The Church’s ban on women’s ordination is not a case of discrimination, but an affirmation that the priestly vocation is fundamentally paternal. “For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers,” wrote the Apostle Paul. “For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (see Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians 4:15 and the Book of Judges 18:19). Women fill many leadership roles in the Church, such as the heads of religious orders and apostolates, school principals, and directors of religious education. A priest, however, is not called to be merely a spiritual leader, but a spiritual father; and while a woman is free to be virtually whatever she wishes to be, the one thing she cannot be is a father.
The Church maintains that men and women are equal in dignity, having both been made in the image and likeness of God (see the Book of Genesis 1:27). While they are equal, however, men and women are not identical but different; and they are called to fulfill fundamentally different vocations: fatherhood and motherhood, respectively. Neither vocation is superior to the other, but, again, equal in dignity. Pope Paul XI wrote, “For if the man is the head [of the family], the woman is the heart, and as he occupies the chief place in ruling, so she may and ought to claim for herself the chief place in love” (Casti Connubii 27). To continue the analogy, neither the head nor the heart is more essential to the body; the body needs both to live. The Church’s model, then, is one of harmony, the complementarity of the sexes. By contrast, the secular world, mistaking equality to mean interchangeability, has established a battle of the sexes, in which men and women are reduced to the level of rivals.
On the question of dignity, no institution in the history of the world has exalted women to an equal or greater degree than the Catholic Church. The male writers of the Gospels, for instance, did not attempt to alter or conceal the fact that the first witnesses to the Resurrection, the foundational truth of the faith, were women. This went against the social norms of the day, as ordinarily a woman’s word was given little worth in ancient Palestine (see Luke 24:11). The litany of holy women in the Church’s tradition is long and impressive indeed, including three who have been declared Doctors of the Church, special teachers of the faith: Saints Catherine of Siena (d. 1380), Teresa of Ávila (d. 1582), and Thérèse of Lisieux (d. 1897).
Of all the great Saints the Church honors, the Blessed Virgin Mary is revered far and above the rest. In fact, as Pope John Paul the Great reasoned, the Church’s unparalleled devotion to Mary who “received neither the mission proper to the Apostles nor the ministerial priesthood clearly shows that the non-admission of women to priestly ordination cannot mean women are of lesser dignity, nor can it be construed as discrimination against them” (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis 3).
Since the close of the Second Vatican Council in 1965, the Church has endured constant and increasing pressure from Western society to reverse her stance on women’s ordination. Yet this is a defined teaching of the Church’s ordinary magisterium, meaning it has been believed unanimously by the faithful from the beginning. The Church, therefore, is powerless to change it. Underscoring this point, John Paul declared, “In order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Luke 22:32), I declare 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” (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis 4).
Some have argued that in choosing men to serve as the first priests of His Church Jesus was merely conforming to cultural standards. As the Gospels clearly show, however, Jesus regularly disregarded social norms for the sake of the Kingdom of God (see Matthew 9:11 and John 8:3). Furthermore, priestesses, being common to the pagan religions of Greece and Rome, were an accepted facet of ancient society.
The reservation of the priesthood to men directly follows the Lord’s example and the teachings of Sacred Scripture; it “has been preserved by the constant and universal Tradition of the Church and firmly taught by the Magisterium in its more recent documents” (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis 4). “As in all the churches of the saints,” wrote Saint Paul, “the women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says. … For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church” (First Letter to the Corinthians 14:33-34, 35; see also First Letter to Timothy 2:12). The Apostle, of course, did not mean to forbid women from “speaking in church” in the ordinary sense, but in the sense of preaching or presiding over the assembly. Those who interpret the Bible from the perspective of radical feminism have insisted Paul’s words merely reflect the male-dominated culture in which he lived, and thus have no relevance for readers today. This point of view, though, which begins to call into question the inspiration of Sacred Scripture, opens the door for individuals to dismiss as irrelevant practically any verse of the Bible which they find personally objectionable. This is why it is always best in these cases to fall back upon the constant guidance and teaching of the Church.
The early Christian historical writings show that women participated in consecrated religious life through the Order of Widows (essentially the first nuns). Saint Hippolytus of Rome, writing in about A.D. 215, noted that the women enrolled in this order were “not to be ordained … . Ordination is for the clergy because of the Liturgy; but a widow is appointed for prayer, and prayer is the duty of all” (The Apostolic Tradition 11).
For a time in the early Church there was also an Order of Deaconesses. The deaconesses, however, did not receive ordination either, but were considered to be members of the laity. Mentioning deaconesses, for instance, the Council of Nicaea in 325 clarified, “We mean by deaconesses such as have assumed the habit, but who, since they have no imposition of hands [as in ordination], are to be numbered only among the laity” (Canon 19). Likewise, Saint Epiphanius explained around 375 that the purpose for the Order of Deaconesses was “not for being a priestess, nor for any kind of work of administration, but for the sake of the dignity of the female, either at the time of Baptism, or of examining the sick or suffering, so that the [female] body may not be seen by men administering sacred rites, but by the deaconess” (Panárion 79:3).