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The Pope's teaching on why women can't be priests - a new focus

The Pope's ‘teaching’ on why women can't be priests - a new focus?

based on a talk by Dr. John Wijngaards to the Cleopas Society, London 18 January 2011

Few people will have noticed that a subtle shift has taken place in the central Catholic Teaching Authority with regard to the reasons for which women are being excluded from the ordained ministries.

In the document Inter Insigniores of 1975 a number of arguments had already been abandoned, arguments favoured by earlier theologians. Among these we find:

Over the past 25 years some of the arguments of Inter Insigniores itself are now seemingly being ignored.

Reading the documents in which our present Pope, Pope Benedict XVI, has been involved, we find that little weight is attached to reasons such as:

  • Paul did not allow women to teach men (1 Timothy 2,11-15).
  • Women should be subject to men ( 1 Corinthians 11,2-XVI).
  • Only a man is a perfect human being and can thus properly represent Christ (Thomas Aquinas).
  • Christ was incarnated as a man, in fact maleness is an essential ingredient of the Incarnation in God's plan of redemption, an argument Pope John Paul II was fond of (Mulieris Dignitatem § 26).

In documents of the last 25 years Pope Benedict XVI no longer mentions such reasonings. Rather he narrows his focus. He reduces the argument simply to three central key assertions:

  1. Jesus appointed only men as apostles.
  2. In doing so Jesus established masculinity in the ministry as a permanent norm that has to be followed by the Church.
  3. This norm of having a male ministry has been confirmed by the constant and universal Teaching of the Church throughout Tradition.

In short we may say that, according to Pope Benedict XVI, Christ established a masculine order of bishops and priests; and that the Church of all times and places has constantly affirmed this as a norm through its practice and teaching.

So what to make of these central assertions by Pope Benedict XVI? We can do no better than briefly examine the validity of each of the three pegs on which he now hangs the argument.

1. Jesus appointed only men as apostles.

Saying that Jesus chose only men, Pope Benedict is not only referring to the fact that he chose no woman when he appointed the Twelve apostles. He also implies that women were not among the apostles at other crucial events, such as when, at the Last Supper, he commissioned them to celebrate the Eucharist and, before his ascension, when he instructed them to teach and baptise all nations.

But is this true?

I do not intend to spend a lot of time on this issue. It is clear that, generally speaking, Jesus' band of apostles consisted of men. But were there no women among them at all?

In Luke 8,1-3 we find a clear mention of women following Jesus among the group of disciples. Then there are other examples, such as the Samaritan woman, who clearly became an apostle to the townspeople of Sychar (John 4,39-42). Again, women were the first witnesses of his resurrection. However, most interesting is what happened at the Last Supper.

Although women are not explicitly mentioned as having been present at the Last Supper, we can safely presume that they were present. And this is rather crucial. For the Council of Trent (1563) declared that "through the words 'do this in commemoration of me', Christ established the apostles as priests, and ordained that they and other priests should offer his body and blood." And medieval theologians routinely saw in this a deliberate restriction to men only: "Christ ordained only men in the Supper when he bestowed the power of consecrating" (Durandus 6, §3).

But whas this the case? Were there no women at the Last Supper?

First of all, it's important for us to note that we know from the Gospels that women always took part in Jesus' community meals. It was one way for them to express the new reality of God's kingdom (Suzanne Tunc). Then , the Last Supper was a Paschal meal. Jesus stated: "I have longed to eat this Passover with you" (Luke 22, 7-16). And the whole family, including women, had to take part in the paschal meal as we know from Old Testament prescriptions (Exodus 12,1-14).

Now if other women -- Jesus' mother and women disciples -- were present at the Last Supper, then it is clear that it was to all disciples that Jesus said: "This is my body. Eat of it all of you. Do this in commemoration of me!" And: this is my blood. Drink of it all of you. Whenever you do this, it shall be a memorial to me". (Matthew 26,26-28; 1 Corinthians 11,23-25). So Jesus words “Do this in commemoration of me!” were addressed to all the disciples, women as much as men. It is interesting to note that holy Communion has always been given equally to men and women. In the same way, Jesus entrusted celebrating the holy Eucharist in principle to both men and women. And this would imply that Jesus did not exclude women from the ministries.

