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The crumbling of the institutional Church prejudice against women

The crumbling of
the institutional Church prejudice
against women

Cultural prejudice against women had been building up in the Catholic communities during the first millennium. In the early Middle Ages this became the Church’s institutional prejudice when it was enshrined in Church Law. The beginnings of this we can see in Gratian’s first collection of Church Law (1140 AD).

In our own time, spurred on by the emancipation of women in secular society, the institutional prejudice of the Church has begun to crumble. But we are still far from its total collapse. Women are still excluded from the ordained ministries in the Catholic Church.

Compare the shift in official Church laws:

Code of Canon Law 1917 Code of Church Law 1983

Other examples showing the crumbling of the institutional bias against women:

These are, of course, relaxations of ridiculous prohibitions. They do not address the real issue of women’s equality in Christ that should open the way to women’s admission to all ministries. But the momentum cannot be stopped. In time to come it will be seen that it was as ridiculous to keep women from presiding at the Eucharist, as it was to keep them from singing in Church or serving at the altar!

Positions now open to women

Present Church law forbids women to be clerics and so deprives all women of clerical offices which require the power of order or the power of jurisdiction [=church governance] (can. 219, §1 & 274 § 1).

On the other hand, Church law allows women to be appointed to many new tasks and responsibilities that were closed to them in the past. It demonstrates again how the institutional prejudice is crumbling.

Church law allows women:

  • To be a member of the pastoral council of the diocese (can. 512 § 1) and of the parish (can. 536 § 1).
  • To be full members of provincial councils of bishops (can. 443 § 4), diocesan synods (can. 463 § 2 & 1.5), the finance committee of the diocese (can. 492 § 1) and of the parish (can. 537).
  • To be a financial administrator of the diocese (can. 494).
  • To be consultors on the appointment of parish priests (can. 524) and the appointment of bishops (can. 377 § 3).
  • To preach in a church or oratory though not the homily (can. 766).
  • To be catechists (can. 785) and to give assistance to the parish priest in the catechetical formation of adults, young people and children (can. 776).
  • To assist at marriages under certain conditions (c.1112).
  • To assist the parish priest in exercising the pastoral care of the community, as parish assistants, or as chaplains in hospitals, colleges, youth centres and social institutions (can. 519).
  • To be to be entrusted with a parish because of a shortage of priests (can. 517 § 2).
  • To administer certain sacramentals (can. 1168).
  • To hold offices in an ecclesiastical tribunal, such as being judges (can. 1421 § 2), assessors (can. 1424), auditors (can 1428 § 2), promotors of justice and defenders of the marriage bond (can. 1435).
  • To hold the diocesan offices of a chancellor or a notary (can. 483 § 2).

The parallel in other Churches

It is instructive to study the dates from which Churches opened up to women as ministers:

1852 United Church of Christ
1863 Universalist denomination, now Unitarian Universalist Association
1865 Salvation Army
1911 Mennonite
1914 Assemblies of God
1920s Some Baptist denominations
1939 United Methodist Church. (African Methodists had ordained women for decades.)
1956 Presbyterian Church (USA)
1972 Reform Judaism.
1970s Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
1976 Episcopal Church
1994 Church of England


Cultural prejudice is slowly breaking down, also in the Catholic Church. The prejudice is still kept in place by Church authorities clinging to flimsy arguments that have no real foundation. The official Church will not be able to shore up its untenable opposition to the ordination of women for much longer.

John Wijngaards

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