Declaration on the Question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood (Inter Insigniores)

Prepared by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
Approved for Publication by His Holiness Pope Paul VI
October 15, 1976 


The Role of Women in Modern Society and the Church

Among the characteristics that mark our present age, Pope John XXIII indicated, in his Encyclical Pacem in Terris of April 11, 1963, "the part that women are now taking in public life ... This is a development that is perhaps of swifter growth among Christian nations but it is also happening extensively, if more slowly, among nations that are heirs to different traditions and imbued with a different culture." Along the same lines, the Second Vatican Council, enumerating in its Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes the forms of discrimination touching upon the basic rights of the person which must be overcome and eliminated as being contrary to God's plan, gives first place to discrimination based upon sex. The resulting equality will secure the building up of a world that is not leveled out and uniform but harmonious and unified, if men and women contribute to it their own resources and dynamism as Pope Paul VI recently stated.

In the life of the Church herself, as history shows us, women have played a decisive role and accomplished tasks of outstanding value. One has only to think of the foundresses of the great religious families such as Saint Clare and Saint Teresa of Avila. The latter, moreover, and Saint Catherine of Siena, have left writings so rich in spiritual doctrine that Pope Paul VI has included them among the Doctors of the Church. Nor could one forget the great number of women who have consecrated themselves to the Lord for the exercise of charity or for the missions, and the Christian wives who have had a profound influence on their families, particularly for the passing on of the faith to their children.

But our age gives rise to increased demands. "Since in our time women have an ever more active share in the whole life of society, it is very important that they participate more widely also in the various sectors of the church's apostolate." This charge of the Second Vatican Council has already set in motion the whole process of change now taking place: these various experiences of course need to come to maturity. But as Pope Paul VI also remarked, a very large number of Christian communities are already benefiting from the apostolic commitment of women. Some of these women are called to take part in councils set up for pastoral reflection, at the diocesan or parish level; and the Apostolic See has brought women into some of its working bodies.

For some years now various Christian communities stemming from the 16th century Reformation or of later origin have been admitting women to the pastoral office on a par with men. This initiative has led to petitions and writing s by members of these communities and similar groups, directed towards making this admission a general thing; it has also led to contrary reactions. This therefore constitutes an ecumenical problem and the Catholic Church must make her thinking known on it, all the more because in various sectors of opinion the question has been asked whether she too could not modify her discipline and admit women to priestly ordination. A number of Catholic theologians have even posed this question publicly, evoking studies not only in the sphere of exegesis, patrology and Church history but also in the field of the history of institutions and customs, of sociology and of psychology. The various arguments capable of clarifying this important problem have been submitted to a critical examination. As we are dealing with a debate which classical theology scarcely touched upon, the current argumentation runs the risk of neglecting essential elements.

For these reasons, in execution of a mandate received form the Holy See and echoing the declaration which he himself made in his letter of November 30, 1976, the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith judges it necessary to recall that the Church, in fidelity to the example of the Lord, does not consider herself authorized to admit women to priestly ordination. The Sacred Congregation deems it opportune at the present juncture to explain this position of the Church. It is a position which will perhaps cause pain but whose positive value will become apparent in the long run, since it can be of help in deepening understanding of the respective roles of men and women. 


The Catholic Church has never felt that priestly or episcopal ordination can be validly conferred on women. A few heretical sects in the first centuries, especially Gnostic ones, entrusted the exercise of the priestly ministry to women: this innovation was immediately noted and condemned by the Fathers who considered it as unacceptable in the Church. It is true that in the writings of the Fathers one will find the undeniable influence of prejudices unfavorable to women, but nevertheless, it should be noted that these prejudices had hardly any influence on their pastoral activity and still less on their spiritual direction. But over and above considerations inspired by the spirit of the times, one finds expressed - especially in the canonical documents of the Antiochian and Egyptian traditions - this essential reason, namely, that by calling only men to the priestly Order and ministry in its true sense, the Church intends to remain faithful to the type of ordained ministry willed by the Lord Jesus Christ and carefully maintained by the Apostles.

The same conviction animates medieval theology even if the Scholastic doctors, in their desire to clarify by reason the data of faith, often present arguments on this point that modern thought would have difficulty in admitting or would even rightly reject. Since that period and up to our own time, it can be said that the question has not been raised again, for the practice has enjoyed peaceful and universal acceptance.

The Church's tradition in the matter has thus been so firm in the course of the centuries that the Magisterium has not felt the need to intervene in order to formulate a principle which was not attacked, or to defend a law which was not challenged. But each time that this tradition had the occasion to manifest itself, it witnessed to the Church's desire to conform to the model left to her by the Lord.

The same tradition has been faithfully safeguarded by the Churches of the East. Their unanimity on this point is all the more remarkable since in many other questions their discipline admits of a great diversity. At the present time these same Churches refuse to associate themselves with request directed towards securing the accession of women to priestly ordination.


Jesus Christ did not call any woman to become part of the Twelve. If he acted in this way, it was not in order to conform to the customs of his time, for his attitude towards women was quite different from that of his milieu, and he deliberately and courageously broke with it.

For example, to the great astonishment of his own disciples, Jesus converses publicly with the Samaritan woman (cf. Jn 4:27); he takes no notice of the state of legal impurity of the woman who had suffered from hemorrhages (cf. Mt 9:20-22), he allows a sinful woman to approach him in the house of Simon the Pharisee (cf. Lk 7:37 ff); and by pardoning the woman taken in adultery, he means to show that one must not be more severe towards the fault of a woman than that of a man (cf. Jn 8:11). He does not hesitate to depart from the Mosaic Law in order to affirm the equality of the rights and duties of men and women with regard to the marriage bond (cf. Mk 10:2-11; Mt 19:3-9).

In his itinerant ministry Jesus was accompanied not only by the Twelve but also by a group of women: "Mary, surnamed the Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, Joanna the wife of Herod's steward Chuza, Susanna and several others who provided for them out of their own resources" (Lk 8:2-3). Contrary to the Jewish mentality, which did not accord great value to the testimony of women, as Jewish law attests, it was nevertheless women who were the first to have the privilege of seeing the Risen Lord and it was they who were charged by Jesus to take the first paschal message to the Apostles themselves (cf. Mt 28:7-10; Lk 24:9-10; Jn 20:11-18), in order to prepare the latter to become the official witnesses to the Resurrection.

It is true that these facts do not make the matter immediately obvious. This is no surprise, for the questions that the Word of God brings before us go beyond the obvious. In order to reach the ultimate meaning of the mission of Jesus and the ultimate meaning of Scripture, a purely historical exegesis of the texts cannot suffice. But it must be recognized that we have here a number or convergent indications that make all the more remarkable the fact that Jesus did not entrust the apostolic charge to women. Even his Mother, who was so closely associated with the mystery of her Son, and whose incomparable role is emphasized by the Gospels of Luke and John, was not invested with the apostolic ministry. This fact was to lead the Fathers to present her as the example or Christ's will in this domain; as Pope Innocent III repeated later, at the beginning of the 13th century, "Although the Blessed Virgin Mary surpassed in dignity and in excellence all the Apostles, nevertheless it was not to her but to them that the Lord entrusted the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven."


The apostolic community remained faithful to the attitude of Jesus towards women. Although Mary occupied a privileged place in the little circle of those gathered in the Upper Room after the Lord's Ascension (cf. Acts 1:14), it was not she who was called to enter the College of the Twelve at the time of the election that resulted in the choice of Matthias: those who were put forward were two disciples whom the Gospels do not even mention. 

On the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit filled them all, men and women (cf. Acts 2:1; 1-14), yet the proclamation of the fulfillment of the prophecies in Jesus was made only by "Peter and the Eleven" (Acts 2:14).

