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A Female Priesthood?

A Female Priesthood?

Chapter 1
from Woman in the Church
by Louis Bouyer, translated by Marilyn Teichert,
published by the Ignatius Press, San Francisco
1979 and reproduced here with the usual permissions.

We generally hear that the refusal to ordain women to the priestly ministry (that of bishop, or of priest of the second order) stems simply from an outmoded conception of the inequality of the sexes—of the invincible inferiority of woman to man. And then it is claimed that if Christ himself, and the apostles after him, called or ordained only men, it was because the prejudices of their time would not have permitted them to do otherwise, whether because they did not believe they could successfully oppose these views or because they were incapable of extricating themselves from them. Finally it is said that even if Christ did not call women to the apostolate, this no longer has any more lasting significance for the Church than the fact that he called only Jews. Just as Christianity, when it emerged from the Jewish world, conferred the priesthood on non-Jews with no problem, so in our day, having emerged from a society characterized by exaggerated male predominance, it would no longer have a single good reason to refuse ordination to women.

To those of our contemporaries who know nothing of the history of mores and ideas, these reasons might appear irrefutable and even self-evident. But when we inquire more deeply into the facts and reflect on the motivations they reveal, we can see the extreme fragility, not to say total inconsistency, of such apparently sound reasoning.

Let us look first of all at the second of the above affirmations: that society at the time of Christ in particular, and of antiquity in general, would not have been able to accept the ordination of women to the priesthood. It is astonishing to hear people who believe themselves to be enlightened and free of prejudice come out unabashedly with such an enormity. In point of fact, from the earliest civilizations of the Fertile Crescent through the Greece and Rome of the early Christian era, the ancients had always been accustomed to female priests who were not in the least in an inferior position to male priests. This was true particularly, but not by any means exclusively, of the Mediterranean world. And if there was any particular tendency in this regard at the time of Christ and his apostles, it was much more in the direction of validating rather than rejecting the priesthood of women. In the mystery religions which began to spread at the same time as Christianity or very shortly thereafter, and which in the third century, just before its victory, showed themselves to be Christianity’s last and most fearsome competitors, one observes in fact a recrudescence in the development of women priests. This happened in connection with the cults of goddess-mothers (divinities of fertility of the sun who were transformed into deities of the future life) which constituted one of the most notable religious characteristics of that era.

If, therefore, infant Christianity, despite all the ways in which its practices might have been opposed to those of Judaism because of its desire to be open to the pagan world, nevertheless retained the traditional Jewish and Biblical idea that the priesthood is an exclusively masculine domain, it was not at all due to a concession to prejudices current in the milieu within which it was propagated. On the contrary, it stood in decisive opposition to the mores which society in general considered to be self-evident.

It should be added that if Judaism itself, following the course of the ancient Hebrew religion, adopted and maintained a contrary posture towards the universal practices of popular religions when Biblical revelation intervened, its opposition was the more flagrant in order to form a people whose religion was completely different!

This fact is so obvious that anyone at all conversant with the history of comparative religion, especially in the ancient Semitic East, is obliged to find another explanation. Thus it is said that if, at its beginning, the Mosaic religion rejected the priesthood of women, this might be explained by noting the fact that women priests, tied as they effectively were to the naturalistic fertility cults and their orgiastic rites, would bring with them inadmissible practices like sacred prostitution. The unfortunate thing is that this explanation either explains nothing or proves too much. As a matter of fact, these practices, including sacred prostitution, were not at all limited to women priests. They were equally prevalent among male priests. If, therefore, one could thereby explain the fact that the Hebrews refused the feminine priesthood, which appeared to them tainted by these practices, it is difficult to see how they could have, in those conditions, admitted a masculine priesthood either, which at the time and in the milieu in which they lived bore just the same stains.

We must thus recognize honestly what the evidence itself suggests: when one studies, in historical and cultural context, the developments of religion, first Hebrew, then Jewish, and finally Christian, it becomes obvious that it was not at all through unreflective adherence to the practices and prejudices of their contemporaries that the Christians, following the Jews, heirs themselves to the Mosaic traditions, remained constant in refusing the priesthood to women.

On the contrary, this stance was constantly held in opposition to what practically the whole ancient world considered normal. We do not see in Jewish and Christian tradition, as some would have us believe, the effects of a simple assimilation of uncritically accepted customs. Rather it is definitely the result of a very deliberate and singularly persistent “No.” Even if the theory was not yet elaborated, this was not due to the absence of principles. It was the result, on the contrary, of an extraordinarily constant fidelity, despite all the pressures of custom and cultural environment, to a stubbornly retained principle.

