The Female Priesthood: What I Learned and What I Know Now

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August 8, 2017

The all-male Catholic priesthood is an issue I know doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense to a lot of people, and I completely understand, having been there myself. Still, I find it really tragic that more people aren’t talking about this question of women and the priesthood – especially Catholics. The Catholic faith is really amazing in that, no matter how much you explore and learn, you can always go deeper. So in a certain sense, there are things that we accept without understanding. But we’re also thinking human beings, and questioning what we don’t understand can lead to a greater depth of faith.

When I was little, I remember asking my mother, “Why can’t girls be priests?”

To which she replied, “Do you want to be a priest?”

I didn’t, so that was that. I’m not sure I bought that entirely, but it was enough for the moment. As I got older, it seemed to make more sense to me. We call a priest “Father”, priests are spiritual fathers, women can’t be fathers. Done and done. And then, roughly a year ago, it struck me.

Why do they have to be fathers?

So I asked questions. I texted my cousin. I emailed a couple of my aunts. I cornered a friend at midnight and asked questions… and more questions. And then I researched. Now here I am, almost exactly a year later, and I’m ok with women not being priests. More than that, I think it’s fantastic.That being said, if it bothers you that the Catholic Church doesn’t allow women to become priests, don’t leave the Church because of that. But don’t ignore your frustration, either. That frustration and indignation is a sign that you want better than what you see is going on. If I perceive that an injustice is being done, either a) it is, or b) I don’t have all the information. Either way, I should do something. Starting with making sure I have all the information. It drives me crazy when Catholics don’t understand a controversial issue and don’t concern themselves with trying to understand it. When you’re really having a crisis of faith, it is not comforting to hear, “Yeah, I can’t really explain it, I just trust the Church.” That’s all well and good, but in the realm of spiritual customer service, we’re not called to be Walmart salespeople. We’re called to be Starbucks baristas.

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I invite you to take a look at some of the reasons for the all-male priesthood that I came across in my research. Some of them make more sense to me than others. Also, I see some of these reasons working together, not necessarily as stand-alone explanations. Really, numbers 4, 5, and 6 are the ones that I love. The others… well, I included them because, even if they don’t make sense to me, maybe they’ll make sense to someone else. Without further ado:

1. Jesus chose men to be Apostles, and the bishops and the pope are the successors to the Apostles.

Ok. I mean, I get it. It still doesn’t really resonate with me. As a friend of mine put it recently: This gives us the “how we know” the priesthood is only for men. It doesn’t give us the “why”.

2. Men wouldn’t want to be priests if women could be priests.

I’ve heard this a few times… and it bothers me. I do think it’s possible that, as a very general rule, women are more inclined to spirituality and religion than men. But at the same time… we should prop up men’s egos because otherwise they wouldn’t go to church? Because they want to have something special that only they get to do? That just seems wrong. And wouldn't this be like we’re enabling misogyny? Granted, no priest has ever told me this, but I have heard this argument from both sexes.

3. Jesus was a man.

To be perfectly honest, I don’t 100% buy this one. I came across it in Edith Stein’s “Essays on Woman”. That woman is a genius (I might even say... a feminine genius) and is really good at talking about the similarities and differences between men and women (also she’s a saint). But I – respectfully – just don’t get her argument here. She says, “Christ came to earth as the Son of Man. The first creature on earth fashioned in an unrivaled sense as God’s image was therefore a man; that seems to indicate to me that He wished to institute only men as His official representatives on earth.” She goes on to mention that, at the same time, Jesus united himself to Mary in a unique way, and that the calling to religious sisterhood is a sublime calling. I’m not disputing any of that, but personally it doesn’t seem like the strongest argument. It actually sounds to me as though men are inherently superior, which – aside from the multitude of problems that idea has caused – reinforces the perspective of clericalism (see below). Still, if it’s good enough for Edith Stein, it would be arrogant of me not to include it in this list.

4. The Jewish religion is unique among ancient religions of its time in that it did not have priestesses. Christianity follows this tradition.

This argument comes from Joseph Ratzinger, future Pope Benedict XVI. I find this fairly compelling, actually. Ratzinger says,

“Christianity, here too following the ‘scandalous’ original example of Jesus, opens a new situation to women; it accords them a position that represents a novelty with respect to Judaism. But of the latter he preserves the exclusively male priesthood. Evidently, Christian intuition understood that the question was not secondary, that to defend Scripture (which in neither the Old nor the New Testament knows women priests) signified once more to defend the human person, especially those of the female sex.”

