Lost in the debate over women priests is the reason for the Church's  teaching. A top 
woman theologian explains why the Church has always believed what it believes 

By Mary DeTurris

 Shouts of rage and whispers of schism have irrupted in the month since  the Vatican 
issued a brief confirmation of the Church's long-held teaching that it cannot ordain  
women to the priesthood.

 Yet lost amid the rash of reports of rebellion and frustration is a  chorus of voices 
singing out in support of the clarification of Church teaching, published Nov. 18 by the  
Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith with the approval of Pope John 
Paul II.

 These supporters argue that critics, confused Catholics and others, would  do well to 
study what the Church has really said about the reasons for barring women's  
ordination, which have nothing to do with "gender equality" and everything to do with 
Jesus and the  history of the Church.

 "It seems so patently unreasonable and unfair to people that they can't  imagine this, 
and they don't even give it a chance," said Sister Sara Butler, a Missionary Servant of  
the Most Blessed Trinity.

 Admittedly, at one time Sister Butler would have been an unlikely  supporter of the 
Church teaching. And she understands firsthand the frustrations of those  advocating 
women's admittance to the priesthood.

 In the 1970s, she was among the numerous theologians who spoke out  publicly in 
favor of women's ordination. But Sister Butler, currently a theologian at  Mundelein 
Seminary in Illinois, said she was forced to change her mind as her study of the issue 
drew her  deeper into Scripture and Church history.

 Now, after years of continual study of the questions, she is one of the  American 
Church's leading authorities on the issue. And she believes that Pope John Paul II's  
argument is "the only possible reading of the tradition" of the Church.

Original choice

 "Catholics have always insisted that the ordained ministry has its origin  in Jesus' own 
choice of the Twelve [Apostles] and that they are the foundation of the Church," she  
explained in a recent interview.

 Following Jesus' example of choosing 12 males to be His apostles, the  Church from the 
earliest days has reserved the priesthood to males.

 Sister Butler acknowledges that this requirement is not spelled out  directly in the 
Bible, "as if Scripture, as if Jesus, said, 'I don't want any women to be priests.' "

 History, however, shows that the first Christians believed that Christ  intended a male-
only priesthood.

 "We know it is so because early in even the second and third centuries  some people 
went ahead and admitted women to at least priestly functions, if not to ordination,  and 
those people were considered heretics," she explained. "The response was that this was 
not  what Christ willed, and it's against apostolic teaching."

 <Inter Insigniories>, a 1976 declaration by the Vatican's  Congregation for the Doctrine 
of the Faith, details the early Church's response to the Gnostics and other radical  
Christian sects that supported women priestly roles. The Fathers of the Church, the 
Vatican said,  "immediately censured this step, judging it a novelty which should on no 
account be accepted into  the Church."

 The declaration, which was approved by Pope Paul VI and remains the  Church's most 
explicit explanation of its teaching on women's ordination, recounts that  beginning 
with early Church leaders such as St. Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen and St. John 
Chrysostom,  and extending through the Middle Ages down to the current popes, the 
male-only priesthood was  an unquestioned tradition.

 Even the Oriental or Eastern churches, which split with the Roman Church  over many 
theological issues, never questioned that tradition. The question came up with the  
Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. The Protestant churches effectively 
abandoned the idea  of the priesthood in favor of "a pastoral ministry" in which men 
and women could participate.

 Nevertheless, the Catholic Church and the various Eastern Catholic  churches have 
held true to Christ's original plan.

 As Sister Butler said, "The reason is we don't think Jesus intended this  for the Church, 
and this judgment has been made repeatedly and definitively by the Church of our  
own ancestors. It's a universal, unbroken tradition."

Anti-woman bias?

 Nonetheless, critics of the ban on women priests insist that it has  always reflected anti-
woman bias in the Church, and that if Jesus were living in an age with a  greater 
appreciation of women's dignity and gifts, He would have chosen female disciples and 
ordained  women priests.