To this, naturally, will come the reply: but if there is an underlying principle, what would it be if not the idea of inequality—the invincible inferiority of woman to man? Here again the doubtful character of the reasoning strikes us, perhaps more forcibly than ever. The religion of the Bible, then Judaism and even more clearly Christianity in their turn, even if they did not constitute the only tradition of antiquity where the equality of man and woman was maintained (above all in the religious sphere, but also in the whole realm of creation), proclaimed, and defended, did constitute unquestionably the most firm and consistent tradition on this point. And if, after all, this equality appears today to be axiomatic, no serious historian would dream of contesting the fact that this is a result of Christian preaching, for which all of Judaism and the entire Bible to which it appeals paved the way.

To be sure, it is no less essential to Christianity, as to all of Biblical tradition, to affirm that woman, to be equal to man, must nonetheless remain different from him. In other words, this equality is not one of pure and simple identity, but rather of a positive and fruitful complementarity. Furthermore, as we shall see soon, it is precisely this safeguard of necessary complementarity, without which the pretended equality of woman would be nothing but an annihilation of her originality and proper identity, which motivates the limitation of the priestly ministry to men.

For the moment, however, let us confine ourselves to pointing out the absurdity of a position which explains the exclusively male priesthood of the Hebrews and Christians as a result of a conception of woman as inferior. Such an idea is quite contrary to the Bible and more specifically the Gospel, which alone assured woman’s equality in a world in which nevertheless the priesthood had never been reserved to men as it has always been in the Church as well as in Israel.

This is accentuated by the fact that in Israel, where the role of the prophets was a major one and could even be said to have been of much more consequence than that of the priests, the function of prophet does not appear to have been reserved to men. Even if relatively few women were recognized as possessors of the gift of prophecy, there was not a trace of opposition raised against them when they did appear to have it.

In a more general sense, when one seriously examines the traces that have been found in the Bible or in ancient Judaism of the apparent discrediting of women, one finds quite the contrary to be the case. What is the meaning, for example, of the “purification” to which women were submitted on the fortieth day after the birth of an infant male, or to which men themselves were subjected after sexual contact with a woman before being again allowed to take part in religious rites? (1) Was this really based, as some people claim, on some idea of the fundamental impurity of woman which would “soil” a male who came into contact with her? Such interpretations, from the standpoint of scientific religious phenomenology, are not only ridiculously naive, but are exactly contrary to the facts.

In order to clarify this point, let us first recall that in the same way, according to the most ancient Jewish tradition, simple contact with the scrolls of the Torah, or with an inspired book, “soiled the hands.” In this same archaic sense the traditional Christian liturgy speaks of “purifying” the sacred vessels, when it is in fact a matter of removing all traces of the consecrated elements.

This is the key to the laws dealing with sexuality, and specifically with woman’s role in it. It is not that there is any impurity here. It is on the contrary that there is something sacred: sexuality is the creaturely manifestation of God’s life-creating activity while the woman is the instrument of this participative creativity. Whence the suspicion, the presumption of possible sin whenever fallen man comes into contact with them, just as in his contact with the very signs of the Divine Presence. Is he not always tempted by lack of faith in the divine Word, by infidelity to the divine plan it represents and promotes?

In this case as in the other, if there is any hint of corruption, it is nothing but the corruptio optimi, which is clearly the corruptio pessima.

Likewise, what conclusions have not been drawn from the blessing which the rabbis taught men to pronounce, giving thanks that they have been “made men, and not women”? What is forgotten is, first of all, that these same people adjured women in like manner to bless God for having been made as they are.(2) What, in fact, is the meaning of both these blessings? It is, as the same rabbis never ceased to explain, that the whole yoke of the Torah, and in particular the priestly functions, the abodah, the sacrificial service, were imposed solely upon men who were only too tempted to balk at the supplementary requirements it entailed. Therefore, it was necessary to inculcate into them the idea that these requirements, as onerous as they were, were to be accepted by them as an honor. Reciprocally, women, toward whom God manifested the liberality of his mercy even more than the severity of his justice, had but to offer to God a pure act of thanksgiving for the vocation which was theirs.

This, however, does not at all mean that women were excluded from religious practice. It was simply that they were not the ones upon whom the responsibility for the public practice of religion devolved, though at the same time they took part in it on an equal footing with men. Their responsibility was for the fundamental cell of the people of God—the home —which, for Israel, remains the first and last of sanctuaries. In this role it was up to the women to prepare the Paschal meal, the Biblical sacrifice par excellence, as well as every sacred meal, though they were not the ones to preside over it, their task being rather to light the candle on the Sabbath.

