Recently, Bishop Frank Dewane informed a Fort Myers woman that by submitting herself to a simulated Rite of Ordination to the Catholic priesthood she would incur the penalty of excommunication. In doing so the bishop acted correctly in light of Canon Law and his obligation as chief shepherd of the Church of Venice in Florida. The Bishop’s actions are pastoral in nature, promoting the good of all the people of the diocese. They are also meant to be medicinal for the recalcitrant woman since this penalty is imposed with the hope of bringing her back into communion with the Church.
In a society which touts egalitarianism as the greatest good many see the Church’s stance regarding the impossibility of ordaining women to be archaic, sexist and simply juridical. None of these are the case.
An explanation based on sacramental theology may help both Catholics and non-Catholics understand why it is not within the Church’s competence to ordain women.
To confect a valid sacrament, two elements must be present. Firstly, the matter (the right stuff) must be present. Secondly, the correct form (the right words and actions) must be used.
As to the matter, the material used to confect a sacrament is given by divine mandate (from Christ) and instantiated in the Church’s sacramental rites. For example, bread and wine are necessary to have a valid Eucharist. To substitute any other element would not effect the Real Presence of Christ, as Catholics aver this sacrament to be. In a similar way the proper matter for ordination to the priesthood is maleness. The Church discerns this from Scripture, the Apostolic Fathers and its unbroken (2000 year) tradition. Pope John Paul II reaffirmed the impossibility for the Church to ordain women in his 1994 Apostolic Letter, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis. (For those who are interested in the Church’s rationale, it is well worth reading.)
Regarding the form of a sacrament, the Church teaches that a correct formula (words and actions) are also vital for validity. Once again, to use the example of the Eucharist, the words of institution must be the words that Jesus used─ “This is my body… This is my blood”─ to effect the transubstantiation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. These words must also be spoken by a validly ordained priest. The correct formula and intention for a sacrament are so important that Anglican Orders were declared null and void by Leo XIII in Apostolicae Curae (1896) because the ritual for ordination used in the Ordinal of Edward VI (1549) left out the idea of the sacrificial nature of the priestly office in favor of a more Protestant understanding of ministry and communion. Although this formula was latter corrected by the Church of England, the Apostolic Succession of validly ordained bishops, and hence priests, was broken. Many traditional Anglican and Episcopalian bishops and priests have recognized this problem and have had themselves re-ordained by validly ordained Orthodox or schismatic bishops. Because of this break in the chain of succession when an Episcopal priest comes into the Catholic Church he may have to undergo a valid rite of ordination.
The sacraments of the Church (in this case Holy Orders) are governed by divine dictate. In this area, the Church cannot be subject to political correctness or social mores. Therefore, the ordination of a woman is not only illicit, but invalid.