When they and Paul went beyond the confines of the Jewish world, the preaching of the Gospel and the Christian life in the Greco-Roman civilization impelled them to break with Mosaic practices, sometimes regretfully. They could therefore have envisaged conferring ordination on women, if they had not been convinced that their duty of fidelity to the Lord on this point. In the Hellenistic world, the cult of a number of pagan divinities was entrusted to priestesses. In fact, the Greeks did not share the ideas of the Jews: although their philosophers taught the inferiority of women, historians nevertheless emphasize the existence of a certain movement for the advancement of women during the Imperial period. In fact, we know from the book of the Acts and from the Letters of Saint Paul that certain women worked with the Apostles for the Gospel (cf. Rom 16:3-12; Phil 4:3). Saint Paul lists their names with gratitude in the final salutations of the Letters. Some of them often exercised an important influence on conversions: Priscilla, Lydia and others; especially Priscilla, who took it on herself to complete the instruction of Apollos (cf. Acts 18:26); Phoebe, in the service of the Church of Cenchreae (cf. Rom 16:1). All these facts manifest within the apostolic Church a considerable evolution vis-a-vis the customs of Judaism. Nevertheless, at no time was there a question of conferring ordination on these women.

In the Pauline Letters, exegetes of authority have noted a difference between two formulas used by the Apostle: he writes indiscriminately "my fellow workers" (Rom 16:3; Phil 4:2-3) when referring to men and women helping him in his apostolate in one way or another; but he reserves the title "God's fellow workers" (1 Cor 3:9; cf. 1 Thes 3:1) to Apollos, Timothy and himself, thus designated because they are  directly set apart for the apostolic ministry and the preaching of the Word of God. In spite of the so important role played by women on the day of the Resurrection, their collaboration was not extended by Saint Paul to the official and public proclamation of the message, since this proclamation belongs exclusively to the apostolic mission.


Could the Church today depart from this attitude of Jesus and the Apostles, which has been considered as normative by the whole of tradition up to our own day? Various arguments have been put forward in favor of a positive reply to this question, and these must now be examined.

It has been claimed in particular that the attitude of Jesus and the Apostles is explained by the influence of their milieu and their times. It is said that if Jesus did not entrust to women and not even to his Mother a ministry assimilating them to the Twelve, this as because historical circumstances did not permit him to do so. No one however has ever proved - and it is clearly impossible to prove - that this attitude is inspired only by social and cultural reasons. As we have seen, an examination of the Gospels shows on the contrary that Jesus broke with the prejudices of his time, by widely contravening the discriminations practiced with regard to women. One therefore cannot maintain that, by not calling women to enter the group of the Apostles, Jesus was simply letting himself be guided by reasons of expediency. For all the more reason, social and cultural conditioning did not hold back the Apostles working in the Greek milieu, where the same forms of discrimination did not exist.

Another objection is based upon the transitory character that one claims to see today in some of the prescription of Saint Paul concerning women and upon the difficulties that some aspects of his teaching raise in this regard. But it must be noted that these ordinances, probably inspired by the customs of the period, concern scarcely more than disciplinary practices of minor importance such as the obligation imposed upon women to wear a veil on the head (1 Cor 11:2-16); such requirements no longer have a normative value. However, the Apostle's forbidding of women "to speak" in the assemblies (cf. 1 Cor 14:34-35; 1 Tim 2:12) is of a different nature and exegetes define its meaning in this way: Paul in no way opposes the right which he elsewhere recognizes as possessed by women, to prophesy in the assembly (cf. 1 Cor 11:5); the prohibition solely concerns the official function of teaching in the Christian assembly. For Saint Paul this prescription is bound up with the divine plan of creation (cf. 1 Cor 11:7; Gen 2:18-24): it would be difficult to see in it the expression of a cultural fact. Nor should it be forgotten that we owe to Saint Paul one of the most vigorous texts in the New Testament on the fundamental equality of men and women, as children of God in Christ (cf. Gal 3:28). Therefore there is no reason for accusing him of prejudices against women, when we note the trust that he shows towards them and the collaboration that he asks of them in his apostolate.

But over and above these objections taken from the history of apostolic times, those who support the legitimacy of change in the matter turn to the Church's practice in her sacramental discipline. It has been noted, in our day especially, to what extent the Church is conscious of possessing a certain power over the sacraments, even though they were instituted by Christ. She has used this power down the centuries in order to determine their signs and the conditions of their administration: recent decisions of Popes Pius XII and Paul VI are proof of this. However, it must be emphasized that this power, which is a real one, has definite limits. As Pope Pius XII recalled: "The Church has no power over the substance of the sacraments, that is to say, over what Christ the Lord, as the sources of Revelation bear witness, determined should be maintained in the sacramental sign." This was already the teaching of the council of Trent, which declared: "In the Church there has always existed this power, that in the administration of the sacraments, provided that their substance remains unaltered, she can lay down or modify what she considers more fitting either for the benefit of those who receive them or for respect towards those same sacraments, according to varying circumstances, times or places."

Moreover, it must not be forgotten that the sacramental signs are not conventional ones. Not only is it true that in many respects, they are natural signs because they respond to the deep symbolism of actions and things, but they are more than this: they are principally meant to link the person of every period to the supreme Event of the history of salvation, in order to enable that person to understand, through all the Bible's wealth of pedagogy and symbolism, what grace they signify and produce. For example, the sacrament of the Eucharist is not only a fraternal meal, but at the same time the memorial which makes present and actual Christ's sacrifice and his offering by the Church. Again, the priestly ministry is not just a pastoral service; it ensures the continuity of the functions entrusted by Christ to the Apostles and the continuity of the powers related to those functions. Adaptation to civilizations and times therefore cannot abolish, on essential points, the sacramental reference to constitutive events of Christianity and to Christ himself.

In the final analysis it is the Church, through the voice of her Magisterium, that, in these various domains, decides what can change and what must remain immutable. When she judges that she cannot accept certain changes, it is because she knows that she is bound by Christ's manner of acting. Her attitude, despite appearances, is therefore not on of archaism but of fidelity: it can be truly understood only in this light. The Church makes pronouncements in virtue of the Lord's promise and the presence of the Holy Spirit, in order to proclaim better the mystery of Christ and to safeguard and manifest the whole of its rich content.

This practice of the Church therefore has a normative character: in the fact of conferring priestly ordination only on men, it is a question of an unbroken tradition throughout the history of the Church, universal in the East and in the West and alert to repress abuses immediately. This norm, based on Christ's example, has been and is still observed because it is considered to conform to God's plan for his Church.


Having recalled the Church's norm and the basis thereof, it seems useful and opportune to illustrate this norm by showing the profound fittingness that theological reflection discovers between the proper nature of the sacrament of Order, with its specific reference to the mystery of Christ and the fact that only men have been called to receive priestly ordination. It is not a question here of bringing forward a demonstrative argument but of clarifying this teaching by the analogy of faith.

The Church's constant teaching, repeated and clarified by the Second Vatican Council and again recalled by the 1971 Synod of Bishops and by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in its Declaration of June 24, 1973, declares that the bishop or the priest, in the exercise of his ministry does not act in his own name, in persona propria: he represents Christ, who acts through him: "the priest truly acts in the place of Christ," as Saint Cyprian already wrote in the third century. It is this ability to represent Christ that Saint Paul considered as characteristic of his apostolic function (cf. 2 Cor 5:20; Gal 4:14). The supreme expression of this representation is found in the altogether special form it assumes in the celebration of the Eucharist, which is the source and center of the Church's unity, the sacrificial meal in which the People of God are associated in the sacrifice of Christ: the priest who alone has the power to perform it, then acts not only through the effective power conferred on him by Christ, but in persona Christi, taking the role of Christ, to the point of being his very image, when he pronounces the words of consecration.

