Catholic “Women Priests”: Can There Be a Discussion?

Those Catholics who are seeking and hoping to "ordain" women are working within a hermeneutic of revolution

Eleven years ago Christine Mayr Lumetzberger was excommunicated because she attempted to be ordained as a Catholic priest. A mischievous and misleading article by British journalist Peter Stanford entitled “Meet the Female Priest Defying Catholicism for her Faithrecounts her story. 

Ms. Lumetzberger says she knew from childhood she was called to be a priest. She joined a convent, but after leaving to marry a divorced man, she decided to become a priest. In 2002 she joined six other women on a boat on the Danube and was “ordained”. A few years later she claims to have been consecrated as a bishop. She refuses to name the bishops who consecrated her, no mention is made of her formation or training to be a priest, much less a bishop, but Stanford makes it clear that Lumetzberger is a brave pioneer—a woman of faith who has defied the “celibate men who…give no explanation of why these laws should be followed except fear.”

Stanford’s sentimental and shallow tribute to Lumetzberger gives the usual self-righteous arguments for women priests combined with zero theological rationale or evidence of any knowledge of the Church’s real reasons for rejecting female ordination. Instead we are given a soft image of a “serene” and “softly spoken” woman who helps the poor and has a smiling “mumsy” image.

Despite the clear teachings of Popes Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis ruling out the ordination of women, Catholics of a certain strain still press for the innovation and insist that more discussion is needed, more dialogue is required and yet more listening is necessary.

Is, in fact, more discussion necessary—or is the matter settled?

The Anglican Story

To understand the women’s ordination debate in the Catholic Church it is instructive to see the issue in the wider ecumenical context. The push for women’s ordination began in the Anglican Communion. Although a Chinese woman, Florence Li Tim-Oi, had been ordained in Hong Kong in 1944 because of a post-war lack of priests, the first women priests were not formally recognized in Hong Kong until 1971. Three years later, in the United States eleven women were ordained illegally and were followed the next year by four more. Then in 1976 the Episcopal Church approved the ordination of women, to be followed eventually by most of the Anglican national churches around the world. The Church of England finally joined the other Anglicans and ordained their first women priests in 1994—just fifty years after the emergency ordination of Florence Li Tim-Oi.

The ordination of women in the 1970s was not a sudden and unforeseen event. The Anglicans had been debating the issue since the 1940s. C.S.Lewis contributed a prescient essay on the subject in 1948 entitled “Priestesses in the Church,” which states most of the strongest arguments against women’s ordination. Lewis points out that the arguments in favor are at first glance utilitarian and sensible. In other words, “We have a shortage of priests. Women can do the job as well as men, why should they be denied the opportunity?”

Over the years the utilitarian argument was supplemented by the sentimental argument and the argument from justice. The sentimental argument played up the niceness of the women who claimed to be called to the priesthood and portrayed them as victims of the oppressive patriarchal establishment, while the argument from justice was based on egalitarian principles latent within the women’s liberation movement.

Those in favor of the innovation could not use specific texts from Scripture to support their case. Indeed all the relevant texts, such as 1 Timothy 2:12— “I do not allow a woman to teach or hold authority over a man in church”— dictated against women’s ordination. Instead they argued from St Paul’s larger principles, “In Christ there is neither male nor female” (Gal. 3:28), and used the story of Peter’s vision in Acts 10 to justify innovations which at first seemed illicit, but which were Spirit led. There were also attempts to prove that there were female priests in the early church. A wall painting from the catacombs seemed to show a woman praying in the orans position with arms extended in a priestly fashion. Other scholars tried to prove there was a female apostle in the New Testament named Junia (see Rom. 16:7).

The Catholic Story

While the Anglicans debated women’s ordination, the Catholic authorities also looked into the matter. Catholic teaching on the question shadowed the developments in the Anglican Church step by step. So it was in 1976— the same year that the Episcopal Church in the U.S. voted to ordain women— that the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued the Declaration on the Question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood. The key teaching from the Congregation was that the Church does not have the authority to ordain women as priests due to the Church’s determination to remain faithful to her constant tradition, her fidelity to Christ’s will, and the iconic value of male representation which is linked to the “sacramental nature” of the priesthood.

C.S.Lewis’ essay, written some twenty years beforehand, unpacks what this means. Lewis explained that a priest speaks to God for the people and speaks to the people for God. No one would have a problem with a woman doing the former, but there is a problem with a women doing the latter. In other words, if the priest represents God in the drama of the liturgy, and a woman takes that place, an important element of the iconography of worship is altered. As a literary expert, Lewis explains that changing our representation of God in worship alters our understanding of God. When you change a word or image you must also change the meaning.

