Recent History of the debate over priestly ordination
1975-NOV-30: Pope Paul VI expressed concern that the Church of England was
considering female ordination. He wrote a letter to the (Anglican) Archbishop of
Canterbury which outlined the Roman Catholic stand. The Church of England finally approved
the ordination of women in 1992, thus inhibiting any chance of church union in the near
future. 1 The Pope's letter stated that the church:
"...holds that it is not admissible to ordain women to the priesthood, for
very fundamental reasons. These reasons include: the example recorded in the Sacred
Scriptures of Christ choosing his Apostles only from among men; the constant practice of
the Church, which has imitated Christ in choosing only men; and her living teaching
authority which has consistently held that the exclusion of women from the priesthood is
in accordance with God's plan for his Church."
1976: The Vatican's Pontifical Biblical Commission addressed the topic
of female ordination. The text of its report, in French, was leaked to the press.10 They were unable to settle the question on the basis of Biblical text alone. They
"It does not seem that the New Testament by itself alone will permit us to
settle in a clear way and once and for all the problem of the possible accession of women
to the presbyterate.
However, some think that in the scriptures there are sufficient indications to exclude
this possibility, considering that the sacraments of Eucharist and reconciliation have a
special link with the person of Christ and therefore with the male hierarchy, as borne out
by the New Testament.
Others, on the contrary, wonder if the church hierarchy, entrusted with the sacramental
economy, would be able to entrust the ministries of Eucharist and reconciliation to women
in light of circumstances, without going against Christ's original intentions."
1976-OCT-15: The Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued
a statement "on the question of admission of women to the ministerial priesthood." 2 Pope Paul VI "approved this Declaration, confirmed
it and ordered its publication." The author noted that a few heretical sects in
the first centuries CE did ordain women, but that this was condemned by the church fathers
at the time. The church has consistently maintained the "type of [all-male]
ordained ministry willed by the Lord Jesus Christ and carefully maintained by the Apostles."
Even though Jesus often deviated from the social customs of the time by treating women as
equals, and even though women often traveled with him, Jesus still selected males only as
his 12 disciples. The apostles continued this tradition by electing a male to replace
Judas. During mass, there needs to be a "natural resemblance" between
Christ and his minister; thus the minister must be a man. Until recently, the topic had
been universally accepted within the church and had received little attention.
1988-AUG-15: Pope John Paul II issued an apostolic letter
"Mulieris Dignitatem," 3 He wrote in part:
"In calling only men as his Apostles, Christ acted in a completely free and
sovereign manner. In doing so, he exercised the same freedom with which, in all his
behavior, he emphasized the dignity and the vocation of women, without conforming to the
prevailing customs and to the traditions sanctioned by the legislation of the time."
1989: A new category of papal teachings was created that must be "definitively
held" by Roman Catholics. Previously, members were only required to believe
fundamental truths which were "divinely revealed." This change greatly
broadens the list of beliefs to which members must adhere.
1994-MAY-22: Pope John Paul II issued an "Apostolic Letter on
Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone." 4 The
letter is titled "Ordinatio Sacerdotalis" (Priestly Ordination). He
wrote, in part:
"Although the teaching that priestly ordination is to be reserved to men alone
has been preserved by the constant and universal Tradition of the Church and firmly taught
by the Magisterium in its more recent documents, at the present time in some places it is
nonetheless considered still open to debate, or the Church's judgment that women are not
to be admitted to ordination is considered to have a merely disciplinary force.
Wherefore, 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."
The Pontiff's statement was just short of a declaration that, by his own
authority, speaking "ex cathedra," and as a result of divine
inspiration, the teaching is infallible.
"...the pope's Apostolic Letter
confirmed and placed on the official record the fact that the bishops of the
world, by their universal understanding and practice, had irrevocably
established that the Church had no authority to confer ordination on women.
This was not merely a disciplinary matter, but belonged to the essence of the
Church, and hence was properly a doctrinal matter." 5
However, Church Canon 749 states that no doctrine is understood to be infallibly
defined unless it is clearly established as such. The pope does not seem to
have actually done this, even though his words come close to implying this. If he had
declared it infallible, there is no mechanism by which any succeeding Pope could have altered that
things now stand, a future pope has very little wiggle room
to change this stance in the future. However, John Paul II stated in this letter that the Church "has" no authority to ordain women. That
does not negate the possibility of the Church obtaining such authority in the future.
