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Letter to Women

Chapter 5.

The Ordination of Women in the Catholic Church,

Unmasking a Cuckoo's Egg Tradition.

By John Wijngaards

Published by Darton Longman and Todd, London 2001.

© John Wijngaards. Republished on our website with the necessary permissions

The mismatch in vision

However much a cuckoo’s egg may have looked like other eggs in its foster nest, by the time the young cuckoo flies out it is clearly different from the parents that nurtured it. The contrast stands out. In the following three chapters I will show that the non-ordination of women carries so many intrinsic contradictions and anomalies that it can clearly be seen to be in the wrong nest. And, like in the case of birds, we could start by studying the overall image.

Why were women singled out for omission?


Pope John Paul II and the Congregation for Doctrine tell us that the exclusion of women from the ministerial priesthood goes back all the way to Jesus himself.


“In the light of tradition it seems that the essential reason moving the Church to call only men to the sacrament of order and to the strictly priestly ministry is her intention to remain faithful to the type of ordained ministry willed by the Lord Jesus Christ and carefully maintained by the apostles.”[67]


Leaving the discussion of detailed arguments to further chapters, this then is the overall picture: Jesus himself decided that it would not be good for women to take part in the key ministry he left to his apostles. That is why he deliberately left women out when he picked the apostolic twelve. Yes, Jesus had some women among the group of disciples who followed him and he could easily have chosen one or two of them. But he did not do so. He was not influenced here by the social customs of his time, for when necessary he revolted against such customs. “It has to be recognized that Jesus did not shrink from other ‘imprudences’, which did in fact stir up the hostility of his fellow citizens against him, especially his freedom with regard to the rabbinical interpretations of the Sabbath. With regard to women his attitude was a complete innovation: all the commentators recognize that he went against many prejudices, and the facts that are noted add up to an impressive total”.[68] But when it came to choosing the twelve and commissioning them at the Last Supper, he pointedly omitted women. It must have been a deliberate decision by Jesus himself.


“In calling only men as his apostles, Christ acted in a completely free and sovereign manner. In doing so, he exercised the same freedom with which, in all his behaviour, he emphasized the dignity and the vocation of women, without conforming to the prevailing customs and to the traditions sanctioned by the legislation of the time.”[69]


          This is, Rome claims, confirmed by tradition. The apostles laid their hands on worthy persons to succeed them and they found many excellent women among the new converts. The apostles never imposed their hands on women. The Early Church continued this practice. The Fathers of the Church criticise Gnostic sects in which women were given a variety of ministries. The Fathers of the Church point out that Jesus only chose men. In the Middle Ages this tradition became explicit. The medieval theologians state categorically that in not ordaining women, the Church follows the example of Christ. The conclusion is, therefore, inescapable:


“Priestly ordination, which hands on the office entrusted by Christ to his apostles of  teaching, sanctifying, and governing the faithful, has in the Catholic Church from the beginning always been reserved to men alone  .  .  . The fundamental reasons for this include: the example recorded in the Sacred Scriptures of Christ choosing his apostles only from among men; the constant practice of the Church, which has imitated Christ in choosing only men; and her living teaching authority which has consistently held that the exclusion of women from the priesthood is in accordance with God's plan for his Church.”[70]


In the same apostolic documents the Pope also maintains that the exclusion from the priestly ministry does not in any way minimise the role or status of women. “The presence and the role of women in the life and mission of the Church, although not linked to the ministerial priesthood, remain absolutely necessary and irreplaceable.”  “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.”   “By defending the dignity of women and their vocation, the Church has shown honour and gratitude for those women who -- faithful to the Gospel -- have shared in every age in the apostolic mission of the whole People of God. They are the holy martyrs, virgins, and the mothers of families, who bravely bore witness to their faith and passed on the Church’s faith and tradition by bringing up their children in the spirit of the Gospel.”[71]


We can sum it up in the words: women share fully in the apostolic mission of the Church, but Christ did not want them to be ministerial priests. Does it make sense?

A ministry of ‘people like you and me’

To understand the specific ministry established by Jesus Christ, we should note that he abolished the Old Testament priesthood based on so-called 'sacred' realities. He did away with the priesthood as understood in Old Testament terms.The Old Testament priesthood rested on a philosophy that distinguished between the sacred and the profane. Some every-day realities, such as houses, cattle, eating and sleeping, doing business, and so on, were ordinary or ‘profane’. God was not really directly present in these realities. Other realities of our world, however, were considered to have been penetrated with God’s presence and to have become ‘sacred’ on that account. This is the origin of ‘sacred’ times (the Sabbath and feast days), ‘sacred’ places (mainly the Temple), ‘sacred’ objects (e.g. vessels used for worship) and ‘sacred’ persons (priests) consecrated to God. The Old Testament priest was separated from other people on the same basis as the Sabbath was considered holier than the Monday, or the Temple was a more sacred place than the Pool of Bethzatha. The priest was the embodiment of a divine presence in a profane world.