The Christian priesthood is therefore of a sacramental nature: the priest is a sign, the supernatural effectiveness of which comes from the ordination received but a sign that must be perceptible and which the faithful must be able to recognize with ease. The whole sacramental economy is in fact based upon natural signs, on symbols imprinted upon the human psychology: "Sacramental signs," says Saint Thomas, "represent what they signify by natural resemblance." The same natural resemblance is required for persons as for things: when Christ's role in the Eucharist is to be expressed sacramentally, there would not be this "natural resemblance" which must exist between Christ and his minister if the role of Christ were not taken by a man: in such a case it would be difficult to see in the minister the image of Christ. For Christ himself was and remains a man.

Christ is of course the first-born of humanity, of women as well as men: the unity which he re-established after sins is such that there are no more distinctions between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, but all are one in Christ Jesus (cf. Gal 3:28). Nevertheless, the Incarnation of the Word took place according to the male sex: this is indeed a question of fact and this fact while not implying an alleged natural superiority of man over woman, cannot be disassociated from the economy of salvation: it is indeed in harmony with the entirety of God's plan as God himself has revealed it, and of which the mystery of the Covenant is the nucleus.

For the salvation offered by God to men and women, the union with him to which they are called, - in short, the Covenant - took on, from the Old Testament Prophets onwards, the privileged form of a nuptial mystery: for God the Chosen People is seen as his ardently loved spouse. Both Jewish and Christian tradition has discovered the depth of this intimacy of love by reading and rereading the Song of Songs; the divine Bridegroom will remain faithful even when the Bride betrays his love, when Israel is unfaithful to God (cf. Hos 1-3; Jer 2). When the "fullness of time" (Gal 4:4) comes, the Word, the Son of God, takes on flesh in order to establish and seal the new and eternal Covenant in his blood, which will be shed for many so that sins may be forgiven. His death will gather together again the scattered children of God; from his pierced side will be born the Church, as Eve was born from Adam's side. At that time there is fully and eternally accomplished the nuptial mystery proclaimed and hymned in the Old Testament: Christ is the Bridegroom; the Church is his Bride, whom he loves because he has gained her by his blood and made her glorious, holy and without blemish, and henceforth he is inseparable from her. This nuptial theme, which is developed from the Letters of Saint Paul onwards (cf. 2 Cor 11:2; Eph 5:22-23) to the writings of Saint John (cf. especially Jn 3:29; Rev 19:7,9), is present also in the Synoptic Gospels: the Bridegroom's friends must not fast as long as he is with them (cf. Mk 2:19); the Kingdom of Heaven is like a king who gave a feast for his son's wedding (cf. Mt 22:1-14). It is through this Scriptural language, all interwoven with symbols, and which expresses and affects man and woman in their profound identity, that there is revealed to us the mystery of God and Christ, a mystery which of itself is unfathomable.

That is why we can never ignore the fact that Christ is a man. And therefore, unless one is to disregard the importance of this symbolism for the economy of Revelation, it must be admitted that, in actions which demand the character or ordination in which Christ himself, the author of the Covenant, the Bridegroom and Head of the Church, is represented, exercising his ministry of salvation - which is in the highest degree the case of the Eucharist - his role (this is the original sense of the word "persona") must be taken by a man. This does not stem from any personal superiority of the latter in the order of values but only from a difference of fact on the level of functions and service.

Could one say that, since Christ is now in the heavenly condition, from now on it is a matter of indifference whether he be represented by a man or by a woman, since "at the resurrection men and women do not marry" (Mt 22:30)? But this text does not mean that the distinction between man and woman, insofar as it determines the identity proper to the person, is suppressed in the glorified state; what holds for us holds also for Christ. It is indeed evident that in human beings the difference of sex exercises an important influence, much deeper than, for example, ethnic differences: the latter do not affect the human person as intimately as the difference of sex, which is directly ordained both for the communion of persons and for the generation of human beings. In Biblical Revelation this revelation is the effect of God's will from the beginning: "male and female he created them" (Gen 1:27).

However, it will perhaps be further objected that the priest, especially when he presides at the liturgical and sacramental functions, equally represents the church: he acts in her name with "the intention of doing what she does." In this sense the theologians of the Middle Ages said that the minister also acts "in persona ecclesiae," that is to say, in the name of the whole church and in order to represent her. And in fact, leaving aside the question of the participation of the faithful in a liturgical action, it is indeed in the name of the whole church that the action is celebrated by the priest: he prays in the name of all and in the Mass he offers the sacrifice of the whole church. In the new Passover, the Church, under visible signs, immolates Christ through the ministry of the priest. And so, it is asserted, since the priest also represent the Church, would it not be possible to think that this representation could be carried out by a woman, according to the symbolism already explained? It is true that the priest represents the Church, which is the Body of Christ. But if he does so, it is precisely because he first represents Christ himself who is the Head and Shepherd of the Church. The Second Vatican Council used this phrase to make more precise and to complete the expression "in persona Christi." It is in this quality that the priest presides over the Christian assembly and celebrates the Eucharistic sacrifice "in which the whole Church offers and is herself wholly offered."

If one does justice to these reflections, one will better understand how well-founded is the basis of the Church's practice: and one will conclude that the controversies raised in our days over the ordination of women are for all Christians a pressing invitation to meditate on  the mystery of the Church, to study in greater detail the meaning of the episcopate and the priesthood and to rediscover the real and pre-eminent place of the priest in the community of the baptized, of which he indeed forms part but from which he is distinguished because, in the actions that call for the character of ordination, for the community he is - with all the effectiveness proper to the sacraments - the image and symbol of Christ himself who calls, forgives and accomplishes the sacrifice of the Covenant.


It is opportune to recall that problems of sacramental theology, especially when they concern the ministerial priesthood, as is the case here, cannot be solved except in the light of Revelation. The human sciences, however valuable their contribution in their own domain, cannot suffice here, for they cannot grasp the realities of faith: the properly supernatural content of these realities is beyond their competence.

Thus one must note the extent to which the church is a society different from other societies, original in her nature and in her structures. The pastoral charge in the Church is normally linked to the sacrament of Order: it is not a simple government, comparable to the modes of authority found in States. It is not granted by people's spontaneous choice: even when it involves designation through election, it is the laying on of hands and the prayer of the successors of the Apostles which guarantee God's choice; and it is the Holy Spirit, given by ordination, who grants participation in the ruling power of the Supreme Pastor, Christ (cf. Acts 20:28). It is a charge of service and love: "If you love me, feed my sheep" (cf. Jn 21:15-17).

For this reason one cannot see how it is possible to propose the admission of women to the priesthood in virtue of the equality of rights of the human person, an equality which holds good also for Christians. To this end use is sometimes made of the text quoted above, from the Letter to the Galatians (3:28), which says that in Christ there is no longer any distinction between men and women. But this passage does not concern ministries: it only affirms the universal calling to divine filiation, which is the same for all. Moreover, and above all, to consider the ministerial priesthood as a human right would be to misjudge its nature completely: baptism does not confer any personal title to public ministry in the Church. The priesthood is not conferred for the honor or advantage of the recipient but for the service of God and the Church; it is the object of a specific and totally gratuitous vocation: "You did not choose me, no, I chose you; and I commissioned you..." (Jn 15:16; cf. Heb 5:4).