 This is another argument that holds little water for Sister Butler, based  on her study of 
the issue and the history, even though she once felt that the Church's main  objection to 
women priests was based on its belief that women were inferior and should be 
subordinate to  men.

 "The Vatican did clarify its teaching about women's equality and has been  very 
specific," she said. "Pope Paul VI very specifically reiterated what Vatican II had said 
about  the absolute equality of women and men, and Pope John Paul II has been very 
lucid in many, many  places clarifying women's equality with men."

 In fact, Pope John Paul has written and spoken often about the equality  of women, 
their unique gifts and their role in the Church.  In 1988, he devoted a 116-page  
apostolic letter, <Mulieris Dignitatem>, to the subject of the dignity and vocation of 
women.  And  last year he wrote an open letter to the women of the world in which he 
acknowledged that women have  been oppressed and discriminated against and that 
some of the "blame" for this can be laid  on "not just a few members of the Church."

 In apologizing for discrimination by some Churchmen, the Pope affirmed  women's 
central importance in history and said the Church believes the Gospel message of  
Christ is "ever relevant" when it comes "to setting women free from every kind of 
exploitation and  domination." In <rdinatio Sacerdotalis>, the Pope's 1994 apostolic 
letter  reaffirming the Church's teaching on ordination, he was careful to spell out that 
the decision to deny women  access to the priesthood is not based on a belief that 
women are less competent than men.

 "The fact that the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God and Mother of the  Church, 
received neither the mission proper to the apostles nor the ministerial priesthood  
clearly shows that the nonadmission of women to priestly ordination cannot mean that 
women are  of lesser dignity, nor can it be construed as a discrimination against them," 
the Pope wrote.  "Rather, it is to be seen as the faithful observance of a plan to be 
ascribed to the Wisdom of the  Lord of the Universe."

 That wisdom is sometimes called into question by those who campaign for  the 
ordination of women. Many who support a female priesthood claim that there is no  
connection between today's bishops and priests and Jesus' choice of the Twelve 

 That view, according to Sister Butler, is something "quite alien" to  Catholic tradition. 
"They really intend to suggest that the ordained ministry is the creation of the  Church, 
something that it  developed for self-organization," she said. "Once you have done that, 
you  have completely emptied out the whole idea of the Catholic sense of this Church."

 Since the very beginning of the Church, she continued, the authority of  bishops and 
the priests under them has been seen as an extension of "the authority of Christ, who  
acts through His ordained ministers who exercise His authority in a way that other  
baptized Christians cannot."

 This authority structure ensures that what the Church teaches remains  true to the 
teaching of Christ, and that is why the teaching authority of the popes and the  bishops 
is at the heart of the question concerning women's ordination.

 And the authority of the Church has been "absolutely consistent" on the  issue of the 
male-only priesthood, Sister Butler said. "Theologians have thought through the  
centuries that it belongs to the deposit of faith, and that's what the Holy Father is 
saying now, and  it does." The "deposit of faith" is the body of unchangeable teachings 
entrusted by Christ to the  apostles and handed on by them to the Church.

 "When you tell people that this is what Christ willed for the Church,  they often say, 'If 
He were alive now, He would do it differently.' He is alive now. Don't we believe  that 
the Lord is living and acting in the Church, that these teachers are not just acting on  
their own judgment but are trying to be absolutely faithful to the teaching that they are 
entrusted  with and doing that against tremendous odds?"

 While she believes in the Church's authority and believes that the Church  is teaching 
the doctrine of Jesus on the ordination question, Sister Butler worries that reaction  to 
the Vatican's recent statement is focused so much on the authority question, which is  
"misleading to the average person," and misses the real reasons for the Church's 

 "My expectation is that there will be a lot of talk about the pope's  authority," she said. 
"But what we really need is a deeper theological investigation of the reasons."

DeTurris is a senior correspondent for Our Sunday Visitor