Time to ordain women…or not

“Prophetic femininity” is the underutilized, even marginalized, power that the Church has to save itself from the present scandals.

(Image: NeONBRAND | Unsplash.com)

Time to ordain women! This comment, probably echoed numerous times in the past weeks, was attached to a grim Facebook post reflecting on the multilayered sex scandal in the Catholic Church. It seems to me, to the contrary, that along with the inevitable anger, revulsion and sorrow, we should be feeling nothing but gratitude for the Church’s prohibition against the ordination of women.

I have to confess to having been largely uninterested in this question in the course of my life. Briefly, in grade school, wondering why it took the boys in my class so long to memorize the Latin responses so that they could serve at Mass, I thought that my sex would handle the whole job much more competently. I recall that Juli Loesch once wrote a piece on this subject arguing, as I recall, that only men needed to become priests, seeing that the virtues they were supposed to model upon taking orders were much more easily achieved by women and thus would produce little more than a shrug if manifested in a woman. Combined with my skepticism that Christ had been constrained by the mores of his times to ordain only men, Loesch’s explanation suited me. I am a philosopher, not a theologian, and a firm believer that the traditions of the Church protect its members from an array of fads and foolishness. As long as holiness, martyrdom, and sainthood remained equal opportunity positions, I couldn’t work up much indignation about the restriction of orders to men, or much curiosity about the reasons.

However, as I have at last found out, there is no inquiry into the nature of “holiness” where one will not meet the question of orders, and vice versa. Thomas Aquinas’ Secunda secundae is a case in point. He carefully and repeatedly draws a bright line between the interior and invisible hierarchy of perfection, available to all Christians through growth in charity, and the exterior and visible hierarchy of perfection established through vows to the evangelical counsels, which religious take, and through the conferring of orders. This teaching is present in John Paul II’s distinction between the Petrine and Marian dimensions of the Church: its invisible structure “full of grace,” its visible hierarchy, guarantors of revelation and the sacraments. Nevertheless, the priority of the invisible over the visible hierarchy is clear: if Peter is the rock, Mary is the womb of the Church. More importantly, you can’t get to heaven merely through membership in the visible hierarchy. The doom paintings in medieval churches, showing terrified bishops and monks being led off to hell, reminded worshippers that final judgment was for everyone. Thomas Aquinas argues that the only hierarchy that matters in heaven is the one established by merit, not by gender or any other category.

Women are the visible sign of the invisible hierarchy of merit: they are irreducibly “lay,” using that term, not as signifying those unmoved by religion versus those who are, or those not taking perpetual vows versus those who do, but as those who are not ordainable versus those who are. The male sex is never irreducibly “lay.” Take for example, a wonderful priest in a parish of the Diocese of Tyler, where I occasionally attend Mass. He is a paradigm “late vocation”: before entering the seminary he was married with children and an ophthalmologist. If the current crisis wipes out 25 percent of the priests in the US, the Church could ordain all conditions of males. After all, men in the 17th century were ordained with no more preparation than the weekend retreats conducted by St. Vincent de Paul and his Congregation of the Mission, as the Tridentine requirements for the seminary training of ordinands kicked in.

Women are thus freed for the prophetic role that can only belong to “outsiders.” They can never be candidates for the men’s club. “Women are able to pose questions that men are unable to understand,” as the Catholic Women’s Forum’s letter to Pope Francis puts it, demanding answers to questions concerning his knowledge of sexual misconduct by his bishops, etc. They are able to take the lead in uncovering the corruption which is coming to light, as lawyer Sharon Bourassa did in spearheading Christifidelis’ investigation into the cesspool of the Archdiocese of Miami in 2005. In the volume Woman as Prophet in the Home and the World, edited by Dr. Mary Lemmons, it is clear that “prophetic femininity,” grounded in the bodily capacity for nurturing life, is the underutilized, even marginalized, power that the Church has to save itself from the scandal that threatens to bring down the Church in the US. This is not to say that women cannot sin grievously in ways which wound the Body of Christ, as is obvious in the scandals of Catholic orphanages and Magdalene laundries. But women cannot ascend to power in the Church through their sins, as it has become obvious that priests and bishops do.

St. Catherine of Siena, my patron saint, has been invoked often and rightly as a voice against clerical corruption and clerical sloth in the present crisis. Irreducibly lay and implacable, she did not wait to be asked. Neither, it seems, have her contemporary sisters. One of the early initiatives, The Siena Project, whose purpose “is to make it easy for any member of the Catholic faithful to send letters urging our bishops to enact meaningful reforms,” is spearheaded by Miriel Reneau, mother and Ph.D. candidate. Dr. Janet Smith, speaking recently, was uncompromising in her advice to bishops: stop taking cover in your unwillingness to deal in “rumors” and “get the evidence.” Perhaps the long-heralded “Age of the Laity” has finally arrived.

