Dressed in purple and wielding lavender banners, dozens of women took to the cobblestone paths lining the Vatican to advocate for female ordination this past October. The organizing group — Women’s Ordination Conference — has become one of the largest organizations calling for the ordination of women and gender equality within the Roman Catholic Church. The WOC’s recent march took place during the Vatican’s Synod on Synodality, a month-long summit where members of the Catholic Church gather to discuss concerns facing the Church. Amongst the issues addressed, women’s role in the church emerged as one of the most contentious topics.
Female ordination has been banned within the Roman Catholic Church for centuries. The 1994 apostolic letter issued by Pope John Paul II further cemented the Church’s strong opposition to women joining the priesthood. Still, the topic has continued to be one of the most criticized stances taken by the Church. Although Pope Francis expressed that there is no “clear and authoritative doctrine” regarding the ordination of women, some members of the Church feel differently.
Proponents of female ordination often assert the fact that all 12 of Jesus’s Apostles were men as justification for prohibiting women from being ordained. Indeed, Jesus and his apostles were men, but this logic seems to blatantly ignore the fact that women also held leadership roles in early Christianity. In Colossians 4:15, Nympha is described as hosting a church in her home, similar to Apphia in Philemon 2. And in Romans 16:1, Paul commends Phoebe for being a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. To assert that women are unqualified to preach solely because of their gender is a myopic reading of the Bible that silences the stories of female biblical figures. Archival evidence further shows that women served as priests and even bishops from the second to sixth centuries, affirming their experience as preachers.
Still, picturing a woman dressed in an alb and chasuble can be difficult for some to imagine. One participant at the recent Synod explained he felt “violated” by the concept of female priests. The current sentiment regarding female ordination is partly attributed to the Church’s view on gender roles: that there is a clear distinction between men and women. Yet using this as reasoning to prevent female ordination is hypocritical. Under Gaudium et spes, discrimination, including gender discrimination, is called to be eliminated. Preventing women from being ordained because of their gender contradicts the Church’s own teaching.
Certain Catholic women have sought to pursue their dreams of priestly vocations despite the current policies in place. The Roman Catholic woman priest movement, consisting of over 200 women globally, takes part in unauthorized ordination practices to help women become priests. But it comes at significant risk: Women who become ordained can face hostility and be punished with excommunication from the Church.
The Catholic Church should look to embrace female ordination as opposed to fearing it. From a pragmatic standpoint, allowing women to be ordained could help remedy the ongoing priest shortage in the U.S. by filling vacant roles. It has also been consistently proven that having women in leadership roles helps to improve fairness and increase collaboration. As nuns, American women have shown great involvement in forwarding social justice initiatives too. Given that as of 2015, 59% of Catholic Americans believed that women should be allowed to be ordained, there is evident support behind this movement. While the Catholic Church has remained relatively fixed in its stance on female ordination, women in general have seen tremendous strides in autonomy within the past few centuries, from gaining voting rights to serving as CEOs in the workforce. But it’s time for the Catholic Church, an institution grounded in the belief of solidarity, to start demonstrating that virtue toward women.