Instead of substituting new holy realities for the old ones, Christ went further. He radically abrogated the distinction itself between the sacred and the profane. This may seem startling to some Christians who unconsciously continue to think along Old Testament lines. They may imagine the New Testament to be an updated version of the Old. They think our churches have taken the place of the Temple at Jerusalem, that our Sunday replaces the Sabbath, that our sacred vessels continue the Temple furniture and that the New Testament priest is a polished version of the Old Testament one. The cause of this misunderstanding is partly due to developments within the Church in the course of her history, partly in deference to the human necessity of having quasi-sacred realities like churches as part of an established religion. But basically the clinging to realities that are intrinsically ‘sacred’ is a regression and contrary to the teaching of the New Testament.


In the new kingdom of God Jesus came to establish, it was ordinary things that were turned into signs of God’s presence and means of grace. Plain water, used in baptism, makes people into children of God. The bread and wine of a family meal provide the matter for the Eucharist. The anointing with oil normally applied to wounds can come to signify God’s healing and forgiveness. Jesus’ humanity was a sacrament and the sacramental order he brought about sanctified ordinary things and ordinary people.

          Jesus abolished the priesthood as a sacral institution. He himself did not belong to the priesthood of Aaron. As representative of all human beings, he abolished that priestly dignity which was linked to bodily descent. He established a new priesthood built on ‘the power of indestructible life’.[72] The Old Testament notions of the priesthood were so alien to Christ that we never find him applying the term priest to himself or his followers.[73]  Jesus called himself “the son of man” which, in Aramaic, translates as “an ordinary person”, “someone like you and me”.


          The people Jesus chose to continue his ministry were not members of a privileged class, but ordinary people like himself: fishermen, tax collectors, farmers, craftsmen, businessmen. The ministry Jesus initiated was a ministry by ordinary people, not by sacred functionaries. If he abolished all the other categories, why would he have held on to the requirement of the male gender in future ministers? Would that not be odd and contradictory?[74]

The sons and daughters of God

The Gospel of John tells us: “To all who accept him, he has given power to become children of God, to all who believe in his name, who are born not out of human stock, or urge of the flesh or human will, but of God himself.”[75] Note that no distinction is made between men and women here. All become God’s children through baptism. And all receive a share in Jesus’ priestly and prophetic ministry.


Every disciple, whether man or woman, carries his or her cross with Christ. Each of his followers has to bear witness to him even unto persecution and death. All worship the Father with Christ. All Christians thus participate in the royal priesthood of Christ.[76] All are called “priests to his God and Father”, “priests of God and of Christ”. Both men and women constitute “a kingdom and priesthood to our God”.[77]


“Christ the Lord, High Priest taken from among people, ‘made a kingdom and priests to God his Father’. The baptized, by regeneration and the anointing of the Holy Spirit, are consecrated into a spiritual house and a holy priesthood.”[78]


This common priesthood is given through the sacrament of baptism. We should note that this baptism is exactly the same for every single person. There is absolutely no difference in the baptism conferred on women. This was a revolutionary change that Jesus brought about. The position of women in religion changed dramatically through it. Whereas women had only belonged indirectly to the covenant of Moses, through baptism they were made children of God on an equal footing with men.


In the Old Testament, it was the men who were the immediate bearers of the covenant. It was only the male children who were circumcised when they were eight days old.[79] The covenant, therefore, was concluded directly with the men. Women belonged to it only through men - first as daughters of their fathers, then as wives of their husbands.


It was the men who were expected to offer sacrifices in the Temple. Three times a year, at the three major feasts, all the men folk were to appear before Yahweh’s face.[80] The women could come along and take part in the sacrificial meal, as did children, slaves and guests. But it was not really their own sacrifice. The principal reason was that the wife, like children, slaves and cattle were, in fact, owned by the husband. ‘A good wife is the best of possessions.’ [81] The husband could practically divorce his wife at will, she could not divorce him. A religious vow by a woman was only valid if it was ratified by her father or husband.[82]


In the Temple at Jerusalem, Jewish women were only admitted into a ‘parlour’: the court of women. They were not allowed to proceed further. The men, on the other hand, could enter the court of Israel. It was this court that faced the altar of holocausts and it was there that the priests accepted the gifts for the sacrifice. Men had the principal seats in the synagogues; women looked on from an enclosure. Men could read from the Torah. Only males, ten of them, could form the quorum, minyan, required for public prayers. At the age of 13, boys were initiated into their adult religious duties by the Bar Mitzvah ceremony. No such thing existed for girls.


