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Catholic Theologians and the Ordination of Women

by Dr. Philip Kennedy O.P.

The Allen Review No. 15 Trinity 1996

Philip Kennedy is an Australian Dominican friar. He studied music and theology in Melbourne between 1973 and 1985. From 1986 to 1991 he worked in the University of Fribourg, Switzerland. His publications include Deus Humanissimus: The Knowability of God in the Theology of Edward Schillebeeckx (1993). He is currently a lecturer in theology at Blackfriars, Oxford.

This essay is driven by a single question: ‘Now that the Catholic Church of the Roman Rite has prohibited the priestly ordination of women, how should itstheologians respond?’ Ought they acquiesce before the interdiction so as to confirm and accept it? Or should they simply ignore it discretely? What is to be said for the case of examining it probatively, as well as discussing it critically and charitably in contemporary academies? Below, I argue that Catholic theologians currently have quite a different and lamentably overlooked function to realise. Of which, more in a moment.

The Tasks of Contemporary Christian Theologians
Theologians have several functions to perform and quite heavy burdens to undertake in our modern-to-early-postmodern worlds.By definition, they are not trained to work primarily as priests, catechists, evangelists, preachers, historians, moralists, proselytisers, propagandists, or religious educators. Instead, they are meant to be Godtalkers. They are supposed to examine language about godheads. They are required to analyse this language so as to elucidate its meanings in both an ecclesiastical forum and under the judgement of the exacting epistemological standards of presentday institutes of higher learning. To be sure, they are expected to be more concerned with analysing what people mean when they vocalise ‘God’, than with the accoutrements of religion. Their craft impels them to distinguish between idols on the one hand, and what is proclaimed as a Living God on the other. Their prolonged studies are geared to equip them with the conceptual means to elaborate the sense andasserted truth of faith in God; to scrutinise the complicated history of Christianity; to examine the features of their times; to observe the behaviour of contemporary Christians; to probe what humanity is; and to instil hope in the dispirited that they ‘may not grieve as others do who have no hope’ (1 Thess 4:13).

The Unsettling and Obscured Task of Catholic Theologians

More than that, one of the primary and frequently neglected duties of both Christian theologians in general, and Catholic theologians in particular, is the task of loyal opposition or rational questioning. In other words, when a vexed issue troubles a Christian community, and while episcopal government forbids public analysis of the matter, then theologians are called upon to serve the community and its leaders by insisting on the importance of careful intellectual examination and debate. When unfettered discussion of a major topic such as women’s ordained ministry is unilaterally proscribed by an episcopal office, then theologians need rationally to challenge the proscription and to point out honestly, openly, and forthrightly any specious argumentation-if such there be-in official episcopal teachings. Faith has nothing to fear from the exercise of reason at the highest levels of sophistication. Authoritarian dampening of discussion before an issue has been studied attentively can very easily breed either fideism or irrationalism among believers. It can also spawn discursive shallowness in churches’ public discourse. If theologians are unable to create a language that stands assuredly before the strictest canons of intelligibility and truthfulness that are relied upon by major disciplines in today’s universities, then theology becomes denominationally ghettoised and loses a public hearing.

During the past two years, Catholics have been prevented by the Holy See from debating women and priesthood. Discussion has been unilaterally foreclosed. Since the Holy See made pellucidly clear, exactly two years ago to the day, that Catholics may not promote women to public priesthood, it is exceptionally striking that Catholic theologians around the world have fallen silent, with only a few notable and sometimes embattled exceptions. What does their collective muteness mean?’ Eric Borgman, speaking only of Dutch Catholic theologians, argues that their silence indicates a blindness to theology’s role and function in modern culture.[1] I agree with him, and apply what he says of Dutch Catholics to a more international scene. I conclude that the world-wide silence of Catholic theologians is a disservice to many of our contemporaries who pine to have the possibility of women confirmed in officially sanctioned ministries publicly aired, and are sometimes deeply troubled by a cacophony of conflicting arguments. Whether theologians agree or disagree on the question, some of them could at least devote time to talking and writing about it openly.

