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Letter to Women

Chapter 6.

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 assessment of believers

In the previous chapter I indicated some theological reasons for stating that the ban on women as priests does not sit well with the actions and priorities which Jesus established in the Gospel. This mismatch is becoming more and more obvious to members of the Catholic community as they grow in understanding and autonomy. I believe that thinking and praying Catholics all over the world know in their heart of hearts and in the depth of their Catholic faith that it is not Jesus who keeps women from being ordained.


Some time ago I was visiting a Catholic family and the question of women’s ordination came up. The father is a bricklayer, yet he and his wife were managing to send four of their children to college.

“Of course, women should be ordained”, the father said.

“How can you be so sure?” I asked.

“I’ve got two daughters”, he said, “and they are just as important to God as my sons. I’m sure that Jesus would not refuse ordination if one of them applied to him for it.”


Should we listen to a bricklayer to tell us what to believe? The answer, strangely enough, is: Yes. But before we analyze why, we should register the fact that many good and committed Catholics share the bricklayer’s conviction. They too appeal to their instinctive knowledge of what agrees with Catholic faith and what does not.


“I hate the double standards that the Catholic Church produces. Our school is an all-girl school and we are encouraged to be strong women of the nineties. But the views of the Pope and the church just hold women back. Will the Pope ever understand the injustice that women have suffered? When will the law on women in the priesthood be changed? The church will never have my full support until women receive the equality they deserve.”[86]


But such opinions of Catholic believers can hardly be used as an argument, you may say. What do ordinary people know about the contents of faith?

The sense of faith


          Let me first explain the theological meaning of  ‘sense of faith’ (sensus fidei). Other terms with slightly different meanings have been used throughout the centuries: the Gospel in the heart, the Catholic spirit (sensus catholicus), the ecclesiastical spirit (phronema ekklesiastikon), the mind of the Church (ecclesiae catholicae sensus), or sometimes the agreement of the Church (consensus ecclesiae), remembering that in these last expressions ‘Church’ stands for the whole community of believers. For simplicity’s sake I will just use the expression ‘sense of faith’.[87]


          The ‘sense of faith’ carried in the heart of believers implies fidelity to the core truths we believe in, combined with a growth in understanding. The beliefs which we, as the community of believers, received from Jesus Christ are not a dead parcel of stale doctrines, but a living tradition. The tradition lives because it manifests the growth through time of the truth entrusted to the Church, like the growth of a living plant. Tradition is living because it is carried by living minds—minds living in time. These minds meet with problems or acquire resources, in time, which lead them to endow tradition, or the truth it contains, with the reactions and characteristics of a living thing. It leads to adaptation, reaction, growth and fruitfulness. Tradition is living because it resides in minds that live by it, in a history which comprises activity, problems, doubts, opposition, new contributions, and questions that need answering.[88]  In the issue of the ordination of women, the ‘sense of faith’ in the hearts of believers tests its conformity with the intentions of Christ.


The sense of the faith may also be understood in terms of ‘awareness’. Tradition is the people of God’s awareness, an ever renewed awareness. Its role in the Church is similar to that played by awareness in a person’s life: comprehension and memory; gauge of identity; instinct of what is fitting; witness and expression of personality. The awareness in the heart of the faithful, however, is special, because this awareness comes from Christ, it holds data it has received as a deposit. The Church keeps and actualizes the living memory of what she has received, and the Holy Spirit continually sustains and deepens that living memory in her. In a sense, this awareness possesses its object totally and integrally from the start, but it does not express it fully at each moment in its history.[89]


Ordinary believers know a lot about the contents of faith. In fact, they are the main carriers of the Church’s gift of infallibility. Many Catholics think that the deposit of faith lies first and foremost with the hierarchy, with the Pope and the Bishops. The model they have in mind is a top-down flow of knowledge and communication, like the commander-in-chief of an army and his staff who hold all the information, make the plans and pass them down to the ranks.


