Why Can’t Women be Priests?

Why Can’t Women be Priests?

Fr. Francis Michael Walsh

Professor of Moral Theology

Redemptoris Mater Seminary

Yona, Guam USA



The Pacific Daily News recently (May 24th) published a letter regarding women and their role in ministry in the Catholic Church.  The writer warned about the danger of introducing a secular mentality into the discussion of ministry in the Church.  This, he wrote, “politicizes Christianity and will detract from, or totally eliminate, its responsibility as the repository and guardian of God’s truths.”  Well said; this is a legitimate concern.  However, the writer’s solution is more than a bit problematic.  “Priesthood” is normally an Old Testament term.  In the New Testament it is only applied to Jesus Christ.  He alone is our high priest.  The rest of us, in virtue of our baptism participate in his priesthood.  We exercise this common priesthood of the faithful in offering the Eucharist.  This way of participating is common to all believers, but it is not something that we can do privately, on our own.  The church is the body of Christ that has a structure established by him.  When we exercise our share in his priesthood, we do as a body, an assembly.  Those who preside over the assembly of the community of the church do so in virtue of another sacrament, the Sacrament of Orders.  This Sacrament of Orders is another way of sharing in the priesthood of Christ.  It is a ministry to enable the whole church to exercise its common priesthood by offering to the Father, in union with Jesus, the eternal sacrifice that Jesus offered once and for all on the cross.  The Sacrament of Orders has three grades, bishop, presbyter (or elder), and deacon.  If you are looking in the Bible for them, check Acts 6: 1-7; 1 Tim 3: 1-10; 1 Peter 5: 1-4; Titus1:5).  The popular practice of referring to presbyters as “priests” is just a short-handed way of speaking that, admittedly, may be confusing at first hearing for those who have been cut off from the traditions of the Catholic faith.


The Eucharist is the wedding feast of the Lamb who was slain, but who has risen from the dead.  He returns to claim his bride, the Church.  This means that, in addition to the seven sacraments of which we are all aware, the Church herself is a sacrament, an eschatological sign that makes present the marriage of the Lamb (Rev. 21).  The bishop or presbyter who presides at the wedding feast of the Eucharist is a sign of Jesus Christ, the bridegroom.  The assembly of baptized believers is a sign of the bride of Jesus.  In this context, gender has a meaning.  Only a woman can be the sign of the bride, the church, and only a man can be a sign of the bridegroom, Jesus Christ.  Likewise, the marriage of a baptized man and woman is a sacramental sign of the marriage of Jesus and the Church.  St. Paul says that the marriage of man and woman is a great foreshadowing of the mystery of Christ and the Church (Eph 5:31-32).  Mystery here does not mean a detective story.  It means a sign, a sacrament that makes present and real what it signifies.  Our bodies in their sexual differentiation have a nuptial meaning.  We were made for the intimacies of marriage, whether that intimacy be the union of two in one flesh or the experience of the intimacy of the marriage of Lamb through celibacy embraced for the sake of the kingdom.  In either case, our sexuality has sacramental meaning.


Because of the sacramental nature of the church and of gender, only men can be ordained to be a sign of Jesus in the Eucharistic assembly.  The issue here is not one of inclusion or exclusion.  For the same reason that a “gay” couple cannot be a sign of the marriage of Jesus and the church, a woman cannot be the sign of a bridegroom.  Only a man can be a sign of Jesus Christ at the wedding feast of the Lamb, and only a woman can be a sign of his bride, the Church.  This is not a matter that Benedict XVI can change.  He is bound like everybody else by the Word of God who has already decided that his church would be a sacramental sign to the nations.  Why is there a need to change it?


The present perceived need to change something that cannot be change anyway is because ministry has been understood in a very reduced way as restricted to priests.  This is a false notion.  Ministry in the Catholic Church is not restricted to sacramental ordination.  The Holy Spirit has endowed her with many charismatic gifts as St. Paul attests to in 1Cor, 12: 27-13 13.  You won’t find the “priesthood” (in keeping with our short-handed way of speaking) listed there because “priesthood” is a sacramental office conferred by ordination.  The Holy Spirit gives these charismatic gifts as he wills, without any ordination or outward sign.  In the past, women have received many of these gifts.  These gifts also confer an authority.  Just think of Mother Teresa of Calcutta.  When she spoke everybody listened, even the pope, because they knew that she spoke in the name of Jesus Christ.