The exclusion of women from the sacred ministry is fundamentally unjust Geoffrey Kirk reviews one of the key arguments in favour of women bishops

It was the second wave of liberal feminism, originating in the 1960s, which sought to secure for women all the fundamental human rights that men enjoy. It rightly sought to correct stereotypes which portrayed women as inferior, and which confined them to domestic roles and segregated them from public life. Women and girls should be included in every occupation and institution open to men and boys.

Ignoring the large part which the Church has played in Western culture in advancing the status and dignity of women (and ignoring the conciliar and papal statements of recent years) some women have seen the sacred ministry as just such an occupation or institution from which their exclusion is a matter of fundamental injustice. This assessment is misguided for a number of reasons.

It would, of course, be fundamentally unjust if, by exclusion from the priesthood, women were denied access to personal development towards the goals of the Christian life – sanctity and salvation. But this is not the case. All are called to holiness, without respect to sex, age, ethnicity or any other social condition. There are among the saints as many teenage girls as there are Popes; women are revered among the doctors of the Church.

It has sometimes been argued that the Church in the past denied the full humanity of women (even that it denied them souls!). The unique dignity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, from whom Christ the Saviour of both women and men took his full humanity, body and soul, demonstrates the specious nature of such assertions.

The major weakness in this feminist argument is that it assumes that the Church is organized like a modern, secular, democratic society. But the Church is not a voluntary association of the like-minded, whose task is to create and maintain structures to serve its purposes. It is a divine institution, whose sacraments are given by Christ. Holy Orders are conferred within it not for the honour or advancement of the recipient, but for the service of God and the upbuilding of the body. To consider the ministerial priesthood as a human right is to misunderstand its nature completely.

The fundamental confusion at the root of this argument is neatly expressed in the Christian feminist slogan: If you won’t ordain us, don’t baptize us.’ The Church has always baptized women; it has never (until recent innovations) ordained them. This is not because the Church devalued women, but because she understood that there was no necessary connection and progression from baptism to the ministerial priesthood.

The Church affirmed the dignity of women and their openness to the grace of God in baptism. But it was faithful to the example of the Lord and his Apostles, in restricting the ministerial priesthood to men (as Christ chose only men to make up the twelve, on whom the sacred ministry is founded). The implied incompatibility between these two forms of obedience has not occurred to previous generations of Christians for the simple reason that it does not exist.

‘The priesthood does not form part of the rights of the individual, but stems from the economy of the mystery of Christ and the Church,’ says the papal document Inter Insigniores. ‘The priestly office cannot become the goal of social advancement; no merely human progress of society or of the individual can of itself give access to it: it is of another order.’

If this is the case (as all Catholic Christians must surely affirm) then to seek to make it a vehicle for the advancement of women is to deform it rather than to reform it. It is a most serious matter to accuse Christians of all previous generations of a fundamental injustice – and not flattering to them nor conducive to evangelization to assert that they acted out of ignorance of the Lord’s intention, the inclusive ‘trajectory of Scripture’, or the essential truths of human anthropology.

Quite simply: if the disposition of the sacred ministry has been morally defective for two thousand years, why trust the present generation to amend it?