matter how hard the doctrine is to accept, there is ALWAYS an explanation that is true and right and beautiful.

    • Haley says

      “it doesn’t matter how hard the doctrine is to accept, there is ALWAYS an explanation that is true and right and beautiful.” I love that, Lindsay. I think the beauty of the Church is as convincing as anything else. It is just so beautiful.

  7. says

    Thank you for posting this beautiful piece on women’s roles in the church. As a pastor’s wife in an evangelical community who also works full-time outside my home, I have definitely felt out of place. Fulfilling my calling as a nurse has sometimes clashed with our church’s definition of a woman’s role, and it is so refreshing to read this series that celebrates the diverse and valid roles/callings women can have! As my husband and I journey together in our faith, I appreciate the female camaraderie and solidarity provided through your wonderful blog- even though we are at very different places in our lives, I feel the love! Thanks, Haley!

  8. ann says

    You make some really good points here that really need to be understood. I belong to a church where men teach men and women, women teach men and women, women teach women, and men teach men. And both men and women teach children and young adults. It’s truly a teaching church, and I love it. So your example is really useful.

    But more important is your conviction and (I believe) correct assertion that men and women were created with different roles that need to be embraced and can be embraced without detracting from each other. And aren’t we so glad men and women are different? That God gave us different gifts and responsibilities? I am. And I love what you said about your priest never being able to be a mother. That’s exactly right.

    Again, I’m not Catholic, but I love hearing what you have to say.

  9. says

    Wonderful post! I’m a sophomore in college and I’ve got a tumblr page (how embarrassing). I blogged about this topic not but two days ago! I was searching for the Ordinatio Sacerdotalis text and stumbled on your page. Excellent. I particularly love what you say about womanhood! Great words for someone my age to read – in this weird, sort of middle place in my life where I’m neither dependent nor independent, making every effort to be noticed and have my differences celebrated, but also wishing to be recognized as part of a community, as part of something larger than myself. Haley, you are wise and your words are brilliant.


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