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The Male Priesthood: The Argument From Sacred Tradition


In May of 1994 John Paul II promulgated Ordinatio Sacerdotalis which declared definitely that the Catholic priesthood is reserved for males. Hence, the question Why can there not be women priests? has now been answered in a definitive way. While Catholics are not to question the teaching of the Magisterium on this matter, the time is ripe for all interested to come to a deeper understanding and appreciation of the Churchs teaching.



In May of 1994 John Paul II promulgated Ordinatio Sacerdotalis which declared definitely that the Catholic priesthood is reserved for males. That document nonetheless contained some language that was difficult to interpret. As a result, Cardinal Ratzinger made an official clarification (Responsum ad Dubium) in November of 1995, making it quite clear that the Church has taught infallibly on this matter.

Hence, the question of the priesthood in its relation to sexuality a question usually posed more simply as "Why can there not be women priests?" has now been answered in a definitive way. There is no longer any doubt that reserving Holy Orders to males is part of the deposit of faith. While Catholics are not to question the teaching of the Magisterium on this matter, the time is ripe for all interested to come to a deeper understanding and appreciation of the Church's teaching.

The documents themselves are not meant to provide such theological information for us. Although they contain and allude to theological arguments, they are not primarily meant as theological documents. The situation is similar to the role of Humanae Vitae, the 1968 encyclical on the regulation of birth. As Janet Smith has aptly noted, that encyclical was not meant to provide a full philosophical and theological rationale for the Church's position. Rather, it alluded to some of the central arguments, presuming that philosophers and theologians would flush them out.(1) Similarly, Inter Insigniores (issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Pope Paul VI in 1976), the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis and the Responsum ad Dubium exist not primarily as theological explanations, but as teaching documents making clear the Church's position, containing an implicit invitation to theologians to flush out the arguments. In this article I propose to present the argument from Sacred Tradition in favor of the male priesthood.

In considering that argument, we want to examine what Tradition says, the factual or empirical side of the question. This Tradition contains three aspects, as aptly summarized in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis no. 1 when it quotes a 1975 letter of Paul VI to the Archbishop of Canterbury: "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 [Magisterium] which has consistently held that the exclusion of women from the priesthood is in accordance with God's plan for his Church." Let us consider each of the three points.


Jesus clearly called only 12 men to be His apostles. Judas abandoned his call; when he was replaced, as described in Acts 1, it is interesting to note that no women were considered for his position, even though there were many women who would have fit the bill as faithful followers. Instead, Matthias was chosen (cf. Inter Insigniores, no. 14).

As John Paul II makes clear in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, it is especially remarkable that Mary was not chosen:

... the fact that the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God and Mother of the Church, received neither the mission proper to the Apostles nor the ministerial priesthood clearly shows that the non-admission of women to priestly ordination cannot mean that women are of lesser dignity, nor can it be construed as discrimination against them. Rather, it is to be seen as the faithful observance of a plan to be ascribed to the wisdom of the Lord of the Universe.

The pope goes on to mention the important and dignified roles that women have played throughout the history of the Church (also noted in Inter Insigniores, no. 6), and then makes the following important point:

Moreover, it is to the holiness of the faithful that the hierarchical structure of the Church is totally ordered. For this reason, the Declaration Inter Insigniores recalls: "the only better gift, which can and must be desired, is love (cf. 1 Cor 12 and 13). The greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven are not the ministers but the Saints (no. 3).

Such a perspective helps immensely in dealing with a delicate matter: the fact that a variety of women today feel called to the priesthood. They may well be confusing a desire for the priesthood within them with a more authentic and a higher calling, the call to holiness. Inter Insigniores no. 35 notes that "there is a universal vocation of all the baptized to the exercise of the royal priesthood by offering their lives to God and by giving witness for his praise."

Many argue that Jesus' choice of men only was conditioned by the historical context: people of the time simply could not accept women as leaders. But this argument is unsound. Jesus was very quick to re-figure or even dispense with Jewish customs (as opposed to essential truths of Judaism, such as monotheism, or the moral law as found in the Ten Commandments). Why not dispense with the Jewish custom of a male priesthood? Inter Insigniores no. 11 and 12, from which we paraphrase, gives some examples of Jesus' behavior: (2)

1) He showed His concern for a Samaritan woman (Jn 4:27) Samaritans were shunned by much of Judaism of the time.

