With the recent illicit ordination by dissident Archbishop Milingo in New Jersey of two married men to the priesthood, and the repeated attempts by several women's groups to ordain women, most recently upon a boat on a river in Pittsburgh, the question of who has a 'right' to the Sacrament of Orders has been a heated topic of late.
According to Catholic Church theology, however, no one has a 'right' to be ordained; it is an individual's response to an invitation by Christ to serve His Church. The Church must also confirm and nurture this call, for no one is a priest just for himself; so the Church has the obligation to define who is eligible for this Sacrament, which must be done in a manner consistent with the Church's Tradition. Because this teaching went unchallenged for a vast majority of the Church's life, the teaching was left implicit in the deposit of faith. However, because of recent historical developments, the teaching was concretely defined over the last thirty years.
In response to the call of Vatican II, there was a renewed effort to Ecumenism, the reconciling of differences between the Catholic Church and the various Christian denominations. As Catholics and Anglicans began this process, which continues to this day, the Anglican Communion was moving toward opening ordination in their communion to women. In response, Pope Paul VI issued a public letter to Donald Coggan, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in which he stated: "We must regretfully recognize that a new course taken by the Anglican Communion in admitting women to the ordained priesthood cannot fail to introduce into this dialogue an element of grave difficulty which those involved will have to take seriously into account. (4)"
With Pope Paul's appeal to the Anglican Communion going unheeded, there was increasing voice for the Catholic Church also to examine the question. In response, Pope Paul issued Inter Insigniores: (Declaration on the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood (15 October 1976)). In this document, Pope Paul, in quoting Blessed John XXIII, rightly praises the advances in equality that women have achieved over the past century. However, he also reaffirms and clarifies the Church's constant tradition regarding the admission of men only to the ministerial priesthood.
Paul VI begins his discussion with a short survey of history. He notes that "a few heretical sects in the first centuries, especially Gnostic ones, entrusted the exercise of the priestly ministry to women: this innovation was immediately noted and condemned by the Fathers, who considered it as unacceptable in the Church. (1)"
After the short discussions in the Early Church, there was only slight discussion in the Middle Ages; the question was not addressed again until the present day. Remember, the Church only defines a law if it has been challenged and thus needs to be clarified. For example, even though the Canon of Scripture was in place since the late Fourth Century, it was not definitively settled until the Council of Trent in the Sixteenth Century, for it was then that the Canon was challenged by the Protestant Reformers.
Pope Paul moves on to the attitude that Christ had towards women during His public ministry. He notes that Jesus did not "conform to the customs of his time, for his attitude towards women was quite different from that of his milieu, and he deliberately and courageously broke with it. (2)" This contravening of the cultural milieu makes it even more remarkable that Jesus did not choose women to be among his closest followers.
Even his Mother, who was so closely associated with the mystery of her Son, and whose incomparable role is emphasized by the Gospels of Luke and John, was not invested with the apostolic ministry. This fact was to lead the Fathers to present her as the example of Christ's will in this domain; as Pope Innocent III repeated later, at the beginning of the thirteenth century. (Inter Insigniores 2)
In the discussion of St. Paul's theology and writing, much is made of his statement in Galatians 3:28: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus." The argument is then made that there should be no distinction between the sexes in a truly Christian environment. However,
exegetes of authority have noted a difference between two formulas used by the Apostle: he writes indiscriminately "my fellow workers" (Rom 16:3; Phil 4:2-3) when referring to men and women helping him in his apostolate in one way or another; but he reserves the title "God's fellow workers" (1 Cor 3:9; cf. 1 Thes 3:2) to Apollos, Timothy and himself, thus designated because they are directly set apart for the apostolic ministry and the preaching of the Word of God. In spite of the so important role played by women on the day of the Resurrection, their collaboration was not extended by Saint Paul to the official and public proclamation of the message, since this proclamation belongs exclusively to the apostolic mission. (Inter Insigniores, 3)
Even in St. Paul's writings, there is a distinction between what we now call the priesthood of the faithful versus that of the Ministerial or Ordained Priesthood, for everyone is called to share the Word of God with the world, but certain men were set apart for the specific Apostolic mission of Preaching.
Fr. Kyle Schnippel is the vocations director for the diocese of Cincinnati, Ohio.
Biretta tip: Catholic Exchange