It is sometimes said and written in books and periodicals that some women feel that they have a vocation to the priesthood. Such an attraction, however noble and understandable, still does not suffice for a genuine vocation. In fact, a vocation cannot be reduced to a mere personal attraction, which can remain purely subjective. Since the priesthood is a particular ministry of which the Church has received the charge and the control, authentication by the Church is indispensable here and is a constitutive part of the vocation: Christ chose "those whom he desired" (Mk 3:13). On the other hand, there is a universal vocation of all the baptized to the exercise of the royal priesthood by offering their lives to God and by giving witness for his praise.

Women who express a desire for the ministerial priesthood are doubtless motivated by the desire to serve Christ and the Church. And it is not surprising that, at a time when they are becoming more aware of the discriminations to which they have been subject, they should desire the ministerial priesthood itself. But it must not be forgotten that the priesthood does not form part of the rights of the individual, but stems from the economy of the mystery of Christ and the church. The priestly office cannot become the goal of social advancement; no merely human progress of society or of the individual can of itself give access to it: it is of another order.

It therefore remains for us to meditate more deeply on the nature of the real equality of the baptized which is one of the great affirmations of Christianity: equality is in no way identity, for the Church is a differentiated body, in which each individual has his or her role. The roles are distinct and must not be confused; they do not favor the superiority of some vis-a-vis the others, nor do they provide an excuse for jealousy; the only better gift, which can and must be desired, is love (cf. 1 Cor 12:13). The greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven are not the ministers but the saints.

The Church desires that Christian women should become fully aware of the greatness of their mission: today their role is of capital importance, both for the renewal and humanization of society and for the rediscovery by believers of the true face of the Church. 

His Holiness Pope Paul VI, during the audience granted to the undersigned Prefect of the Sacred Congregation on October 15, 1976, approved this Declaration, confirmed it and ordered its publication.

Given in Rome, at the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, on October 15, 1976, the feast of Saint Teresa of Avila. 

Franjo Cardinal Seper

Fr Jerome Hamer, O.P. Titular Archbishop of Lorium


Circumstances and origin of the Declaration

The question of the admission of women to the ministerial priesthood seems to have arisen in a general way about 1958 after the decision of the Swedish Lutheran Church in September of that year to admit women to the pastoral office. this caused a sensation and occasioned numerous commentaries. Even for the communities stemming from the 16th century Reformation it was an innovation: one may recall, for example, how strongly the "Confessio Fidei Scotiae" of 1560 accused the Roman Church of making improper concessions to women in the field of ministry. But the Swedish initiative gradually gained ground among the Reformed churches, particularly in France, where various National Synods adopted similar decisions.

In reality, the admission of women to the pastoral office seemed to raise no strictly theological problem, in that these communities had rejected the Sacrament of Order at the time of their separation from the Roman Church. But a new and much more serious situation was created when ordinations of women were carried out within communities that considered that they preserved the apostolic succession of Order: in 1971 and 1973 the Anglican Bishop of Hong Kong ordained three women with the agreement of his Synod; in July 1974 at Philadelphia there was the ordination in the Episcopal Church of eleven women an ordination afterwards declared invalid by the House of Bishops. Later on, in June 1975, the General Synod of the Anglican Church in Canada, meeting in Quebec, approved the principle of the accession of women to the priesthood and this was followed in July by the General Synod of the Church of England: Dr Coggan, Archbishop of Canterbury, frankly informed Pope Paul VI "of the slow but steady growth of a consensus of opinion within the Anglican Communion that there are no fundamental objections in principle to the ordination of women to the priesthood." These are only general principles but they might quickly be followed by practice, and this would bring a new and serious element into the dialogue with the Roman Catholic church on the nature of the ministry. It has provoked a warning, first by the Archbishop for the Orthodox in Great Britain, Athenagoras of Thyateira, and then, more recently, by Pope Paul VI himself in two letters to the Archbishop of Canterbury. Furthermore, the ecumenical sectors brought the question to the notice of all the Christian denominations, forcing them to examine their positions of principle, especially on the occasion of the Assembly of the World Council of Churches at Nairobi in December 1975.

A completely different event has made the question even more topical: this was the organization under United Nations' auspices of International Women's Year in 1975. The Holy See took part in it with a Committee for International Women's Year, which included some members of the Commission for the Study of the Role of Women in Society and the Church, which had already been set up in 1973. Ensuring respect for and fostering the respective rights and duties of men and women leads to reflection on participation by women in the life of society on the one hand and in the life and mission of the Church on the other. Now, the Second Vatican Council had already set forth the task: "Since in our times women have an ever more active share in the whole life of society, it is very important that they participate more widely also in the various fields of the Church's apostolate." How far can this participation go?

It is understandable that these questions have aroused even in Catholic quarters intense studies, indeed passionate ones: doctoral theses, articles in reviews, even pamphlets, propounding or refuting in turn the biblical, historical and canonical data and appealing to the human sciences of sociology, psychology and the history of institutions and customs. Certain famous people have not hesitated to take sides boldly, judging that there was "no basic theological objection to the possibility of women priests." A number of groups have been formed with a view to upholding this claim, and they have sometimes done this with insistence, as did the conference held in Detroit in November 1975 under the title "Women in Future: Priesthood Now, a Call For Action."

The Magisterium has thus been obliged to intervene in a question being posed in so lively a fashion within the Catholic church and having important implications from the ecumenical point of view. Archbishop Bernardin of Cincinnati, President of the USCC, declared on October 7, 1975, that he found himself "obliged to restate the church's teaching that women are not to be ordained to the priesthood"; Church leaders, he said, should "not seem to encourage unreasonable hopes and expectations, even by their silence." Pope Paul VI himself had already recalled the same teaching. He did so at first in parenthetical fashion, especially in his address on April 18, 1975 to the members of the Study Commission on the Role of Women in Society and in the Church and the Committee for the Celebration of International Women's Year: "Although women do not receive the call to the apostolate of the Twelve and therefore to the ordained ministries, they are nonetheless invited to follow Christ as disciples and co-workers...We cannot change what Our Lord did, nor his call to women." Later he had to make an express pronouncement in his exchange of letters with Dr Coggan, Archbishop of Canterbury: "Your Grace is of course well aware of the Catholic Church's position on this question. She holds that it is not admissible to ordain women to the priesthood for very fundamental reasons." It is at this order that the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has examined the question in its entirety. The question has been complicated by the fact that on the one hand arguments adduced in the past in favor of the traditional teaching are scarcely defensible today and on the other hand the reasons given by those who demand the ordination of women must be evaluated.

To avoid the rather negative character that must mark the conclusions of such a study, one could have thought of inserting it into a more general presentation of the question of the advancement of women. But the time is not ripe for such a comprehensive exposition because of the research and work in progress on all sides. It was difficult to leave unanswered any longer a precise question that is being posed nearly everywhere and which is polarizing attention to the detriment of more urgent endeavors that should be fostered. In fact, apart from its non-acceptance of the ordination of women, the document points to positive matters: a deeper understanding of the church's teaching and of the ministerial priesthood, a call to spiritual progress, an invitation to take on the urgent apostolic tasks of today. The bishops, to whom the document is primarily addressed, have the mission of explaining it to their people with the pastoral feeling that is theirs and with the knowledge they have of the milieu in which they exercise their ministry.

The Declaration begins by presenting the church's teaching on the question. This in fact has to be the point of departure. We shall see later how necessary it is to follow faithfully the method of using "loci theologici."


It is an undeniable fact, as the Declaration notes, that the constant tradition of the Catholic Church has excluded women from the episcopate and the priesthood. So constant has it been that there has been no need for an intervention by a solemn decision of the Magisterium.