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About Mary Catherine Sommers 1 Article
Mary Catherine Sommers is Professor Emerita of Philosophy and past director of the Center for Thomistic Studies at the University of St. Thomas (Houston). Her research interests include Thomas Aquinas and the virtues.


  1. Forgotten in this debate is that the vast majority of men are also laity. It seems many in the Church think there are only 2 classes of people in the Church…ordained men and lay women. The vast majority of people in the Church are not ordained and that includes almost all Catholic men (apart from the small sliver that are ordained). Sadly, lay men are the most forgotten group as our hierarchy does backflips trying to address “women in the Church”. All of us are called to holiness. There are only 415,000 priests in the world out of 1.2 billion Catholics that means the vast majority us are called to serve God as lay people….men and women alike.

  2. ““Women are able to pose questions that men are unable to understand,” as the Catholic Women’s Forum’s letter to Pope Francis puts it”

    What utter and unmitigated tripe. Some women might be able to pose questions that some men are unable to understand. Some men might be able to pose questions that some women are unable to understand. Some might not.

    “In the volume Woman as Prophet in the Home and the World, edited by Dr. Mary Lemmons, it is clear that “prophetic femininity,” grounded in the bodily capacity for nurturing life, is the underutilized, even marginalized, power that the Church has to save itself from the scandal that threatens to bring down the Church in the US.”

    Oh, good grief.

    “One of the early initiatives, The Siena Project, whose purpose “is to make it easy for any member of the Catholic faithful to send letters urging our bishops to enact meaningful reforms,” is spearheaded by Miriel Reneau, mother and Ph.D. candidate. Dr. Janet Smith, speaking recently, was uncompromising in her advice to bishops: stop taking cover in your unwillingness to deal in “rumors” and “get the evidence.” Perhaps the long-heralded “Age of the Laity” has finally arrived.”

    Because of course there aren’t any men saying the exact same thing. Yeah, right.

    • Bottom line is Jesus Christ is male. The ordained priests are male. No woman can be ordained. The male sprite of Christ can not absorb into the female body. MUTE

  3. Nice article but it is incorrect to say that women can asked questions that men cannot understand. The human intellect by natural, supernatural and infused knowledge, understanding and wisdom can ask,understand and answer questions from man,either male or female.

    The Beloved and Living God has created and redeemed Man in His Image and Likeness which understands both the male and female in the human nature He bestowed and with the mutual capacity and gifts natural, supernatural and infused to ask, understand and answer in either or both dimensions. To propose otherwise seems to say that the 7 gifts of the Holy Spirit and the human intellect are defective or inadequate… blessings from the One in which both hemispheres are One and Gifted!


    In her book, The Eternal Feminine: Mystical Women (2004), the French theologian, Janine Hourcade, aptly writes: “Woman has no need to be a priest or have hierarchical power to carry out an important role in the Church and in the world.”

    When asked about women priests, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin of Lyon, France, said the same thing: “The only thing that counts in the Church is not priests and bishops, but holiness. That’s the real hierarchy” (Zenit March, 5, 2004).

    The feminine “primacy of love” is far superior to the masculine “primacy of jurisdiction.” Pope Francis says that “the grasping for a priestly role is the very essence of clericalism.”

    • The word “participation” should be banned in all Catholic discussions. It has come to mean whatever one wishes it to mean.

      • GOD did Not exclude women!Jesus welcomed,honored and respected the presence of women in His Ministry:Mary of Magdala,the daughters of Peter and others were recognized.If you will recall,it was Peter who first balked at the position he believed Mary Magdalene first held.The other apostles also grumbled for a time.She understood His teachings as He spoke them…no further/extended explanation needed.There have been many brilliant and strong women in The Church throughout its history.There has always been sexism where insecure males dominate!Fortunately,Attitudes became more realistic since the 1970s

        • You use an old explanation that muddies the holy water… Women have also been downtrodden by the MALEs by placing a glass ceiling. No more status quo open the clergy.

  5. We don’t need women in the priesthood. Rather, the Church needs men – real men – not the immature ersatz variety the seminaries have been producing. Locking up homosexuals in seminaries with other men has proven to be a recipe for disaster. How could it be otherwise? In a time like our own, when masculinity is undervalued and often attacked by agenda-driven feminists, women priests is the last thing the Church requires. More importantly, from a dogmatic standpoint, the case is closed. Why continue to beat this dead horse?