2) When the woman suffering from hemorrhages approached Him (Mt 9: 20-22) He took no notice of her state of legal impurity.

3) He allowed a sinful woman to approach Him in the house of Simon the Pharisee (Lk 7:37ff).

4) He pardoned the woman caught in adultery, showing that one must not be more severe towards the fault of a woman than towards that of a man (Jn 8:11).

5) He challenged the chauvinism in Jewish law that allowed men to divorce their wives. "He does not hesitate to depart from the Mosaic Law in order to affirm the equality of the rights of men and women with regard to the marriage bond (cf. Mk 10:2-11; Mt 19:3-9)."

6) In His ministry Jesus was accompanied not only by the Twelve but also by a group of women: "Mary, surnamed the Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, Joanna the wife of Herod's steward Chuza, Susanna, and several others who provided for them out of their own resources" (Lk 8:2-3).

7) The Gospels present women as the first witnesses and believers after the Resurrection.

Given these facts, it would seem quite natural, then, to have women apostles, and hence women priests. The fact that Christ retained the Jewish practice in this area suggests that there is more behind it than a mere custom. As John Paul II notes in his letter Mulieris Dignitatem:

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. Consequently, the assumption that he called men to be apostles in order to conform with the widespread mentality of his times, does not at all correspond to Christ's way of acting (no. 26).

We must also consider the consequences of claiming that Jesus did not intend, in calling twelve men to be apostles, the priesthood to be reserved for males. Consider this line of argument:

a) If in fact there is no doctrinal barrier to women becoming priests, then 60 generations of women have been wronged. Whether or not they wanted to become priests is not at issue. They should have been allowed the priesthood.

b) Now if this is the case, the cause for 60 generations of injustice is that Jesus appointed only male disciples. (Some might say the leaders of the early Church were the cause but clearly they were motivated by Jesus' action, which then remains the first cause.) (3)

c) Hence, Jesus made a mistake on a very crucial matter. If so, His divinity is seriously called into question.

d) The other possibility is that Jesus did God the Father's will, but that God the Father Himself did not foresee that such an action would result in so much discrimination. Of course, then God is not omniscient, and hence not God.

e) In a word, the argument for female priests denies either the Incarnation, or the omniscience of God. (4)

In sum, Jesus' own action is at the heart of the argument from Tradition.


The second part of the argument from Tradition is that the apostles and their successors throughout history imitated Christ. The Catechism of the Catholic Church mentions the question of the male priesthood in one article, which articulates the first and second parts of the argument from Tradition:

"Only a baptized man (vir) validly receives sacred ordination." The Lord Jesus chose men (viri) to form the college of the twelve apostles, and the apostles did the same when they chose collaborators to succeed them in their ministry. The college of bishops, with whom the priests are united in the priesthood, makes the college of the twelve an ever-present and ever-active reality until Christ's return. The Church recognizes herself to be bound by this choice made by the Lord himself. For this reason the ordination of women is not possible (no. 1577).

Although Jewish society may not have welcomed a female priesthood, the Gentiles to whom Paul and others preached would certainly have been open to it. The Greek mystery cults, for instance, included priestesses. Hence, if the male priesthood was only a custom, conditioned by the historical setting of Jesus, then it seems likely that the early Church would have abandoned this custom among Gentile Christians (especially since the Council of Jerusalem made the momentous decision that Jewish customs need not be embraced by Gentiles converting to Christianity). That she did not again suggests that there is more behind the male priesthood than mere custom. Inter Insigniores is well worth quoting at length on this point:

When [the apostles] and Paul went beyond the confines of the Jewish world, the preaching of the Gospel and the Christian life in the Greco-Roman civilization impelled them to break with Mosaic practices, sometimes regretfully. They could therefore have envisaged conferring ordination on women, if they had not been convinced of their duty of fidelity to the Lord on this point. In the Hellenistic world, the cult of a number of pagan divinities was entrusted to priestesses.

The apostles certainly had available good candidates for priestesses if they had so chosen:

In fact we know from the book of the Acts and from the letters of Saint Paul that certain women worked with the Apostle for the Gospel (cf. Rom 16:3-12; Phil 4:3). ... All these facts manifest within the Apostolic Church a considerable evolution vis-a-vis the customs of Judaism. Nevertheless at no time was there a question of conferring ordination on these women.