"The same tradition," the document stresses, "has been faithfully safeguarded by the Churches of the East. Their unanimity on this point is all the more remarkable since in many other questions their discipline admits of great diversity. at the present time these same Churches refuse to associate themselves with request directed towards securing the accession of women to priestly ordination."

Only with some heretical sects of the early centuries, principally Gnostic ones, do we find attempts to have the priestly ministry exercised by women. It must be further noted that these are very sporadic occurrences and are moreover associated with rather questionable practices. We know of them only through the severe disapproval of which they are noted by Saint Irenaeus in his Adversus Haereses, Tertullian in De Prescriptione Haereticorum, Firmilian of Caesarea in a letter to Saint Cyprian, Origen in a commentary on the First Letter to the Corinthians, and especially by Saint Ephiphanius in his Panarion.

How are we to interpret the constant and universal practice of the church? A theologian is certain that what the Church does she can in fact do, since she has the assistance of the Holy Spirit. This is a classical argument found again and again in Saint Thomas with regard to  the sacraments. But what the church has never done - is this any proof that she cannot do it in the future? Does the negative fact thus noted indicate a norm, or is it to be explained by historical and by social and cultural circumstances? In the present case, is an explanation to be found in the position of women in ancient and medieval society and in certain idea of male superiority stemming from that society's culture?

It is because of this transitory cultural element that some arguments adduced on this subject in the paste are scarcely defensible today. The most famous is the one summarized by Saint Thomas Aquinas: "quia mulier est in statu subiectionis." In Saint Thomas' thought, however, this assertion is not merely the expression of a philosophical concept, since he interprets it in the light of the accounts in the first chapters of Genesis and the teaching of the First Letter to Timothy (2:12-14). A similar formula is found earlier in the Decretum of Gratian, but Gratian, who was quoting the Carolingian Capitularies and the false Decretals, was trying rather to justify with Old Testament prescriptions the prohibition - already formulated by the ancient church - of women from entering the sanctuary and serving at the altar.

The polemical arguments of recent years have often recalled and commented on the texts that develop these arguments. They have also used them to accuse the Fathers of the Church of misogyny. It is true that we find in the Fathers' writings the undeniable influence of prejudices against women. But it must be carefully noted that these passages had very little influence on their pastoral activity, still less on their spiritual direction, as we can see by glancing through their correspondence that has come down to us. Above all, it would be a serious mistake to think that such considerations provide the only or the most decisive reasons against the ordination of women in the thought of the Fathers, of the medieval writers and of the theologians of the classical period. In the midst of and going beyond speculation, more and more clear expression was being given to the Church's awareness that in reserving priestly ordination and ministry to men she was obeying a tradition received from Christ and the Apostles and by which she felt herself bound.

This is what had been expressed in the form of an apocryphal literature by the ancient documents of Church discipline from Syria, such as the "Didiscalia Apostolorum" (middle of the 3rd century) and the Apostolic Constitutions (end of the 4th or beginning of the 5th century) and by the Egyptian collection of 20 pseudo-apostolic canons that was included in the compilation of the Alexandrian "Synodus" and translated into many languages. Saint John Chrysostom, for his part, when commenting on chapter 21 of John, understood well that women's exclusion from the pastoral office entrusted to Peter was not based on any natural incapacity, since as he remarks, "even the majority of men have been excluded by Jesus from this immense task."

From the moment that the teaching on the sacraments is systematically presented in the schools of theology and canon law, writers begin to deal ex professo with the nature and value of the tradition that reserved ordination to men. The canonists base their case on the principle formulated by Pope Innocent III in a letter of December 11, 1210 to the Bishops of Palencia and Burgos, a letter that was included in the collection of the Decretals: "Although the Blessed Virgin Mary was of higher dignity and excellence than all the Apostles, it was to them, not her, that the Lord entrusted the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven." This text became a "locus communis" for the "glossatores."

As for the theologians, the following are some significant texts: Saint Bonaventure: "Our position is this: it is due not so much to a decision by the Church as to the fact that the sacrament of Order is not for them. In this sacrament the person ordained is a sign of Christ the Mediator." Richard of Middleton, a Franciscan of the 2nd half of the 13th century: "The reason is that the power of the sacraments comes from their institution. But Christ instituted this sacrament for conferral on men only, not women." John Duns Scotus: "It must not be considered to have been determined by the Church. It comes from Christ. The Church would not have presumed to deprive the female sex, for no fault of its own, of an act that might licitly have pertained to it." Durandus of Saint Pourcain: "...the male sex is of necessity for the sacrament. The principal cause of this is Christ's institution...Christ ordained only men...not even his mother...It must therefore be held that women cannot be ordained because of Christ's institution."

So it is no surprise that until the modern period the theologians and canonists who dealt with the question have been almost unanimous in considering this exclusion as absolute and having a divine origin. the theological notes they apply to the affirmation vary from "theologically certain" to at times, "proximate to faith" or even "doctrine of the faith." Apparently, then, until recent decades no theologian or canonist considered that it was a matter of a simple law of the church.

In some writers of the Middle Ages however, there was a certain hesitancy, reported by Saint Bonaventure without adopting it himself and noted also by Joannes Teutonicus in his gloss on Caus. 27, q.1, c.23. This hesitancy stemmed from the knowledge that in the past there had been deaconesses: had they received true sacramental ordination? This problem has been brought up again very recently. It was by no means unknown to the 17th and 18th century theologians who had an excellent knowledge of the history of literature. In any case, it is a question that must be taken up fully by direct study of the texts, without preconceived ideas; hence the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has judged that it should be kept for the future and not touched upon in the present document. 

The Attitude of Christ

In the light of tradition, then, it seems that the essential reason moving the church to call only men to the sacrament of Order and to the strictly priestly ministry is her intention to remain faithful to the type of ordained ministry willed by the Lord Jesus Christ and carefully maintained by the Apostles. It is therefore no surprise that in the controversy there has been a careful examination of the facts and texts of the New Testament in which tradition has seen an example establishing a norm. This brings us to a fundamental observation: we must not expect the New Testament *on its own* to resolve in a clear fashion the question of the possibility of women acceding to the priesthood, in the same way that it does not on its own enable us to give an account of certain sacraments, and especially of the structure of the sacrament of Order. Keeping to the sacred text alone and to the points of the history of Christian origins that can be obtained by analyzing that text by itself would be to go back four centuries and find oneself once more amid the controversies of the Reformation. We cannot omit the study of tradition: it is the church that scrutinizes the Lord's thought by reading Scriptures, and it is the Church that gives witness to the correctness of its interpretation.

It is tradition that has unceasingly set forth as an expression of Christ's will the fact that he chose only men to form the group of Twelve. There is no disputing this fact but it can it be proved with absolute certainty that it was a question of a deliberate decision by Christ? It is understandable that the partisans of a change in discipline bring all their efforts to bear against the significance of this fact. In particular, they object that if Christ did not bring women into the group of the Twelve, it was because the prejudices of his time did not allow him to; it would have been an imprudence that would have compromised his work irreparably. However, it has to be recognized that Jesus did not shrink form other "imprudences," which did in fact stir up the hostility of his fellow citizens against him, especially his freedom with regard to the rabbinical interpretations of the Sabbath. With regard to women his attitude was a complete innovation; all the commentators recognize that he went against many prejudices, and the facts that are noted add up to an impressive total.

