“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.
* Single life cannot be chosen as a secular vocation (outside of religious vocations) without choosing a life of consecrated virginity.
Editors note: this is part of larger series by Haley, though each article is able to be read by itself. Please get a full view by clicking here.
image: Michael J. Lichens