Responsive image
Nederlands/Vlaams Deutsch Francais English language Spanish language Portuguese language Catalan Chinese Czech Malayalam Finnish Igbo
Japanese Korean Romanian Malay language Norwegian Swedish Polish Swahili Chichewa Tagalog Urdu
The Ministerial priesthood and the Advancement of Women by Joseph L. Bernardin

The Ministerial priesthood and the Advancement of Women

Joseph L. Bernardin
published in L'Osservatore Romano, (March 3 ,1977) 3-4

In execution of a mandate from Pope Paul VI and echoing a declaration which the Holy Father himself made in a letter of November 30, 1975,(1) the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has issued a Declaration on the Question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood reaffirming that the Church "in fidelity to the example of the Lord, does not consider herself authorized to admit women to priestly ordination."(2)

The Sacred Congregation admitted that this is a position "which will perhaps cause pain," but expressed confidence that its "positive value will become apparent in the long run, since it can be of help in deepening understanding of the respective roles of men and women."(3)The pain will be most intense in those Catholic quarters where studies and discussions have seemed to favor the possibility of women priests. Such is the case especially in the United States of America.

In this article, I wish to discuss the Sacred Congregation's declaration on ministerial priesthood in relation to the more general question of the advancement of women. Although this process is developing at an uneven pace throughout the world—in public, professional, and intellectual life and even within families—it is part of the renewal and humanization of society and of the Church. Thus we must reflect upon the immediate and the longer range results of the reaffirmation by the Sacred Congregation of the Church's constant teaching as it affects the advancement of women.

The Immediate Problem

First we must face the immediate problems. Bishops, to whom the document is primarily addressed, have the mission of explaining it to their people in a pastoral way according to their knowledge of the people whom they serve. This will require joint efforts by bishops and priests, who share the ministerial priesthood, to enter into the thoughts and feelings of others. It will be important for them to understand and to take into consideration the sensitivities of women, their feelings and inclinations, their manner of approaching religious matters and reacting to them.

Women, for their part, and those who are working for the advancement of justice for women must try to appreciate the import of this declaration in a positive fashion. Those who favor the ordination of women will need to examine the clear teaching of the magisterium on this matter. The question impinges too directly on the nature of the ministerial priesthood for it to be resolved within the, framework of legitimate pluralism between churches.(4)

It is important that we enter into dialogue with open minds and open hearts. The theme "ministerial priesthood and the advancement of women" is given different meanings and stirs up different feelings in different people, men and women, clergy, Catholics and Protestants, believers and non-believers. It would be good if everyone could give the same meaning to the same words. The magisterium has clarified what the Church understands by the term ministerial priesthood and why women are not called to this office. Now we must see how this understanding can influence and advance the role of women in the Church and society.

Longer range strategies and tactics for the full assimilation of the profound relationships between the Church's teaching on the ministerial priesthood and the advancement of women require patience, but a form of patience different from merely marking time. Rather, the appropriate attitude is one which recognizes that God accomplishes his designs through men and women, and, further, that in all great projects time is necessary for their maturation. St. Paul admonishes us that "sufferings bring patience, as we know, and patience brings perseverance, and perseverance brings hope" (Rom 5:4, 5).

The Need for Patience

Patience of this kind is particularly suited to efforts for the advancement of women to their right and proper place within the Church, society, and family. This Is especially true if we see the advancement of women as a long process of convergence bound up with an inner renewal of each of these three interrelated communities in accord with the requirements and demands of each.

The most urgent thing at the present time is, as Pope Paul has pointed out, "the immense task of creating awareness and of bringing about the advancement of women at the grassroots level, in civil society and also in the Church."(5)More than ten years after the publication of the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World it is a sad fact that "fundamental personal rights are not yet universally honored. Such is the case of a woman who is denied the right and freedom to choose a husband, to embrace a state of life, or to acquire an education or cultural benefits equal to those recognized for men."(6)

Those called to the ministerial priesthood have special reason to promote the advancement of women because of the attitude of Jesus,an attitude carefully maintained by the apostolic community. If Jesus did not call women to be part of the Twelve, "it was not in order to conform to the customs of his time, for his attitude toward women was quite different from his milieu and he deliberately and courageously broke with it."(7) In embracing the cause of justice for women, ordained ministers express the unselfish love of the Lord.

