Are Women Priests a Possibility?

The mission of the clergy is to constantly serve and enable the faithful to complete their calling in the world. To focus only on the priests and bishops is to miss the point.

December 21, 2013
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In the meantime, it remains part of Catholic canon law that “only a baptized Catholic man may receive sacred ordination” (para. 1577). The Catholic debate on the question has shadowed the Anglican controversy. In 1976 - two years after the first female ordinations in the Episcopal Church - the Vatican issued Inter Insigniores, which concluded that for various doctrinal, theological, and historical reasons, the Church “does not consider herself authorized to admit women to priestly ordination.” Interestingly, in the same year, a study of the Pontifical Biblical Commission agreed that the New Testament alone was not sufficiently clear on the matter, and the members voted that based on the Scriptural evidence, the possibility of women’s ordination could be entertained.

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However, the Catholic Church is not a sola scriptura Church, and in 1994 (the year the Church of England began ordaining women), Pope John Paul II issued the apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, stating, “Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance… I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women, and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.” To clarify further, in 1995, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said that while Pope John Paul’s apostolic letter was not itself specifically infallible, it was part of the “infallible universal and ordinary magisterium of the Church… which requires definitive assent.”

Rome has spoken. That settles it.

Nevertheless, certain groups of activists continue their attempts to change the Church’s teaching. Some go so far as to conduct illicit ordinations of women while still claiming to be “faithful Catholics.” Pope Francis’s take on the subject is illuminating. In his comments on the possibility of women cardinals, he commented that those who are pushing for such innovations are trying to clericalize women. Part of Pope Francis’s mission is to shift the Church away from stuffy, clerical control.

He wants the laity - men and women - to hear the call to evangelize and to get involved in the exciting and messy business of living and proclaiming the Gospel. He realizes that we need priests for the sacraments, to teach the faith and govern the Church, but their mission is not an end in itself. The mission of the clergy is to constantly serve and enable the faithful to complete their calling in the world. To focus only on the priests and bishops is to miss the point, and to add yet more categories of clergy is to defeat the purpose.

Rather than make women priests, the priesthood itself needs to become more of an outgrowth of the calling of the whole people of God. Ironically, by insisting that women cannot be ordained, the Catholic Church - rather than being an outmoded and outdated institution - may show all Christians the way toward a new model of ministry in which the clergy, following Christ’s example, will be there to “serve rather than be served.” Rather than clinging to power, they will empower the people of God to be the dynamic Body of Christ in the world.

Fr. Dwight Longenecker’s book, The Romance of Religion, will be published in February. He serves as parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary in Greenville, South Carolina. Visit his blog, browse his books, and be in touch at
Dwight Longenecker expert aleteia network
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