Ordaining women to the priesthood will not fix the church’s institutional problems

When the Catholic Church officially addresses the question of whether women can be ordained to the priesthood, as it did in “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis,” the answer is generally something along the lines of: “It can’t be done.”

To the modern ear that “can’t” is jarring.

After all, the history of humanity is very much a history of proving that we can do something that we couldn’t do before. And the Christian faith expands human capabilities well beyond natural limits.

So when she says she “can’t,” the church must be drawing from a deep biblical, historical and theological tradition, as Avery Dulles, S.J., noted in “Gender and Priesthood: Examining the Teaching.”

And that reality raises another possibility: Perhaps when we ask if women can be ordained, we are asking the wrong question.

There are some cases where women experience a sincere desire to be priests, as in the case of St. Therese of Lisieux, who eventually understood her vocation to include a special dedication to supporting priests.

Her writings manifest the prayerful way she processed her desire. I have no doubt that it was challenging for her, nor that it continues to be challenging for other women.

But the experiences of many may be more connected to a desire to improve upon flawed understandings or experiences of the priesthood.

When we see our ordained leaders fail us, sincere Catholics start to look for solutions.

For some, this includes women’s ordination.

The problem with this is that we are responding to a failure, an abuse of power, which is more of a management crisis.

And we think that in order to remedy the situation, power must be redistributed.

That might be part of the solution, as I will discuss below.

But it also reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the priesthood and an underappreciation of its being based on the priesthood of Christ who came as “a servant for all.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1551)

That particular role of servant is actually one of profound love, culminating in the passion and death of our Lord.

And yes, unfortunately, that reality has not been lived out by some of the ordained, even if we can all point to good examples of men who are ordained ministers.

When we experience more than a few tragic examples (like the sex abuse scandals), faithful Catholics cannot but look for solutions to the problem.

Including the laity

In terms of decision making, there is no reason why clerics cannot better incorporate the laity. Yes, canon law does have a top-down model.

At the same time, it does not limit a bishop or priest from delegating decision-making power.

Last year, I worked on webinars with Cardinal George Pell from Australia (and the Vatican) and Archbishop Anthony Muheria from Kenya.

When speaking on the topic of transparency and the Catholic Church, each of them said that because they picked competent people—people who were skilled and willing to ask the tough questions—they never had to contradict the decisions of their diocesan finance councils.

The same should be true of other advisory boards, such as those that review cases of sex abuse.

Relying on expert and strong-minded laywomen and men is a way for a bishop to utilize professional expertise outside the realm of his own skillset and to be more certain in his decisions.

While the bishop is ultimately responsible for the final decision, canon law does not prohibit him from diffusing the power of his office through collegiality.

I would also add that often we think that priests are someone who they are not; in these cases, the laity performs a reverse clericalism.

We expect them to make significant decisions on important matters as if the only people who should weigh in are those in clerical collars.

In the words of my mother, “Gone are the days when the priest was the only one in the parish who could read and write.”

In fact, those days have been gone for a really long time.

The governance and decision-making structures of the parishes and dioceses could evolve to include much more input from lay people without contradicting canon law; this would be very much in concert with Pope Francis’ ideas for church reform.

In some places, this is already happening.

When Cardinal Pell was Prefect of the Secretariat of the Economy at the Vatican, he was known for designating a laywoman on his staff who was eminently qualified in economics to attend meetings that were traditionally reserved for ranking clerics.

Ordination, he understood, does not confer an M.B.A. on the ordained man.

Pope Francis has famously said that our ordained leaders need to “smell like the sheep.”

This could also be applied to decision making so that decisions are not made in isolation from the flock.

In our Program of Church Management in Rome, we have been fortunate to construct a faculty that is representative of all vocations, in which practitioners share their expertise with current and future church leaders so that they may better steward the assets of the church.

Of course, in order for this to work, the church has to be willing to pay competitive salaries for competent expertise.

My proposal is more structural than the superficial attempts of those who want to keep dysfunctional clerical structures in place and simply add women.

I recently read of a highly qualified woman who had been appointed to one such structure, and my immediate response was, “Great, now they’re wasting her time, too.”

While it was somewhat of an honour for her to be given the appointment, I couldn’t help but think that she would probably be a lot more effective if she were given more of a leadership role to create and direct something.

Most of these roles in the church do not require priestly ordination.

Abolishing clericalism, not abetting it

In addition to women’s ordination being the wrong solution to the problems we face, I find it limiting and another form of clericalism.

The church teaches consistently that the greatest in the kingdom of heaven are not the ordained, but the saints. And for those who have been exposed to terrible clericalism, they tend to join in Dante’s famous opinion that many ordained ministers are sadly not in heaven.

