For centuries, the Roman Catholic Church has reserved the priesthood for celibate heterosexual males (ironic, perhaps, since they are celibate anyway), but now hundreds of Roman Catholic priests from around the globe are challenging the ban on ordaining women and married men as priests. Although some religious scholars question their efficacy, especially given the rigid, entrenched hierarchy of the Church, such demonstrations are a sign that old attitudes are beginning to crumble. And not without solid reason, either. Looking closely at the rationale behind the Church’s position, we will observe that it rests entirely on a logical fallacy.
The challenges to Church law span countries and continents. In June, three hundred Austrian deacons and priests showed their support for ordaining women and married men by issuing a “Call to Disobedience”. During every Mass, the priests and deacons recited a public prayer calling for church reform. Next-door, in Germany, underground women priests (known collectively as “Womenpriests”) have been ordaining other women as priests in defiance of Roman Catholic orthodoxy since 2002. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic in the United States, similar demonstrations have taken place. Roy Bourgeois, a member of the Maryknoll religious order, faces excommunication for delivering the homily in a ceremony in which a woman, Janice Sevre-Duszynskaas, was allegedly ordained. Bourgeois received a letter from the Vatican asking him to recant his position on the ordination of women or face excommunication. He has refused to recant, but has not yet been excommunicated, and 157 fellow clerics have signed a letter in support of Bourgeois and his actions. Incidentally, Sevre-Duszynskaas is also a member of Womenpriests—she had been fighting to be ordained since 1998. Over the years, she has gained notoriety for disrupting services and conferences calling on the ordination of women.
The Church’s position on women priests was summarized in an apostolic missive, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, issued by Pope John Paul II in 1994. In that letter, the pope declared that the Church “has no authority whatsoever” to ordain women as priests. The argument given by the Church for its position is that all of the apostles of Jesus Christ were men, and that the all-male priesthood cannot be changed because it has always been the practice. In other words, according to the Church, if the priesthood was originally male-only, and if it has always been male since the founding of the Church, it should remain male-only.
The Church’s argument is invalid, however, because it is founded on a logical fallacy known as argumentum ad antiquitatem, or “appeal to tradition”. According to this argument, a thing is good or correct simply because it is traditional—that is, the argument states “this is right because we have always done it this way”. Basically, people making this argument assume two things: 1) that a certain way of thinking is the correct way just because it was the original way, and 2) that past justifications for the practice apply to the present. These assumptions are faulty for two reasons: a thing was not necessarily good or correct when it was introduced, and past justifications for a practice do not necessarily apply to present-day situations.
We can see John Paul making this same fallacious argument in his epistle defending the Holy See’s opposition to the ordination of women.
In the letter, John Paul argues that denying priesthood to women is valid because this was the original practice of the Universal Church of Rome. This claim is unsound, because the original practice might have been based on incorrect grounds—it is not correct simply because it is the original way. If we accept that women possess as much intelligence, wisdom, spiritual insight, and leadership skill as men do, and consequently women and men make equally effective priests, the original practice of male-only ordination is wrong. Besides, some religious and biblical scholars have suggested that Mary Magdalene—not Peter—was Jesus’s favorite apostle, according to the Gnostic Gospel of Mary (which the Church deems apocryphal), so the claim that all of Jesus’s apostles were male might be false too.
Additionally, even if there was good reason to bar women from ordination in the past, the same reasons do not necessarily apply today. Today, people have hugely different demands placed on them—in order to sustain and participate in the new economy, more men need to take up traditionally female roles (such as nursing). Meanwhile, the priesthood is seeing a dwindling number of competent priests, and women are needed to fill the traditionally male roles and keep the priesthood afloat. But there is little reason to think that women should have been barred from ordination in the first place, being equal to men in their ability to serve as spiritual leaders.
So, no, the fact that male-only ordination has always been the practice of the Church does not mean that it should be.
It will be interesting to watch the events in Austria, Germany, and the United States and see where they lead. The rebellious actions of people like Bourgeois and the members of Womenpriests may barely make a dent in the ecclesiastical hegemony of the Church, but the numbers involved in the demonstrations are growing and seem to be gaining the force of a tsunami. Who knows whether it will come crashing down on the centuries-old institutionalized patriarchy stagnating within the world’s largest Christian denomination? Hopefully, as the number of rebel Catholics increases, others will be inclined to join them in the effort to institute church reform. The Universal Life Church Monastery supports these efforts, believing that men and women have equal access to divine wisdom and can learn from one another’s teaching and guidance in an environment of mutual respect and cooperation.
Give us your thoughts. After all of these centuries, is it time for the Roman Catholic Church to allow the ordination of women as priests?