1995-OCT-28: Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the Vatican's Congregation
for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a statement which
"...that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination
on women... This teaching requires definitive assent, since, founded on the written Word
of God, and from the beginning constantly preserved and applied in the Tradition of the
Church., it has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal
Magisterium...Thus, in the present circumstances, the Roman Pontiff, exercising his proper
office of confirming the brethren (cf. Luke 22:32), has handed on this same teaching by a
formal declaration, explicitly stating what is to be held always, everywhere, and by all,
as belonging to the deposit of the faith." 6
1997-JAN-2: Father Tissa Balasuriya of Sri Lanka wrote a book in 1990, titled: "Mary and
Human Liberation." He presented Mary, the mother of Jesus, as a strong-willed woman who worked for the
liberation of oppressed people. He complained that the church teaches a contrary role of
Mary, as a passive and docile woman. He referred to Mary as "the first priest of
the New Testament along with Jesus." Father Balasuriya also called for the ordination
The Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) investigated
the Father's writings, starting in 1994. They found that his beliefs were erroneous. They
forwarded to him a profession of faith in 1995-NOV. He was asked to confirm his beliefs in: the
necessity of baptism for salvation, the Immaculate Conception of Mary, the bodily Assumption of Mary to heaven, original sin, etc. The media reported that the statement
included a sentences stating that:
"The Church has no authority whatsoever to
confer priestly ordination on women."
He declined to sign the declaration, and
instead signed a different text. The CDF asked again in 1996-JUN that he sign the original
statement; he refused. The Congregation decided to excommunicate him, but did not
act on that ruling because Father Balasuriya had appealed his case to Pope John Paul II. On
1997-JAN-2, Pope John Paul II upheld the excommunication.
1997-JAN-24: A Roman Catholic spokesperson, Bishop Angelo
of the Lateran University at the Vatican, confirmed the stance of the church:
"The church does not have the power to modify the practice, uninterrupted for
2000 years, of calling only men to the ministering priesthood, in that this was wanted
directly by Jesus." 7
Taken literally, this statement would
imply that the Church has existed since 3 BCE, which
of course is not true.
1997: The Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a book which includes a collection of recent church pronouncements on the female
ordination question, along with contemporary scholarly essays supporting their position.
1997-APR-07: G. Emmett Cardinal Carter, former Archbishop emeritus of
Toronto ON, wrote an article explaining why the Roman Catholic church maintains an
all-male priesthood.8 He stated that the matter is
unrelated to Church discipline or canon law. If it were, then it could be changed relatively
easily. Rather, it is a matter of faith and doctrine. He wrote that there is no clear
indication that the Church ever ordained women as priests or bishops. During mass, the
priest acts in the person of Jesus. Since Jesus was male, a priest of matching gender "more
directly reflects the fact that it is Christ who is present." He quotes the Pope
as saying that women have equal dignity and responsibility to men within the church.
His article prompted a flurry of critical letters on APR-9. One said that women are not
allowed to become priests because "the Catholic church is managed by a bunch of
sexist old men." Another criticized the "current inability of the Roman
Catholic hierarchy to divest itself of its misogynist past and its continued
sexism...what, in the job description of a priest, requires a penis?" Still
another compared the Pope's separate but equal doctrine to the practices of "segregationists
in the southern United States in the 1950's."
1997-SEP-17: Noted Roman Catholic scholar, John Wijngaars, resigned "from
the priestly ministry on account of a conflict of conscience with the supreme authority of
the Catholic Church in Rome." For decades, he has become increasingly distressed
with the Church's position on sexual doctrine and ethics: the banning contraceptives for
married couples, enforced celibacy for priests, discrimination against gay and lesbian
partnerships, and denial of ordination to women. He issued a press
statement outlining his reasons for resignation.
1998-MAY-21: The Pope told a group of bishops from Michigan and Ohio
that U.S. bishops must explain to the membership that, in order to be faithful to Christ,
the church cannot ordain women to the priesthood.