This suffices already to demonstrate that the differentiation of roles already present in the Old Testament does not imply any inferiority of woman, but rather an indispensable complementarity between the sexes. That complementarity itself implies, as we shall soon see, that woman has a much more immediate and constant relationship of intimacy with the sacred than does man. This is why, although in the Bible and in the Jewish and later the Christian liturgy God is always spoken of as a male, Wisdom, which still signifies the closest conceivable association of mankind to divine thought and even divine life, is always represented by Israel as feminine. More remarkable still, if possible: the immanent presence of God, not only with man but in him, is always described by the rabbis with the feminine traits of the Shekinah. (3) But the most remarkable instance of such usage, we must add, is what we call the “Spirit” of God—that is to say, the communication to man of the divine vitality and energy whereby we are initiated into God’s own life and activity. In Hebrew, as in other Semitic languages, this Spirit is designated by the feminine, not the masculine, substantive Ruach Adonai.

In view of these historical givens, which have served as the proper coordinates for the exclusively male priesthood from the Old Testament era, throughout the history of the Church and up to our times, one can no longer assume that we are dealing with a fortuitous phenomenon, explicable by virtue of transitory contingencies, but corresponding to no intrinsic necessity in the nature of man and woman.

It is quite true that numerous theologians and Biblical scholars today tell us that, if the traditional distinction has undeniably endured throughout Biblical and Christian history, this nevertheless does not in itself constitute a theological justification for it. In matters of this kind, they tell us, we are dealing with a question of discipline, of expediency, not of principle. Thus, if the Church were to decide that it would be good, in our changed circumstances, to grant the priesthood to women, as it has been good not to do so in the past, there would be nothing to prevent it.

This kind of reasoning is singularly inconsistent. The perseverance of the Church, following all of Scripture, in maintaining a certain mode of action contrary to the common practice of mankind, if it were not substantiated by a fundamental principle, even if it had remained more or less implicit up till now, would be both incomprehensible and unjustifiable.

In fact, the reservation of the priesthood to men (viri) quite certainly rests on a theological principle made explicit—if not with exact definition, at least unambiguously—since the beginning of revelation. Those who are apparently unable to see this, if we are to judge by their actions, would in the same way have said before the Council of Nicea that the genuinely divine Sonship of Jesus could not be considered a theological principle, since it was necessary precisely for this council to define it by the consubstantiality of the Son with the Father. The same people, using the same type of reasoning, would have declared the divinity of the Spirit theologically indefensible before the Council of Constantinople, or the unity of the person of Christ before that of Ephesus, or the complete reality of his two natures, human and divine, before that of Chalcedon, etc.

Behind their affirmation, there is a view of theology which one would have to call slothful because it is completely static, the result of a narrow, literalist view of revelation. We have here what makes all the narrow conservatives involuntary allies—but unfortunately most efficacious ones—of heretical innovators, in virtue of an inertia, an absence of reflection which considers itself an expression of piety. In this particular case it does not appear exaggerated to say that, if one cannot simply produce a clear text or argument to refute an opponent, neither could this have been done when the divinity ofChrist was being disputed. The length and the difficulties of the Arian controversy demonstrate this well enough. It is precisely for this reason that the first Ecumenical Council had to define it.

But in the present case as well, the massive consensus fidelium of more than twenty centuries is, in fact, supported by a superabundance of Biblical teaching and of Christian spiritual experience which could not escape any but the most myopic view of the texts and the facts. This leaves us in no doubt about the final decision the Church would have to make, the definition of her faith on which she would have to support herself if the authorities were to find themselves pinned to the wall by the adversaries of tradition.

Let us add that in the present case, behind the Christian and Biblical understanding, there is a natural, spontaneous view of sane humanity which a simple, well-founded and scientifically developed anthropology would have no trouble formulating and justifying. In fact, the recent call for the ordination of women in order to assure the equality of women and men supposes that this equality cannot be obtained except by as radical an effacement as possible of the differences between them. Yet, according to the most informed psychologists and sociologists, this is a symptom of the particularly unfavorable conditions in which this problem of the equality of the sexes is posed by modern man. Following this path of equalization, what they want to promote risks being ruined from the outset because the problem is posed, without their realizing it, in unrealistic, self-defeating terms. The apparent victory which they would win in such circumstances, far from assuring them their hearts’ desire, would be its veiled defeat.