Interestingly, Paul himself uses different formulas, as noted in Inter Insigniores no. 17, when referring first to men and women who help him in his apostolate ("my fellow workers," Rom 16:3, Phil 4:2-3) and second to those set apart for the apostolic ministry and preaching of the Word such as Apollos and Timothy ("God's fellow workers," 1 Cor 3:9, 1 Thess 3:2).

It is true that there were some heretical sects in early Christianity that had priestesses (see Inter Insigniores, no. 6). These were Gnostic sects, and one hallmark of Gnosticism is a refusal to see any inherent goodness in the created order. Maleness and femaleness are closely bound to our creatureliness, and Gnostics were unable to see any meaning infused into such realities. It is understandable, then, that their ministry would be androgynous.

A common complaint about the early Church is that a certain misogynism is found in the writings of some of the Church Fathers, but as Inter Insigniores no. 6 notes it is not clear that such prejudice had any influence on their pastoral activity. It is always important to distinguish the doctrine taught by personnel of the Church from their own opinions on various matters. Christ's gift of infallibility means that the Magisterium will not err on matters of faith and morals, not that representatives of the Church will be perfect in all respects.

Also of import is that fact that the Eastern Catholic Churches have taught unanimously the same points as the Roman Catholic Church. As Inter Insigniores no. 9 notes, "Their unanimity on this point is all the more remarkable since in many other questions their discipline admits of a great diversity." For instance, priestly celibacy is a disciplinary, not doctrinal matter, in Catholicism. East and West practice differently on this matter. That the East shares the doctrine of male priesthood with us is a signal that the teaching is not in the realm of custom or discipline.

In sum, the Tradition has been so firm throughout the centuries that, as Inter Insigniores no. 8 notes, "the Magisterium has not felt the need to intervene in order to formulate a principle which was not attacked, or to defend a law that was not challenged. ... each time that this tradition had the occasion to manifest itself, it witnessed to the Church's desire to conform to the model left to her by the Lord." But of course such principles and laws have been challenged in the past thirty years. Hence, the recent Magisterium has had to respond, and it has done so carefully, patiently and firmly. And so, we now turn to the third aspect of the argument from Tradition. (Keep in mind that the arguments presented here simply establish the data about what Tradition has authoritatively taught.)


We clearly see an unbroken tradition regarding the male priesthood. There is every reason to believe that it constitutes part of the dogmatic and infallible deposit of faith. Still, we must inquire about how a teaching enters the actual deposit of faith, and how this particular teaching is dogmatically taught. This teaching is infallible by virtue of here is a mouthful the ordinary universal episcopal Magisterium.

THE AUTHORity of Christ is found in the apostolic succession throughout the Christian centuries. Such an understanding is rooted in a sacramental view of reality that sees the human realm as capable of bearing absolute truth. The apostolic succession consists of human beings specially guided by the Holy Spirit. When we turn to the Magisterium, we are turning to the apostolic succession living in our own time. (For a fuller treatment of the concept of Tradition, see "Tradition: the Presence of Christ Echoing Across Time," The Catholic Faith, Nov./Dec. 1995).

It is by virtue of the ordinary and universal Magisterium that the doctrine of the male priesthood is infallibly taught. When a) all bishops throughout the world, at any particular time in history, have b) concurred on some matter of faith and morals, c) teach it definitively, and d) in union with the teaching of the Bishop of Rome then that matter is considered to be infallibly taught. Note that it is not defined infallibly, as would be the case if there were an exercise of the extraordinary Magisterium. Whether taught infallibly or defined infallibly, the matter is still just as infallible.

Matters that are defined infallibly were taught infallibly prior to the extraordinary definition. Usually what causes a matter to be raised to the level of an infallible definition is some type of crisis requiring a more official definition. It is always a question of prudence as to whether or not to define a matter that is already infallibly taught by the ordinary universal episcopal Magisterium. Hence, the pope could have used the occasion of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis to formulate an ex cathedra infallible definition, but he chose not to for prudential reasons. Likewise, the recent encyclical Evangelium Vitae could have been the context within which the pope defined infallibly the Church's teaching on the sanctity of human life, on abortion, and on euthanasia. Instead, the pope (wisely in this author's opinion) used the encyclical to point out, in the midst of carefully reasoned argumentation, that these matters are already taught infallibly by the ordinary universal episcopal Magisterium. If some bishops today have taught otherwise, they themselves stand in conflict with the tradition, and in a sense are standing outside the apostolic tradition at least on a particular issue.

