“No one has a right by baptism to ordination”

In April, a group of excommunicated former Catholics pretended to ordain a former nun (also now excommunicated latae sententiae) to the Catholic priesthood. These theatrical performances happen from time to time, and the religiously illiterate mainstream media always covers the event with headlines like “Indiana Nun Ordained a Catholic Priest.” This weekend, I plan to have a ceremony with some friends declaring myself the Grand Poobah of the Loyal Order of the Water Buffaloes (Lodge 26). The media are invited to attend.

Explaining the rationale behind the male-only priesthood is simple:

  1. The priest is functioning in persona Christi, and Jesus was male.
  2. Christ called only men to be apostles, and the priesthood is an extension of the apostolic role.
  3. From the very beginning, the Church understood this to mean that, although women were among the first, and often most important, witnesses to the ministry of Christ, they were never counted among the twelve. They have a different role. No less important, but different.
  4. The Church has no authority to ordain women, because doing so would overturn 2000 years of consistent teaching that was never in any doubt whatsoever.
  5. Since ordaining women would undermine those 2000 years of consistent tradition, it would strike at the heart of the Church’s teaching authority and throw the Church into schism as factions line up on different sides.

As I said: simple in theory. And yet … not so simple in practical reality. People can listen to all that, which is perfectly rational, and have a fundamentally emotional–but no less valid–response: it’s still not fair. It’s a valid response because it seems to speak to our everyday experience of the modern world, in which absolute equality must govern all relations and all institutions. Everything is recast as a power relationship. The priesthood is simply another authority role that needs to be split evenly between men and women, or else it’s an offense to justice.

Never mind that the priesthood is a role of service, and that we are called to different kinds of service. And never mind the consistent teaching stretching all the way back to Christ himself, who certainly could have numbered the Marys, Martha, Salome, and others among the twelve. He witnessed to them repeatedly, and their integral role in the Gospels and in supporting the early Church provided ample opportunity to confer priesthood upon them. Jesus overturned other social conventions of the time, so what was one more? The ancient world was full of priestesses. In fact, there were probably more priestesses than priests, and they often had greater authority in pagan cultures.

And yet, from the very beginning, in the New Testament and the early Church, it never happened. That should tell us something. We should learn from it, rather than thinking, “Well, He made a mistake on this one. He was a first century Jewish guy bound by the conventions of his time and place. We know better now.”

We’ve been thinking variations of that thought since about Genesis 3:5. So how’s that working out for us?

When these imaginary “ordinations” happen, Bishops have to respond in order to make sure their flock isn’t confused or led astray. In Indianapolis, Bishop Coyne sent out a letter that strikes an excellent balance between charity and discipline. Here’s part of what he had to say (emphasis added):

The Roman Catholic Church does not ordain women. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is very clear on this issue. As it states in the catechism: “Only a baptized man validly receives sacred ordination. The Lord Jesus chose men to form the college of the twelve Apostles, and the Apostles did the same when they chose collaborators to succeed them in their ministry. The college of bishops, with whom the priests are united in the priesthood, makes the college of the twelve an ever-present and ever-active reality until Christ’s return. The Church recognizes herself to be bound by this choice made by the Lord himself. For this reason, the ordination of women is not possible” (#1577).

The ordination of men to the priesthood is not merely a matter of practice or discipline with the Catholic Church, but rather, it is part of the deposit of faith handed down by Christ through his Apostles. The Catholic Church has always followed Jesus’ example, and does not believe it has the authority to change what Jesus instituted. The will of Christ is not arbitrary.

The woman who attempted ordination this past weekend may have chosen to be a priest in some other “catholic” church, but it is not the one headed by Pope Benedict XVI. She cannot be a priest in a church that has not called her to that priesthood.

She herself states that by attempting ordination and denying the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching in a public act, she has placed herself outside of the Church’s communion. This offers further argument against her “ordination” since to be ordained to the sacred priesthood is to be ordained to obedience in mind and soul to the Church’s magisterium. One cannot serve in obedience if one was ordained in an act of disobedience.

The Catholic Church’s teaching on the ordination of women does not mean that the Church values women less than men. The Catholic Church is sustained by the important contributions of women each and every day. The Catholic Church has always taught that men and women have the same dignity, but they have different duties or gifts. All these gifts are central to the faith and the life of the Catholic Church.

