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Women and the Priesthood: A Theological Reflection | Jean Galot, S.J. | From Theology of the Priesthood

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Editor's Note: The following excerpt is from the concluding chapter of Fr. Galot's Theology of the Priesthood, titled "The Mission of Woman and the Priesthood." It comes after examinations of the claim to a priesthood for women, the ecumenical situation, and the teachings of Jesus, the New Testament, and the Church.

The tradition of the Church, firm and unchanging, rests on the fundamental fact which is Christ's own decision: Jesus chose only men to exercise the priestly ministry. His will revealed itself clearly in the choice of the Twelve, in the powers conferred upon them, and especially in the fact that he restricted to them alone participation in the Last Supper and entrusted to them the responsibility of the work of evangelization. This will has the mark of permanency in it, for, through the institution of this ministry, Jesus intended to insure the future of his Church and provide for the entire development to come. This will should not be ascribed to the prejudices of his time and place, nor to any notion on his part of woman's inferiority, for he showed clearly how he resisted the mentality of his contemporaries, how resolved he was to restore equality between men and women, and how he intended to promote woman's role in the work of salvation.

Upon this foundation we can, in theological reflection, gain a better understanding of what Jesus' intention means and of the divine design that is expressed in it. Whatever the outcome of these reflections, whatever discussions may ensue because of them, the solidity of the foundation remains unshaken. When it comes to the solution of the issue, what is essential is the will of Christ, as acknowledged in tradition and supported by the definitive and ever present normativeness of Church authority. Theological reflection is only an attempt at perceiving the reasons that impelled that will, at grasping its scope and warrant with greater clarity and precision. [31]


Why did Jesus restrict the ministerial priesthood to men? Jesus never gave reasons, just as he never revealed why he instituted the pastoral authority of the Twelve, or why he conferred the primacy upon Peter.

But Jesus did reveal in what direction our mind should proceed by emphasizing the link between his own priestly mission and that of his disciples: "As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world" (Jn 17:18). The sending of the Son by the Father is the foundation and model of the sending of the disciples on the part of Christ.

The similarity between the two missions is complemented by the fact that the disciples relate to Jesus as his representatives. Jesus willed that his disciples should act in his name and be his representatives. He conferred upon them a pastoral power in the image of his own and entrusted to them the task of celebrating the Eucharist in his name.

It follows that the assignment of the ministerial priesthood to males must be explained with reference to Christ himself and the mystery of the Incarna- tion. "Christ, who was distinct in that mystery, assumed a mission to which authority was attached to become the head of the Body." Following the example of Christ, the priest is called upon to perform a role that calls for the exercise of authority and the embodiment of a relationship to Christ. He is called to lead the community as its shepherd and to do this in the name of Christ by representing the power that belongs to the Head of the Church. [32] The divine choice that once singled out the male gender for the Incarnation also assigns to this gender the priestly ministry. If the priesthood is restricted to - men, it is not, then, because of a casual decision predicated on contingencies, but because of an essential orientation built into the mystery of the Incarna- tion.


The real issue is not whether women should have access to the priestly ministry but how the participation of women in ecclesial endeavors should be promoted. If Jesus restricted to males the pastoral ministry, it was for the sake of enabling women to carry out an ecciesial mission more suited to their personality and more productive. Therefore, the Church ought to favor this promotion of feminine activity which is an expression of the universal priesthood of the faithful.

The complementarity of the sexes is meant to express itself in the cooperation of women in the service of the Church. In the mystery of the Incarnation, a woman plays an indispensable role, a maternal role, in Jesus' own coming to being here below. As mentioned, this maternal role has continued in the form of cooperation with Christ's own work. It is exercised even now in the motherhood of Mary with respect to the Church. All this points out decisively the importance of woman's mission carried out in keeping with specific feminine capacities.