We find ourselves in this case in the presence of a form of feminism which, well-intentioned as it might be, can only be destructive of true liberation of women. For equality which is confused with pure and simple identity with another (while he is, of course, your equal, but for all that, not identical with you) could not possibly be anything but a delusion. It could only result, for those who insist upon it, in the final loss of their own identity.

This is what we have seen very clearly recently in the United States, in the context of a completely different but analogous issue: racial equality. The most intelligent and realistic black leaders became aware of it in time, and the formulation of the problem was modified completely within a few years. Whites of good will, followed at first by the most naive blacks, believed they were offering them perfect equality in proposing pure and simple integration into their own society—a society completely formed by whites, according to their own tastes.

But the most alert blacks, upon reflection, were not long in noticing that such integration, for them, far from signifying the liberation they hoped for, could not have led to anything but the complete destruction of what they are and what they want legitimately to remain. Even supposing that it could ever have succeeded, it would not have made the blacks, as blacks, equal with whites, but rather shamed blacks, hiding behind a mask of pseudo-whiteness which would not fool anyone. Hence this reaction, apparently paradoxical, but fundamentally very realistic and profoundly sane, of the black leaders who, in America today, do not hesitate to say that an integration of the blacks into white society in the manner in which it was first conceived would in fact be worse for them than the apartheid of South Africa. In point of fact, even if the latter implies their inferiority, or in any case points up their perpetual minority, it begins at least by recognizing their identity. The proposed form of integration, however, in pretending to ignore their identity as blacks purely and simply, if it had been attempted, could only have tended toward abolishing it. Systematically applied and followed, it would result in the most radical form of genocide.

As the great Dutch psychologist Buijtendijk (4) has demonstrated perfectly, it is the same, mutatis mutandis, for every simplistic kind of feminism which sees no other means to equality of women and men than to masculinize women. This amounts to the suppression of women as such. Feminism of this kind, if it were to triumph, would only be a Pyrrhic victory for women. It would in fact signify the definitive triumph of a most obtuse and absurd kind of masculinity.

This is what is tended toward, volens nolens, in the current supposition that the equality of woman and man could be affirmed and consolidated by the ordination of women to the priesthood. Far from producing its desired effect, the endeavor would be nothing but a particularly unreasonable manifestation of this kind of essentially self-defeating feminism. For one cannot entertain the idea of ordination of women except by a misunderstanding of the mystery of woman which is inherent in her own identity. Such a lack of understanding would result in undermining her dignity and finally reach the point of denying her the right to exist.

It is no coincidence, let us be assured, that the same era which pretends to equalize woman with man in granting her the priesthood is an era in which we see woman relegated, to an unprecedented degree, to the role of a simple object of pleasure for the idle male. In the onecase as in the other, in fact, the tendency is to deny woman all that is properly hers, not to recognize in her any value but one which is borrowed, either in total dependence on the male, or in complete confusion with him.

In opposition to the one as to the other, an analysis of the mystery of woman which underlies Scripture and all Christian tradition should avoid crushing her femininity through the conferring of a ministry for which she is not fitted, and should lead us to discover (or to rediscover) the ministries which are proper to her, and for which she is fitted—ministries which it is surely important for the Church and the world of today finally to grant to woman—or simply to restore to her. What we have just said should make it already perfectly clear that it is important to reconsider and rediscover more deeply than ever the mystery of woman, not in order to diminish woman’s role in the Church and in the world—and certainly not to diminish her dignity as woman—but on the contrary to recognize the indispensable grandeur of this role, the unique beauty of her femininity. One of the keys to the crisis which both the Church and the world are facing today (and paradoxically the Church perhaps more than the world) is simply the current misunderstanding of this mystery which, despite superficial appearances to the contrary, is more confused than ever. In stark contrast, the mystery of woman, throughout the Bible and Church tradition, is presented as the final mystery of creation, especially redeemed creation, saved and made divine by the Incarnation of God in flesh which he took from a woman.(5)


1.Leviticus 12:25, and all of chapter 15.

2. See the text of these benedictions and their commentary in the treatises, berakoth of the Mishnah and of the Tosefta.

3. We have devoted a study to this notion in Bible et vie chrétienne (December, 1957) 7 ff.

4.La Femme, by Buijtendijk, has been translated into French.

5. Despite innumerable vulgarizations, most of them hasty and superficial, of Freudian sexuality, it is astonishing that there are so few serious theological works to be found which treat this question. However, we may cite the excellent study of Derrick Sherwin Bailey, The Man-Woman Relation in Christian Thought (1959).

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