When it comes to communication, Catholic intellectuals are left far behind fundamentalist televangelists. The latter rightly concur with postmodern imagology according to which the only responsible intellectual is a wired one. Otherwise expressed, dependable thought today is not confined to the pre-modern culture of the printed page or to the walls of the academy. It balances if not transplants the conceptual with the figural. Unmistakably, we inhabit a realm of the similacrum. Hence, intelligence is stupidity if it demures from communicating in the best way possible, which, currently, is in mediascape. With this essay, I am arguing that the vexed question of ordaining women must take to the marketplace and the street. And the street in our times is the media. Our thoughtful contemporaries deserve no less. [2]

Returning to my previous point about theological challenging, a major part of theologians’ work is resolutely to confront current traditionally-fed Christian practice and thought with three reservoirs of data: (a) the memory of an exceptionally long, profound and pluriform theological tradition; (b) the telling insights of superbly successful contemporary sciences such as quantum physics, astronomy, sociology, and biology; and (c) the finely-tuned analytical tools of contemporary philosophies.

It is all too easy for present-day Christians to imagine that their own patterns of thought and modes of action are actually either ancient and very traditional, or intellectually immune from sceptical criticism in some kind of storm-free cocoon. Quite often, however, their ideas, conventions and practices, though described as long-standing and time-honoured, are simply the recently-baked products of the modern era and thereby thoroughly tainted by its ethnically circumscribed nationalistic religiosities.

To illustrate: the High-Marian-Plaster-Statue-Roman-Collar media stereotype of contemporary Catholicism is merely a nineteenth-century carryover that bleaches the vast array of diverse interests, styles, and emphases in the contemporary Catholic landscape. It has little to do with the religion of Jesus the Jew. It might even come as a surprise to discover that Christian priests did not dress differently from other people until the eighth century when they were ordered to do so by Charlemagne, in 742. [3]

To clarify further: the modish Catholic codeword, Magisterium, is ubiquitous nowadays in Vaticanic prose. It was, of course, mentioned by Saint Augustine in his Sermon 23. In its ancient usage, however, it simply meant the function of a master or teacher who is called a magister in Latin. From the Middle Ages to the dawn of modernity, the term magisterium applied mainly to theological masters in universities.

Today the word is used in an entirely different sense. Indeed, the notion of magisterium, emloyed as a theological category to legitimate episcopal teaching, is clearly a novelty. It was not used before the ninteenth-century as a word in technical theological nomenclature. [4] It came into its own as late as 1950 with Pius XII’s encyclical, Humani Generis. Moreover, one need only read the work of Cardinal Yves Congar for a sobering semantic clarification of magisterium, which is neither a biblical nor apostolic expression.[5] Consequently, and in the light of historical data, it appears a duty of a theologian to challenge those who perpetually invoke a latterly concocted mystique of ‘Big-M-Magisterium’ in order to impress with authority, by pointing out that their invocation is based on a recent and questionable abstraction. Which is not at all to say that authoritative episcopal teachings lack an ancient pedigree or are always misplaced. When bishops speak truthfully with attested information, they also pronounce authoritatively. So too, do theologians. [6]

I have mentioned magisterium not in order to be irreverently querulous, but because it is precisely this concept that is so frequently used presently in a way that occludes one of theology’s essential intellectual functions. What do I mean? In 1987, to clarify by way of example, the Roman Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued an instruction dealing with bioethics called, Donum Vitae (‘The Gift of Life’). My interest in this text is provoked by its conclusion where one finds quite a reductionist view of a theologian’s responsibility. The text terminates by confidently addressing an invitation to theologians to help people understand the reasons for, and the validity of, the Magisterium’s teaching.[7] Note well that a validity is clearly presupposed and that magisterial authority is not to be found among theologians, but with bishops. The point to be registered at all costs here is that theology is thus reduced to catechesis, or to the elaboration of a supposedly correct episcopal doctrine. Well might one ask: Just what has happened to theology’s role of critical inquiry? What is to be retained of its responsibility for intellectual dissection and deconstruction? Where is its pressing need to sponsor searching collaborative communication across a range of rational disciplines? Whatever else theology might be it is most emphatically not mindless mimesis.