    Feminists often view the all-male priesthood as a “glass ceiling” problem, one more mountain to be climbed in order to bring about the fatuous notion of “perfect equality.” The priesthood is not just another shot at a CEO position at the chancery; it’s a calling. Big difference there.

    The real problem in this crisis is staring us in the face. Let’s deal with it

    • Yes, I find it amusing that the author is touting the prophetic witness of women — other than the clergy, who else is left in Latin churches? One may think this is an exaggeration but what investment do most men have in their parish or diocese, after their treatment by both secular society and their own bishops, who would rather surrender to feminism and to “progressives”?

  6. Leaving aside any number of principles which are of far more import than what I am about to write, I ask “What kind of women have taken custody of the Anglican communion in its multiple incarnations?”
    We don’t need women priests.
    We need individuals called by Jesus Christ to His priesthood.
    When? WHEN? Are we going to adopt a Roman Catholic perspective on this issue? What is the fetish — the sexual fetish — that continues to be brought to bear upon the holy priesthood? Who are the people pushing this agenda? Do they believe in any facet of Roman Catholicism beside finding the “center stage” for their narcissistic egoism a “convenient match?”
    Jesus Christ calls MEN to participate in HIS priesthood. “THIS IS MY BODY.”
    Gender bending is hideous. In this case it is sacrilege and a repudiation of the entire perennial Magisterium. Women who feel compelled to “play priest” need go be Episcopalian. They welcome women to that role playing therapeutic particularly since they can’t get any men to do it anymore — and their congregations are evaporating.


  8. I agree 100% on the Church’s traditional teaching on a male only clergy. I also appreciate the unique gifts women have to offer, however I feel this article over states the case.

    Women are not some sort of super creature who automatically exceed normal humanity’s normal capacity for wisdom, insight and holiness simply because of their gender. This article almost makes it seem that women are so awesome that priesthood would diminish them. On the flip side it’s implied that men are such inherent oafs that they need Holy Orders and the insight of women in order to achieve some level of humanity and holiness. Heck, women are even to formulate arguments men can’t understand.

    Perhaps it’s better to keep it simple. Men and women are human. Both have unique gifts. Both have an equal capacity for holiness and evil. Both genders have members who are wise and ignorant. Why male only clergy? Because Christ made it that way.

  9. The Catholic Church needs masculine men to become holy priests and to do their jobs as God commands.
    So valuable as our holy Catholic women are, there is no need for them to be priests. God ordained it so.

  10. Ms Sommers presents a fascinating argument, one which is new to me. It is not very convincing.
    In paragraph 3, she writes that St Thomas and St John Paul II both distinguish between the visible and invisible hierarchies of the Church. The visible includes the ordained orders of priests etc and the invisible is hierarchy of merit. The invisible hierarchy of merit is essential to salvation – the visible order alone being inadequate in this regard. So far, so good.

    In paragraph 4 Ms Sommers continues that “Women are the visible sign of the invisible hierarchy of merit” But why is this not also true of men? She adds that women are “irreducibly lay”. But again, how does this conclusion follow from the assertion that women are the visible sign of the invisible hierarchy of merit? She is either begging the question and/or her arguments are non sequitur. The same objections apply to her assertion that the “…male sex is never irreducibly “lay”.
    I do not see how a rational argument can be used to prove that the nature of men and women differs in such a way that only men can be ordained. Philosophy is against such a claim, going back to Aristotle’s definition of man as a rational animal. We are all equal in that we all are persons with a soul, an intellect and will, other differences being less essential.
    So why then are women not permitted to be ordained? Out of faith in the Magisterium, I have always accepted this teaching and only recently came across a possible explanation in scripture recently where God said something to the effect that “I will make priests out of some of you”. I cannot give a citation for this. If it is accurate, clearly the decision rests with the Lord. Since the foundation of the church 2000 years ago, the Lord has apparently chosen not to call women to the priesthood. We were promised that the Holy Spirit would lead us in to all truth and either the Church has frustrated the Holy Spirit for 2000 years by failing to ordain women or the truth is that He has, from all eternity, chosen not to call women.
    Is there a scriptural basis for this approach?

