“With regards to the ordination of women, the church has spoken and says no. Pope John Paul [II] said so with a formula that was definitive. That door is closed.” –Pope Francis
Historical records indicate that women were ordained in antiquity, with functions from officiating at altars to serving as presbyters and selling burial plots. While the official Catholic position is that these actions were the result of heretical sects, opponents disagree and embrace a view that women played a central role in the hierarchical church, even after the conversion of Constantine and the establishment of the institutional Church.
Regardless of historiography, there is little doubt that the modern Roman Catholic Church stands firmly against the ordination of women, a position made clear by Pope John Paul II in his 1994 Apostolic Letter, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, in which he writes:
In fact the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles attest that this call was made in accordance with God’s eternal plan; Christ chose those whom he willed (cf. Mk 3:13-14; Jn 6:70), and he did so in union with the Father, “through the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:2), after having spent the night in prayer (cf. Lk 6:12). Therefore, in granting admission to the ministerial priesthood,(6) the Church has always acknowledged as a perennial norm her Lord’s way of acting in choosing the twelve men whom he made the foundation of his Church (cf. Rv 21:14). These men did not in fact receive only a function which could thereafter be exercised by any member of the Church; rather they were specifically and intimately associated in the mission of the Incarnate Word himself (cf. Mt 10:1, 7-8; 28:16-20; Mk 3:13-16; 16:14-15). The Apostles did the same when they chose fellow workers(7) who would succeed them in their ministry.(8) Also included in this choice were those who, throughout the time of the Church, would carry on the Apostles’ mission of representing Christ the Lord and Redeemer.(9)
In the wake of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), it seemed possible that women could be ordained to the diaconate, most specifically when the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith indicated that exploration of the issue was important in 1977. However, it was still considered “unsettled” in 2003, with “recent indications that the Holy See intends to continue the exclusion of women from this office.”
There has been great excitement among Liberal Protestants and alienated Catholics about the papacy of Francis I; his statements on gays and his condemnation of unchecked capitalism have generated a feeling that His Holiness is taking the Church in a new direction. He is not without detractors, both conservative and liberal, but there is no question that he has quickly made the papacy relevant again. In the spirit of full disclosure, I admit to having a picture of Pope Francis in my church office and to quoting him frequently in my sermons. As a mainline Protestant with two graduate degrees from a Jesuit Catholic University, I have a deep love for this Pope. He is a model for me on how to do ministry.
I often tell my Protestant friends—especially fellow Progressive Christians who lament the Pope’s seemingly contradictory views on homosexuality—that we should never forget that he is Catholic. What many people see as wild deviations from Catholic teaching, such as his statements concerning evolution and faith, are actually very much in line with traditional Catholic views that date back to the 19th century.
Francis is certainly refreshing, from his refusal to live into the trappings of papal life, his midnight sojourns out into the city to serve the poor, and the fact that he has never been a member of the entrenched Vatican hierarchy. But what Francis is doing each day is little more than following the compassionate, justice-orientated example of Jesus.
Except when it comes to the ordination of women. I see firsthand the pain suffered by a great number of Catholic women who do not see a place for themselves within the Church outside of serving as nuns. To be sure, Catholic nuns are vital, essential servants of God, and the Nuns on the Bus should stand as an inspiration to Christians around the world. But women religious have long been subject to suspicion from the Vatican—one need only look at the investigation of American nuns launched by Pope Benedict—with their roles largely conscripted and limited. Nuns are not permitted to administer the sacraments, cannot deliver homilies during Mass, and their voices do not rise to the level of male members of the Church. From a purely practical standpoint, the Roman Catholic Church should consider the ordination of women in the face of rapidly declining seminary numbers.
As an ordained minister through the United Church of Christ (UCC) serving within the Presbyterian Church (USA), I experience firsthand the dynamic, vibrant ministries of fellow female clergy. To be sure, we mainline Protestants have a long way to go, as many of my female colleagues still have a difficult time securing senior pastor positions. But when I was in seminary and graduate school, some of the most rewarding courses I took were taught by female members of clergy; in my home church, one of my two pastors is female; I seek spiritual direction from a female pastor; a female Hebrew Bible scholar and UCC minister preached at my ordination; and on Facebook, a vast majority of the clergy with whom I regularly dialogue are female.
As a White, cisgender, male pastor, the influence of female clergy has been incredibly formational to my own understanding of the gospel. Sadly, I think this is the only sort of argument that can gain traction in the Catholic Church: women’s talents may only be appreciated if they can be contextualized in terms of how they will assist men.
Perhaps I am wrong, but Pope Francis’ words, quoted at the beginning of this article, indicate that the door is shut because men have said so. If only the male hierarchy of the Church could realize how much they are missing by automatically limiting ordination status to less than half of the world’s population.
In the midst of people running away from Protestant Churches, it appears that American Catholics are returning to the fold. Regardless of denominational divides, as a Christian I celebrate this reality. I struggled for years about whether or not to become Catholic, but my views on homosexuality, abortion, celibacy, and the ordination of women ultimately pushed me toward the UCC and a More Light PC (USA) congregation. But I fear that many people who are finding hope with Francis’ moves away from the Culture War issues and toward a more inclusive Church will be thwarted when nothing really changes.
Keeping women out of ministry does not make existential or theological sense, and the Church is missing the opportunity to be a home for dynamic, life-altering ministry.
The Rev. Aaron Maurice Saari is an ordained pastor in the United Church of Christ, currently serving First Presbyterian Church of Yellow Springs, a More Light PC (USA) congregation in Ohio. An academic, Aaron has taught at numerous universities and is best known for his book, The Many Deaths of Judas Iscariot: A Meditation on Suicide. He is passionate about social justice and interfaith, ecumenical work. He also serves as Interfaith Campus Minister at Sinclair Community College.