Power and the Priesthood:

Women's Exclusion

The Papacy

Arguments for the exclusion of women from the priesthood

Arguments for the inclusion of women in the priesthood


The Papacy

In the Catholic and Orthodox Christian traditions, women are not permitted to be ordained as priests of the church. According to Catholic doctrine, priests are supposed to represent the likeness of Jesus, a male figure. The Catholic argument is therefore that women are not suitable to represent the male figure of Christ. Within the Catholic institution, the Pope reinforces what he views as Biblical law, demanded by God. In a Letter to Women in June 1995 the Pope stated:

"the presence of a certain diversity of roles is in no way prejudicial to women, provided that this diversity is not the result of an arbitrary imposition, but is rather an expression of what is specific to being male and female".

Furthermore, the Pope seems to express his vision of women more in the image of the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus Christ, rather than Jesus himself. Although the Virgin Mary is an important figure of the Christian tradition, she herself is not a direct representation of God, like Jesus. The Pope says in his Letter to Women in preparation for the Beijing Conference in 1995,

"Thank you, consecrated women! Following the example of the greatest of women, the mother of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word, you open yourselves with obedience and fidelity to the gift of God's love. You help the church and all mankind to experience a "spousal" relationship to God, one which magnificently expresses the fellowship which God wishes to establish with his creatures".

For full text of the Letter to Women from the Pope click here.

Although the Papacy mandates that women not be ordained as priests, decreed by Biblical law, there is debate among people as to whether the interpretation of the law is valid. Many people believe that women are denied equal power in the church by their exclusion from the priesthood. Although women have other important roles in the church and can be nuns, none of the roles they play have the decision making capacity and the power that the priesthood has. In other words, they are denied access to the top of the hierarchy and thus cannot make other decisions and doctrine which could better women's situation in the church in general. Some women feel as though they are being cheated within their faith because they cannot become priests and therefore cannot counsel the congregation, say mass, and perform other priestly duties. However, there are also some Catholic women who agree with the laws of the Catholic tradition and think that only men should be priests.

Arguments for the Continued Exclusion of Women from the Priesthood

In early Christianity some priests considered the ordination of women as priestesses but decided that it was incompatible with Christian law. Today, most priests agree that women serving as priests is contrary to the law of God. In a Statement on the Ordination of Women by Rev. Anthony M. Pilla, President of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (United States), Pilla upholds the statements made by the Pope in his Letter to Women (see above). He claims that although men and women do not hold the same positions in the Catholic church or in society in general, these differences do not necessarily make them unequal. He claims that a masculine priesthood does not make women unequal but rather that human dignity has been equally bestowed upon men and women by God. He talks about the past opportunities of women in the church by saying:

"Historically the Church has been a place of great opportunity for women. They have been founders and heads of great religious orders of women. They have been leaders in the development of some of the Church's most important ministries, especially in health care and education. Women have headed Catholic hospitals and colleges, when in the rest of society such opportunities were all but unknown to women. Two examples of women who were truly "Church leaders" are St. Frances Xavier Cabrini and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. As the first U.S. citizens to be canonized, theirs remains a lasting reminder of the contributions women have made and do make to the life of the Church. Today, our parishes and dioceses could hardly function without the leadership provided by women".

He goes on to say:

"To those who have questioned this teaching in the past, I ask you now to prayerfully allow the Holy Spirit to fill you with the wisdom and understanding that will enable you to accept it. For the whole Catholic community, the reaffirmation of this teaching is the opportunity for a deeper reflection on the nature of both the ministerial priesthood and the common priesthood of all the faithful. It is also a reminder that the most important and fundamental Christian calling -- the call to holiness -- is open to all and that both women and men of every state of life have been honored by the Church for answering it".

Pilla argues, like the Pope, that the role of women is important yet different from men and should be accepted without question. He believes the Catholic church is still an equal space for women despite their exclusion from the priesthood.

Arguments for Women's Inclusion in the Priesthood

Both the Pope and clergy such as Rev. Pilla argue that it is mandated by Biblical law that only men can hold the position of priest in the Church. However, their opinions and decisions are influenced by a patriarchal institution. Although they argue that women are important to the church despite their exclusion from the hierarchy, the language used implies that women should not question their position in the Church. When arguing that women too have held important positions in the Church and made significant contributions, they tend to forget that although this is true, women are excluded from the highest positions in the church. The compliments given to women in the speeches attempt to quell any resistance. If women have made significant contributions to the Church shouldn't their position be raised in the Church? By not having access to the priesthood, women have significantly less power in the official hierarchy of the Church. How can women be equal if they have less power than men? The Pope compares women with the Virgin Mary, a "spousal" relationship. Although a "spousal" role connotes a partnership, often times spouses are not equal or are kept in subordination. The Virgin Mary is an important Catholic symbol. However the Virgin Mary is not divine. In order for women to be allowed into the priesthood, a new Christology must be created to incorporate women in the image of Christ.

Links to Sites on Priesthood Debates