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The Roman Catholicism & female ordination

Recent history of the debate

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Recent History of the debate over priestly ordination

bullet 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."

bullet 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 concluded:

"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."

bullet 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.
bullet 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."

bullet 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.

bullet 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 belief.  As 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.

bullet 1995-OCT-28: Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a statement which said:

"...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

bullet 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 of women.

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.

bullet 1997-JAN-24: A Roman Catholic spokesperson, Bishop Angelo Scola, head 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.

bullet 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.

bullet 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."

bullet 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.
bullet 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.

bullet 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.

bullet 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

bullet 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 online book store.

bullet 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].

bullet 1999-AUG-18: Roman Catholic bishops 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:

"Cardinal 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 effect." 

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. He said:

"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 itself."

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

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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

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The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Pope Paul VI, "Response to the Letter of His Grace the Most Reverend Dr. F. D. Coggan, Archbishop of Canterbury, concerning the Ordination of Women to the Priesthood," 1975-NOV-30: AAS 68 (1976), 599.
  2. The declaration of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the question of admission of women to the ministerial priesthood is at:
  3. Pope John Paul II, "Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem," 1988-AUG-15, 26; AAS 80 (1988), 1715.
  4. Pope John Paul II, "Ordinatio Sacerdotalis," 1994-MAY-22, at: Also available at:
  5. K.D. Whitehead, "Church authority: No longer 'authoritive'?" at:
  6. Joseph Card. Ratzinger, "Reply to the dubium Concerning the teaching contained in the Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis," at:
  7. Associated Press, "Vatican: Why No Female Priests", 1997-JAN-24
  8. G. Emmett Carter, "Why the Catholic Church maintains a male priesthood", Globe and Mail, Toronto ON, 1997-APR-7. P. A11
  9. Philip Pullella, Article, "Reuters World Report," Reuters News Agency, 1998-JUN-30
  10. Daniel J, Wakin, "Vatican Closes Loophole on Dissent," The Associated Press, 1998-JUN-30
  11. Article, The Tablet, 1998-SEP-5
  12. "Australian cardinal rejects discussion of women's ordination," Catholic World news briefs, 1999-AUG-18.
  13. Peggy Polk, "Europe's bishops seek wider role for women," Religion News Service, published in the Salt lake Tribune, 1999-OCT-16. Available online at:
  14. "French Catholic Woman Who Underwent Fake "Ordination" to Priesthood Not Excommunicated - Yet," LifeSite, 2005-JUL-08, at:
  15. Ian Elliot, "Women make waves over bid to join priesthood," The Kingston Whig-Standard, 2005-JUL-07, at:
  16. Mags Gargan, "Focus on female priests an ?insult’ to women," The Irish Catholic, 2017-JUL-20, at:

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Copyright © 1997 to 2017 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2017-AUG-09

Author: B.A. Robinson

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