"The 'genius' of women must be ever more a vital strength of the church of the
next millennium, just as it was in the first communities of Christ's disciples...As
bishops, you must explain to the faithful why the church does not have the authority to
ordain women to the ministerial priesthood, at the same time making clear why this is not
a question of the equality of persons or of their God-given rights. ... Ordination to the
ministerial priesthood can never be claimed by anyone as a right. ... The priesthood of Holy
Orders must be understood theologically, as one form of service in and for the
church. ... There are many forms of such service, as there are many gifts given by the same
Spirit. ... Christian communities more readily confer a ministerial responsibility on women
the further they move away from a sacramental understanding of the church, the Eucharist
and the priesthood."
To our knowledge, there is no Roman Catholic group which is demanding
that anyone has a right to be ordained as a priest. However, there are
many groups that are demanding the right for women to be individually
evaluated and considered for the priesthood.
1998-JUN-30: The pope issued an Apostolic Letter: "In Order to
Defend the Faith." In it, he implemented a number of changes in the church's
canon law. Such changes are quite rare; in past centuries there have only been a few such
alterations. 9,10 He said that the changed were needed to "defend
the faith of the Catholic Church from errors that arise on the part of some faithful..."
One change would require that candidates for the office of bishop, theologian or papal
collaborator recite a loyalty oath, expressing belief in "divinely revealed
truths," and belief in all teachings on faith and morals that have been "definitively
proposed by the Church."
Some "definite truths" include: the legitimacy of papal elections, the validity
of the canonizations of saints, the invalidity of ordinations within the Anglican faith
community, the ban on female priests, etc. Candidates must also promise to "adhere
with religious submission of will and intellect" to future teachings announced by the
pope and College of Bishops. Existing prelate, parish priests, theology teachers and
religious superiors are also required to follow the oath. This is apparently in response
by statements by Roman Catholic theologians who dissent with the pope on many
predominately sexually related topics such as female ordination, married priesthood,
artificial methods of birth control, pre-marital sex, homosexuality, etc. Individuals in authority are now
subject to many possible punishments, from warnings to excommunication. The list of
punished theologians (which currently includes Hans Küng of Switzerland, Charles Curran
of the US, Matthew Fox of the US, and Tissa Balasuriya of Sri Lanka), is expected to grow.
1998-JUL-22: There was a peaceful demonstration by over 100 women in
Barcelona, Spain, on this day: the feast of Saint Mary Magdalene. In the cathedral, as Mass
began, they each put on a purple stole. When interviewed, some said that the purple stole
is a symbol of sorrow that women are not allowed to be ordained as priests. Similar,
smaller protests were held in Palma de Mallorca and Girona. 11
1998-AUG: The Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith pressured U.S. bishop John Kinney of Minnesota to order the Liturgical Press to
stop distributing a specific book. The company is run by the Benedictine monks. The book is
published by Mowbray's, a British secular publishing company. It was written by
Sister Lavinia Byrne, is titled "Women at the Altar," and discusses
female ordination. The monks stored the books in a warehouse until they
could decide whether to burn or recycle them. They eventually burned all 1,300 copies. In 1995-JUL, the author was instructed by her
superiors at the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary to not speak in public
about the topic of women's ordination. She has complied. Sister Lavinia commented: "I
find it very distressing that any publication should be burned in the 1990s, but there is
nothing I can do." As of 2016-AUG, the book can be obtained from Amazon.com online book store.
1999-MAY: Ecumenical News International reported from Vienna: "A training
scheme has been launched in Austria for Roman Catholic women wishing to become priests,
despite Pope John Paul II's ban on women's ordination." [ENI-99-0191].
