“… maybe I’m just trying to wrap my brain around the idea that women aren’t in positions of general power/authority in the Church. But if men and women each have valuable contributions and talents given by God, why is it (largely) only men who make decisions? Does it just end up being about submission (I’m thinking Ephesians 5)? And then do we just give our two cents and hope that men don’t screw it up or ignore it?”

I wrote this in February of 2016. I was reeling. I can’t even remember exactly what pulled the rug out from under me, but suddenly I had so many questions about women and where exactly we fit in the Church. I’d only ever had slight misgivings in the past, which exacerbated the fears and doubts I was having now. Why does none of this make sense? How can I trust the Church on anything if the Church doesn’t even respect women – respect ME – enough to treat us as equal to men?

How can I trust the Church on anything if the Church doesn’t even respect women – respect ME – enough to treat us as equal to men?

It was hard. I really wanted to be a faithful Catholic. I loved the Church, and I had found so much goodness, truth, and beauty in my Catholic faith. But at the same time, I desperately needed answers. I emailed two of my aunts whom I thought might have some answers for me. The paragraph above is an excerpt from that (much longer) email, which I recently dug up for the first time since then.

I’m starting to think this was God’s plan all along… I had been learning to trust Him and His Church, learning that I didn’t want to live outside of this beautiful reality. Then when I did begin to have serious doubts and real fears about what the Church taught, my first instinct was to look for answers in the Church. It would have been a lot easier to leave the Church – and I might have done just that – but for the fact that I love the Church. And, as I wrote at the end of my email that night, “I want to be convinced, I just am having a little trouble with that right now.”

It would have been a lot easier to leave the Church – and I might have done just that – but for the fact that I love the Church.

I’ve written before about how I came to love the fact that the priesthood is reserved for men, and some of the doubt that led me to explore this particular teaching of the Church. For myself, the question of women and the priesthood took two forms:

       1) Why aren’t women as important or essential as men in the Church?

       2) Why don’t women have authority in the Church?

I tried to begin to answer the former question in my original post on women and the priesthood (hint: we are just as important). In my wonder and amazement at finding some beautiful, compelling answers to the first question, I forgot about the question of authority. (Plus I was writing a thesis, graduating, and then beginning graduate school.) I felt that this whole contentious issue was resolved – at least in terms of personal doubt. I knew I hadn’t learned everything there was to learn about women’s roles in the Church, but I was happy with what I had come to know.

God hadn’t forgotten my second question, though, even if I had. Last fall I stumbled upon a short book, The Authority of Women in the Catholic Church, by Monica Migliorino Miller. I was a little wary at first. (Alas, even I have that kneejerk suspicion upon finding someone talking about women in the Church. It’ll either be super conservative or heresy, right?) But seeing that the foreword was written by Scott Hahn, about whom I’d heard good things, I picked it up.

I cannot recommend this book enough. In addition to answering all the questions I’d forgotten I had (and then some), the author does so in an incredibly engaging manner. Her theology is totally orthodox, and it’s written sympathetically, but not condescendingly. I realized that this woman gets it. She understands why I have these questions, and she’s not here to tell me I’m a bad Catholic for wrestling with these things. She wants to help me understand the beauty of the truth that the Church teaches.

While this blog post is no substitute for the entire book, I do want to share some highlights that I learned about the nature of authority and how that pertains to women and men in the Church.

What is authority, anyway?

First, we ought to define what we mean by authority. When you google the word “authority”, the definition that comes up is “the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience." Sounds about right. Except that’s not what authority means in the context of Christianity. Authority is not power. Authority is not being able to force people to do what you want, or having some special knowledge or dignity that makes you more qualified to lead people or tell them what to do. The word authority comes from the same Latin word that gives us “author”. So authority has to do with being the author or creator of something. This quote from the book explains it very well: “A person has authority… by giving life” – and, by being responsible for that life, caring for, nurturing, and protecting it (Migliorino Miller 17). We don’t obey God because, hey, watch out, He’ll squash you like a bug if you make Him mad… We obey God because He’s the source of life, and staying close to Him and submitting to His authority is how we receive life.

