John Paul II Definitively Said ‘No!’ to Women Priests

“The Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and... this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful.”

Domenico Ghirlandaio, “The Vocation of the Apostles,” from the Sistine Chapel in Rome, c. 1481
Domenico Ghirlandaio, “The Vocation of the Apostles,” from the Sistine Chapel in Rome, c. 1481 (photo: Public Domain)

Last week, La Croix carried a story about Sr. Ruth Schönenberger wanting female priests. She explains, “It is surely only natural for women to be priests and I cannot understand the reasons given as to why not.” Further, the Benedictine Prioress says, “Here in Tutzing, we, too, have excellently qualified women theologians. The only thing they lack is ordination.”

I’m sorry, Sister, but despite these theologians’ training, it seems they haven’t understood the theology of the priesthood or the theology around sex differentiation. This is far from the first time this has come up. It seems every few years some new story about women priests comes around, despite the Church’s definitive teaching. Can we please remember that this theological debate is settled? John Paull II definitely taught only men can become priests. Period.

I want to explain the definitive teaching, as explained by John Paul II, then refute Schönenberger’s arguments.


John Paul II: Ordinatio Sacerdotalis

In 1994, Pope John Paul II declared, “The Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful.” The Pope said that the Church has no power or authority to ordain women: it is not about how the Church would like to act or about discrimination, but it is about capacity.

In scholastic terminology, we talk about potency and act. Something must have a potency or disposition for something in order to make it actual. For example, a fish has the capacity to breathe underwater without air tanks for hours at a time but humans do not. A woman has the potency to be pregnant but a man does not. Likewise, a man has the potency to be ordained a presbyter but a woman does not. Nothing any of us could do would give women that capacity.

As an aside, there is some debate if this declaration is ordinary or extraordinary magisterium. However, either way, we cannot change it.

John Paul II gives several reasons for this in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis: I summarize them into four.

First, he notes that Jesus chose the Twelve Apostles. His free choice is a model for the Church. Even after Jesus ascended, we see a consistent choice of male priests. Jesus elevated women and gave them key roles like Magdalene proclaiming the Resurrection to the apostles but did not choose them as priests.

Second, John Paul notes that the human being with the highest dignity and greatest holiness, Mary, was not a priest. The Pope explains, “[This] clearly shows that the non-admission of women to priestly ordination cannot mean that women are of lesser dignity, nor can it be construed as discrimination against them.”

Third, although part of the Church’s hierarchy, the ordained priesthood is not about power. Priests are called to serve to help bring about holiness in the Church.

Finally, although not explicit in this document, a priest is Another Christ (Alter Christus). When I say, “This is my body” or “I absolve you,” it is not me speaking but Jesus speaking through me. As the Church spread across the world, she accepted priests from all nations to act, “In the Person of Christ,” but has always determined that all should be men.


Where Sr. Schönenberger’s Arguments Fail

The La Croix article is not a systematic presentation of Sr. Schönenberger’s arguments, but a few are stated.

First, she says, “The extent to which this power imbalance exists the world over is truly alarming and so is the fact that we have not learned to grapple with it more effectively… We experience concrete examples of subordination day after day.” As noted above, the priesthood is about service and helping others grow in holiness. If priests use their ordination to rule over others “like the Pagans do” (Cf. Luke 22:25-26), that is something that seminary formation needs to address and something those priests need to change. The errors of some don’t affect the nature of the priesthood.

Second, she complains that only priests can direct the liturgy. Well, for Mass, this will always be the case as only a priest can say the words of consecration. Others can lead other things like the Liturgy of the Hours. I worry about what Schönenberger’s community is doing when she says, “We intend to look for forms (of celebrating the Eucharist) which suit us and develop new ones.”

Finally, she frames it in terms of “gender equality.” However, giving the two sexes equal rights is different from making them the same in every way. On a football team, the offense and defense have a certain equality of roles despite being opposite. In a marriage, the husband and wife have equal rights but have complimentary roles. Likewise, in vocations in the Church, equality does not mean always the same.



At times in the Church’s history, certain points that weren’t well-developed before come up for debate. For example, in the Middle Ages, there was debate about how to understand the Real Presence or in the 20th century there was debate if the Church might be able to ordain women. However, after a period of debate, the Church often declares something definitively. Trent closed the debate on the Real Presence with its explanation of transubstantiation. John Paul II closed the debate on women priests in 1994.

Once a debate is closed, we should all accept it and move on to other concerns the Church has for reaching the world. Since the debate on women priests is closed, can we stop rehashing it every few years. This would give us more time for upcoming ethical issues and evangelizing our post-Christian culture.