No Girls Allowed? Debate for Women in the Christian Priesthood Rages On
In many countries, laws prohibit employers from discriminating based on sex. However, exemptions to this law are often made for religious orders. The Roman Catholic Church is adamant that women cannot become priests or bishops or deacons because women have never in the past been priests or bishops or deacons. With a few notable exceptions, most Christian denominations have followed the lead of the Vatican. In 2016, Pope Francis established an official Papal Commission to determine (a) if the early Church had female deacons and (b) if it is possible to restart the practice. This is not the first time such an inquiry has been made. For all its talk of embracing modernity, the Church remains stubbornly stuck in the prejudiced Greco-Roman culture of old. And the world takes notice. Despite the Pope’s talk of female equality and allowing girls to go to school, his failure to address the systemic prejudice of his own institution means his words will have little effect in promoting gender equality. Interestingly, nearly all other religious traditions allow women to lead worship ceremonies.
Roles Open to Men and Women in Christian Denominations
For Christian denominations, ‘ordination’ is the process by which a man is set apart by God from other people so that he may administer religious rites, such as reading the Gospel at Mass, hearing confessions, and, most importantly, changing the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ (known as the Eucharist). Ordained men hold such titles as deacon, priest, and bishop.
Ordination is a different process than ‘consecration,’ which also sets people apart from the general population, but without the ability to perform rites. Consecration is and has been open to both men (who become monks) and women (who become nuns). These processes belong to the vast majority of Christian denominations.
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Three Nuns in the Portal of a Church by Armand Gautier. ( Public Domain ) Christian women are permitted to participate in consecration, however ordination has been forbidden to them.
Can Women be Priests?
During the tumultuous years of the Protestant Reformation, some churches allowed women to preach because they believed the Bible to be the sole authority for faith, not the Vatican. But the patriarchy soon extinguished female aspirations and has mostly adhered to the Catholic line until the modern day. In the past few years, some European churches have reversed this trend, notably the Church of England, which ordained a woman as a bishop in 2014.
Intriguingly, arguments for and against allowing women to be priests often center on the practices of the first few centuries of the Church’s existence. It is beyond the scope of this article to look into the sexism inherent in Greek, Roman, and Hebrew societies at the dawn of the Common Era; but suffice to say that women were seen as inferior to men in almost every way (for one example, a widespread belief held that a girl baby was undercooked and thus deformed either because she was born too early or because the mother did not keep her womb warm enough. Had the fetus been fully cooked, it would have been a perfectly formed baby boy.)
One of the major arguments used against female ordination is that Jesus did not choose any women to be part of his gang of 12 apostles. “Christ did not call any woman to be one of the twelve. The entire tradition of the Church has kept faith in this fact and has interpreted it as the explicit will of the Savior to confer upon man alone the sacerdotal power of governing, teaching, and sanctifying. Only man, through his natural resemblance to Christ, can express sacramentally the role of Christ himself in the Eucharist.” (Otranto, 1991) Put another way, it has been argued that the female body does not effectively channel the masculine energies of Christ.
‘The Last Supper’ Juan de Juanes. ( Public Domain ) One of the arguments against women in the priesthood claims that the female body does not effectively channel the masculine energies of Christ.
This line of reasoning obscures the fact that many women faithfully followed Jesus throughout his ministry, were the only ones to remain by his side during his agony on the Cross, and were the first (and had things gone differently, perhaps only) people to arrive to prepare his body for burial.