The Catholic Priesthood and Women: An end to confusion

I have just finished reading a brilliant book by Sister/Dr. Sara Butler called “The Catholic Priesthood and Women: A Guide to the Teaching of the Church“. Sr Butler is professor of dogmatic theology at St Joseph’s Seminary in New York, a member of the International Theological Commission (recently responsible for the document on Limbo), a member of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, and (still) a member of the Catholic Theological Society fo America.

It may be of some interest to some of you that for one brief period in the past (around the early 90’s) I was a supporter of the ordination of women. Of course, I was a Lutheran back then, but the questions were the same:

1) Can the church ordain women?
2) Why wouldn’t Jesus/God want women to be pastors?

Interestingly, I had came to accept that the answer to the first question was “No” on the basis to the answers that I discovered to the second question.

However, that is not the direction that Sara Butler takes–and in taking the questions in proper order, she demonstrates a great clarity in theological method that Catholics (and Christians of other stripes and spots) would do well to imitate.

Sara Butler was also once a great proponent of the ordinaton of women. For a clear picture of where she once was, see “The Findings of the Research Team of the Catholic Theological Society of America” by Sara Butler, M.S.B.T. from “New Woman, New Church, New Priestly Ministry: Proceedings of the Second Conference on the Ordination of Roman Catholic Women” (November 1978, Baltimore, U.S.A.).

Where she is today is on the opposite end of the spectrum. What changed her mind? The clarity of Church teaching on the matter. But her experience in arguing the pro-women’s-ordination case stands her in good stead to write this book, which is aimed above all at making clear exactly what the Church does and does not say regarding the ordination of women.

The beauty of Sr Butler’s approach is that she distinguishes between the REASONS why the Church has judged that it does not have the authority to ordain women to the priesthood, and the EXPLANATIONS of why this may be so.

The “fundamental REASONS” are three fold:

1) The tradition of male only priesthood is rooted in Jesus’ way of acting (in chosing only males to constitute The Twelve): it is the will of Christ
2) The Apostles’ way of acting confirms the Tradition
3) The Tradition has normative value

These fundamental reasons are outlined in John Paul II’s Ordinatio Sacerdotalis but have their root in Paul VI’s 1975 Letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Declaration Inter Insigniores.

These are the REASONS why the Church cannot ordain women. Any argument with the Church’s practice must address these reasons. BUT for those who wish to understand what God’s purpose may be behind these REASONS, there are EXPLANATIONS. It is important to note that the “explanations” are not “reasons”. They do not in themselves constitute the reasons for the Church’s way of acting, but rather are to be regarded as “theological arguments” which give us a way of understanding God’s purpose in directing the Church to act in such a way.

The EXPLANATIONS or “theological arguments” are based on the “Analogy of Faith” (ie. male only priesthood in relation to the doctrine of the Mystery of Christ and to the doctrine of the Mystery of the Church).

1) The Christological Argument: The priest acts in persona Christi capitis ecclesiae; the priest is a sacramental sign of Christ; the priest is a sign of Christ who is and remains a man.

2) The Ecclesial Argument: The analogy of the covenant and the Eucharist; the priest as the “living image” of Christ the Bridegroom; the ministerial priesthood and nuptial symbolism.

She also skillfully and faithfully outlines the “objections” to the Church’s teachings, and (a la Aquinas) gives answers to the objections. She lists and answers 10 OBJECTIONS:

1) The exclusion of women is unjust
2) The Exclusion is based on faulty anthropology
3) If women can be baptised, they can be ordained
4) Jesus’ choice of 12 men is irrelevant
5) Women were ‘apostles’ in the Early Church
6) All the baptised act in persona Christi
7) The priest acts in persona ecclesiae
8) Jesus’ sex has no theological significance
9) The risen Christ transcends Maleness
10) Why not ordain only Jewish males?

You will recognise all these objections.

She highlights and interesting point–interesting at least for Protestants and Australian Lutherans in particular–namely that the Pauline “anti-women” passages do not fall into the “fundamental reasons” category, but rather into the “theological arguments” category. In other words, St Paul’s prohibitions are not the REASONS why the Church cannot ordain women; rather they are themselves EXPLANATIONS or THEOLOGICAL ARGUMENTS for the practice that was already fully established in that first generation of restricting the pastoral ministry to men.

This excellent review and clarification of the Church’s magisterial teaching on the subject of the ordination of women concludes with a short chapter on “The Development of Doctrine”, investigating authentic development on the basis of Newman’s famous essay. She concludes:

The discussion has been declared closed. The Pope clearly intended to prohibit Catholic theologians, pastors, and religious from publicaly espousing positions contrary to this teaching. This does not mean, however, that the teaching itself does not need to be expounded and discussed. Because the magisterum requires “the full and unconditional assent of the faithful” to this teaching, it devolves on Catholic theologians to explain this as fully and adequately as they can.

According to Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, the authentic development in Catholic doctrine with respect to the status of women in society and in the Church does not require their admission to the ministerial priesthood. Closing off this possibility has led the Church to search for new ways to identify the “genius” of woman and a new commitment to foster the collaboration of men and women in the Church and in society.

All in all, this is a strikingly sober and measured account of the matter, and a shining example of Catholic theological method at its best.

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5 Responses to The Catholic Priesthood and Women: An end to confusion

  1. Christine says:

    Sounds like a great book, I’ll put it on my list.

    Because of many relocations as a child, from Europe to Australia and ultimately the U.S. I attended various Lutheran churches as a child, with some LCMS congregations in the U.S.

    When I ended up in the ELCA I never was quite comfortable with female pastors. Granted, it was partly because I never saw them in my formative years because they didn’t yet exist, but something inherently didn’t fit, iconically speaking.

    Having seen the roads taken by some female clergy in the Lutheran/Episcopal/Mainstream Protestant world (and of course not to forget the wacky womyn/womenpriests who consider themselves Catholic) I think my instincts have proven right.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Thanks David – I also found the reason/explanation distinction helpful. It’s a distinction that makes sense when you start with the church, and the Scriptures arising out of the church.

  3. L P Cruz says:


    Does she have Scriptural arguments too?

    I find the arguments more philosophical than theological though, but she has interesting method nevertheless.


  4. Schütz says:

    LP, this is the interesting thing about Butler’s approach: even though she acknowledges that an arguement can be made on the basis of the NT scriptures, she (like the Church) does not base the male-only priesthood on scripture proof-texts.

    The reason for this is simple–and in fact self-evident. The male only priesthood (like the all sacraments) is not instituted by Scripture, but by Christ. The Scriptures naturally bear this fact out, but do not provide a full blown argument for male only priesthood. The continuous practice of the Church taken TOGETHER WITH the Scriptural witness bears out the fact that this is the will of Christ.

    Thus the “reductionist” approach that admits only sciptural evidence (and which will never be conclusive) is circumvented.

  5. L P Cruz says:

    On my part, I am of the position that by Scriptural witness, there is no example for the ordination of women into the pastoral role.

    It depends on how one gives credence to an argument from silence.

    My trouble is that the theological method used by the Sister is that it can be sophistic as a model for theologizing.

    It is philosophically brilliant, I will credit her with that.


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