The presbyteral Ordination of Women

All that stated, I come now to linking more directly what I have just said about theologians, with the burning issue of whether women might be ordained  to the presbyterate in the Catholic Church of the Roman Rite. What I say here also applies to the concomitant questions of women’s diaconal and episcopal ordinations.

To recall: High authorities in the Catholic Church of the Roman Rite, namely, the present Bishop of Rome, Pope John Paul II, and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, have stated precisely that Catholics do not believe that women could ever be priests. I am not at all sure how they know that Catholics really believe this when they have not yet bothered to ask them. As you might have gathered, this entire business is somewhat messy.

Before I challenge the statement of the hierarchs, my readers might well be served by a brief elaboration of what prominent Catholic lesiastical governors have recently said cerning the ordination of women. [8]

The Official Arguments

Back, therefore, to 1975, when Pope Paul VI pennned a letter to the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr F. D. Coggan. The letter was called, ‘Response to the Letter of His Grace the Most Reverend Dr F.D. Coggan, Archbishop of Canterbury, concerning the Ordination of Women the Priesthood’.[9] It deployed a line of argument that has hardened in subsequent texts from the Vatican on the same issue. The argument runs – if I might caste it paraphrastically something like this: Jesus was a sovereignly free man who did not conform to misogynist cultural customs of his day. Women were quite important for him. Even so, he did not choose any women to his elite group of twelve apostles. Instead, he exclusively selected men.  These male apostles formed the foundation of a new church he wished to erect over and against Judaism. Hence, it follows that in order to be faithful to the Lord Christ Jesus one must not fly in the face of his wishes by inviting women today to assume the functions of priests.

After Pope Paul’s letter to Archbishop Coggan, (Latin) Catholic theologians debated its contents. As a result, the Pope directed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to explain further Catholicism’s views on presbyteral women. The explanation was published the next year as Inter Insigniores (‘Among the More Distinguished’). [10]

The current Bishop of Rome enunciated a similar line of argument in 1988 with his apostolic, Mulieris Dignitatem (‘On the Dignity of Women’ ). [11]

Even so, academic theologians persisted in worrying about priesthood and women. Their concerns elicited even more episcopal clarifications. On 22 May, 1994, John Paul II proclaimed an apostolic letter, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (‘On Priestly Ordination’). There he argued that presbyteral ordination must be reserved for men alone. He solemnly declared that his church is absolutely devoid of any authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women. Portentously, he stated that his judgement in this matter is to be held definitively by believers.

All that was two years ago. Once again intellectual misgivings continued to needle Catholic scholars. Thus it transpired that an even blunter statement was prepared by the Vatican. It landed like a bombshell in our public and theological worlds as one of the silliest texts the Vatican has ever produced this century. I am speaking of course of the Responsio ad Propositum Dubium, (‘Response to a Doubt that has been Proposed’) published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on 11 December 1995.[12] This text confirmed the thrust of the cluster of recent papal arguments that I have just sketched and which stretch back to 1975. Stupefyingly, it decreed that the teaching against the ordination of women is part of the deposit of faith, and that it has been infallibly proposed ‘ab ordinario et universali magisterio’, that is, by the ordinary and universal magisteriúm.

I say ‘stupefyingly’ at this juncture because the document presents Catholics with an intimidatingly self-styled binding statement in a non-binding document. Otherwise stated, even according to Catholic doctrine, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith does not enjoy the pneumatological capacity of infallibility. So Catholics are now left speechless before a document of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that presumes to speak of an infallible tenet of faith without even conforming to the legal requirements of the current Catholic Code of Canon Law which clearly lays down the criteria that must be met before any doctrine can be styled as ‘infallible’.

Once again, whether Catholics around the world actually profess the belief that women priests are inimical to Catholic faith is another matter. As I say, neither they nor their bishops have yet been comprehensively consulted. For our purposes, it is important simply to realise that John Paul II and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith assert plainly and politically that Catholic faith today does not allow for the possibility of women priests.

