Q. As a practicing Catholic, what should be my answer when my Protestant friends ask me why my church does not ordain women to the priesthood? (City of origin withheld)
A. Catholics believe that the ordained ministry has its origin in Christ’s choice of the Twelve Apostles. Why Jesus selected only males for this sacramental and teaching ministry, no one can say with certainty, but the church feels bound by the decision of its founder and by its earliest and consistent tradition.
There were proponents of female priests in the first four centuries of the church’s history, but always the response from church leaders was the same: that’s not our call to make, not our prerogative; the action of Jesus is normative.
Even Eastern Orthodox churches, which split with Catholics on several theological issues, never questioned that the priesthood was reserved to males.
Some would argue that if Jesus were alive today when society has a greater appreciation of women’s dignity and gifts, he would have picked some women among his apostles.
But that forgets the fact that the historical Jesus had no problem being controversially countercultural: he chose Matthew — scorned by society as a tax collector — and welcomed several women, including Mary Magdalene, as close companions and friends.
So the church’s teaching has nothing to do with gender equality and everything to do with Jesus and the history of the church. St. John Paul II in a 1994 apostolic letter explained that since even the Virgin Mary was not given the ministry and mission proper to the apostles, the decision by Jesus was surely not a statement on the relative dignity and holiness of the sexes.
Pope Francis, in his 2013 exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium,” even while reaffirming the teaching on a male-only priesthood, added a critical nuance. He said that decision-making should not be linked to ordination and urged that women be given a greater voice in church deliberations.
Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at firstname.lastname@example.org and 40 Hopewell St., Albany, N.Y. 12208.