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The Prohibition Against Ordaining Women: On Not Inventing Doctrine

While flying home to Rome on Tuesday 1st November, Pope Francis re-affirmed the Catholic Church’s refusal to ordain women. He noted the matter was clearly decided under Pope John Paul II, who rejected the idea of women priests in 1994. The Vatican says this teaching is an infallible element of Catholic tradition because it has been taught by the so-called “ordinary and universal magisterium.” This refers to the constant teaching of the bishops (including the Pope) throughout the history of Christianity. Such a constant teaching, according to the Second Vatican Council (“Lumen Gentium – Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,” §25), is a mark of infallibility.

However, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis does not fulfil the criteria for being an expression of such an “ordinary and universal magisterium.” Moreover, as theologian Nicholas Lash noted, by claiming that it is indeed such an expression and that the discussion is over, it has been “a scandalous abuse of power.” It is worth recalling in this connection two fine articles explaining the points above:

• Nicholas Lash, “On Not Inventing Doctrine,” The Tablet, 2 December 1995, p. 1544;

• Peter Burns, S.J., “Was The Teaching Infallible?”, BASIC Newsletter, Supplement Feb. 1997, pp. 1-12 (both links open on our website www.womenpriests.org).

Now, the papacy and the CDF have always responded to criticism of the ban on women by pointing out that Jesus only chose men as members of the Twelve. But the Twelve 1) were a group distinct from, and smaller than, the larger group of “apostles”; 2) their primary distinctive function was merely symbolic, i.e. their number evoked the twelve founding tribes of the people of Israel, so as to underline that Jesus was effectively founding a “new Israel”, i.e. the entire community of his disciples, men and women; 3) crucially, they cannot be regarded as the original church ministers, and so as a model for all future such ministers, for two key reasons: 4) they were not replaced after their death (with the exception of Judas Iscariot, as a one-off), and so did not have successors; 5) they did not seem to have had any official position in the earliest church (James the brother of the Lord, rather than Peter, was clearly head of the nascent Jerusalem church, according to the Acts of the Apostles).

In summary, the Twelve’s function was primarily symbolic, as representatives of the new Israel (i.e. the entire community of the church), and not of a supposedly male-only, patriarchal clerical caste. Last but not least, the group of the “apostles” was a larger group than the Twelve alone, and it included women: a certain Junia is explicitly mentioned by Paul in Romans 16:1 as “outstanding among the apostles.” Interestingly, the name Junia had long been changed by translators to its masculine form, “Junias”, because it was deemed impossible that Paul had called a woman “apostle.” But New Testament scholars have now re-established definitely the feminine gender of the name, and so the marvellous evidence of a prominent female leader of the nascent church has been restored.

Most of what’s in the paragraph above is explained at length in the rather wonkish but wonderfully written famous response by renowned New Testament scholar Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza to Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, entitled simply “The Twelve” (link opens the full text on our website www.womenpriests.org).
Finally, consider this: “All who are baptised in Christ, have put on Christ. There is no longer any discrimination between Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female” (Galatians 3:28). Thus every baptised woman shares fully in Christ’s priesthood, kingship and prophetic mission. Baptism implies a fundamental openness to all the sacraments, including the ordained ministry. More in our FAQs on infallibility on this page on our website www.womenpriests.org.

Conclusion: there are no valid arguments against the ministerial ordination of women, and many truly Catholic arguments in favour!