An Appropriate Theological Response

How should the theologian respond? With realism and upsetting responsibility. Please allow me to explain. Focusing on realism, it would be reckless of the theologian unthinkingly to fan the fires of an illusory hope in the hearts of Catholics who hanker for women to minister as men do. It is a brute matter of fact that women simply will not be ordained to the priesthood within the Church of Rome during the near future. Moreover, their exclusion is abetted by a disgraceful and demeaning climate presently hanging over the Catholic Church; a climate that stymies any responsible intellectual probing of the appropriateness, of ordaining females-or married people for that matter.

That said, I am fully aware that it is possible theologically to argue against the ordination of women. My concern in this essay is more focused on the possibilities of theologians in the Catholic Church of the Roman Rite who are inclined to argue contrapuntally in favour of women priests. May they do so freely and creatively as a service to churches and societies?

As for the upsetting responsibility of theologians faced with the exclusion of women from presbyteral functions, I would say that theologians so inclined ought to practise their craft by tempering realism with traditional challenging. In other words, they would betray their discipline if they did not serve authoritative ecclesiastical teachers by upsetting them! More particularly, in the case of the Catholic Church of the Roman Rite and women priests, it is incumbent upon theologians to confront official teachers with the unsettling witness ‘ of earlier Christian understandings of Christian identity and practice. It was once taught, we could remember, that bishops must have married once only and that they ought to keep their children submissive (See 1 Timothy 3). Our ways are not simply distinct from God’s ways. They also frequently differ markedly from a venerable Christian past. All of which Martin Luther saw only too clearly.

Obviously, as I have already predicted, the Catholic Church of the Roman Rite is not about to promote the ordination of women for a longish while to come; if indeed at all. Those living under the umbrella of that church will understandably be swayed by its authority. Others will remain disquieted. How are they to be helped?

An Illuminating Clarification from the Bible

The heart and soul of Christian thinking is the study of the Sacred Page, or the analysis of biblical texts. A most distinctive feature of modern biblical studies is that they have been liberated from the interpretative control of churches. Before the dawn of the modern era, one challenged ecclesiastical interpretations of Sacred Scripture at one’s own peril. Before the tolerations of modernity, the stake and gallows were always possibilities for exegetical recalcitrants! Once church and state became unhinged, it eventually became possible for universities of the state examine canonical texts without fear of punishment from churches.

The result is extremely revealing especially regarding the complicated question of women’s Christian ministry.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of the Catholic Church of the Roman Rite stands firm against the ordination of women on the grounds that Jesus of Nazareth selected twelve men, called apostles, or more particularly the Twelve Apostles, to perpetuate in history the church he wished to establish. The New Testament clearly indicates that there were several other apostles apart from the Twelve. On the night before Jesus was tortured and slaughtered, he is said to have initiated both the sanctified priesthood of the Apostles, and the sacrament of the eucharist. Once appointed, so this argument runs, the Apostles ordained others who in turn installed men to act as priests, bishops, and deacons in the church that professed Jesus as Christ. Because Jesus exclusively chose men. to belong to the Twelve, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith now asserts that, from his own choice to current circumstances, the Catholic Church of the Roman Rite has faithfully transmitted his priorities throughout twenty centuries of subsequent history. One is therefore not at liberty arrogantly or treacherously to betray the mind of Christ.

Such is the official story of a major church. But what about the findings of ecclesiastically independent faculties of contemporary universities? With them we stumble upon a remarkably different discourse.

Here are a few of its major conclusions: One of the most historically attested characteristics of Jesus was that he was most certainly not a priest. In the culture of his time, he was what we would perhaps call a Jewish layman of Roman prefectorial Palestine. He had no intention of founding a church because he was already a member of a great church, that is, the chosen Jewish People of God.[13] These were chosen because they were oppressed. When he appointed twelve men as his primordial Apostles, his motives could well have been determined by two cardinal factors: (a) to establish them as telling symbols of the ancient Twelve Patriarchs of Israel (see the Book of Genesis); and (b) to express a hope that the scattered Twelve Tribes of Israel would one day be restored to their former unity.[14]

Note well this word ‘Patriarch’. Quite a few Christians are perplexed today by the prospect that women were among Jesus’ most prominent followers, yet none of them was chosen by him to belong to the Twelve. Why not? Could their absence from the Twelve, and their subsequent exclusion from the priesthood, be explained on straightforward socio-cultural grounds? Because ancient Mediterranean societies were patriarchal, . according to one view it would have been inconceivable for Jesus to have chosen women as leaders or priests.