The true picture is different. The Church is more like a large family business in which the core of information is carried by all the family members jointly and individually, through a wide range of skill, experience and competence. The Pope and the Bishops have the duty and the charism to articulate that knowledge as teachers of the Church. They can only do so by paying careful attention to the sensus fidelium, the faith that lives in the hearts of the faithful. This is how the Second Vatican Council put it:


“The body of the faithful as a whole, anointed as they are by the Holy One (cf. 1 John 2,20.27), cannot err in matters of belief. Thanks to a supernatural sense of the faith which characterizes the People as a whole, it manifest this unerring quality when ‘from the bishops down to the last member of the laity’, it shows universal agreement in matters of faith and morals. For, by this sense of faith which is aroused and sustained by the Spirit of truth, God’s People accepts not the word of human beings, but the very Word of God (cf. 1 Thessalonians 2,13). It clings without fail to the faith once delivered to the saints, penetrates it more deeply by accurate insights, and applies it more thoroughly to life.”[90]


            The Pope and the college of  bishops have a crucial role in articulating matters of faith and morals through their authoritative teaching. However, this exercise is grounded in the infallibility of the whole people of God, not the other way about. A proposed amendment during Vatican II that wanted to make the infallibility of the magisterium the source of the people’s infallibility was rejected by the Council as being contrary to Tradition.[91] The infallibility of the Church’s teaching office is ordered to giving explicit expression to what is infallibly believed by the whole people of God. The infallible teachings of the Pope and the college of bishops do not need the approval of the faithful, but “the assent of the church can never fail to be given to these definitions on account of the activity of the same Holy Spirit, by which the whole flock of Christ is preserved in the unity of faith”.[92]


The sense of faith in action


It is not always easy to pin down this sense of faith regarding a particular issue, especially when the issue is being reflected on, debated and researched; as is the case with the ordination of women. The sense of faith then needs to be carefully listened to in prayer. It needs to be discerned. We may not use it as a conclusive proof  of something being right for the Church or not. On the other hand, neither may the strong testimony of believing and committed Catholics be dismissed out of hand. The body of infallible truth lies, after all, in the heart of the believers.


It is my conviction that, with regard to the ordination of women, the voices of lay people in our Catholic community may no longer be ignored. A very great number of them feel strongly that openness of women to holy orders is implied in our faith priorities. They sense unresolved contradictions in the official Church’s present position. Just listen to what they have to say. [93]


“My wife and I are Catholics of 67 years standing. One of the matters that deeply concerns us is that throughout that 67 years and all of the years before our church has been greatly impoverished. This impoverishment has arisen because every facet of the life of the Church has been dictated and viewed by and from the male perspective. The gifts, charisms and insights of 50% of the church, the female 50%, have been almost entirely ignored except for a few well known exceptions i.e. Teresa of Avila, Thérèse of Lisieux. Jesus clearly saw women and men as equal. It is only the male priesthood that sees them as inferior. The male priesthood has adopted a dreadful arrogance of righteousness which only serves to cover the impoverishment that they inflict on the whole church by their treatment of women. As life long Catholics we find it offensive and un-Christian to be told by the Pope that to be Catholic means that we must believe that Jesus does not want women to be ordained. If we take his words seriously we are surely excommunicated for our deeply held conviction that on this matter he is not speaking for Jesus Christ.”


“I have sometimes wondered whether this is not a logical deduction: the premise that it is impossible for women to be ordained implies ultimately that women cannot receive salvation. I think it would be possible to prove the connection -- thus giving the lie to the premise as there have been many women saints.”


“I am not a priest or theologian, just a member of the laity -- I hate that word because of its implicit reference to the hierarchy. The church is interfering with the work of the Holy Spirit amongst the people of God because of its narrow view of the role of women. I look forward to the day when the Catholic Church will accept the ordination of women.”


“My layman’s logic would get to the heart of the matter in this way: How can the Church support gender equity everywhere except in the Church? How can the Church baptise women into the priesthood of the faithful and then exclude them from the priesthood? How can the Church offer one less sacrament to half of humankind?”


“It has seemed to me for a long time that, apart from the theological and historical arguments, one of the most compelling arguments for the ordination of women is that the church is impoverished by a single-sex priesthood. In the structure of the Catholic church everything in the end is promulgated through the priesthood, it is the holder of all power and authority. If, then, the priesthood is chosen from only one sex, only one approach to life, spirituality, belief in Christ and the attaining of salvation is ever preached. All papal, episcopal and other pronouncements are made by men. In every Catholic church, every Sunday morning, all over the world, only a man preaches the word of God. In every confessional only a man offers guidance and comfort. Every time a priest is required for anything, it is always a man who undertakes that duty. In every facet of the Church’s mission the male voice leads and directs. The quality of what these males do is not in question (at least not all of it !), what is in question is that the charism, wisdom, insight, perception,  understanding and all the other gifts and abilities of women are lost to the Church. Women are different from men. God made people that way and gave us different male and female characteristics. Without women as priests, we are only half a church. Such a church is not the church Jesus left with Peter. The church we have now is a Vatican imitation of a truly Christian church.”


