Can Women be Priests? by Paul Lakeland. Introduction

Can Women be Priests ?

by Paul Lakeland

Theology Today Series, General Editor: Edward Yarnold, published by The Mercier Press, Dublin & Cork.
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions.


I suspect that a common Catholic reaction to a book on women priests will be a mystified impatience. ‘Why waste time writing on the subject? We all know that women priests are just not on.’

But a female priesthood must be considered as a serious possibility for at least three reasons. First, there is a growing number of Christian Churches with female ministers who not only preach and perform pastoral service, but also celebrate the Eucharist; Catholics must make up their minds whether such a ministry is an obstacle to reunion or intercommunion. Secondly, some Churches which are faced with the question whether to adopt a female ministry are so ecumenically minded that they do not think it right to make the decision alone, but only in concert with other Christian bodies; accordingly there will be pressure on the Catholic Church to state a reasoned position. Thirdly, there are already needs and currents within the Catholic Church itself moving it towards the adoption of a female priesthood; the growing shortage of priests, for example, an increasing understanding of the potentialities of female ministries within the Church, and a spreading awareness that many elements in the Catholic system which in the past have been regarded sacrosanct owe their existence more to cultural than to theological factors and may therefore be open to revision.

The priesthood of women is an emotive issue, and both its advocates and its opponents often base their cases on irrational grounds. The author’s careful assessment of the arguments is therefore especially valuable.

E. J. Yarnold, S.J.


Whether or not women can be validly ordained to the priesthood, and whether, if they can, it is advisable to do so at the present time, are not yet burning issues throughout the Catholic Church. Locally, however, notably in the United States, and here and there through the work of certain pressure-groups (St Joan’s Alliance, for example) the question has been discussed for some time. The establishment of a papal commission to study the role of women in the Church and society shows that at least the wider aspect is beginning to be taken seriously at the institutional level. Further, the ordination of women to the diaconate is on the list of subjects for study by the Pope’s International Theological Commission.

Interest, then, is growing. At the same time, the evidence from other Churches where the debate is more advanced suggests that the idea is destined to arouse considerable opposition. In the Swedish Lutheran Church, for example, where the ordination of women was recognised as their right in law as a result of parliamentary legislation for women’s equality, it was found necessary by one bishop in the summer of 1973 to hold two separate ordination ceremonies on the same day; one in the morning for the women and those men who approved of women’s ordination, and one in the evening for those men who objected. In the Anglican communion many people believe that there are no sufficient theological objections to the ordination of women, but that other practical and ecumenical considerations may make a postponement of the logical next step prudent. Hence the furore caused by the unilateral decision in the Anglican Church of Hong Kong to ordain two women to the priesthood.

Concern about the advisability or possibility of ordaining women within the Roman Church can be considered on the wearisomely familiar polarisation model. If you have the feeling that the Church is crumbling, eroded by its battering at the hands of the modern whims and fancies it has so eagerly espoused in the last decade, then the movement for the ordination of women will be very easily, and in some ways correctly, identified as one of the manifestations of the women’s liberation movement. The Right Rev. Cyril Eastaugh, former Anglican bishop of Peterborough, has said that ‘Today we are seeking steadily to erode the difference between the sexes. Among some of the young it is difficult to tell male from female. Some seem to see this as a sign of emancipation and progress, but this is a sign of a society in decay’ (The Times, 14 May 1973). An interesting statement, because behind the bishop’s words is the idea that the sexes are ‘not equal’ but ‘different and complementary’, an opinion whose legitimate and illegitimate conclusions we will meet again and again in the following pages. Even Gay Lib. would agree about this complementarity, at least at the physical level, but the point that the unisex society seems to me to be making is that people may no longer be defined solely by their biological roles, or by the psychological extrapolations from them which go by the name, in Church circles, of the ‘fundamental nature’ of the sexes. As I shall attempt to show later, this definition by function or ‘nature’ not only ignores the emotional and psychological ambivalence of most individuals, but also tends to make personality subservient to crude socialisation along sex-difference lines.

If, on the other hand, you believe that the Church is doomed unless it makes itself relevant to today’s generation, then you will be inclined to move from the undeniable statement that the Church has been for the last thousand years the main force operating in society against the emancipation of women to the automatic assumption that she should redress this by moving equally unthinkingly in the opposite direction. I have said elsewhere that the twin poles of the current debate are obfuscation and trendiness, and I hope here to steer between the two. There is little to choose between desperate rationalisations of the bastions of bachelordom on the one hand, and the flight from reason in the name of common sense on the other.