Such an explanation is ultimately unconvincing because there are several biblical warrants for concluding that Jesus was not a patriarchal paternalist. Women were hardly excluded from his ambit. Paul’s Letter to the Romans even names Junia as an apostle, though not one of the Twelve. So why did women not count among the Twelve?

The reason is evident, though frequently overlooked.It is a question of Jewish symbolism. Just as the number ‘Eleven’ is highly significant for cricketers, the figure ‘Twelve’ is religiously charged for Jews like Jesus. Jesus chose a dozen men as the Twelve pillars of his group to activate quite a precise Jewish symbolic reference which can easily be lost on those who do not think and feel as Jews. In other words, Jesus’ inner band of a dozen men symbolically refers to the Twelve Patriarchs of Israel and to Israel’s separated Twelve Tribes that are named after the sons of Jacob and that were scattered by the ancient Assyrians.

The selection of men alone to designate the Patriarchs and Tribes is thus perfectly understandable. Were a composer to write an opera about the legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, the characters of the knights would feature prominently. None of them would be cast as a woman or a soprano for the simple fact that women were never knights. Similarly, a woman could hardly. be listed among the Twelve because none of the Patriarchs or the sons of Jacob was a woman. Whether they might be designated as apostles like Junia or ordained as priests in a church looking to the future is entirely another matter. To be sure, that the collection of twelve primary Apostles figures prominently in accounts of Christian origins cannot credibly be used to exclude women from liturgically confirmed leadership in churches. The Twelve do not legitimate a new church or cultic priesthood, but refer to an ancient Semitic family. There is no textual evidence whatsoever in the New Testament demonstrating a direct link between the work of the Twelve and the three-fold ministry that evolved later in Christian history, namely the service of the episcopate, presbyterate and diaconate. As I say, the symbolism of the Twelve primarily refers to the past, and points to the future in the sense of expressing a hope in the eventual restoration of a cohesive group of twelve Jewish tribes. The twelve-fold future-hope alludes to a confederation of Semites; not to a college of bishops!

In sum, then, it is totally inadmissible on the level of the New Testament to argue decisively against the ordination of women on the basis of either the will of Christ or his choice of the Twelve. [15] Indeed, there are only two recorded statements attributed to Jesus in the Bible that explain his choice of the Twelve, and both of them refer to the Twelve Tribes of Israel (Mt 19:28; and Lk 22:30).


To conclude: With regard to the disputed question of the ordination of women, serious arguments are deployed by both opponents and advocates of the prospect. My overriding concern in this short essay has not been so much to analyse and evaluate all the arguments involved. Instead, my driving aim has been to ask how those Catholics who practise as theologians might responsibly perform their craft now that the government of the Catholic Church of the Roman Rite has gagged dialogue on the subject of ordained women.

Theology has been exercised in universities for roughly eight centuries. The last two of them have witnessed the emergence of historically-critical post-Enlightenment secular. theological faculties that are unconstrained by the legal control of the Catholic Church of the Roman Rite or its Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This means, as I indicated above, that episcopal teachings are not alone in interpreting the identity and significance of Jesus of Nazareth.

We have seen, I hope, that broadly speaking, contemporary historical Jesus Research does not corroborate unequivocally the foundation myth of the Catholic Church of the Roman Rite according to which Jesus chose the Twelve to build a post Jewish church. [16] On the contrary, it could even lay charges that the Catholic Church of the Roman Rite’s teaching in this matter is an ideological doctrinal fundamentalism. Such, in any case, would be my judgement.

I have no idea how to reconcile the two discourses of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, on the one hand, and the contemporary academy on the other. I hope that the former will listen to the latter, for one should not be required to believe that which is unexplored, demonstrably false, or falsely argued. All I am basically saying in this brief essay is that Catholic theologians should remind the governors of the Catholic Church of the Roman Rite and its Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that the latter ‘s argumentation concerning women priests is not by any means buttressed by the biblical, historical, cross-cultural, and theological researches of late twentiethcentury secular universities. Therefore, continued discussion among Catholics is a matter of urgent intellectual necessity-for the church, in its world.

