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Women and the Ministerial Priesthood

General Audience — July 27, 1994

Woman shares in the common priesthood of the faithful (cf. LG 10) in many ways, but especially through motherhood, not only spiritual motherhood, but also what many women choose as their own natural role with regard to conceiving, giving birth to and raising children: "A child is born into the world!" In the Church this task includes a lofty vocation and becomes a mission through woman's sharing in the common priesthood of the faithful.

Quite recently some women, even among Catholics, have asserted a claim to the ministerial priesthood. This demand is based on an untenable assumption. The priestly ministry is not a function one approaches on the basis of sociological criteria or legal procedures, but only in obedience to the will of Christ. Now, Jesus has entrusted the task of the ministerial priesthood only to males. Although he invited some women to follow him and even sought their cooperation, he did not call or allow any of them to be part of the group he entrusted with the ministerial priesthood in his Church. His will is seen in his behavior as a whole, as well as in significant actions which Christian tradition has constantly interpreted as directions to be followed.

Thus the Gospels indicate that Jesus never sent women on preaching missions, as he did with the group of the Twelve, all of whom were male (cf. Lk 9:1-6), and also with the seventy-two, among whom no feminine presence is mentioned (cf. Lk 10:1-20).

Jesus gave authority over his kingdom to the Twelve alone: "As my Father appointed a kingdom for me, so do I appoint for you" (cf. Lk 22:29). He conferred only on the Twelve the mission and power of celebrating the Eucharist in his name (cf. Lk 22:19)--the essence of the ministerial priesthood. After his resurrection he gave to the apostles alone the power to forgive sins (cf. Jn 20:22-23) and to undertake the work of universal evangelization (cf. Mt 28:18-20; Mk 16: 16-18).

Christ's will was followed by the apostles and the other leaders of the first communities. They gave rise to the Christian tradition which since then has remained ever in force in the Church. I felt it my duty to confirm this tradition with the recent Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (May 22, 1994), declaring that "The Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful" (n. 4). At issue here is fidelity to the pastoral ministry as Christ instituted it. Pius XII had already asserted this when he pointed out: "The Church has no power over the substance of the sacraments, that is, over anything that Christ the Lord, as attested by the sources of revelation, wanted to be maintained in the sacramental sign." He concluded that the Church is obliged to accept as normative "his practice of conferring priestly ordination on men alone" (cf. AAS 40 [1948], p. 5).

The permanent and normative value of this practice cannot be contested by saying that Christ's manifest will was due to the mentality of his time and to prejudice against women then and later. In reality, Jesus never conformed to a mentality unfavorable to women and indeed reacted against inequalities based on sexual differences. By calling women to follow him he showed that he went beyond the customs and outlook of his environment. If he reserved the ministerial priesthood to men, he did so with full freedom, and in his provisions and choices he took no stance unfavorable to women.

If a reason is sought as to why Jesus reserved admission to the ministerial priesthood to men, it can be discovered in the fact that the priest represents Christ himself in his relationship to the Church. Now, this relationship is spousal in nature: Christ is the bridegroom (cf. Mt 9:15; Jn 3:29; 2 Cor 11:2; Eph 5:25); the Church is the bride (cf. 2 Cor 11:2; Eph 5:25-27, 31-32; Rev 19:7; 21:9). Because the relationship between Christ and the Church is validly expressed in sacramental Orders, it is necessary that Christ be represented by a man. The distinction between the sexes is very significant in this case and cannot be disregarded without undermining the sacrament. Indeed, the specific nature of the sign used is essential to the sacraments. Baptism has to be performed with water that washes; it cannot be done with oil, which anoints, even though oil is more expensive than water. Analogously, the sacrament of Orders is celebrated with men, without questioning the value of persons. Thus, we can understand the Council's teaching that priests are ordained "in such a way that they can act in the person of Christ the head" (PO 2), "exercising the office of Christ, the shepherd and head, and according to their share of his authority" (PO 6).

Mulieris Dignitatem also explains the reason for Christ's decision, which has been faithfully preserved by the Catholic Church in her laws and discipline (cf. MD 26-27).

We should also point out that woman's true advancement consists in promoting what is proper and fitting to her as woman, that is, as a creature different from man and called herself, no less than man, to be a model of human personhood. This "emancipation" corresponds to the indications and instructions of Jesus, who wished to give woman a mission of her own in conformity with her natural difference from man. Carrying out this mission opens the way to the development of woman's personality, which can offer humanity, and the Church in particular, a service conforming to her own qualities.

We can close then by saying that Jesus, in not assigning the ministerial priesthood to women, did not put them in an inferior position, nor deprive them of a right that might be theirs, nor violate woman's equality with man. Rather, he acknowledged and respected their dignity. By instituting the ministerial priesthood for men, he did not intend to make them superior but to call them to a humble service modeled on that of the Son of Man (cf. Mk 10:45; Mt 20:28). By assigning woman a mission corresponding to her personality, he elevated her dignity and confirmed the right to her own originality in the Church too.

The example of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, completes the demonstration of respect for woman's dignity in the mission entrusted to her in the Church. Mary was not called to the ministerial priesthood. But the mission she received had no less value than a pastoral ministry; indeed, it was quite superior. She received a maternal mission at the highest level--to be the mother of Jesus Christ, and thus Theotókos, the Mother of God. This mission would broaden into a motherhood for all men and women in the order of grace.

The same can be said of the mission of motherhood that many women accept in the Church (cf. MD 27). They are placed by Christ in the wondrous light of Mary, which shines at the summit of the Church and creation.