More important, however, is the question whether Jesus established a permanent norm by omitting women from the Twelve apostles. So let us move to Pope Benedict's assertion two.

2. By appointing only men Jesus established a permanent norm.

How does Pope Benedict XVI understand this?

  • Tower of Men by Kate Minucci
    In Ordinatio Sacerdotalis of 1994 we read the following clarification: "the real reason is that (in this way) Christ gave the Church her fundamental constitution, her theological anthropology." When Jesus chose only men, he did this "in accordance with God's eternal plan . . . in union with the Father after having spent the night in prayer".
  • Again, when Pope Benedict XVI had been elected Pope in 2006, he addressed the parish clergy of the diocese of Rome. Asked why women cannot be ordained, he said: "The priestly ministry of the Lord is reserved to men, since the priestly ministry is government in the deep sense, which, in short, means that it is the sacrament of orders that governs the Church. This is the crucial point. It is not a particular man who does something but the priest in him governs."
  • Then again in an interview to Peter Seewald in 2010 he explained it in this way: "The Lord gave the Church a form with the Twelve and as their successors with the bishops and the priests. This form of the Church is not something we ourselves have produced. It is how he constituted the Church. Following this is an act of obedience. We cannot do what we want. Rather, the Lord has a will for us, a will to which we adhere even though doing so is arduous and difficult in this culture and civilisation".

I do not believe that any serious scripture scholar could maintain that we can prove from the Gospels any intention on Jesus part of establishing masculinity as a necessary requirement for leadership in God's Kingdom.

Look at the appointment of the Twelve apostles itself. We know that this was a symbolic gesture. Jesus wanted twelve new patriarchs to start the new kingdom of God. They were to replace the ancient twelve patriarchs of Israel. And since these patriarchs had been men, it was natural, symbolically, to have twelve men as the new patriarchs. Also, considering the cultural restrictions of the time, was it really possible for Jesus to call women from the start in such a new undertaking? Yes, Jesus treated women with new respect. Whereas in the Old Testament women had only belonged to the covenant through their fathers or husbands who were circumcised, in the new dispensation men and women entered the Kingdom through the same baptism. But were there no practical restrictions that made it more difficult to have women in a travelling band such as Jesus started at the beginning?

So, when Jesus appointed the Twelve, what element became a permanent norm?

  • We find that the number Twelve is soon abandoned in the apostolic Tradition.
  • Jesus appointed only Jews among the Twelve: did he intend to exclude non-Jews?
  • Jesus gave them power to drive out demons and cure the sick: that power did not last.
  • Jesus told the Twelve apostles to wear no sandals and to have no money in their belts: such instructions were soon modified to suit new situations.
  • At his last appearance on a Mount in Galilee Jesus commissioned the Eleven to baptise all nations: but we know now that everyone can baptise validly.

If all the other elements of the original appointment were apparently transitory, why would the masculinity of the early group constitute a permanent norm? Jesus certainly did not say so himself. See Mark 3,13-19.

Therefore Pope Benedict XVI bases establishing the exclusion of women from ordained ministries on a non-fact, on an omission by Jesus. What can we prove from omissions?

  • We know that Jesus, for example, did not establish the hierarchical order of bishops, priests and deacons that arose in later times.
  • Jesus did not specify the nature of the priesthood as it became understood in the Middle Ages.
  • Jesus did not detail all the sacraments, such as marriage, confirmation, the anointing of the sick.
  • Jesus did not order the writing down of the inspired books of the New Testament.

But do these non-facts establish permanent norms in any way? Why would the simple omission of women among the initial Twelve constitute such a vital permanent part of "the Constitution of the Church" as Pope Benedict XVI now seems to think?

In 1997 the Catholic theological Society of America set up a commission to study this question. When the commission reported to the General Assembly, the following conclusion was adopted:

"Many reputable Catholic biblical scholars have not found this argument (from Jesus' selecting only men), convincing. They question the suppositions that Jesus' words to the Twelve constituted ordination as it is understood today; that the Twelve are the only precursors of ordained ministers today, in light of the fluidity of ministries in the early Church; and that by choosing only men for the Twelve Jesus intended to express his will concerning the sex of those who would provide to reside at the Eucharist in the future. Since Jesus left the Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit to make any decisions on its own regarding the organisation of its ministry, scholars judge it very doubtful that he intended to lay down such a particular prescription regarding the sex of future candidates for ordination. The majority of exegetes hold, instead, that Jesus' choice of only men for the Twelve was determined by the nature of their symbolic role as patriarchs of restored Israel."