As usual, Lewis puts it very plainly, “Suppose the reformer stops saying that a good woman may be like God and begins saying that God is like a good woman. Suppose he says that we might just as well pray to ‘Our Mother which art in heaven’ as to ‘Our Father’. Suppose he suggests that the Incarnation might just as well have taken a female as a male form, and the Second Person of the Trinity be as well called the Daughter as the Son. Suppose, finally, that the mystical marriage were reversed, that the Church were the Bridegroom and Christ the Bride. All this, as it seems to me, is involved in the claim that a woman can represent God as a priest does.”

The term “the sacramental nature of the priesthood” seems to be misunderstood by a good number of Catholics. The proponents of women’s ordination characterize the Church’s position as, “the church says women can’t be priests because Jesus only chose men to be priests. That was then. This is now. Things change.” This is to trivialize the argument. The reasoning cuts deeper to the basic understanding of the sacraments and the relationship between Christ and his Church. Put simply, the Church does not have the authority, even for seemingly good historical and cultural reasons, to change the sacraments which Christ himself instituted.

So, for example, if a missionary goes to a primitive tribe that knows nothing of wine and bread, but has fermented coconut juice and manioc root bread as staples, the priest cannot celebrate Mass using coconut juice and manioc root bread. The sacrament is invalid if the matter is incorrect. The Church does not have the authority to alter the matter of the sacrament—even for what seem to be good reasons. As bread and wine are the matter for the sacrament of the Eucharist, a man is the matter for the sacrament of ordination. As four popes have made clear, the Church does not have the authority to change the matter of the sacrament of ordination. She cannot undo what the Lord has done.

Therefore in 1994, the same year the Church of England voted to ordain women, Pope St. John Paul II re-affirmed the 1976 teaching. In his letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis he wrote, “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.” After repeated questioning Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, affirmed twice in writing that Pope St John Paul II’s teaching was definitive. Nevertheless, somewhat befuddled by the statement, Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey replied, “We would like to seek further clarification.”

The Never Ending Story

Carey’s confused request for further clarification seems to be echoed among the Catholics who continue to press for women’s ordination. When asked about this issue in a press conference, Pope Francis affirmed the teaching of his predecessors with another very clear statement. “The door to women’s ordination is closed.”

Why then do women like Christine Mayr Lumetzberger continue to present themselves as Catholic women priests? Why do journalists like Peter Stanford continue to pretend that this is a relevant and vital issue in the Catholic Church? Why do Catholic scholars continue to argue for women’s ordination while dissident priests and religious sisters support groups like Women’s Ordination Worldwide, (Austria) Catholic Women’s Ordination (UK) Roman Catholic Womenpriests (USA)?

Since 2002, Roman Catholic Womenpriests has “ordained” women as deacons, priests and bishops, claiming that these ordinations are valid because the first ordinations were done by a validly ordained Catholic male bishop (Romulo Antonio Braschi, who left the Roman Catholic Church in 1975) What kind of Catholics are these who persist, knowing that their ordinations are invalid and that they are excommunicated by their actions? What do they believe they will accomplish?

The Catholics who are operating in this way are working within a hermeneutic of revolution. Guided by the principles of protest and dissent they believe that the Catholic Church must change. Guided by ideology rather than theology and by a Hegelian philosophy of conflict rather than the Magisterium, they see the issue of women’s ordination as a great struggle for justice through which they will eventually prevail. The clear statements from the Church on this matter only serve to give them something to dispute and dismiss.

What is most tiresome about this never ending story is that anyone who reads ecclesiastical history will soon realize that change in the Catholic Church never occurs through the Hegelian struggle. Male-only ordination has been defined as a doctrine of the Church and it cannot be changed. What can happen, however, is for doctrine to develop. Our understanding of priesthood can grow away from the entrenched clericalism into which we too often fall, and at the same time our understanding of women’s ministry in the church can continue to develop.

On the question of women’s ordination however, Catholics should be clear: Roma Locuta Est—Causa Finita Est. Rome has spoken. That settles it.


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About Fr. Dwight Longenecker 4 Articles
Fr Dwight Longenecker is the parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, South Carolina. He blogs at Standing on My Head on Patheos and is the author of several books, including Slubgrip Instructs: Fifty Days with the Devil. Browse his other books and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com.