Why can’t women become priests?

The reasons which the Church has given for its teaching in this regard may be summarised as follows:

  • the example recorded in the Sacred Scriptures of Christ choosing his Apostles only from among men;
  • the constant practice of the Church, which has imitated Christ in choosing only men;
  • and her living teaching authority which has consistently held that the exclusion of women from the priesthood is in accordance with God’s plan for his Church.

In 1975, Pope Paul VI put it like this: “The real reason is that, in giving the Church her fundamental constitution, her theological anthropology – thereafter always followed by the Church’s Tradition – Christ established things in this way.”

Pope John Paul II gave greater weight to this understanding of the issue in his 1994 Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, in which he declared:

“In order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) 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”.

It needs to be noted, however, that, while Ordinatio Sacerdotalis obviously carries great weight, it is not presented as an infallible teaching by the Pope. For many Catholics, then, the question remains open and could be subject to further developments in the future. Many theologians have expressed serious reservations about the basis for the exclusion of women from the priesthood. It is worth recalling in this context that Pope Francis has frequently made the point that ‘thinking with the Church’ means listening to the ‘sense of the faithful’, which emerges through open debate and discussion following prayerful consideration. This listening should include listening to women who feel they have a vocation to the priesthood. Pope Francis also stresses that the service of people, especially the most needy, is at the heart of priesthood, and should not be seen by anyone as a career path to power in the Church, which he sees as the vice of ‘clericalism’. Finally, Pope Francis is open to the possibility of ordaining women deacons – he has a commission sitting on this issue currently – and the findings of this body may throw further light on the question of ordaining women as priests.

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