Bishops and priests can take encouragement and direction from meditating on the several examples of Christ's attitude cited by the declaration: the great astonishment of his own disciples when he converses publicly with the Samaritan woman Jn 4:27); Jesus takes no notice of the legal impurity of the woman who had suffered from hemorrhages (Mt 9:20-22); he allows a sinful woman to approach him in the house of Simon the Pharisee (Lk 7:37); by pardoning the woman taken in adultery, he means to show that one must not be more severe toward the fault of a woman than towards that of a man (Jn 8:11). He does not hesitate to depart from the Mosaic Law in order to affirm the equality of the rights and duties of men and women with regard to the marriage bond (Mk 10:2-11).(8)

Women in the Ministry of Jesus

Women should ponder the extraordinary opportunities that Jesus afforded to women to accompany him on his itinerant ministry and to give first testimony to the resurrection: "Mary, surnamed the Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, Joanna the wife of Herod's steward Chuza, Susanna, and several others who provided for them out of their own resources" (Lk 8:2-3). Contrary to the Jewish mentality, which did not accord great value to women's testimony, it was women who were the first to have the privilege of seeing the risen Lord and who were charged by him to take the first paschal message to the apostles themselves (Mt 28:7-10; Lk 20:11-18).(9)

This brings us to a fundamental observation which is emphasized in another way by the commenrary on the declaration by the Sacred Congregation: we must not expect the New Testament on its own to resolve definitively the possibilities for ministry of women in the Church or of the Church and her ministers in promoting the advancement of women.(10) The Scriptures do not enable us to give a full account of certain of the sacraments of the Church, and especially the sacrament of order. "But it must be recognized that we have here a number of convergent indications that make all the more remarkable the fact that Jesus did not entrust the apostolic charge to women."(11)

The New Testament does not give us a blueprint for the advancement of women nor finished structures of ordained ministry. But it does offer profound insights into what may be the most necessary aspect of the work of reconciliation in our day: that an essential condition for being an instrument of God's plan is unselfish love. The ideal, in practicing ministry, in advancing a cause, in dialogue, is to achieve the greatest possible selflessness.

These considerations lead us to the consideration that there are different functions within the Church: the quality of Christians harmonizes with the complementary nature of their tasks. Sacramental ministry is not the only rank of greatness, nor is it necessarily the highest. Rather it is a form of service. "The greatest in the kingdom of heaven are not the ministers but the saints."(12)

The deeper understanding of Christian life and ministry which flows from prayerful study of the declaration makes clear the need for spiritual progress and for the assuming of urgent apostolic tasks. "There is a universal vocation of all the baptized to the exercise of the royal priesthood by offering their lives to God and by giving witness for this praise."(13) While the priesthood does not form a part of the rights of the individual, but stems from the economy of the mystery of Christ and his Church,"(14) the priestly office also "cannot become the goal of social advancement; no merely human progress of society or of the Individual can of itself give access to it: it is of another order."(15)

Concrete Suggestions

If we seek in the declaration a plan of action, we discover that there are concrete suggestions, "In the final analysis it is the Church, through the voice of her magisterium, that, in these various domains, decides what can change and what must remain immutable. "When she judges that she cannot accept certain changes, it is because she knows that she is bound by Christ's manner of acting. Her attitude, despite appearances, is therefore not one of archaism but of fidelity; it can be truly understood only in this light."(16) Our plan of action, therefore, must begin from and in fidelity to this decision. We must move forward from this sure and certain starting point and get on with what is required to promote the advancement of justice for women.

Within the Church, for example, much can and should be done to develop official ministries for women, especially in cases where as a matter of fact they are already doing the work which the particular ministry would entail. One thinks, for example, of the service rendered by women as catechists and ministers of music. Studies of ministerial roles open to women have already been undertaken by some episcopal conferences and by the Holy See. In its commentary the Sacred Congregation noted that there were "deaconesses" in the early days of the Church, although the nature of their status is not clear. The commentary stated that the question of the diaconate "must be taken up fully by direct study of the texts, without any preconceived ideas; hence the Sacred Congregation has judged that it should be kept for the future."(17) This study will shed more light on the role of women in the early Church and give insights as to how women might participate in the Church's ministry of service today.