For this reason greater stress is laid today on another objection: if Jesus chose only men to form the group of the Twelve, it was because he intended them to be a symbol representing the ancestors of the twelve tribes of Israel ("You who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones and judge the twelve tribes of Israel" Mt 19:28; cf. Lk 22:30); and this special motive, it is added, obviously referred only to the Twelve and would be no proof that the apostolic ministry should therefore always be reserved to men. It is not a convincing argument. We may note in the first place how little importance was given to this symbolism: Mark and John do not mention it. And in Matthew and Luke this phrase of Jesus about the twelve tribes of Israel is not put in the context of the call of the Twelve (Mt 10:1-4) but at a relatively late stage of Jesus' public life when the Apostles have long since been given their "constitution"; they have been called by Jesus, have worked with him and been sent on missions. Furthermore, the symbolism of Mt 19:28 and Lk 22:30 is not as certain as is claimed: the number twelve could designate simply the whole of Israel. Finally, these two texts deal only with a particular aspect of the mission of the Twelve: Jesus is promising them that they will take part in the eschatological judgment. Therefore, the essential meaning of their being chosen is not to be sought in this symbolism but in the totality of the mission given them by Jesus: "he appointed twelve; they were to be his companions and to be sent out to preach" (Mk 3:14). As Jesus before them, the Twelve were above all to preach the Good News (Mk 3:14; 6:12). Their mission in Galilee (Mk 6:6-13) was to become the model of the universal mission (Mk 12:10; cf. Mt 28:16-20). Within the messianic people the Twelve represent Jesus. That is the real reason why it is fitting that the Apostles should be men: they act in the name of Christ and must continue his work.

It has been described above how Pope Innocent III saw a witness to Christ's intention in the fact that Christ did not communicate to his Mother, in spite of her eminent dignity, the powers which he gave to the Apostles. This is one of the arguments most frequently repeated by tradition: from as early as the third century the Fathers present Mary as the example of the will of Jesus in this matter. It is an argument still particularly dear to Eastern Christians today. Nevertheless, it is vigorously rejected by all those who plead in favor of the ordination of women. Mary's divine motherhood, the manner in which she was associated with the redeeming work of her son, they say, put her in an altogether exceptional and unique position; and it would not even be fair to her to compare her with the Apostles and to argue from the fact that she was not ranked among them. In point of fact these assertions do have the advantage of making us understand that there are different functions within the Church. The equality of Christians is in harmony with the complementary nature of their tasks and the sacramental ministry is not the only rank of greatness not is it necessarily the highest. It is a form of service of the Kingdom. The Virgin Mary does not need the increase in "dignity" that was once attributed to her by the authors of those speculations on the priesthood of Mary that formed a deviant tendency which was soon discredited.

The Practice of the Apostles

The text of the Declaration stresses the fact that, in spite of the privileged place Mary had in the Upper Room after the Ascension, she was not designated for entry into the College of the Twelve at the time of the election of Matthias. The same hold for Mary Magdalene and the other women who nevertheless had been the first to bring news of the Resurrection. It is true that the Jewish mentality did not accord great value to the witness of women, as is shown by Jewish law. But one must also note that the Acts of the Apostles and the Letters of Saint Paul stress the role of women in evangelization and in instructing individual converts. The Apostles were led to take a revolutionary decision when they had to go beyond the circle of a Jewish community and undertake the evangelization of the Gentiles. The break with Mosaic observances was not make without discord. Paul had no scruples about choosing one of his collaborators, Titus, from among the Gentile converts (Gal 2:3). The most spectacular expression of the change which the Good News made on the mentality of the first Christians is to be found precisely in the Letter to the Galatians: "For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal 3:27-28). In spite of this, the Apostles did not entrust to women the strictly apostolic ministry, although Hellenistic civilization did not have the same prejudices against them as did Judaism. It is rather a ministry which is of another order, as may perhaps also be gathered from Paul's vocabulary in which a difference seems to be implied between "my fellow workers" and "God's fellow workers." 

It must be repeated that the texts of the New Testament, even on such important points as the sacraments, do not always give all the light that one would wish to find in them. Unless the value of unwritten traditions is admitted, it is sometimes difficult to discover in Scripture entirely explicit indications of Christ's will. But in view of the attitude of Jesus and the practice of the Apostles as seen in the Gospels, the Acts and the Letters, the Church has not held that she is authorized to admit women to priestly ordination.

Permanent value of this practice

It is the permanency of this negative decision that is objected to by those who would have the legitimacy of ordaining women admitted. These objections employ arguments of great variety.

The most classic ones seek a basis in historical circumstances. We have already seen what is to be thought of the view that Jesus' attitude was inspired solely by prudence, because he did not want to risk compromising his work by going against social prejudices. It is claimed that the same prudence was forced upon the Apostles. On this point too it is clear from the history of the apostolic period that there is no foundation for this explanation. However, in the case of the Apostles, should one not take into account the way in which they themselves shared these prejudices? Thus Saint Paul has been accused of misogyny and in his Letters are found texts on the inferiority of women that are the subject of controversy among exegetes and theologians today.

It can be questioned whether two of Paul's most famous texts on women are authentic or should rather be seen as interpolations, perhaps even relatively late ones. The first is 1 Cor 14:34-35: "The women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak but should be subordinate even as the Law says." These two verses, apart from being missing in some important manuscripts and not being found quoted before the end of the second century, present stylistic peculiarities foreign to Paul. The other text is 1 Tim 2:11-14: "I do not allow a woman to teach or to exercise authority over men." The Pauline authenticity of this text is often questioned, although the arguments are weaker.

However, it is of little importance whether these texts are authentic or not: theologians have made abundant use of them to explain that women cannot receive either the power of Magisterium or that of jurisdiction. It was especially the text of 1 Tim that provided Saint Thomas with the proof that woman is in a state of submission or service since (as the text explains) woman was created after man and as the person first responsible for original sin. But there are other Pauline texts of unquestioned authenticity that affirm that "the head of the woman is the man" (1 Cor 11:3; cf. 8-12; Eph 5:22,24). It may be asked whether this view of man, which is in line with that of the books of the Old Testament, is not at the basis of Paul's conviction and the Church's tradition that women cannot receive the ministry. Now this is a view that modern society rejects absolutely and many present day theologians would shrink from adopting it without qualifying it. We may note however that Paul does not take his stand on a philosophical level but on that of biblical history: when he describes, in relation to marriage, the symbolism of love, he does not see man's superiority as domination but as a gift demanding sacrifice, in the image of Christ.

On the other hand there are prescriptions in Paul's writings which are unanimously admitted to have been transitory, such as the obligation he imposed on women to wear a veil (1 Cor 11:2-16). It is true that these are obviously disciplinary practices of minor importance, perhaps inspired by the customs of the time. But then there arises the more basic question: since the church has later been able to abandon prescriptions contained in the new Testament, why should it not be the same with the exclusion of women from ordination? Here we meet once again the essential principle that it is the Church herself that, in different sectors of her life, ensures discernment between what can change and what must remain immutable. As the Declaration specifies, "When she judges that she cannot accept certain changes, it is because she knows that she is bound by Christ's manner of acting. Her attitude, despite appearances, is therefore not one of archaism but of fidelity; it can be truly understood only in this light. The Church makes pronouncements in virtue of the Lord's promise and the presence of the Holy Spirit in order to proclaim better the mystery of Christ and to safeguard and manifest the whole of its rich content."

Many of the questions confronting the church as a result of the numerous arguments put forward in favor of the ordination of women must be considered in the light of this principle. An example is the following question dealt with by the Declaration: why will the church not change her discipline, since she is aware of having a certain power over the Sacraments, even though they were instituted by Christ, in order to determine the sign or to fix the conditions for their administration? This faculty remains limited, as was recalled by Pius XII, echoing the Council of Trent: the Church has no power over the substance of the sacraments." It is the Church herself that must distinguish what forms part of the "substance of the sacraments" and what she can determine or modify if circumstances should so suggest. 