All these things changed through Christ. St Paul affirms that the baptism of Christ transcends and obliterates whatever social differences exist among humankind.


“It is through faith that all of you are God’s children in union with Christ Jesus. For all who are baptised into the union of Christ have taken upon themselves the qualities of Christ himself. So there is no difference between Jews and Gentiles, between slaves and free persons, between men and women  .  .  .   You are all one in union with Christ Jesus.”[83]


The ordination to the sacramental priesthood is an extension of the basic sacrificial and prophetic sharing that has already been given in baptism. Although the ministerial priesthood adds a new function to the powers received in baptism,  it is at the same time intrinsically related to it.


“Though they differ essentially and not only in degree, the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood are none the less ordered one to the other; each in its own way shares in the one priesthood of Christ.”[84]


When the Council says that the sharing in Christ's priesthood through the sacrament of Holy Orders is essentially different, it means that baptism by itself does not confer the commission to teach, rule and offer sacrifice in the name of Christ. It does not mean to say that for Holy Orders a different set of discriminating values would hold good.

A common dignity

Jesus made men and women equal children of God. The common priesthood men and women share with Christ is ordered towards the ministerial priesthood. Why then would the ministerial priesthood suddenly be restricted to men only? Whatever may be required for ordination to the ministry, it cannot be a reality that would make one person intrinsically superior to another. Vatican II is explicit on this.


“There is a common dignity of members deriving from their rebirth in Christ, a common grace as children, a common vocation to perfection, one salvation, one hope and undivided charity. In Christ and in the Church there is, then, no inequality arising from race or nationality, social condition or sex  .  .  .   Although by Christ’s will some are established as teachers, dispensers of the mysteries and pastors for the others, there remains, nevertheless, a true equality between all with regard to the dignity and the activity that is common to all the faithful in the building up of the Body of Christ.”[85]


Jesus abolished gender as a category in his kingdom. Men and women are equal as God’s adopted children. Would it not be illogical to imply that discriminations wiped out by baptism should be revived in the sacramental priesthood?


The idea that Jesus, after abolishing the priesthood based on sacrality and founding a ministry of people like you and me, would rudely exclude women makes no sense. The presumption that Jesus who had wiped out the ancient bias against women in the common priesthood of the faithful, would re-introduce it in ministerial priesthood defies all logic. The contention that Jesus, who brought worship “in spirit and in truth” and for whom love and service were the supreme characteristics of his ministry, would then introduce maleness as an essential requirement offends the inner consistency of the Gospel.


Even before we have looked at all the arguments in detail we can already discern that the tradition of excluding women, whatever its origin, cannot really go back to a “deliberate decision of Jesus Christ”. It simply does not work. This tradition has all the plumage of a cuckoo hatchling. And even those who have not studied theology professionally can sense this, as we will see in the next chapter.





Readings from Women Priests web site


Vatican II

Readings from Lumen Gentium


John Wijngaards

The dominance of men was a reality in Jewish culture


The social perception of male superiority


Jesus Christ and the fact of social male dominance


Jesus showed great openess to women


Mary exemplified the ministerial implications of the common priesthood of Christ enjoyed by all believers


















[67] Commentary on ‘Inter Insigniores’, no 40.

[68]  Ibidem no 45.

[69] John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem, no 26.

[70] John Paul II, Apostolic Letter  Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, May 22, 1994.

[71] Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, no 3; Inter Insigniores, no 6; Mulieris Dignitatem, no 27.

[72]  Hebrews 7, 16.

[73]  In fact, it is only in the letter to the Hebrews that the ‘priesthood’ of Christ is discussed in explicit terms and contrasted with the priesthood of the Old Testament. See especially Hebrews 5, 1-4; 7, 26-28.

[74]  More in Did Christ Rule out Women Priests? by John Wijngaards, McCrimmon's, Great Wakering 1986, pp. 64-68.

[75]  John 1,12-13.

[76]  1 Peter 2,5-9.

[77]  Revelation 1,6; 5,10; 20,6.

[78]  Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, no 10.

[79]  Genesis 17,9-14.

[80]  Exodus 23,17.

[81] Exodus 20,17; Sirach 26,3; Proverbs 31,10.

[82] Deuteronomy 24,1-4; Numbers 40,2-17.

[83] Galatians 3, 26-28.

[84] Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, no 10.

[85] Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, no 30.

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