In secular society today, we talk about equal rights and equal protection under the law. That means many different things to different people. In the Church, we believe in an equality of dignity between men and women that is bestowed on each of us by the Holy Spirit in our equal call to holiness. The only universal call is the call to holiness.

No one has a right by baptism to ordination. Ordination to the ministerial priesthood is a distinct gift. It is a gift that exists for the service of God and the Church. In accepting and handing on this gift, the Church is bound by fidelity to the example of Christ to reserve ordination to males who have legitimately received this call from God, and who are accepted by the Church as having received this call.

If you’re remaining in the Catholic Church in the hope that women’s ordination will get here some day, or that it can be nudged along by stunts like this, then you’re deceiving yourself. The Church may well ordain married men one day, since that is a discipline and not dogmatic, but it will never ordain women for very simple reason: it can’t. The Church exists to pass on the faith as received.  It’s perfectly possible to make up a whole new Christian faith and set your own rules. It happens every day. It’s called Protestantism, and there are churches in every town where women preach and minister.

But are they not, and never can be, the one true Church founded by Christ. Sorry if that seems unjust, but we don’t make the rules. We just try to follow them as best we can, and if the “women priests” and their supporters want to be Catholic, they should try to do the same thing.

(H/T Michelle Arnold of Catholic Answers, who posted the Bishop’s letter on Facebook)

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About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.

  • http://muddleoftheroad.blogspot.com/ David Wickert

    Women priests will come. Married priests, Gay and straight of both sexes will come. Only a matter of time before the idea is accepted by the vast majority of Catholics. It may be a long time. the Church changes slowly but it will happen.

    A majority of Catholics are already fed up with the current all male, all elderly heirachy and the way they are running the Church. There may not be much of a church left by the time it changes but then will be a time of healing, rebuilding and an outpouring of God’s love for all his children.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com Thomas L. McDonald

    Wishing will make it so.

    I don’t get it. You can have all the married/female/gay/other priests you want. Just go here: http://www.episcopalchurch.org/

    We’ll keep the porch light on for you.

    And, no: it won’t happen. Because it can’t happen.

  • TCM

    David, all of those things you say “will happen” will indeed happen. They will happen in the “American Catholic Church” which will be populated by Catholics who want to see the church reflect the times, instead of what is eternal. And that will be fine. But just understand, the American Catholic Church will be a Protestant entity. It will not be the Roman Catholic church.

  • Jared

    You…you’ve never met a young priest or deacon?

  • Dennis

    David, the day they ordain a woman as a priest is the day I leave the Catholic Church. The reason? If they are wrong about this doctrine (it’s not simply a disciplinary rule), then they can be wrong about anything, such as the Eucharist, confession, even the divinity of Christ. A Catholic Church that would ordain woman would be a sham and intellectually lacking.

  • http://www.helwys.com/books/hidden_voices.html Heidi Bright Parales MDiv

    The 12 disciples became the 12 apostles after Christ’s resurrection. In the Gospel of John, Jesus gave Mary Magdalene the apostolic role of telling the other 12 that he had risen, making Mary apostle to the apostles. The woman Junia is mentioned by the Apostle Paul in Romans 16 as outstanding among the apostles–enough to be imprisoned for her faith. There have been women consecrated as bishops in the early Catholic church–Theodora in Rome and St. Brigid of Kildare in Ireland. Various attempts through the years have been made to alter the evidence because it is embarrassing to Church leadership. Yet the evidence is there, and is reliable.
    If the Catholic Church decided to ordain women, the Church would be following the example of Jesus, evidence in the New Testament, and the practices of the early Church. The book “Hidden Voices: Biblical Women and Our Christian Heritage”
    ([link deleted]) addresses all these issues.

  • Kenneth Ethan Frantz

    I’m sorry, but religion evolves just like every else. Your branch of the church will come around sooner or later. Women will be ordained.

  • Kenneth Ethan Frantz

    …every THING else.

  • Oregon Catholic

    Spoken like a true protestant. Which one of the ever-evolving 30,000 christian churches have you evolved into?

  • Oregon Catholic

    Your own Baptist religion didn’t ordain women until the 1920s. Some people are more interested in progressive ideas than Truth.