(quoted from The Ratzinger Report – see list of resources below)

5. The fact that women cannot be priests safeguards against clericalism.

This gem actually comes from our very own Pope Francis. In an interview with an Italian newspaper, he said, “Women in the Church must be valued, not ‘clericalized’.” I think this is a really beautiful insight, and it had never occurred to me. Women are valuable. To say that we need to make women priests in order to acknowledge or confirm the dignity of women would be to completely misunderstand the dignity of human beings and the role of the clergy. Priests are not more important or holier than any other Christians. But if we mistakenly think that priests, bishops, and cardinals are the roles we should all aspire to, the cream of the crop, of course it’s going to seem like a put-down when the positions aren’t open to some people.

6. Motherhood is the natural feminine complement to the priesthood.

MIND. BLOWN. That was my initial reaction anyway. This completely changed my entire perspective. Religious sisters are beautiful, beautiful souls and I cannot do them justice. But if we’re being perfectly honest, nuns are not really a perfect complement to the priesthood. The Church might be able to struggle on if all of the nuns in the world vanished. But the Church definitely would not be able to survive if all of the priests vanished – how else would we receive the sacraments? How else would we receive Jesus himself in the Eucharist? This was my problem. It seemed as though men were essential in a way in which women were not. (Again, I know I am downplaying the importance of nuns, and I apologize. But this is what was going through my head.) And then it hit me. I was probably reading Alice von Hildebrand’s The Privilege of Being a Woman, which I highly recommend. The answer is so natural, so simple, so obvious that it’s so easy to miss. What is the one thing that a woman can do that a man cannot? Literally grow a human being inside of her body! And it seems so commonplace, but can we take a minute to just marvel at everything that entails? Not to mention the fact that God himself touches a mother when he places another soul inside of her? I mean, sure, men who are priests bring us Jesus in the Eucharist (which is crazy important, don’t get me wrong) – but every single woman who is a mother brings a new soul to Jesus.

Archbishop Fulton Sheen even SAYS (I absolutely love this quote): “When a mother carries the young life within her through a free act of love, she has a different kind of love from what any man has for a neighbor. Most of us love a non-self, or something extrinsic and apart from our inner life; but a mother’s love during the time she is a flesh-and-blood ciborium is not for a non-self but for one that is her very self, a perfect example of charity and love which hardly perceives a separation. Motherhood then becomes a kind of priesthood. She brings God to man by preparing the flesh in which the soul will be implanted; she brings man to God in offering the child back again to the Creator.”

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So, I hope this has been helpful, either for you, dear reader, or to share with someone else who’s trying to tackle these questions. This is by no means a complete list. Let me know if you have other reasons I haven’t come across! I’d like to close with another quote from the charming Fulton Sheen:

“Nature had to prepare for [mothers] through millions of years by begetting a love that would freely desire children, a love that would educate them, and a love that would sacrifice for them because of their sovereign worth as persons endowed with immortal souls. Such love could not come from the beast, for that kind of love is a gift of God… The mother is both the physical preserver of life and the moral provider of truth; she is nature’s constant challenge to death, the bearer of cosmic plenitude, the herald of eternal realities, God’s great cooperator.”

P.S. Below, I’m listing some resources that have been helpful for me.

The interview in which Pope Francis talked about women and clericalism (it’s a very short snippet near the bottom of the page).

The interview with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) shared in the book The Ratzinger Report (specifically Chapter Seven: “Women, a Woman” – I honestly haven’t read the rest of the book yet)

Declaration on the Question of Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood (from the Vatican’s Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith).

Also definitely check out Fulton Sheen’s talk Life Is Worth Living. You can also find it in book form. I’ve only read two chapters, but I love it. The man really has a way with words.

And now for the ladies:

The Privilege of Being a Woman by Alice von Hildebrand – brilliant and easy-to-read. One or two of her points I took issue with, but overall, it’s really good. She also makes a point to acknowledge that there are some biblical passages and writings of Jewish scholars and Christian saints that are “far from complimentary” towards women. And then she takes you beyond those writings.

Essays on Woman by Edith Stein – requires more concentration than von Hildebrand, but she also has some really good stuff to say, regarding women AND men. Some of the ways she phrases things sound a little sexist sometimes, but maybe that’s the translation or just the time in which she was writing. Or maybe I’m a little hypersensitive. Regardless, the rest of what she has to say is really wonderfully profound.

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Emily Archer

Emily Archer is a recent graduate of Baylor University, having written her undergraduate honors thesis on her three great loves: authentic feminism, faithful Catholicism, and traditional fairy tales. When not reading or writing or trying to cut down on Netflix, she works as a speech and feeding therapist in her clinical fellowship year.

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