Philip Kennedy is an Australian Dominican friar. He studied music and theology in Melbourne between 1973 and 1985. From 1986 to 1991 he worked in the University of Fribourg, Switzerland. His publications include Deus Humanissimus: The Knowability of God in the Theology of Edward Schillebeeckx (1993). He is currently a lecturer in theology at Blackfriars, Oxford.


(1] Erik Borgman, ‘De kerk als schijnbaar fundament: Over het zwijgen van de theologie, en het doorbreken daarvan’,  Tijdschrift voor Theologie, 35 (1995), 358-372 (pp. 358-359).

[2] Which is why I am disconcerted by the disinclination of academics in Catholic tertiary educational institutes to engage Vatican prohibitions of women’s ordination in critical dialogue. In Australia over the past two years, both the Catholic Biblical Association and the Catholic Theological Association have discussed whether women may be ordained. Neither group has seen fit publicly to disclose its findings. For a spirited defence of the view that contemporary communication requires a public, imagistic media profile, see Mark C. Taylor and Esa Saarinen, Imagologies: Media Philosophy (London: Routledge, 1994), esp. pp. 10 and 13.

[3] See Robrecht Boudens, ‘The Parish Priest in Historical Perspective’, in Europe Without Priests? (Ed by Jan Kerkhofs; London: SCM, 1995), 89-120 (P. 90).

[4] At least according to Edmund Hill who, in his researches, has not found a technical-theological use of magisterium before 1835. See his entire discussion in his, Ministry and Authority in the Catholic Church (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1988), pp. 75-88, esp. pp. 1 and 77, to which I am indebted.

[5] See Yves Congar, ‘Pour une histoire sémantique du terme “magisterium”, Revue des science, philosophiques et thélogiques, 60 (1976), 85-98.

[6] In this context see especially, Jacques M, Gres-Gayer, `The Magisterium of the Faculty of Theology of Paris in the Seventeenth Century, Theological Studies, 53:3 (1992), 424-450 (p. 424).

[7] Acta Apostolicae Sedis [AAS] 80 (1988), 70-102(p. 101).

[8] For an enlightening account of recent episcopal teachings see, Lavinia Byrne,  (London: Mowbray, 1994).

[9] AAS, 68 (1976), 599.

[10] See AAS, 69 (1977), 98-116.

[11] See AAS, 80 (1998), p.1715.

[12] AAS, 87 (1995), p. 1114.

[13] See John P. Meier,, ‘Reflections on Jesus-of-History Research Today’, in James H. Charlesworth (ed.), Jesus’ ]ewishness: Exploring the Place of Jesus . within Early Judaism (New York: Crossroad, 1991), 84-107 (p. 90).

[14] With regard to Jesus, the twelve, and Jewish apocalyptic eschatological theologies focused on the restoration of Israel’s lost cohesiveness, see E.P. Sanders, ‘The Life of Jesus’, in Hershel Shanks (ed.), Christianity and Rabinnic Judaism: A Parallel History of Their Origins and Early Development (London: SPCK, 1993), (41-83 (pp. 52 and 57), and The Historical Figure of Jesus (London: The Penguin Press, 1993), pp. 184-188; Paula Fredricksen, From Jesus to Christ: The Origins of the New Testament Images of Jesus (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1988), pp. 81-83 and 102; and Marcus J. Borg, Jesus in Contemporary Scholarship (Valley Forge, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 1994); ch. 1.

(15] For a fuller explanation of this point consult Peter Schmidt, ‘Ministries in the New Testament and the Early Church’, in Jan Kerkhofs (ed.), Europe Without Priests? (London: SCM,1995), 41-88 (p. 60).

(16] In this sentence I use the term ‘myth’ technically, not pejoratively. For an introduction to the complexities of contemporary Jesus Research, consult Bruce Chilton and Craig A. Evans (eds), Studying the Historical Jesus: Evaluations of the State of Current Research (Leiden: E.J. Brill,1994).