This complementarity was highlighted in a special way by the risen Christ when he entrusted a mission to Mary Magdalene. This gesture goes to show that the ministerial priesthood entrusted to the apostles should not be self-contained, and should not dispense with womanly cooperation. Nor does this priesthood bestow upon the male holders of it a wholesale primacy in the proclamation of the Good News. A woman was the first witness to the Resurrection and was given the mission to convey the first message of the Risen One.

We are dealing, then, with a reciprocal complementarity based on priorities which intersect and complement each other. In order to be integrally translated into practice, this complementarity would have to bring about the abrogation of all inequities, of anything that still bespeaks inferiority for women, and of all the prejudices that make it more difficult for men and women to work together. It should also seek to establish the conditions which will stimulate the manifold resources of the feminine personality to devote themselves to the service of the Church.

Not only is it important not to identify the Church with the hierarchical authority, but we must also, in a concrete way, promote the spontaneity and originality women are called upon to contribute toward the Church's unfolding through activities in which women's initiative and ways are affirmed in cooperation with the ministerial priesthood.

Some have suggested the establishment of a diaconate for women. [33] Since such a diaconate existed once in the Eastern Church, no obstacle on the part of Church tradition precludes its establishment now. [34] However, even in the early centuries, the empowerment of deaconesses was not on a par with that of deacons. Deaconesses were the lowest rank in the clergy. Hence, this ecclesial office could hardly have been looked upon at that time as a recognition of woman's dignity. A similar problem would arise today. The feminine diaconate would, on the one hand, convey the impression that women may travel along the road that leads to the sacrament of holy orders, and on the other, it would emphasize even more forcefully the fact that the presbyterate lies beyond their reach. Besides, why "clericalize" women by escorting them into the clergy? [35] If we follow this road, we are unlikely to promote authentically the mission of women in the Church. Once more, we would be looking for a way of letting the mission of the woman look like that of the man.

The data in the gospels that reveal Christ's intention rather invite the Church to enlist women in the exercise of a mission that is consistent with a woman's personality and so favors the respect and the appreciation of the difference.


[31] In his reaction against the decision taken by the Episcopal Church in the U.S.A., the Anglican theologian E. L. Mascall emphasizes the theological nature of the issue. He notes that our task is to ascertain whether the Christian religion be a reality revealed by God through his incarnate Son, who requires an obedient fidelity to him, or whether it be a reality we are entitled to build according to our own specifications, by the use of democratic procedures and majority vote, in accordance with our own desires and the pressures exerted by contemporary society ("Some Basic Considerations", in Man, Woman, Priesthood, p. 26).

[32] Hopko draws a comparison with the divine persons. To claim that women are discriminated against because they are excluded from ordination is as much as saying that the Holy Spirit is a victim of discrimination because he is not the Logos and God's Son ("On the Male Character", St. Vladimir's Theological Quarterly [1975J: '70). It is certain that the equality of the sexes and the difference between them derive first and foremost from the equality and difference which mark the divine persons. The human community has been fashioned as the image of the divine community.

[33] The appropriateness seems to be grounded on Jesus' quality as Head rather than as Spouse. To respond to the objection that the priest acts in the name of the Church, the Bride, the Declaration Inter insignia emphasizes that the priest acts in the name of Christ the Head of the Church, and that it is because of this that he represents the Church in his priestly action. In conclusion, headship is the specific characteristic of the priestly ministry. It is this quality that warrants the assignment of the priesthood to males.

[34] Cf. Effort diaconal: Ordination des femmes au diaconat (Jan. -June 1974); B. Weiss, "Zum Diakonat der Frau", TTZ 84 (1975): 14-27; F. Corrigan, "The Deaconess: Past and Future", Clergy Review 62 (1977): 474-80.

[35] Cf. Gryson, Le Ministère des femmes, p. ii: "From a doctrinal viewpoint, it is perfectly conceivable that women could be entrusted with a ministry of a diaconal type. This was done in the Church for many centuries, and no doctrinal issue ensued."

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Jean Galot, S.J. is professor emeritus of Christology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. He is internationally known for his biblical and theological scholarship, particularly in the area of Christology. He is a frequent contributor to L'Osservatore Romano.

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