  • Alcide’s Girl

    Your explanation for denying women’s inclusion into the priesthood sounds bigoted and uninformed. None of the apostles were black, Asian, or Native American. So by your logic (i.e. tradition demonstrates no female apostles or priests) then blacks, Asians, and Native Americans also do not have a right to be ordained, as none of the recorded apostles belonged to these ethnic groups. Do you believe this? You can stand behind your misinformation all you want, but bigotry is bigotry, whether it’s against an ethnic group, a religion, or a gender.

    And btw I’m not even Christian (I’m Wiccan) and even I’ve heard of Junia!

    [TLMcD: One of the pleasures of the internet: having a bigoted and uninformed person accuse me of being bigoted and uninformed. Do I really need to point out that race or ethnicity has never been a bar to ordination, while gender has?]

  • Alcide’s Girl

    Hypocrisy. That’s my point (which you apparently missed). You argued that it’s acceptable to deny women’s ordination into the priesthood simply based on the belief that basically, “well, there’s no female apostles, tradition, etc…” Really!? So basically your argument is no female apostles = no priests, but YET you don’t hold the same bigoted logic for other issues. That’s hypocrisy.

    My brother-in-law is black and in the priesthood (not Catholic obviously). He brings this up all the time when we discuss hypocrisy and illogical arguments.

    Your argument is not only bigoted, it makes no sense.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com Thomas L. McDonald

    No, dear: that’s called Tradition. It’s what Catholics have to guide us. Gender and race/ethnicity are not the same thing. Do you need me to draw pictures of those parts that girls and boys have which are different?

    I know trying to reason with a self-described “wicca” is a pointless exercise, because if you had any reason you would have picked a real religion, not one cooked up by Gerald Gardner in between bong hits. The point is this: the clear and consistent teaching of the church for 2000 years is that only men are ordained to the priesthood. (In case you’re wondering, women CAN be Cardinals. Mother Theresa was offered a seat in the College of Cardinals. She declined.) No similar tradition ever existed in regards to race. What this has to do with hypocrisy is anyone’s guess, since, as I’ve tried to point, and will gladly repeat with visuals aids, RACE AND GENDER ARE DIFFERENT THINGS.

    But go right ahead, keep using your little buzzwords du jour, like “bigot” and hypocrite.” “Racist” and “sexist” and homophobic” are also useful in case you get bored with those. Because God knows that someone can’t have a different opinion than you without being a bigot.

  • Alcide’s Girl

    It’s bigotry. Period. When I see bigotry towards any group (race, gender, sexual identity, religion) it pisses me off. You can put your entire argument in caps all you want. You argue bigotry, you’re going to get a called on it.

    Denying someone ordination based on gender is bigotry. Plain and simple. Don’t like it being pointed out? Get a better argument then.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com Thomas L. McDonald

    Just keep repeating your pet word over and over and over again, and that will always carry the day. I’m pretty sure you didn’t even read my initial post, since the “Wimmin-folk ‘r infurior an’ shud be kipt barfeet and prednint” part was mysteriously left out. How a rational argument based on scripture, tradition, consistent teaching, the church’s understanding of herself, and our best efforts to understand the will of Christ gets transformed into “Women shouldn’t be priests because they are inferior” (the argument required for me to be a bigot, and which I never said) is a mystery maybe a wicca can explain to me sometime. Maybe you can try a Spell of Understanding? Or try rolling a couple D20s? We rely on Tradition to guide us because the alternative (“making crap up,” aka, wicca) doesn’t really work with grown-ups.

    By the way, you tripped the special circuit breaker that usually keeps me from being rude to people in forums when you used one of the Special Words (in your case: bigot) that people use when they can’t argue about something on its merits. Once you cross that Rubicon, you’ll be treated with a fairly consistent level of contempt until you either backtrack or leave.

    I vote for “leave,” since what Catholics do is of no interest whatsoever to non-Catholics. (If I searched in Muslim forums, wouldn’t I find you calling them bigots for not having female imams? Somehow I doubt it.)