The call to spiritual progress is given to every priest and bishop by the declaration as a condition for the effectiveness of their apostolic tasks. "The priest is a sign, the supernatural effectiveness of which comes from the ordination received, but a sign that must be perceptible and which the faithful must be able to recognize with ease."(18) The whole sacramental economy is based on natural signs; "the same natural resemblance is required for persons as for things.(19) The "natural resemblance" between Christ and his ministerial priests must not stop merely with the fact that they share a common masculinity. The ministerial priest acts not "in masculinitate Christi" but "in persona Christi." If he is to be an effective sign, especially if he is to lead and inspire others, particularly women, in the apostolate, then he must display the virtues and the godlike qualities of the man Christ. It is not maleness which must be accented and brought forward as the significance of the priesthood, but rather Christlike qualities: humility, gentleness, self-effacing service must be easily recognizable.

Biblical Symbolism

In the beautiful biblical symbolism of the unity of all in Christ the declaration presents a plan of reconciliation to remedy the divisive effects of sin: "there are no more distinctions between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, but all are one in Christ Jesus (cf. Gal 3:28)."(20) The nuptial mystery, which is the great sign of both the Old and the New Covenant, presents God as related to the chosen people, who are seen as his spouse; Christ is the bridegroom, the Church is his bride. "It is through this scriptural language, all interwoven with symbols, and which expresses and affects man and woman in their profound identity, that there is revealed to us the mystery of God and Christ, a mystery which of itself is unfathomable."(21)

For this plan of reconciliation to be effective the sacramental renewal of the events of salvation which were achieved in the incarnation and the paschal mystery of death and resurrection must take place. The ministerial priest must preside and celebrate these mysteries. Here it is not so much the priest as a man who presides, but it is Christ who is priest and victim.

In this plan of divine reconciliation and within the biblical and ecclesial sacramental signs and symbols we can find a new way of looking at the advancement of women and at the progress and development of peoples. This was a central thought of the message of Pope Paul VI to "the Special Study Commission on the Role of Women in Society and in the Church" (May 3,1973): "Baptism and confirmation of themselves constitute the essential sacramental bases which confer on lay people—men and women—the fullness of their Christian vocation and make them capable of sharing, as lay people, in the Church's apostolate."(22) By the paschal mystery, by baptism, God's people, women and men, have been removed from the situation of sin. One is struck especially by the reversal of perspective and the novelty of the evangelical outlook which integrates women into society with men on a basis of equality.

"Equality, development, and peace," the theme of the 1975 International Women's Year, evokes a lively interest from the Church. Pope Paul addressed the Church's Secretary General for the International Women's Year: "Equality can only be found in its essential foundation, which is the dignity of the human person, man and woman, m their filial relationship with God, of whom they are the visible image."(23) Equality does not exclude distinctiveness and special contributions which women can make to the full development of society according to their individual callings and talents. But pursuing this distinctiveness in unity, the pope continued, "the woman of today will be able to become more conscious of her rights and duties, and will be able to contribute not only to the elevation of herself but also to a qualitative progress of human social life, 'in development and peace.'"(24)

Nature of Real Equality

Equality of the baptized is the key to finding the proper apostolic roles for women today. "It therefore remains," the declaration concludes, "for us to meditate more deeply on the nature of the real equality of the baptized which is one of the great affirmations of Christianity: equality is in no way identity, for the Church is a differentiated body, in which each individual has his or her role."(25) We must, however, do more than meditate upon this equality, this unity in diversity, this beautiful plan of reconciliation and peace: we must work to actualize them.

If we perceive the plan of reconciliation inherent in this declaration, we shall discover that women's advancement does not depend merely on prominent ecclesiastics or activists whose names appear in the daily newspapers and on radio and television. The personal efforts of each one count. The Nobel Peace Prize winner Father Dominique Pire, the Belgian Dominican who worked in behalf of refugees after World War II, wrote: "I think that to be a peacemaker, that is a man of peace, one must first be at peace with oneself. In other words, one must first achieve inner peace. This involves getting to know oneself and learning to control one's impulses. Only then can a peaceful being approach the immense task of creating harmony between groups and individuals."(26)

The problems of equality for women involve longstanding hatreds and oppressions. We are dealing with the ravages of sin, sins from the beginning of human history and sins which are still being committed. Although the task is arduous and the ultimate hopes far in the future— perhaps it will be verified that "one man sows; another reaps" (Jn 4:37)— it is not true that the Catholic Church has ignored this problem or is just beginning to solve it.

