The topic of women and their roles in the Church can be a touchy subject. Especially sensitive is the topic of women and the ministerial priesthood. It seems that in today’s day and age, the Church is accused of being sexist on a daily basis because of the official teaching that women are not permitted to be ordained ministers.
Without proper context, it’s easy to be taken aback by this teaching. Although scripture and Tradition make clear the criteria for Holy Orders, the prohibition on women priests can still be easily misconstrued even among fellow Christians.
But there is a way to answer the angry accusations of sexism and to proclaim what is good and holy in light of Church teaching.
Jesus’ Extraordinary View of Women
First, Jesus held a higher view of women than was usual for His time and culture. This can be seen by examining certain passages from scripture, the first of which is the Resurrection account.
Jesus gives Mary Magdalene the privilege of seeing Him glorified first by appearing to her before anyone else after the Resurrection. Take John 20:17-18 for example: “Jesus said to her, ‘Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’ – and that he had said these things to her.”
Many scholars will point out that in Judaism, a woman’s testimony was not considered valid. Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian, for example, wrote in his famous work, Antiquities, “But let not a single witness be credited, but three, or two at the least, and those such whose testimony is confirmed by their good lives. But let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex.” Yet, Christ gave Mary Magdalene the privilege to be the first to proclaim the greatest testimony in history – that Jesus was resurrected.
Another great passage that expresses Jesus’ view of women is the story of the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4). Jesus goes against the cultural norms by speaking to her in public and even telling her directly that He is the Messiah.
This was both unheard of and even scandalous, as noted in the reaction of the disciples when they saw Him speaking to the woman (John 4:27). The woman returns to her village and successfully spreads the good news, representing an image of the Gentiles being grafted into the Church.
Not only did Jesus hold a high view of women, but He also expressed that women were of equal worth as men in the eyes of God. The term “son of Abraham” was used frequently to describe men who were bound to God by covenant. Jesus uses the term “daughter of Abraham” for the first time to show that women could be in God’s covenant as well (Luke 13:16).
In Persona Christi
We have already demonstrated that Jesus held a high view of women, and also that He thought they were intrinsically equal to men in the eyes of God. When it comes to the priesthood, however, we are dealing with a question of order, not of superiority or intellect. Jesus did only appoint men as apostles, but it is important to understand that the issue is a matter of roles and not of value.
Through the ordained ministry, especially that of bishops and priests, the presence of Christ as head of the Church is made visible in the midst of the community of believers. This is what the Church refers to as in persona Christi Capitis or “in the person of Christ the Head” (CCC 1548-1549). Christ Himself is present through His bishops and priests, who image Him both in His authority and in His historical Person who founded the Church.
Some people may object to this and say “since men and women are intrinsically equal in the eyes of God, why can’t a woman still represent the person of Christ just as well as a man?” The answer is a paradox, it’s simple yet shrouded in mystery.
God chose to become incarnate as a man in order to reveal things to us about Himself. One important aspect that He reveals to us is His undying love for us. He uses the imagery of nuptial vows to demonstrate His eternal covenant with us.
Just as a man loves a woman and leaves his mother and father to cling to her and love her all of her days, Christ left His eternal Father to take on human flesh because He loved us and restored grace to us through the new and eternal covenant. In the order of creation, Adam was created first and then Eve from his side. So also Christ became incarnate and gave birth to the Church from His side, with the Eucharist and Baptism that flowed as water and blood from His Heart.
Male and Female: Image of the Trinity
Genesis 1:27 says that God created both males and females in His image. In the complementarity of the sexes, we make visible God’s invisible mystery of love. God Himself is love, and this is reflected in the relationship of the three Persons of the Blessed Trinity. The Father loves the Son from the beginning. The Son eternally receives the gift of love from the Father, and gifts Himself back to Him in sacrifice. The love between the Father and Son is the Holy Spirit (West, The Good News About Sex and Marriage, 22).
As male and female, we are called to give ourselves as gifts to each other in love. In marriage, that love becomes the life of another person – a child – made in our image. In this reality of love, neither male nor female is superior to the other. Both are equal, not inherently better than the other. The role of each person is distinct and unique, just as none of the Persons of the Blessed Trinity is superior to any other.
Women in Church History
The greatest example of women in the Church is first and foremost the Church herself, being the Bride of Christ. Second is that of the Blessed Virgin Mary, whose role is more dignified than the rest of creation because she is Mother of our Lord and Queen of heaven.
Nor can we overlook that the Church has four female doctors: St. Theresa of Avila, St. Catherine of Sienna, St. Hildegard of Bingen, and St. Therese of Lisieux. These women are known for their enormous contributions to the Church in regard to theology, philosophy, and spirituality.
In short, the Church has always upheld the dignity of every human person. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that because we are “redeemed by the sacrifice of Christ, all are called to participate in the same divine beatitude: all therefore enjoy an equal dignity” (CCC 1934).
Much more can be said on the Church’s teaching on women priests, but it is important to know that it is based on the teaching of Christ’s humanity and His love for the Church, His Bride.