To understand what kind of a debate we are entering, and ultimately what kind of a book this is, it is necessary to appreciate the difference between ‘problems’ and ‘issues’. So, for example, whether or not to build a tunnel linking France and England, or whether a particular country should join, stay in or leave the United Nations, are issues, not problems. As issues they raise problems: how should the tunnel be built, who should finance it, and what would be the social implications for both the French and English communities living at either end. The issue precedes the problem, and must be approached by asking the question, ‘Is it a good idea?’. This cannot be answered without reference to some of the problems involved, and so the whole complicated network of problems, decisions and issues comes into existence. Problems of their nature threaten and sometimes engulf the issues which caused them to arise in the first place.

Whether or not women should be ordained to the Roman Catholic priesthood is an issue, not a problem. The answer is ‘yes’ or ‘no’. It will raise three kinds of problems: practical problems of how it should be done; logically prior to these, several real theological objections on the one hand and several spurious ones on the other. To put it another way, there are the problems to be solved to give a clear answer to the question, and there are those to be overcome to enable people to approach the real problems fairly.

The four chapters which comprise the body of this book raise and try to answer problems upon which a clear response to the issue depends. In the consideration of individual problems, the issue may seem to disappear for a time, particularly in the first chapter on tradition. Discussion of the problems has constantly to be related back to the central issue, so that the reader is asking himself or herself how the attitude to the issue is being modified. Progressively, the attitude should move from ‘why?’ to ‘why not?’ and perhaps even conclude by being ‘how and when?’. The ordination of women (as an issue, not a problem) is a theologically neutral idea, and problems arise only in related fields. These problems, some false and some real, are the ones discussed here: namely, the bar on women in the ministry from tradition, from scripture, from the nature of women, and from the nature of the priesthood.

What about the preliminary question: ‘Is it a good idea?’? Obviously, innovations should not be made simply because there are no serious theological problems involved. It could be argued that it is a matter of justice, but this should be countered by reference to the prior need in Church life to avoid disruption of good order. ‘Good order’, rightly understood, is the key to discovering the worth of the idea. Good order lies behind many of the strictures of the Pauline letters, but given more than a negatively disciplinarian role by being expressed as ‘building up the body of Christ’. Would women priests, then, help to build up the body of Christ, granted that there were no serious theological objections to them?

For a sketch of an answer to this the reader should look at the conclusion to this book, but here it is worth drawing attention to the method for approaching the problem, the much-abused ‘reading the signs of the times’. Quite a lot will be said about this in the first chapter, and there it will be closely tied in with an “immanentist” understanding of revelation. For the moment we must be content with saying that it forms one part of the two-way process of theologising: it involves applying the insights and needs and knowledge of contemporary man to the message of the gospel, as the other aspect consists in submitting these insights, needs and knowledge to critical evaluation in the light of the gospel.

A word or two about practicalities: the terms priest, ministerial priesthood, minister, president of the eucharistic assembly and others are interchanged freely in these pages, but it should always be assumed unless explicitly stated to the contrary that by these I am referring to the priesthood as we now know it in the Roman Catholic Church. There are many other better words to describe their activity and function, but by using the one we happen to have, we can indicate the better that women priests would be ‘real’ priests, and not some kind of compromise to keep everyone happy.

The order of the argument is from the general to the specific. Tradition and scripture are not only the most common areas from which arguments against the ordination of women are extracted, they are also vitally important background areas to approach sensibly if we are going to make any headway in this or any other theological inquiry. So we begin here with a discussion of various problems from tradition, and attempt to outline a right understanding of how tradition relates to our particular concern, and then we go on to look at the status and nature of the evidence in the much-quoted ‘antifeminist’ texts of Saint Paul. This is followed by an examination of the Genesis accounts of the creation of mankind and the fall, in order to see with what justification they have been employed in the name of sexual subordinationism. This ‘anthropology of Eden’ also forms a bridge to the second group of chapters, in which we turn our attention to questions of the relationship between the sexes, and between the sexes and their symbols. Finally, we relate these symbols to the real persons they represent in the context of theological statements, and ask the simple question: if some of the symbolism of the priesthood is inherently masculine, is it not possible to discover some equally valid but perhaps dormant symbols of the priesthood which are equally inherently feminine? There remain only the questions ‘how?’ and ‘when?’.

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