Advancement of Women

Pope Paul VI, commenting on the theme of IWY "equality, development, and peace," pointed to the Catholic Church's involvement in these goals. "Already nearly twenty years ago (not to mention still earlier periods) our predecessor Pius XII said to the women of the whole world: 'You can and must make your own, without restriction, the program of the advancement of women—a program which upholds with an immense hope the unnumbered throng of your sisters who are still subjected to degrading customs or who are the victims of poverty, of the ignorance of their milieu, and of the total lack of means of culture and formation' (Address to the World Union of Catholic Women's Organizations, 29 September 1957).""

If the advancement of women has been conceived so far "in Christian terms" and "in the light of faith" it is certainly not to diminish its scope. In the same message to the IWY conference at Mexico City the Holy Father wrote: "It will suffice for us to mention just one sphere which we have particularly at heart: the campaign against illiteracy, the illiteracy which plays an evil role, especially among women in rural areas, constituting an obstacle to development and offending essential rights, for, as we recalled in our encyclical Populorum Progressio, 'hunger for education is no less debasing than hunger for food: an illiterate is a person with an undernourished mind.'"(28)

In its last paragraph the declaration makes a strong plea for women to carry Christian values with them into all sorts of services for the good of humankind: "The Church desires that Christian women should become fully aware of the greatness of their mission: today their role is of capital importance, both for the renewal and humanization of society and for the rediscovery by believers of the true face of the Church."(29) Now that the question of ordination to the priesthood has been resolved for the Roman Catholic Church it will be more free to promote the advancement of women at all levels.

Bishops and priests especially must approach energetically and sensitively the challenge of opening to women positions in the Church which do not require ordination but which have been normally handled by the ordained in the recent past. Over a longer period of time such a course of action will be a strong force in removing some of the pejorative connotations which have been associated with the term "clericalization" of the Church's ministry.

Discrimination Still Exists

In a more general way it must be admitted that some clergymen do not really appreciate the feelings of alienation which many women in all ranks of society experience and feel deeply. We must recognize the truth of Pope Paul's comment in his address to the final session of the Study Commission on the Role of Women, January 31, 1976: "It is true that in many countries, theoretically at least, men and women have already acquired the same fundamental rights. But discrimination still exists."(30) Women must enjoy equality not just in theory but in practice.

In his address to the Study Commission the Holy Father calls for all to respond to their responsibilities; "Authentic Christian advancement of women is not limited to the claiming of rights. The Christian spirit also obliges all of us, both men and women, to remember always our own duties and responsibilities. Today it is especially a question of achieving a greater and closer collaboration between men and women, in society and in the Church, in order that all 'will contribute their individual talents and dynamism to the building up of a world that will not be leveled down to uniformity but harmoniously unified' (AAS 67 [1975], p. 265). The advancement of women, understood in this way, can be a powerful aid to tbe achievement of unison between people and to the establishment of peace in the world."(31)

In many places studies are being undertaken to explore and develop possibilities for new ministries for women. Experiments with "team ministries" of men and women, clergy and laity, religious and lay, etc. have been successful in many places. We need to be alert to new fields of activity and responsibility which are everywhere open to Christian women. The results of innovative programs should be shared with trie Church at large.

Finally, the biblical analogies of the nuptial imagery which are suggested by the declaration as arguments for the fittingness of limiting the call to ministerial priesthood to men suggest comments on marriage and the dedicated life of single women and vowed religious. "I will espouse you in right and in justice, in love and in mercy: I will espouse you in fidelity, and you shall know the Lord" (Hos 2:21-22). "Husbands love your wives, as Christ loved the Church. . . . This is a great foreshadowing; I mean that it refers to Christ and the Church" (Eph5:25, 32).

Women's Role in the Home

The permanent sacramental bond of matrimony is still the great sign of God's covenant love, and it is still proper to speak of women's role in the home. Although raising and educating children should be a joint effort of father and mother, the role of the mother is essential. The meaning of the great and beautiful sacramental image of the love of husband and wife and the analogy of faith with the doctrine of the mystery of the Church would be less than appropriate, if Christian marriages were not indissoluble and irrevocable as God's love is for his people. Furthermore, the examples of unselfish love and dedication which husbands and wives give to one another and to their children inspire generosity and love on the part of ministerial priests for Christ and his Church, for his brothers and in the ministry and for the people he serves.