On this point, furthermore, we must remember, as the Declaration reminds us, that the sacraments and the Church herself are closely tied to history, since Christianity is the result of an event: the coming of the Son of God into time and to a country, and his death on the Cross under Pontius Pilate outside the walls of Jerusalem. The sacraments are a memorial of saving events. For this reason their signs are linked to those very events. They are relative to once civilization, one culture, although destined to be reproduced everywhere until the end of time. Hence historical choices have taken place by which the church is bound, even if speaking absolutely and on a speculative level other choices could be imagined. This, for instance, is the case with bread and wine as matter for the Eucharist, for the Mass is not just a fraternal meal but the renewal of the Lord's Supper and the memorial of his Passion and thus linked with something done in history.

It has likewise been remarked that in the course of time the Church has agreed to confer certain ministerial functions that antiquity refused to give them in the very name of the example and will of Christ. The functions spoken of are above all the administration of baptism, teaching and certain forms of ecclesiastical jurisdiction.

As regards baptism, however, not even deaconesses in the Syriac speaking East were permitted to administer it and its solemn administration is still a hierarchical act reserved to bishop, priest and, in accessory fashion, deacon. When urgently required, baptism can be conferred not only by Christians but even by unbaptized people whether men or women. Its validity therefore does not require the baptismal character, still less that of ordination. This point is affirmed by practice and by theologians. It is an example of this necessary discernment in the Church's teaching and practice, a discernment whose only guarantee is the Church herself.

As regards teaching, a classical distinction has to be made, from Paul's Letters onwards. There are forms of teaching or edification that lay people can carry out and in this case Saint Paul expressly mentions women. These forms include the charisms of "prophecy" (1 Cor 11:15). In this sense there was no obstacle to giving the title of Doctor to Saint Teresa of Avila and Catherine of Siena as it was given to illustrious teachers such as Albert the Great or Saint Lawrence of Brindisi. Quite a different matter is the official and hierarchical function of teaching the revealed message, a function that presupposes the mission received from Christ by the Apostles and transmitted by them to their successors.

Examples of participation by women in ecclesiastical jurisdiction are found in the Middle Ages: some abbesses (not abbesses in general, as is sometimes said in popularizing articles) performed acts normally reserved to bishops, such as the nomination of parish priests or confessors. These customs have been more or less reproved by the Holy See at different periods: the letter of Pope Innocent III quoted earlier was intended as a reprimand to the Abbess of Las Huelgas. But we must not forget that feudal lords arrogated to themselves similar rights. Canonists also admitted the possibility of separating jurisdiction from Order. The Second Vatican Council has tried to determine better the relationship between the two; the Council's doctrinal vision will doubtless have effects on discipline.

In a more general way, attempts are being made, especially in Anglican circles, to broaden the debate in the following way: is the Church perhaps bound to Scripture and tradition as an absolute, when the Church is a people making its pilgrim way and should listen to what the Spirit is saying? Or else a distinction is made between essential points on which unanimity is needed and questions of discipline admitting of diversity: and if the conclusion reached is that the ordination of women belongs to these secondary matters, it would not harm, progress towards the union of the churches. Here again it is the Church that decides by her practice and Magisterium what requires unanimity, and distinguishes it from acceptable or desirable pluralism. The question of the ordination of women impinges too directly on the nature of the ministerial priesthood for one to agree that it should be resolved within the framework of legitimate pluralism between Churches. That is the whole meaning of the letter of Pope Paul VI to the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The ministerial priesthood in the light of the mystery of Christ

In the Declaration a very clear distinction will be seen between the document's affirmation of the datum (the teaching it proposes with authority in the preceding paragraphs) and the theological reflection that then follows. By this reflection the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith endeavors "to illustrate this norm by showing the profound fittingness" to be found "between the proper nature of the sacrament of Order, with its specific reference to the mystery of Christ and the fact that only men have been called to receive priestly ordination." In itself such a quest is not without risk. However, it does not involve the Magisterium. It is well known that in solemn teaching infallibility affects the doctrinal affirmation, not the arguments intended to explain it. Thus the doctrinal chapters of the Council of Trent contain certain processes of reasoning that today no longer seem to hold. But this risk has never stopped the Magisterium from endeavoring at all times to clarify doctrine by analogies of faith. Today especially, and more than ever, it is impossible to be content with making statements, with appealing to the intellectual docility of Christians; faith seeks understanding, and it tries to distinguish the grounds for and the coherence of what it is taught.

We have already discarded a fair number of explanations given by medieval theologians. The defect common to these explanations is that they claimed to find their basis in an inferiority of women vis-a-vis men; they deduced from the teaching of Scripture that woman was "in a state of submission," of subjection, and was incapable of exercising functions of government.

It is very enlightening to note that the communities springing from the Reformation which have had no difficulty in giving women access to the pastoral office are first and foremost those that have rejected the Catholic doctrine on the sacrament of Order and profess that the pastor is only one baptized person among others even if the charge given has been the object of a consecration. The Declaration therefore suggests that it is by analyzing the nature of Order and its character that we will find the explanation of the exclusive call of men to the priesthood and episcopate. This analysis can be outlined in three propositions: 1) in administering the sacraments that demand the character of ordination the priest does not act in his own name (in persona propria) but in the person of Christ (in persona Christi); 2) this formula, as understood by tradition, implies that the priest is a sign in the sense in which this term is understood in sacramental theology; 3) it is precisely because the priest is a sign of Christ the Savior that be must be a man and not a woman.

That the priest performs the Eucharist and reconciles sinners in the name and place of Christ is affirmed repeatedly by the Magisterium and constantly taught by Fathers and theologians. It would not appear to serve any useful purpose to give a multitude of quotations to show this. It is the totality of the priestly ministry that Saint Paul says is exercised in the place of Christ: "We are acting as ambassadors on behalf of Christ, God, as it were, appealing through us" - in fact this text form 2 Cor has in mind the ministry of reconciliation (5:18-20) - "you have received me as an angel of God even as Christ Jesus" (Gal 4:14). Similarly Saint Cyprian echoes Saint Paul: "The priest truly acts in the place of Christ" But theological reflection and the Church's life have been led to distinguish the more or less close links between the various acts in the exercise of the ministry and the character of ordination and to specify which require this character for validity.

Saying "in the name and place of Christ" is not however enough to express completely the nature of the bond between the minister and Christ as understood by tradition. The formula "in persona Christi" in fact suggests a meaning that would bring it close to the Greek expression "mimema Christou." The word "persona" means a part played in the ancient theatre, a part identified by a particular mask. The priest takes the part of Christ, lending him his voice and gestures. Saint Thomas expresses this concept exactly: "The priest enacts the image of Christ in whose person and by whose power he pronounces the words of consecration.: The priest is thus truly a *sign* in the sacramental sense of the word. It would be a very elementary view of the sacraments if the notion of sign were kept only for material elements. Each sacrament fulfills the notion in a different way. The text of Saint Bonaventure already mentioned affirms this very clearly: "the person ordained is a sign of Christ the mediator." Although Saint Thomas gave as the reason for excluding women the much discussed one of the state of subjection (status subiectionis), he nevertheless took as his starting point the principle that "sacramental signs represent what they signify by a natural resemblance," in other words the need for that "natural resemblance" between Christ and the person who is his sign. And still on the same point, Saint Thomas recalls: "Since a sacrament is a sign, what is done in the sacrament requires not only the reality but also a sign of the reality."

It would not accord with "natural resemblance," with that obvious "meaningfulness,": if the memorial of the Supper were to be carried out by a woman; for it is not just the recitation involving the gestures and words of Christ, but an action, and the sign is efficacious because Christ is present in the minister who consecrates the Eucharist, as is taught by the Second Vatican Council, following the Encyclical "Mediator Dei."