We obey God because He’s the source of life, and staying close to Him and submitting to His authority is how we receive life.

In the Church, authority, as well as salvation, is directly related to the covenantal marriage relationship between Christ the Bridegroom and the Church, His Bride. That might sound super theological, so give me a second to unpack it. This next quote sounds a little scandalous, but bear with me: “… Christ alone is not the sign of redemption… Redemption is not mediated by the male Christ alone, but by Christ and the Church. Redemption is mediated through the covenant. The Church gives a creative response to the mission of Christ that is authentically her own. Thus she is a model of redemption in union with her Lord and has responsibility for the covenant that is equal in human and mediatorial freedom, and thus in dignity to His” (41, emphasis added).

This is not to say Jesus was not “enough” to save us. What it means is that God wanted to – and chose to – give us salvation through a covenant, this relationship, between Himself and the Church. God is not jealous or insecure about His authority – He doesn’t demean Himself, or lose any of His power and glory, in giving authority to the Church. The Church, in relationship with Jesus Christ, has authority. And again, authority has to do with giving life and taking responsibility for that life.

Okay, so then what does authority look like for individual human beings in the Church? That was our original question, right? If authority has to do with giving life and being responsible for bringing that life to fulfillment, we can say that authority for Christians means cooperating with God in bringing people to eternal life. For all of us, that means cooperating with grace in various ways throughout our lives – praying for people, trying to grow in virtue, receiving the Sacraments, performing works of mercy, and so on.

Manifesting authority in the world

In addition, priests do this in a very real, concrete way through the sacraments, especially in the Holy Eucharist. They are cooperating with God to literally, physically, bring God to the souls around them. That’s really incredible! It took me longer than it probably should have to make the connection: mothers do this too. Well, specifically, mothers cooperate – in a very concrete way – with God to bring new souls to God. And that is just as important to the Church! … When I realized this, I thought I had made some earthshattering discovery, but then I came across a quote by Fulton Sheen in which he says almost exactly the same thing, comparing motherhood to priesthood. Which is good – it means I’m in good company, and you don’t have to take my word for it.

However, many of us (myself included) are neither priests nor mothers. That doesn’t mean we’re second-class Christians. It doesn’t mean that there’s some level of holiness that we can’t ever reach. It means that our authority – to lead each other to a deeper relationship and life with God – looks a little different, and it may not be as obvious. And because authority in the Church is based in a marriage covenant, it’s going to look a bit different for men and for women. Different, but not lesser. Women are going to live this out in what John Paul II called a spiritual motherhood, and men live this out in spiritual fatherhood. John Paul is necessarily (and very wisely) vague about how each of us is to live this spiritual fatherhood/motherhood… But in both roles, we cooperate with God to lead each other to God, who is the source of all life.

Many of us (myself included) are neither priests nor mothers. That doesn’t mean we’re second-class Christians. It doesn’t mean that there’s some level of holiness that we can’t ever reach.

Maybe you’re thinking, Great, but this is just stuff to make us feel better – where do we actually see women with authority over men in the Church? And maybe that sounds kind of petty, but it’s a good question, since we just said that women can have authority over others. We haven’t really looked at any concrete examples yet. One very clear historical example is that of St. Catherine of Siena. When Catherine was alive, the pope had not been living in Rome for many years, there was general confusion in the Church, people were trying to use the pope for his political power – it was a huge mess. And Catherine used her authority – as a Christian and as a woman (who couldn’t even read, by the way) – to encourage the pope, to remind him to do the right thing, and, when necessary, to call him out when he wasn’t acting the way a pope should. Granted, for most of us, authority probably doesn’t look like telling the pope what he should be doing. But, again, it does mean leading people to a deeper relationship with God – and leading people to cooperate with God’s will for their lives.

