“Ask a Priest: What Exactly Is the Church’s View on Women Priests and Married Clergy?”

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Q: Where exactly does the Church stand regarding women priests and married priests? In the course of a recent conversation with a Catholic friend, she hit upon many “hot topic” issues, some which I felt confident in explaining and others that I did not feel I had a clear understanding of. The topic of women priests and married priests was one of those issues. I believe that the vocation of the priesthood was instituted by Christ to men, and that this teaching should not be changed because of a “priest shortage.” I believe that women have a very important role in the Church in the many ministries that the Church offers. Women, in my opinion are the “heart” of the Church. My friend, however, feels that this is an oppressive point of view. If women can in society be anything that men can be, then why not priests? I said that it was a matter of profession versus a matter of vocation — one is on the physical level, while the other is on the spiritual level. And besides, Jesus specifically chose men as the first priests. Her argument was that it was a matter of the times when women were not viewed with equality; times are changing and, therefore, so should the Church on this matter. As far as married priests, she feels that the reason the Church does not permit this is because of the financial aspect of having to support families, and the Church has plenty of money; therefore, it’s time for a change on this issue as well. Can you please clarify what the Church’s position is on women priests and married priests? Is there any possibility of change on either of these issues? -K.D.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: The Church has delved deeply into the matter of women priests and concluded that it has no authority to ordain women. This is based on Scripture and Tradition.

Pope St. John Paul II addressed the matter explicitly in a 1994 apostolic letter, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis.

He wrote, “[I]n order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful” (No. 4).

This notion of women priests is thus a closed matter. The Church has pronounced on it definitively, and there is no chance that the doctrine will change.

The argument that Jesus didn’t ordain women because of cultural limitations doesn’t carry much weight. Jesus routinely broke the taboos of his day in his dealings with women. Recall his conversation with the Samaritan women at the well (John 4) and his defense of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11). Our Lord also had women disciples in his retinue (see Luke 8:1-3).

Moreover, the idea of women priests, or priestesses, was accepted in the Greek world. If the prohibition against women priests in Israel had been based on cultural taboos, then the Christians would have presumably felt free to ordain women once the faith penetrated Greece and the Hellenistic societies outside Palestine. In fact, there is no evidence the early Christians ordained women in these societies.

Our Lord’s decision to ordain only men doesn’t reflect any kind of slight against women, for the human person most venerated in the Church is the Blessed Virgin Mary. She wasn’t a priest, but she was far beyond any other human in terms of the graces God bestowed on her.

A very different question is that of married priests. In fact, the Church already allows married priests in certain cases. Eastern Churches allow married priests (but not married bishops). In the West there have been exceptions granted to certain married Anglican or Protestant ministers who converted to Catholicism and were then ordained priests.

The general rule of priestly celibacy is a discipline, not a doctrine. But it is a time-honored discipline with a solid basis. Priests can more explicitly imitate the example of Christ, who was celibate. Unmarried priests can more readily dedicate themselves full-time to their bride the Church.

The financial aspect is very secondary. (By the way, to say that the Church has “plenty of money” is something of a myth. Numerous parishes and schools have closed for lack of funds in recent decades.) True, it would be no small change to have a lot of married priests. Would parishes pay the kind of salary that could support a family with three or six or 10 children? But that is another issue. …

So, yes, in principle the Church could change its discipline on priests and celibacy. More than a few people are advocating for just such a change. (For further reading about the reasons why the Church continues to maintain this discipline, see this article.)

My own hunch is that a married clergy wouldn’t be the cure-all that many people expect. A married clergy in fact might generate its own kinds of problems. Being the wife or child of a parish priest, for instance, could mean living in a virtual fishbowl. Every move you make, every word you speak, is duly noticed by parishioners. But that, too, is another issue.

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