It is well worth noting that all moral matters that have infallible status are taught, not defined, infallibly by the ordinary universal episcopal Magisterium. Examples include the items noted above contained in Evangelium Vitae. To these we could add the Church's teachings on the nature of the conjugal act as unitive and procreative, which affects issues such as homosexuality, adultery, fornication, contraception, and some of the new birth technologies. This is an opportune occasion to unmask one of the most popular arguments put forth by dissenters on such issues. You can quiz yourself by trying to find the fallacy in the following line of argument: (5)

a) It is argued that no matters of morality have ever been defined infallibly by the Magisterium.

b) Therefore, all matters of morality are in the realm of fallible teachings that do not demand our assent of faith, but rather assent of mind and will.

c) Such teachings have changed in the past. For instance, the teaching that condemned religious liberty was not infallible, and it changed at Vatican II.

d) We are in the midst of another such change regarding the issue of contraception and other related issues. Hence, while giving due respect to the Magisterium, it is legitimate to dissent from these teachings.

Answer: Point "a" is correct in what it states, but errs by omission. Matters of morality have not been defined infallibly, but they have been taught infallibly. One whole category of infallible teaching is ignored in this argument. Points "b" and "c" are true, but irrelevant, and point "d" is a false conclusion because some of its premises are irrelevant or incomplete.

What about the dogmatic status of the male priesthood? Until June of 1994, the question of the dogmatic status of the male priesthood was unresolved. Since it had not been challenged before recent decades, the Church had not had an opportunity for careful theological reflection on the nature of maleness and femaleness and how that might affect the priesthood. Certainly the current crisis has born and will continue to bear fruit in that regard. Up until Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, it was probable but not definitive that the teaching was infallibly taught. Those in legitimate doubt about the infallibility of such teachings still were required to give the obsequium religiosum (reverent obedience) that Lumen Gentium asks of us for non-infallible teachings.

With Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, we find a clarification on the matter. Consider the final statement of the letter:

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. Lk 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.

While it is clear that the teaching is to be held definitively, the letter did not specify (as was done on the three issues noted above in Evangelium Vitae) that the teaching was infallibly taught by the ordinary universal episcopal Magisterium (though the word "definitively" echoes one of the criteria by which a teaching of the ordinary Magisterium is to be considered infallible). Rather, the final statement gave the impression of being just on the verge of being an ex cathedra definition the word "define" is conspicuously absent, but everything else is there!

One can understand the confusion this caused. Clearly the teaching had not been defined infallibly, and since it only came close to doing so, it made it appear as if the teaching might not be infallible. And since the document did not make clear reference to the other mode by which the teaching could be infallible the ordinary universal episcopal Magisterium the faithful were left somewhat in a state of perplexity. Hence, the official request for clarification and the response from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Cardinal Ratzinger made it clear in this brief statement that the teaching was infallibly taught by the ordinary, universal, episcopal Magisterium.


  1. Humanae Vitae: A Generation Later (Washington D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1991), pp. ix-x.

  2. These examples and several others are also reflected upon in John Paul II's Mulieris Dignitatem no. 13 (On the Dignity and Vocation of Women).

  3. Some feminist exegetes argue that the Gospels contain a sexist and patriarchal distortion of Jesus' teaching/practice. Such arguments are based on conjecture, and are contrary to the Church's teaching that the Gospels are true to history as they set forth to give theological interpretation of that history.

  4. This argument is creatively expressed by Sheldon Vanauken, "Women Priests Denies the Incarnation," New Oxford Review (March, 1978), 4-6.

  5. This is the argument popularized by Fr. Charles Curran.

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Lowery, Mark. "The Male Priesthood: The Argument From Sacred Tradition." The Catholic Faith 5, no. 6 (May/June 1996).

Reprinted by permission of The Catholic Faith.

The Catholic Faith is published bi-monthly and may be ordered from Ignatius Press, P.O. Box 591090, San Francisco, CA 94159-1090. 1-800-651-1531.

The Author

Mark Lowery is Associate professor in the Department of Theology, University of Dallas, Irving, TX 75062. He is also a husband and the father of six children.

Copyright © 2001 Catholic Faith

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