  • Allyson

    I love your blog, but you easily could have made your point in the comments above while maintaining a certain level of charity.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com Thomas L. McDonald

    Thanks for the kind words, and believe me, I hear you and understand your point about charity. It’s something that’s been on my mind as I’ve had to respond to various people, and it seems to me that certain buzzwords are being used to shove us out of society: homophobe, bigot, hater, racist, ignorant, uninformed, and so on. I won’t stand for it any more. When someone uses those words, it signals to me an attempt to shut down rational discourse by characterizing certain opponents and points of view as unworthy of playing any part in the world. I intend to push back against that, hard. I understand that charity and a calm, considered response is the preferred way to go. On the other hand, I see us being pushed to the margins of society by the incessant use of these words and ideas, and I will not go meekly. There were times when Jesus urged us to turn the other cheek and walk the second mile, and times when he called out the “brood of vipers,” knotted a rope, and got down to work. I’m afraid, in 2012, we are in the latter time.

    PS: During my years of religious wandering (I was out of the church for 15 years) I studied and encountered many religions and belief systems, including many pagans. Among all of them, the nebulous set of “beliefs” lumped together under “wicca” was the one I respected the least. Scientology has a greater claim to respectability.

  • enness

    Speak for yourself. Being in the prime of my youth, this is my hour…and I fully support the Church’s teachings. This is a settled issue.

  • enness

    Inherent in the complaint is always the idea that the priesthood is somehow better than other callings within the Church. Now *that* is insulting if you ask me. It seems to me as an unnecessary power struggle rooted in jealousy and suspicion. I do not need to do every blooming thing a man does in order to feel validated.

  • E. L.


    Thank you for this explanation. However I would like to suggest that you might be missing something about the nature of the magisterium, and the nature of tradition as a source of authority. Here is a blog post that examines how the church has changed its position on some things without invalidating its own authority. The subject is not women as priests but women as equal to men, which (counter your post) does not seem to be something the church has always taught:


  • JD

    “The Church has no authority to ordain women, because doing so would overturn 2000 years of consistent teaching that was never in any doubt whatsoever.”

    Seriously? Go study history and come back when you find one area of Church tradition that has not changed or been doubted. This issue in particular has been debated throughout history within the Church, long before Protestants entered the scene. It’s one thing to claim your position is scripturally based, quite another when you say “we are doing it this way because that’s the way we have always done it,” but completely discreditable when you say “we believe this because we’ve never questioned it and no one should.” THAT is just frightening. And inaccurate.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com Thomas L. McDonald

    Well, then you’ll find this REALLY “frightening”: my area of concentration for masters in theology is church history. So, I’d just LOVE for you to show me where in the documents of the fathers or the councils there’s some approval for female priests. The church has revisited or refined SOME elements of doctrine (not dogma) over the years, but never one that was so clearly and consistently understood.

  • Amy

    There’s a logical problem with the first three points:

    1.The priest is functioning in persona Christi, and Jesus was male.
    2. Christ called only men to be apostles, and the priesthood is an extension of the apostolic role.
    3. From the very beginning, the Church understood this to mean that, although women were among the first, and often most important, witnesses to the ministry of Christ, they were never counted among the twelve. They have a different role. No less important, but different.

    By this logic, all priests should be ethnically Jewish. Jesus was Jewish, the twelve apostles (+ Paul, the apostle-to-the-Gentiles) was also Jewish. There were important Gentiles and Samaritans in the Bible who were played a special role (Photini–the Samaritan woman, Cornelius, just to name a scarce few, there were more) in spreading the Gospel. However, Jesus didn’t pick any non-Jews to be his apostles, and He Himself was Jewish. Therefore, by the previous logic, all priests should me male AND Jewish [by ethnicity.]

    As for the other two:
    4. The Church has no authority to ordain women, because doing so would overturn 2000 years of consistent teaching that was never in any doubt whatsoever.
    5. Since ordaining women would undermine those 2000 years of consistent tradition, it would strike at the heart of the Church’s teaching authority and throw the Church into schism as factions line up on different sides.

    The Church has overturned tradition before. Think about Vatican II–now Liturgy is in various languages. The Church survived that. The reality is that the heart of the Church’s authority is being undermined by clinging to and supporting the status quo. What is the balance between holding to tradition and being open to interpreting and applying the Gospel in a new age, with developments that were not addressed in Scripture?

    I don’t mean to be offensive. I ask this as a young [Orthodox] woman, struggling with this same teaching in my own church. Just because something was always done a certain way doesn’t make it right. There were slaves in Jesus’ time as well, which nobody in Scripture outright condemned, and yet we see that slavery is immoral. We need a balance of being led by the Spirit as well as the Scriptures and Tradition.