Can Women be Ordained Priests?

Q: I thought the Pope said that only men can become priests. But I’ve seen a couple of different articles in the paper, about women being ordained as Catholic priests in private ceremonies. The articles say very clearly that Ms. So-and-so is now a Catholic priest.  How can these women be Catholic priests?  –Elinore

A: They can’t.

Canon 1024 states that only a baptized man can validly receive sacred ordination. While this English translation is probably quite clear enough for the average reader, the official Latin text of this canon is actually even clearer.

The Latin language has two separate words, homo and vir, that are translated by the same English word, man. But these two words are not synonymous in Latin. The word homo refers to men in the sense of human beings, as opposed to angels or cats or rose bushes. Both males and females are therefore included in the use of the word homo. An example of the code’s use of this word can be found in canon 1397, which details the penalties that can be applied to one who commits murder, or who abducts, imprisons, mutilates, or gravely wounds a man. The same penalties are of course applicable regardless of whether the person who is harmed is a male or a female.

In contrast, the Latin word vir refers to a man in the sense of a male human being, as opposed to a female. Canon 1024 uses this word when describing who may be ordained, thus indicating without any doubt that males may be ordained but females may not.

So what happens when the sacrament of holy orders is conferred on a woman? The answer can be deduced from a quick review of “Marriage and Annulment,” which addressed sacramental validity. For a sacrament to be valid—that is, for it really and truly to have the intended effect—it is necessary to have employed the correct formula of words, the right matter, and the right intention on the part of the minister who is authorized to confer that sacrament. If any of these is missing, the sacrament may externally appear to have been administered, but in fact it was not.

In the case of sacred ordination, a key component of the “right matter” that is required for the validity of the sacrament is that the recipient be a baptized male. If the man is unbaptized, or if the person is female, the Church holds that the sacrament is invalid. Onlookers may think they see the sacrament being conferred, but in reality, nothing sacramental actually takes place!

Some news stories indicate that there are female Catholic bishops who are administering the sacrament of priestly ordination to women.  But canon 378.1 n. 4 notes that only priests who have been ordained for at least five years are suitable candidates for the episcopacy.  Consequently, if a woman cannot become a priest, she obviously can never become a bishop either!

In the last several years, the media has been frequently reporting that various women, in the U.S. and elsewhere, have been ordained Catholic priests. Various news articles have even described these women subsequently celebrating what they claim is a Catholic Mass.

Many arguments have been made, and undoubtedly will continue to be made, that the Church should ordain women. Individuals both inside and outside the Church may insist that these particular women have been ordained and are really and truly Catholic priests. But such protestations are in vain, for canon 841 states unequivocally that only the supreme authority in the Church can approve or define what is needed for a sacrament to be valid. If the Pope, the vicar of Christ on earth, were to change the requirements for a valid ordination, we as faithful Catholics would be obliged to accept that change, whether we liked it or not. But no individual may unilaterally decide that a sacrament has been conferred if the Church has officially stated otherwise!

Therefore, all news stories to the contrary notwithstanding, any woman who claims to be a validly ordained Catholic priest is in error. Stating publicly that you are a Catholic priest does not make it true.

Equally erroneous and misleading appeals to history are often made to support these women’s claims. They frequently cite as a precedent the assertion that in the 1970’s, during the continued clampdown on religious freedom in the Soviet bloc countries, a number of women were ordained priests by a bishop in Czechoslovakia, and secretly ministered to Catholics in that country. The conclusion these women draw from this is that since it has been done already in the past, there is no reason why it cannot be done again today.

This argument is utterly devoid of merit. It may very well be the case that a Czech bishop did indeed wrongly impose hands and recite the proper words of ordination over these women; nevertheless, the Church’s laws both then and now make clear that it was invalid. If Czech women secretly “ministered” to Catholics in Czechoslovakia, their actions were without sacramental effect. Why would the fact that invalid “ordinations” took place 30 years ago constitute evidence that similar “ordinations” in our current day are valid?

In a number of the more recent cases, those women claiming to have been ordained as priests have been excommunicated by the bishops in whose territory this took place. The whole notion of excommunication (c. 1331) is a complex one and will be addressed separately in a future article. Suffice to say for now that the diocesan bishops who take this action are exercising the authority they were given by their episcopal consecration (c. 375.1) to govern their dioceses. They are concerned not only for the spiritual well being of the women who have gone down this path, but also for the rest of the people of their dioceses, who might understandably be confused by all the rhetoric surrounding this issue.

It is every bishop’s duty to clarify the Church’s teaching on this issue for the benefit of the Catholics in his territory. After all, in accord with canon 383.1, a bishop is obliged to be solicitous for all the members of Christ’s faithful who are entrusted to his care—and that includes both males and females.

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