3. This norm of having a ministry by men alone has been confirmed by the constant and universal Teaching of the Church throughout Tradition.

Pope Benedict XVI asserts that the Church has always affirmed this perennial norm which Christ is alleged to have laid down for all times.

  • In Ordinatio Sacerdotalis of 1994 he says that the Church has always acknowledged the exclusion of women to be a perennial norm.
  • A year later he states in a Response to a Doubt that Christ's action of restricting the ministry to men has been "preserved by a constant and universal Tradition, and has been firmly taught by the Teaching Authority in recent years." Again he says: "the apostles and their successors have observed the norm faithfully and the Teaching Authority teaches us that this was not done by chance". He then goes on to say that this exclusion of women in fact belongs to the infallible teaching of the so-called ordinary Universal Teaching Authority.
  • In the interview that was published in the book Salt of the Earth (1997), the Pope speaks as follows: "The question is just this: does it [the teaching] come from the Lord or not? . . . And how does one recognise this? The answer, confirmed by the Pope that we, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, gave to the issue of women's ordination does not say that the Pope has now performed an infallible act of teaching. The Pope rather established that the Church, the bishops of all places and times, have always taught and acted in this way." And again: "It is not, as I said, an infallible act of the Pope, but the binding authority rests upon the continuity of the Tradition."

What can we say about this? Has the norm of excluding women from the ministries been confirmed by the constant and universal teaching of the Church?


It is true, that in fact women have not been admitted to the priestly ministry except, perhaps, in a few isolated cases. But what does this prove? From all the available evidence it is abundantly clear that the exclusion was not due to a reliance on Jesus' example, but to massive prejudices on behalf of ecclesiastical leaders.

  • They excluded women either because they considered them inferior. This applied especially to the Latin speaking part of Europe since by Roman law women were not considered capable of holding any public office.
  • Then there was the fear of women's monthly periods. It was thought that menstruation constituted a serious risk of contaminating the sanctuary and the altar.
  • Women were also seen as a source of seduction just as Eve had been. Women should be kept separate from men in the church.

In view of such very serious prejudices, often expressed in so many words but even when not expressed clearly there, it can not really be maintained that the decisions by Church leaders were based on following Jesus' example. Jesus' non-appointing a woman rather became a handy excuse to cover one's own bias.


Moreover, it should be remembered that in the eastern part of the Catholic Church during the first millennium women were routinely ordained as deacons. We know at least a hundred of them by name. There were tens of thousands who served in parishes throughout Egypt, Syria, Armenia, Asia Minor and Greece. They instructed women catechumens and were essential during the baptism of adults when women needed to be anointed all over the body and immersed naked in the baptismal font. These women deacons were sacramentally ordained with an ordination rite that was substantially identical to that used for ordaining male deacons.

Now it is true that deacons are not the same as priests. But the fact of ordained women deacons surely shows that the practice and teaching of General Councils (Chalcedon), Popes and Bishops did make allowances for the inclusion of women. And deacons are part of the ordained ministries. Did the Council of Trent not define this? "If anyone says, that, in the Catholic Church there is not a hierarchy by divine ordination instituted, consisting of bishops, priests, and deacons; let him be anathema." (Canon 6).

But why did the Church of previous centuries not come to the recognition that women can also be priests and not just deacons? We can learn here from a study of other issues that took a long time to be recognised for what they meant.


no salvation outside the Church?

The Council of Florence of 1440, for example, still clearly taught that there is no salvation outside the Church. It states:

"The holy Roman Church … firmly believes, professes and preaches that no one remaining outside the Catholic Church, not only pagans but also Jews, heretics or schismatics, can become partakers of eternal life. They will go to the internal fire prepared for the devil and his angels (Matthew 25,41), unless before the end of their life they are received into the Church . . . No one can be saved, even if he sheds his blood for the name of Christ, unless he remains in the bosom and unity of the Catholic Church."