I would like to think that we are beyond the 1980s when many women in the workplace felt that to be accepted they had to act and dress like men.

Women should not have to change who they are in order to have their significance in the church recognized.

Also, it is important to recognize that the vast majority of men are not called to the priesthood; it makes little sense to limit or shape conversations about the vocation of women in the church around the subject of ordination.

Similarly, at least in developed countries, we have seen a shift in the meaning of diversity.

Forty years ago, diversity meant including people who would not normally be at the table because of their ethnicity and/or sex while expecting them to conform to the behaviours, norms and characteristics of those who already had a seat at the table.

Now, when practised integrally, diversity means that we value the perspectives of people of different backgrounds rather than expecting them to conform to the pre-existing ideals and characteristics of a larger group of people.

Scriptural examples

When it comes to the question of the role of women in the church, I am particularly convinced that we can only move forward by thoroughly reexamining our past and, by doing so, deepening our understanding of the roles of women in Scripture.

The Bible offers numerous examples where Jesus refused to be constrained by cultural norms around the diversity of vocation.

In his encounters with everyone from the Pharisees to the adulterous woman, he modelled new behaviours and called people to unique roles.

A few examples come to mind.

We are generally familiar with the account of Mary, the young teenager, giving her assent to become the mother of God in Luke 1:38: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”

Her powerful witness to accept the will of God is not often enough seen as a precursor to Jesus’ acceptance of his cross during his passion—one which he arguably accepted before

Mary’s acceptance but which is made known to humanity in a different sequence: “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still, not my will but yours be done” (Lk 22:42).

Jesus had two natures: human and divine.

In his human nature, he humbled himself to learn as we do. Various parables demonstrate that he learned from his mother as a child, accompanying her in her daily duties that involved bread making, sewing and other household tasks. Perhaps on a human level, he also learned from her the fiat (“let it be done”) that preceded his own fiat as articulated during his Passion.

Another favourite scripture passage of mine is the story of the woman at the well (Jn 4:4-29).

She is cut off from her community because of the public nature of her sins, so she gets water at midday when most people would be inside avoiding the heat of the day.

To this woman, who is not even Jewish, Jesus reveals himself as the Messiah.

Upon hearing this revelation, the woman goes to tell people about him, and they come to him. In many ways, she could be called a proto-evangelist.

When Mary of Bethany washes the feet of Jesus with a costly ointment and dries them with her hair (Jn 12:1-3), tradition and commentators relegate her to the role of the sinful woman (though we all share that part of the human experience).

But keep in mind that John says that this happens just six days before the Passover, the same Passover where Jesus will wash the feet of his disciples (Jn 13:4-10).

Matthew and Mark also record this event, putting it within two days of the Passover (Mt 26: 1-13; Mk 14:1-9).

Tradition holds that she was cleansed of her sins in this unique gesture of humility toward the one who could forgive sins.

Strikingly, Jesus uses that same gesture to model to his apostles how they are to model his forgiveness towards penitents. Nothing is simply coincidental in Scripture.

Soon after, knowing that his mother and other women are nearby in Bethany, Jesus tells his disciples to make preparations for the Passover (Mt 26:17-19; Mk 14:12-16; Lk 22:7-12).

In other words, he told them to do “women’s work.”

Given his divine nature, he knew the greatness of his mother Mary and Mary Magdalene. He also knew that some of the apostles would fail him the very night of his Passion.

After his death, Mary Magdalene is the first to whom Christ appears (Jn 20: 11-18).

He instructs her to go to the apostles and tell them what she has seen.

For this reason, in the 13th century, St. Thomas Aquinas called her the “apostle to the apostles.” In 2019, Pope Francis elevated her feast day to a feast for the universal Church.

And finally, through her active openness to grace, Tradition holds that Jesus’s mother becomes—in the same room where the Last Supper was held—the authority of grace on Pentecost for the apostles (Acts 2:1-3).

Priests, prophets and kings

Clearly, these women responded to Jesus in a way that set them apart from others, even from his closest disciples.

He did not choose to limit their role in the church to that of his ordained ministers; but he clearly elevated some to at least the level of his apostles.

We ought to spend more time considering this reality.

By revisiting the examples provided in Scripture, we can expand our vantage point for understanding the exercise of power in the church and thereby clarify the relationship between management roles and ordination.

Then, with a deeper appreciation for the value of the kingly component of baptism, we can unravel the identity crisis identified by the Second Vatican Council and overcome the burden of clericalism.

Jesus said that the harvest is great.

Perhaps the labourers are so few simply because we have not yet appreciated the depth and breadth of his witness.

  • Pia de Solenni is a moral theologian. She currently serves as the president and executive director of the Global Institute for Church Management.
  • First published in America Magazine.
Additional reading

News category: Analysis and Comment.

Tags: , , ,