By Greg Holmes
When I was a young boy, a priest explained to our catechism class how people became priests. He told us that we would know if we were supposed to become a priest because we would be “called” by God. I was afraid God would call me; there was no way I wanted to be a priest. Fortunately, God never rang me up.
Contrast this with the experience of women like Soline Humbert, who felt a deep calling to be a priest in the Catholic Church when she was 17. There was only one problem, however, one that she knew would be insurmountable: She was a woman, and the church did not allow women to become priests.
Ms. Humbert is just one of many women who have felt called to become priests and are prohibited from doing so. Why? Basically, the church doctrine states that a priest must have a physical resemblance to Jesus, because when a priest administers sacraments it is actually God and Christ who are acting through the priest. It is difficult to believe that this transmission is restricted to men only and cannot happen through a woman.
A second reason that the Catholic Church forbids women from becoming priests is that Jesus selected only men to be his apostles. The reason Jesus selected men is a matter of debate among theological historians. Was Jesus’ decision to select his apostles a reflection of the time and the culture during which he made his choices, or did he actually view women as incapable?
The bottom line is that the church views the restriction on the ordination of women as “divine law,” something that was enacted by God and revealed to mankind. Therefore it can never be changed by humans—period. This position was summarized by Pope John Paul II, who proclaimed that because it was divine law, the church had “no authority whatsoever” to ordain women.
In 2021, Pope Francis changed some of the rules of the game when he formally allowed women to give readings from the bible, act as altar servers, and distribute communion. He stated at that time that even though he believed women made a “precious contribution” to the church, he refused to change the doctrine forbidding them to become deacons or priests.
Francis made further clarifications of the role of women in the church in 2023 in his address to the members of the International Theological Commission. He claimed that women have a “different capacity for theological reflection” than men and called for a greater appreciation of the theology of women. If this did not happen, Pope Francis warned that we would never fully understand “what the church is.”
He went on to make the interesting claim that “one of the great sins we have had is ‘masculinizing’ the church.” At that time, he called for more female theologians and a greater role for women in the church.
One of the ways that Francis believed that women were particularly suited to serve the church was in an administrative way. He felt that women do a better job at organizing and managing things than men and that they were particularly good at evaluating male candidates for the priesthood. Even though Francis felt that women were superior in some ways to men, this did not mean that women should be considered for priesthood. The stained-glass ceiling in the church would remain intact.
Here’s the paradox: Why would God call upon women to become priests if God had already made a “divine law” that they can’t become priests? It just doesn’t add up.
Two possible explanations: Either God didn’t create a divine law in the first place, or the powerful calling that many women experience doesn’t really come from God. But then what about the calling that men receive? It seems to be legit and work out for them.
Many women have remained determined to pursue their calling to become priests. In 2002, a group of seven women from Europe and the United States were ordained as priests on the Danube River by three bishops. Although the women considered themselves to be priests after the ordination, the Vatican did not. In fact the Vatican warned the women that they would be excommunicated if they did not confess that their ordination was invalid and repent. The women refused to do so, and were summarily excommunicated, along with the rebel bishops who ordained them. They could no longer receive sacraments in the church or be buried in a Catholic cemetery.
Since that time, several hundred women have courageously pursued their calling and have been ordained as priests outside of the auspices of the church. The organization Roman Catholic Women Priests lists women priests in 34 states, including Michigan, as well as other countries.
The Catholic Church is currently holding a Synod, an ongoing conference to discuss possible changes in the church. Topics up for discussion include celibacy in the priesthood, married men as priests, and the ordination of female deacons. I would suggest that the participants ask themselves this question for guidance: What would Jesus do?
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