1999-AUG-18: Roman Catholicbishops in Australia had
commissioned a study into the role of women in the church, titled:
"Woman and Man:
One in Christ Jesus. At the presentation of the report, Cardinal Edward
Clancy of Canberra called for careful consideration of the report's
recommendations on how the roles of women in the church could be
strengthened. But he rejected a suggestion that ordination of women be
discussed. "Far from seeing (women's ordination) as inevitable, I
would think the final word has been spoken by this Pope and that no
future pope will reverse it." 12
1999-OCT:The Second Special Assembly for Europe of the
Synod of Bishops were called by the pope to draw up a
plan of action for the start of the next millennium. The bishops were divided
into 9 groups to address various topics. A split was observed between
English and Italian speaking bishops. Bishop Donal Murray of Limerick,
Ireland wrote that his group:
"... reflected on the vital role that women
have played in handing on the faith and in fostering vocations. It was a
matter of regret to us that we had no woman as part of our group, and we
felt that our discussions were thereby impoverished...We hoped that the
synod might reflect on how we might counteract the alienation which exists
in many women... We should reflect on how the importance of the role of
women might be more visibly expressed in the church in situations where no
theological principle prevents it."
An Italian group said that:
"The ordained ministry is not the only role in the church."
They stressed that the role of women must be kept distinct from those of men, and
that they should be modeled on the life of the Virgin Mary. The French
bishops noted that women:
"... are being given increasingly important
tasks. This effort deserves constant consideration while being careful not
to regard men and women as being interchangeable in everything.''13
2005-JUL-02: Irregular ordinations
of women are being practiced in various countries from time to time. On
2005-JUL, Mrs. Genevieve Beney, was ordained by three bishops of
the group Women's Ordination Worldwide. They were Gisela Forster
(German); Christine Mayr-Lumetzberger (Austrian); and Patricia Freisen
(South-African). All three were part of the "Danube Seven" who
had been excommunicated in 2003 by the Vatican's Congregation for the
Doctrine of the Faith after they had been ordained on the Danube
River between Austria and Germany. The ordinations occurred on a boat in
the Saone River in eastern France. According to LifeSiteNews:
Philippe Barbarin of Lyon had issued a canonical 'monitum', or warning,
to Mrs. Beney, and a subsequent press release dated 29 June 2005,
describing how any attempt to have herself ordained to the Priesthood
would not only be the cause of 'wounds and unnecessary sufferings'
for many Catholics, but in fact would be utterly null and void in
A Decree of Excommunication is expected. 14
2005-JUL-25: The first ordination of women Roman Catholic
priests in North America is being scheduled for JUL-25 on a boat
somewhere in the Thousand Islands region of the St. Lawrence River
between Kingston ON and Cornwall ON. Nine women including a former nun
from British Columbia, Canada will be ordained. The media report is
somewhat confusing. The organizers plan to conduct the ordination in
international waters, so that it will not be in territory of the
Kingston and Ogdensburg archdioceses. But there is no such thing as
international waters in the Thousand Island region; all of the river is
either in Canada or in the U.S. The only options are to conduct the ritual while the boat is in Canadian waters, U.S. waters, or is directly over the international boundary.
Archbishop Anthony Meagher of Kingston was saddened by the event.
"What they’re doing is taking something I take as very sacred
and trivializing it. An ordination of a priest is something usually done
in a cathedral. To have it done on a boat says something about it in
There is no indication in the media reports that he was willing
to have the ordinations performed in a cathedral in his diocese. The
ordinations will be performed by Christine Mayr-Lumetzberger of Austria
and Gisela Forster of Germany, two of the women who performed
ordinations in France earlier in July.
Lawrence Swift, a spokesperson for the Canadian Hydrographic Service,
said that there is no international waters in the Thousand Island
region. He said:
"You’re either in Canada or the United States. It would be impossible for them to put their boat somewhere and say, 'We’re on the border'." 15
2017-JUL: Irish Bishop declares advocacy of female ordination to be an insult to women:
Bishop Michael Smith of Meath believes that the drive for female ordaination is an "insult to women." He said that he:
"... wouldn’t put any bets on women ever being ordained priests. I’d say that will never happen, I don’t think so."
Mags Gargan, writing in The Irish Catholic, said:
"The bishop added that he thought the issue was 'an insult to women that they must be priests' because there is a charism in femininity and a charism in masculinity and 'somehow you’re saying it’s a lacking in women because you’re not a priest'.
'Just because there’s a shortage it doesn’t mean women have to get on the altar,' he said." 16