The Strange Clericalism of Women’s Ordination

Published December 6, 2012

The Catholic Thing

“Barring women from ordination to the priesthood,” the National Catholic Reporter editorialized recently, “is an injustice that cannot be allowed to stand.” The proximate cause for NCR‘s ill-conceived, if sadly unsurprising, foray into heterodoxy was the recent excommunication, dismissal, and laicization of former Maryknoll priest and long-time advocate of women’s ordination, Roy Bourgeois.

The editors at NCR, like Bourgeois, insist that the ordination of women is simply a matter of justice. Justice means giving one his (or her) due. If a male-only priesthood is an injustice to women, then there must be some good in ordination that is due to women. But the sacrament of holy orders, as NCR forthrightly admits, is a gift. A vocation to the priesthood is either a gratuitous gift or a right. It can’t be both

Holiness, meanwhile, is a vocation we all share — the true measure of all Christian discipleship and the goal of every particular vocation. The archetype of Christian discipleship, incidentally, is neither a priest nor a man, but Mary, whom we name Queen of Apostles. For so she is. The sacramental role of a priest, by contrast, involves his acting in persona Christi, and while God might not be a man, Jesus Christ, son of Mary and Son of the Father, is.

Claims like those of NCR and Bourgeois always seem to carry a whiff of unintended clericalism and even sexism. Why? Consider a priest who lords it over his flock or thinks himself superior to them by virtue of his office. He would be rightly denounced for his clericalism. But do those who see access to holy orders as the necessary condition of equality within the Church take any less an unjustly privileged view of the priestly office?

Can one imagine the Mother of God — or St. Catherine of Siena or St. Theresa Benedicta of the Cross or St. Claire of Assisi — lamenting her role in the economy of salvation for lack of a mitre, as though mere holiness and mere womanhood and mere communion with God in heaven forever are insufficiently dignified vocations?

It makes no more sense for women to claim a vocation to the ministerial priesthood than for men to claim a vocation to motherhood. Recall the words of St. Paul about the diversity and complementarity of the members of the Body of Christ: “But God has so constructed the body as to give greater honor to a part that is without it, so that there may be no division in the body, but that the parts may have the same concern for one another. If [one] part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy.”

The incoherence of the crusade for Catholic women’s ordination doesn’t end there. That someone, Roy Bourgeois for example, would jeopardize his communion with the Church because he objects to the exclusion of women from Holy Orders suggests a breakdown of ecclesiology somewhere else in his system. Does he not believe the Church and Christ are one and that without her there is no salvation? If he does believe that, then why would he jeopardize eternal life in a quixotic attempt to gain women access to an office that, however dignified and noble, has no power to save?

If you do not believe that Christ and His Church are one, or if you deny the necessity of communion with the Catholic Church for salvation, then why not seek ordination in some other church that would happily grant it? Why insist on Catholic ordination? What good is apostolic succession if communion with the Catholic Church is irrelevant?

Is it not the case that those who would leave the Catholic Church because women cannot be ordained are unequivocally declaring that it is better to be a priestess in any church than a layperson in the Catholic Church?

“[T]he exclusion of women from the priesthood,” write the editors of NCR, “has no strong basis in Scripture or any other compelling rationale; therefore, women should be ordained.” If the editors of NCR believe, as they evidently do, that Scripture alone can justify the doctrines of the Church or that 2,000 years of tradition or the consistent, unequivocal teaching of bishops and popes is less than “compelling rationale” for a given doctrine then a basic sense of honesty might compel them to change their name to the National Protestant Reporter.

I don’t say that flippantly. The Church is never better off with fewer members — if one part suffers, all the parts really do suffer. But the first step in reconciliation is recognizing that a break has taken place.

The Church’s teaching on the nature of the priesthood and the reservation of the ministerial priesthood exclusively to men is undoubtedly a “hard saying” for many. When faced with such a hard saying — and we are all sinners, so we will all have our time — one hopes to respond with the faith of Peter: “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.”

The editors of NCR, it seems, have made their decision. They’ll follow Roy Bourgeois. Let us pray they reconsider.

Stephen P. White is a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC and coordinator of the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society.

This article first appeared on “The Catholic Thing” (, copyright 2012, all rights reserved.

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