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Religion Library: Roman Catholicism

Gender and Sexuality

Written by: Cynthia Stewart

Gender is a topic of much concern in the Catholic Church, which reserves the sacrament of Holy Orders to men. This means that women cannot be deacons, priests, or bishops and effectively excludes them from all higher levels of Church service and authority where ordination is a prerequisite. It is the Church's longstanding belief that women should not be admitted to the priesthood because Christ did not choose any women to be among his closest twelve disciples, whom Catholics view as the first Christian ministers. If Christ chose only men despite his willingness to break many social norms where women are concerned, then it is because he wished to institute the ministerial role for men alone.

The question of women in the priesthood remains very much alive despite Pope John Paul II's forceful statements in the Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (1994), declaring that "the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful." Some modern Catholics argue that Christ's choice reflected a particular societal context and that the exclusion of women from the priesthood and the diaconate is now a matter of politics and power. They believe the Church should recognize that women's creation in the image of God enables them to stand in service to others just as fully as men, and that the thinking that has kept this from happening is not immortal truth but a changing social definition. Traditionally the Church taught that women were not created with the same degree of perfection as men, unable to reason as well or reflect God as fully. While this conception of women, explicitly laid out by St. Thomas Aquinas, is no longer taught, many modern Catholics believe that the Church's current teachings remain subtly informed by it.

Women's exclusion from the priesthood was long a barrier to the diaconate as well, since deacons were merely priests in training. With Vatican II's restoration of a diaconate that does not lead to the priesthood, women's ability to fulfill this role has become more of an open question. In fact, Pope Paul VI commissioned a study to determine whether women could serve in the diaconate, but it was never published and the whole issue has been effectively tabled. The Church has not definitively stated that women will never be restored to the diaconate, a role that was open to them in New Testament times and for many centuries thereafter, but such a restoration does not appear to be on the immediate horizon.

Beyond the realm of ordination, though, the modern Church strongly affirms the dignity and worth of women. The same Pope John Paul II who definitively excluded women from the priesthood had written a few years earlier in Mulieris Dignitatem (1988) of women's vital role in the Church, their importance in the family and in society, their equal worth before God, and the need to break down societal barriers such as unequal pay that have kept them in secondary status. He repeatedly taught that the highest role any human has ever been granted by God belonged to the Blessed Virgin Mary, whom he referred to as Co-Redemptrix with her Son. In fact, in the apostolic letter barring women from the priesthood John Paul points out that this cannot indicate a lack of dignity or worth in women because Mary herself was not included among Christ's closest disciples.


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