Single women, especially those with professional training, are the most obvious ready source of talent from which the Church can draw help for her apostolates, Unfortunately, this group is most likely to feel the effects of discrimination and alienation. Often these women have theological training which ought to be fully recognized and used in the service of the Church. The fidelity of those women to Christ and to projects on behalf of humanity merits the promise of Hosea's prophecy: "I will espouse you in fidelity, and you shall know the Lord" (Hos 2:22).

The consecrated religious woman (or man) remains the privileged sign of espousal with the Lord and should be of all the most totally available for the work of the Gospel. In the past religious have been eminently free and willing to go to the ends of the earth to bear the message of salvation. Although the declaration does not specifically mention religious, the theme "ministerial priesthood and the advancement of women" is a challenge to a more selfless life of service. By their life, their prayer, their apostolate, religious are in a special position to mediate the pain and suffering which some may experience in reaction to the declaration of the Sacred Congregation. The ranks of religious orders and congregations are likely to be beneficiaries of the long-term deepening of the appreciation of man and woman which the Sacred Congregation anticipates as the fruit of its work.

This declaration by the Holy See calls all of us to serious reflection upon some central elements of our belief and the obligations which arise from them. Such reflection will enable us to see how much more, beyond a simple prohibition, it is really saying to us. In particular, the obligation to work for the advancement of women in society and the Church becomes more urgent, not less, in light of this clear and authoritative reaffirmation concerning women and the ministerial priesthood.

1 AAS68 (1976), pp. 599-600; cf. ibid,, pp. 600-601.

2 Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration on the Question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood (referred to in the following footnotes as declaration), October 15, 1976, Edition of Vatican Polyglot Press, p. 5.

3 Ibid.

4 Commentary on the Declaration on the Question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood (LOsservatore Romano, English-language edition, 3 February 1977).

5 Holy Father's Address to the Members of the Study Commission on the Role of "Women in Society and the Church and the Committee for the Celebration of the International Women's Year, April 18, 1975 (L'Osservatore Romano, English-language edition, 1 May 1975).

6 Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes), no. 29.

7 Declaration, p. 6.

8 Declaration, p. 6-7.

9 Ibid., p.7

10 Commentary (loc. cit.).

11 Declaration, p. 7. 12 Ibid, p. 18.

13 Ibid., p. 17.

14 Ibid.

15 Ibid.

16 Ibid., p. 11.

17 Commentary (loc, cit.)

18 Declaration, p. 13.

19 Ibid.

20 Ibid., p. 13.

21 Ibid., p. 14.

22 The Special Study Commission on the Role of Women in Society and in the Church (3 May 1973).

23 The Holy Father's Address to Mrs, Helvi Sipila, assistant secretary general for development and humanitarian affairs and secretary general for International Women's Year (1975), 6 November 1974 (L'Osservatore Romano, English-language edition, 14 November 1974).

24 Ibid.

25 Declaration, p. 17.

26 D. Pire, Building Peace (London: Transworld Publishers, 1967), p. 108.

27 Message of His Holiness Pope Paul VI to Mrs. Helvi Sipila, secretary general of the International Women's Year, Mexico City, 19 June-2 July 1975 (L'Osservatore Romano, English-language edition, 3 July 1975).

28 Ibid.

29 Declaration, p. 18.

30 Address of His Holiness Pope Paul VI to the Study Commission on the Role of Women in the Church and Society, and to the Committee for the International Women's Year, 31 January 1976 (L'Osservatore Romano, English-language edition, 12 February 1976).

31 Ibid.

Wijngaards Institute for Catholic ResearchThis website is maintained by the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research.

The Institute is known for issuing academic reports and statements on relevant issues in the Church. These have included scholars' declarations on the need of collegiality in the exercise of church authority, on the ethics of using contraceptives in marriage and the urgency of re-instating the sacramental diaconate of women.

Visit also our websites:Women Deacons, The Body is Sacred and Mystery and Beyond.

You are welcome to use our material. However: maintaining this site costs money. We are a Charity and work mainly with volunteers, but we find it difficult to pay our overheads.

Visitors to our website since January 2014.
Pop-up names are online now.

The number is indicative, but incomplete. For full details click on cross icon at bottom right.

Join our Women Priests' Mailing List
for occasional newsletters:
An email will be immediately sent to you
requesting your confirmation.