The reason for this horrendous statement is the fact that the Church at that time had not really come to understand the complex nature of modern society in which there is a variety of religions and that God will judge each person according to his own conscience. The full realisation of this only came about during the last century and has now been affirmed in the second Vatican Council.

taking interest on capital?

Then that is the interesting case of interest taken on capital loans. When the banking system started in Europe during the Middle Ages, theologians and Church leaders did not allow investors to lend money in return for interest. They considered such interest usury as had been condemned in many Old Testament texts (Deuteronomy 23, 20 – 21). The second Council of the Lateran (1139 AD) prescribed that persons who take interest "not be admitted to the sacraments". It also decreed that they should be refused an ecclesiastical burial if they did not repent their error before death. This unforgiving attitude to capital lending was repeated for centuries. Pope Benedict XIV repeated it in all its severity in his decree Vix pervenit (1745).

Now all of us feel no guilt at receiving is interest for loans. We deposit savings in a bank and expect interest. The Church changed its mind once it understood that taking interest on capital loans is not the same as the ancient usury condemned in Scripture. the Old Testament texts are thinking of a farmer giving a loaf of bread to a neighbour who is in need and who demands two loaves in return. That is usury. But Scripture did not object to a landowner renting out land to a tenant and then receiving part of the harvest in reward. A capital loan is productive, just as a piece of land. Taking part of the fruit it produces [= the interest] is therefore morally justified. This was the insight, the eureka experience, that the Church needed to appreciate what was truly at stake.

and what about slavery?

And then take the example of slavery. Until 1888 the Popes and their curial officials defended the legitimacy of slavery! The Fathers, Church Synods, Popes and theologians maintained that slaves could be legitimately owned, bought and sold. The Congregation for Doctrine in Rome still declared on 20 June 1866: “Slavery itself, considered as such in its essential nature, is not at all contrary to the natural law or God’s law. There can be several just titles of slavery . . . It is not contrary to the natural and divine law for a slave to be sold, bought, exchanged or given”.

It is only during the 20th century that the Church grasped the significance of human rights and how they actually flow also from Gospel values. The Second Vatican Council declared that any form of slavery is contrary to the mind of Christ . . .

so what happened in each case?

First we should note that in all such cases, the teaching was firmly held and taught by all Church leaders at that time. All of them would affirm that there is no salvation outside the Church, that no interest may be taken on capital loans, that slaves can be bought and sold, etc. etc. They shared a common opinion which they believed to be the actual teaching of Scripture and Tradition. Just as the common so-called Church teaching that the world was created in six days, that the sun revolves round the earth, and so on. What looked like constant and uniform teaching was actually no more than uninformed common opinion based on ignorance. This is stage one: the stage of unawareness of what is really at stake, the stage of common opinion.

What followed in each case was confrontation, a challenge by experts in each field, a realisation by some Christians that the old common opinion, in spite of official Church teaching, was wrong. Church leaders invariable respond by digging in: they defend the old tradition which, they maintain, has been continuously and firmly taught. They try to silence opposition. Those who protest and speak out are decried as heretics and refused the sacraments. This is stage two: the stage of confusion and confrontation.

After this there is a break through. The penny drops. The AHA experience. The insight. Church leaders suddenly grasp that Church teaching is not compromised by adopting the new truths: yes, people can be saved outside the Church; yes, we may take interest on bank deposits; yes, slavery is wrong; and so on. This is stage three: the stage of maturing, of coming of age, of accepting the new vision.

And what about admitting women to the priesthood? Do I need to point out that we are unmistakably in the second stage. Pope Benedict XVI frantically tries to hang on to the common opinion of the past. He attempts to silence those who have the courage to speak out. But he is doomed to fail. The assertion that Jesus Christ made masculinity an unchangeable feature in the ordained ministries does not stand up to scrutiny. The appeal to past teachings coloured by manifest cultural prejudices will not convince any theologian worth his salt.

Let us hope that Church leaders will soon move into stage three. Let us hope that they will see what Church Father St Cyprian expressed so neatly: "A custom without truth is merely an ancient error."

John Wijngaards

Kateusz, Mary and Early Christian Women

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