Now, part of recognizing the authority that we have as baptized Christians also means recognizing and submitting to the true authority of others. A lot of times we don’t like to think about submission, because we think it means admitting that we’re inferior. But consider this: authority and submission exist in God Himself, within the Holy Trinity. Jesus came to earth not to do His own will, but the will of His Father. And I’ve always thought it was weird that we ask God to send us His Holy Spirit. I mean, the Holy Spirit is God, can’t He decide for Himself? But in the context of authority and submission in a relationship of equal Persons, there is no question of inferiority or superiority, and it has nothing to do with a power trip. Authority and submission are a part of a life-giving relationship.

Authority in marriage

I’m specifically talking about authority and submission in the Church, but it’s worth taking a quick sidebar to look at what all of this means in marriage. Considering that authority is relational and life-giving, it would be fair to assume that wives and husbands have authority in a marriage, right? Sometimes, though, it doesn’t sound like that when we read certain passages in Scripture (looking at you, Ephesians 5). However, in considering the biblical command for wives to submit to their husbands, Pope St. John Paul II writes that “whereas in the relationship between Christ and the Church the subjection is only on the part of the Church, in the relationship between husband and wife the “subjection” is not one-sided but mutual” (Mulieris Dignitatem 24). With all due respect to our late pontiff, the author of The Authority of Women in the Catholic Church goes even further. She explains, “… it is very important that we not miss the fact that Christ already subjected Himself to [the Church]. He gave up His very life so that she may be exalted in holiness. Christ’s authority is life-giving and He has given Himself for the Church in the most radical subjection of all” (Migliorino Miller 65).

Women's authority

Ok, so what does all of this have to do with why women can’t be priests? If women can have authority, why not the specific authority of a priest? It ties back into the fact that the New Covenant is a marriage between Christ and the Church. Christ is the Bridegroom of the Church. You’ve probably heard that during Mass the priest acts in the person of Christ, in persona Christi.

A man is already a kind of natural icon for Christ, because Christ is a man. And this might sound almost offensive to us, to say that men image Christ in a way that women don’t. Certainly we are all made in the image of God. That is always true and is incredibly important. However, in the context of a marriage covenant, there are two roles: the Bridegroom, as well as the Bride.

If salvation is given through a marriage covenant, we can’t only have an image of the Bridegroom. That wouldn’t make sense. And if we remember that we are persons created with souls and bodies, we know that our bodies have meaning. Each of us is, by virtue of whether we’re men or women, a symbol that points to the covenant. Within the Covenant, then, women are icons of the Church, the Bride of Christ. (In fact, that’s what we call religious sisters, brides of Christ.)

This isn’t a less important role, and it doesn’t mean that women are inferior. It means that women play an equally important role in the Covenant, without which the marriage covenant wouldn’t make any sense. Without a living image of the Bridegroom and the Bride, the covenantal reality of salvation is quite literally inaccessible to us – to all of us. In the second chapter of Genesis we hear, “It is not good that man should be alone.” Yes! Because none of us, alone, can be an image of the salvific love between God and the Church. In fact, the priest’s (or any man’s) ability to be an image of the Bridegroom is entirely dependent on the reality and partnership of the Bride. Being a Bridegroom has no meaning unless there is a Bride with whom to enter into the marriage relationship, and vice versa.

Continuing to grow

This just blows my mind! It’s so cool, and it makes me really grateful to be Catholic, and… I actually really love the fact that the priesthood is reserved for men. Now of course I couldn’t cover everything, even if I knew everything there was to say on the topic. What I wanted to do was to give an overview of the whole idea of life-giving authority, how it’s based in the relationship of Christ and the Church, and how that plays out for both men and women. There is so much more that could – and should – be said!

One last thing I do want to say: if you have questions about what the Church teaches, or if it doesn’t seem to make sense – anything, not just women and the priesthood – that’s not a bad thing, and it doesn’t mean you’re doing something wrong. It’s an opportunity to grow closer to God by learning more about Him.

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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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