“I am a California high school student and I am a confirmed Catholic as of last year. Anyway, I was assigned a research paper for my English class and I chose to investigate why on earth women can’t be priests. I just want to say that after reading the official church documents, I am absolutely shocked!!! I am not kidding - I dropped my jaw! I cannot understand why the Church would shy away from this topic, and I feel that women may be allowed to become priests in the future - maybe just not yet. But I had no idea that I’m potentially a heretic for believing this!”


And it is not just a few people who think like this.

¨      Surveys in the USA show that two-thirds of Catholics support the ordination of women. 63% of Catholics would want women who are ordained priests to remain celibate, 54% would accept also married women. 63% also state that the laity should have a say in deciding the question whether women should be ordained or not.[94]

¨      Among Catholic college students in Australia 62% believe priestly ordination should be open to women.[95]

¨      By the most recent statistics, Catholics in other western countries too favour women priests: Spain 74%, Germany 71%, Portugal 71%, Ireland 67%, Italy 58%. At the Montreal Synod in Canada in 1998, 66% of participants voted in favour of women priests, 73% in favour of women deacons.[96]


The voices of committed Catholics may not always be articulate. They speak from that deep Gospel awareness that lives in their heart. But what they tell us is crystal clear: excluding women from priestly ordination is a mistake. It does not come from Jesus. It is an intrusion of anti-feminine prejudice from outside.

Readings from Women Priests web site


John Wijngaards

On why the Church needs to be reformed in our time


On latent tradition


John Henry Newman (1801-1890):

The Theory of Developments in                         Religious Doctrine’


Jeanne Pieper

‘The Forbidden Subject: the Ordination of Women’













[86]  Quoted in T. Angelico, Taking Stock. Revisioning the church on higher education, Canberra National Education Committee 1997, p. 20.

[87]   J.B.Metz and E. Schillebeeckx eds., The Teaching Authority of Believers, Concilium 180, Edinburgh, T. & T. Clark 1985.

[88]  Y. Congar, The Meaning of Tradition, Hawthorne, New York 1964, p. 75.

[89]  These concepts have been worked out beautifully by the Catholic theologians of Tűbingen. J.R. Geiselmann Lebendiger Glaube aus geheiligter Überlieferung, Mainz 1942; Die lebendige Überlieferung als Norm des christlichen Glaubens, Freiburg 1959; Geist des Christentums und des Katholizismus, Mainz 1940.

[90]  Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, no 12.

[91]   Vatican II, Acta synodalia III/1, pp. 198-199;  R.R.Gaillardetz, Teaching with Authority. A Theology of the Magisterium in the Church, Liturgical Press 1997, p. 154.

[92]  Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, no 25. See also J.H.Newman, On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine, ed. John Coulson 1859, reprint Sheed & Ward 1961;  Y. Congar, ‘Reception as an Ecclesiological Reality’. In Election and Consensus in the Church, Concilium 77, ed. G. Alberigo and A. Weiler, Herder, New York 1972, pp. 43 - 68; Th. Rausch, ‘Reception Past and Present’, Theological Studies 47 (1986) pp. 497-508.

[93] These are some of the many responses I received to my website www.womenpriests.org.


[94] W.V.D’Antonio, Laity, American and Catholic: Transforming the Church, Sheed and Ward, Kansas 1996; ‘The American Catholic Laity’, National Catholic Reporter, 29 October 1999.

[95]  D. McLaughlin, The beliefs, values and practices of Catholic student teachers, Australian Catholic University, Brisbane 1999; see also: Catholic School lay principals: Professional and pastoral issues, Australian Catholic University, Brisbane 1996.

[96]  Figures based on polls reported in national newspapers. In non-western countries support for women priests seems to be lower: Poland 24%, the Philippines 18%. I have no proper data about Latin America.

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