  11. I wonder why, when men go off the rails; as they have been doing since the Garden the solution that is always offered & always tried is;
    “we need a different type of man”
    well I guess you kids could always try the human gnome project…

  12. “Women are thus freed for the prophetic role that can only belong to “outsiders.” They can never be candidates for the men’s club.” Whether intended or not, this is an unnecessary pejorative. As a lay (male) person who knows and is friends with many orthodox, solid priests, I am still an “outsider” as I am not a member of their order (I mean this in the Tolkienian sense of the Istari). However, in working for them I often offer counsel and even admonishment. The author here equivocates on the role of women that is actually the role of all sincere. well-informed laity. Further, if women can pose questions that men cannot understand, then how are men ever to have any chance of answering the questions? Lastly – with regard to the statement – “[Women] are able to take the lead in uncovering the corruption which is coming to light.” Yes, they are… if they are qualified women. But they might consider standing alongside some qualified men in their attempt. As a philosophical piece, this is not very helpful.

  13. A man cannot give birth to a child, he doesn’t have the right faculties.
    A woman cannot change the bread and wine to the Body and Blood, she doesn’t have the right faculties.
    Ergo: ‘Women Priests’ is an oxymoron.

  14. A time and a place for all things under heaven. It seems to me that the Church needs people to do positive bold things. It needs all her people to actually be good people no matter what thier personal ambitions might be. We are all called to serve God, to be true disciples of Jesus Christ. We aren’t called to seek powerful positions in the Church. Perhaps it’s time to dissolve that aspect of the hierarchy and only depend on the lay peoples, but I think that would be disastrous to the Church as a whole. The question of women becoming Priests or even Deacons is a reflection of the brokenness of this World. It should be OK that what is meant for Men by God is for men and what is meant for Women by God is for women. I respect both Genders and a Nun is just as important to me as a priest is. We need both, but when it’s rduced to a power struggle I think the evil one might have his thumb in that pie. Of course that’s just my two cents.

    • Nelson – thanks for your comment. Hierarchy comes from the Greek which can mean in its best sense “sacred ruler”; as such it is rooted in Christ the sacred ruler and king who gives his authority to certain men in the Church. A hierarchy can also be seen (in its best sense) as a body or perhaps a raised structure of arches one over another so that the largest is above acting as a great shield protecting the lower arches. This is what we have been missing – that the power, or rather the authority, is given for the purpose of shepherding and serving. This is the gospel of Christ since it goes hand in hand with the grace He gives through the Spirit to that overarching part of the Body of Christ. We cannot dispense with hierarchy in this sense – but you are most right that ambition is never a virtue for a priest of God.

  15. The greatest woman, the greatest human being, far above prelates, is Our Lady, the Theotokos. I feel the enormity of that opens and closes the topic of the feminine in the Church. All the rest is words and ‘politics’.
    All of us, regardless of sex, can have, besides Our Lord Himself, no better earthly ‘model’.
    Even Islam accords Her due respect and reverence as the bearer of Jesus.

  16. Obviously I am not a Scripture scholar, nor do I lay claim to any specialist body of knowledge on this topic or about the Liturgy – but I am a female, a faithful Catholic and deeply love our ‘One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church’.

    Yes, I am saddened at the events of past years in our Church and am seriously worried about what might be to come, although I am comforted by the certainty Our Lord’s promise that the gates of Hell will not prevail …

    However, the integrity and validity of the ordained Catholic priesthood must be maintained and while the laity certainly have an ever-increasing potential for appropriate service, a look at Scripture and Tradition tells us that an ordained female priesthood is not indicated.

    While it is accepted that we do not know a lot about Melchizedek, from what has come down to us he was male and is first mentioned in Genesis 14.

    In Psalm 110 we pray “The Lord has sworn, and he will not repent: ‘You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek’”

    As reigning Pope in 2011 Benedict XV1 puts this into context:

    Melchizedek, as the Letter to the Hebrews says, was “without father or mother or genealogy” (7:3a), hence not a priest according to the dynastic rules of Levitical priesthood. Consequently he “continues a priest for ever” (7:3c), a prefiguration of Christ, the perfect High Priest who “has become a priest, not according to a legal requirement concerning bodily descent but by the power of an indestructible life” (7:16).

    St Paul in Hebrews 5-9 writes:

    “Every high priest is taken from among men and made their representative before God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins” (Hebrews 5:1). Despite human weakness, a man is called by God to be a priest.

    Catholic priests are ordained into the Order of Melchizedech, and in Eucharistic Prayer No.1 they pray:

    “Look with favor on these offerings and accept them as once you accepted the gifts of your servant Abel, the sacrifice of Abraham, our father in faith, and the bread and wine offered by your priest Melchizedech.”

    In conclusion – we have some powerful words and directives here that should not be tampered with.

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