It understandable that those favoring the ordination of women have made various attempts to deny the value of this reasoning. It has obviously been impossible and even unnecessary for the Declaration to consider in detail all the difficulties that could be raised in this regard. Some of them however are of interest in that they occasion a deeper theological understanding of traditional principle. Let us look at the objection sometimes raised that it is ordination - the character - not maleness, that makes the priest Christ's representative. Obviously, it is the character, received in ordination, that enables the priest to consecrate the Eucharist and reconcile penitents. But the character is spiritual and invisible (res et sacramentum). On the level of the sign (sacramentum tantum) the priest must both have received the laying on of hands and take the part of Christ. It is here that Saint Thomas and Saint Bonaventure require that the sign should have natural meaningfulness.

In various fairly recent publications attempts have been made to reduce the importance of the formula "in persona Christi" by insisting rather on the formula "in persona Ecclesiae." For it is another great principle of the theology of sacraments and liturgy that the priest presides over the liturgy in the name of the church and must have the intention of "doing what the Church does." Could one say that the priest does not represent Christ, because he first represents the Church by the fact of his ordination? The Declaration's reply to this objection is that. quite the contrary, the priest represents the Church precisely because he first represents Christ himself, who is the Head and Shepherd of the church. It indicates several texts of the Second Vatican Council that clearly express this teaching. Here there may well be in fact one of the crucial points of the question, one of the important aspects of the theology of the church and the priesthood underlying the debate on the ordination of women. When the priest presides over the assembly, it is not the assembly that has chosen or designated him for this role. The Church is not a spontaneous gathering. As its name of "ecclesia" indicates, it is an assembly that is convoked. It is Christ who calls it together. He is the head of the Church and the priest presides "in the person of Christ the Head" (in persona Christi Capitis). That is why the Declaration rightly concludes "that the controversies raised in our days over the ordination of women are for all Christians a pressing invitation to meditate on the mystery of the church, to study in greater detail the meaning of the episcopate and the priesthood and to rediscover the real and pre-eminent place of the priest in the community of the baptized of which he indeed forms part but from which he is distinguished because, in the actions that call for the character of ordination, for the community he is - with all the effectiveness proper to the sacraments - the image and symbol of Christ himself who calls, forgives, and accomplishes the sacrifice of the Covenant."

However, the objectors continue: it would indeed be important that Christ should be represented by a man if the maleness of Christ played an essential part in the economy of salvation. But they say, one cannot accord gender a special place in the hypostatic union: what is essential is the human nature - no more - assumed by the Word, not the incidental characteristics such as the sex or even the race which he assumed. If the Church admits that men of all races can validly represent Christ, why should she deny women this ability to represent him? We must first of all reply, in the words of the Declaration, that ethnic differences "do not affect the human person as intimately as the difference of sex." On this point biblical teaching agrees with modern psychology. The difference between the sexes however, is something willed by God from the beginning, according to the account in Genesis (which is also quoted in the Gospel), and is directed both to communion between persons and to the begetting of human beings. And it must be affirmed first and foremost that the fact that Christ is a man and not a woman is neither incidental nor unimportant in relation to the economy of salvation. In what sense? Not of course in the material sense as has sometimes been suggested in polemics in order to discredit it but because the whole economy of salvation has been revealed to us through essential symbols from which it cannot be separated and without which we would be unable to understand God's design. Christ is the new Adam. God's covenant with men is presented in the Old Testament as a nuptial mystery, the definitive reality of which is Christ's sacrifice on the Cross. The Declaration briefly presents the stages marking the progressive development of this biblical theme, the subject of many exegetical and theological studies. Christ is the Bridegroom of the Church whom he won for himself with his blood, and the salvation brought by him is the New Covenant: by using this language, Revelation shows why the Incarnation took place according to the male gender and makes it impossible to ignore this historical reality. For this reason, only a man can take the part of Christ, be a sign of his presence, in a word "represent" him (that is, be an effective sign of his presence) in the essential acts of the Covenant.

Could one do without this biblical symbolism when transmitting the message, in contemplating the mystery and in liturgical life? To ask this, as has been done in certain recent studies, is to call into question the whole structure of Revelation and to reject the value of Scripture. It will be said, for example that "in every period the ecclesiae community appeals to the authority it has received from its founder in order to choose the images enabling it to receive God's revelation." This is perhaps to fail even more profoundly to appreciate the human value of the nuptial theme in the revelation of God's love.

The ministerial priesthood in the mystery of the Church

It is also striking to note the extent to which the questions raised in the controversy over the ordination of women are bound up with a certain theology of the Church. We do not of course mean to dwell on the excessive formulas which nonetheless sometimes find a place in theological reviews. An example is the supposition that the primitive Church was based on the charisms possessed by both women and men. Another is the claim that "the Gospels also present women as ministers of unction." On the other hand, we have already come across the question of the pluralism that can be admitted in unity and seen what its limits are.

The proposal that women should be admitted to the priesthood because they have gained leadership in many fields of modern life today seems to ignore the fact that the Church is not a society like the rest. In the Church, authority or power is of a very different nature, linked as it normally is with the sacrament, as is underlined in the Declaration. Disregard of this fact is indeed a temptation that has threatened ecclesiological research at all periods: every time that an attempt is made to solve the Church's problems by comparison with those of states, or to define the Church's structure by political categories, the inevitable result is an impasse.

The Declaration also points out the defect in the argument that seeks to base the demand that the priesthood be conferred on women on the text of Galatians 3:28, which states that in Christ there is no longer any distinction between man and woman. For Saint Paul this is the effect of baptism. The baptismal catechesis of the Fathers often stressed it. But absolute equality in baptismal life is quite a different thing from the structure of the ordained ministry. This latter is the object of a vocation within the Church, not a right inherent in the person. 

A vocation within the Church does not consist solely or primarily in the fact that one manifests the desire for a mission or feels attracted by an inner compulsion. Even if this spontaneous step is made and even if one believes one has heard as it were a call in the depths of one's soul, the vocation is authentic only from the moment that it is authenticated by the external call of the Church. The Holy Office recalled this truth in its 1912 letter to the Bishop of Aire to put an end to the Lahitton controversy. Christ chose "those whom he desired" (Mk 3:13).

Since the ministerial priesthood is something to which the Lord calls expressly and gratuitously, it cannot be claimed as a right, any more by men than by women. Archbishop Bernardin's declaration of October 1975 contained the sound judgment: "it would be a reduce the question of the ordination of women to one of injustice as is done at times. It would be correct to do this only if ordination were a God- given right of every individual; only if somehow one's human potential could not be fulfilled without it. In fact, however, no one, male or female, can claim a `right' to ordination. And, since the episcopal and priestly office is basically a ministry of service, ordination in no way `completes' one's humanity."

The Declaration of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith ends by suggesting that efforts in two directions should be fostered, efforts from which the pastors and faithful of the Church would perhaps be distracted if this controversy over women's ordination were prolonged. One direction is in the doctrinal and spiritual order: awareness of the diversity of the roles in the Church, in which equality is not identity, should lead us - as Saint Paul exhorts us - to strive after the one gift that can and should be striven after, namely love (1 Cor 12-13). "The greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven are not the ministers but the saints," says the Declaration. This expression deserves to be taken as a motto.

The other direction for our efforts is in the apostolic and social order. We have a long way to go before people become fully aware of the greatness of women's mission in the Church and society, "both for the renewal and humanization of society and for the rediscovery by believers of the true countenance of the Church." Unfortunately, we also still have a long way to go before all the inequalities of which women are still the victims are eliminated, not only in the field of public, professional and intellectual life, but even within the family.

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