Women Have a Vital Role in the Church (But It's Not Preaching!)

Jean II Restout (1692-1768), “Pentecost”
Jean II Restout (1692-1768), “Pentecost” (photo: Public Domain)

“Sometimes a student will confide in me,” said the pretty nun at the liberal Jesuit university where I worked, “and it would be the most natural thing if I could then hear her confession and offer her absolution.” In her mind, this was a good idea.

I once saw a video of another woman—a layperson—preaching a homily at the Easter Vigil. When she finished, she plopped down in the presider's chair. Both she and the liberal pastor for whom she worked seemed to think this was a good idea.

Both of these talented women were bold in their Catholic faith, and both were sincerely committed to serving the Church. And both were wrong.

In their pride, which revealed itself in their desire to serve in a role reserved for the priest, both women demonstrated their disdain for the laws of the Church they claimed to love.

And in an interesting way, both had fallen prey to the fallacy of clericalism. That is, both seemed to believe that only by usurping the roles generally attributed to the priest could they truly serve the Church. In an odd juxtaposition of hierarchical thinking and feminist angst, they wrung their hands and demanded to be allowed to Do What Father Does, in order to be truly relevant.

On March 1, L'Osservatore Romano carried a series of articles urging the Catholic Church to permit women to preach from the pulpit at Mass. Religion News Service offered an English translation of the report, explaining:

  • Enzo Bianchi, head of an ecumenical religious community in northern Italy, wrote: “The topic is a delicate one, but I believe it is urgent that we address it.... Certainly for faithful lay people in general, but above all for women, this would constitute a fundamental change in their participation in church life.” Bianchi seemed to believe that this would mark a “decisive path” toward giving women a greater role in the Church.
  • Sister Catherine Aubin, a French Dominican who teaches at a pontifical university in Rome, said in a column in the same issue of L'Osservatore Romano that “Jesus encouraged women to preach his message of salvation, and she said that throughout church history there have been many extraordinary women evangelists.” So why, she wondered, can't women preach in front of the congregation durng the celeration of Mass?
  • And Sister Madeleine Fredell of Sweden, also a Dominican, wrote that preaching “is my vocation as a Dominican.” She regretted that although she can preach almost anywhere—sometimes even in the Lutheran church—but she is unable to preach during Catholic worship. Hearing the voices of women at the time of the homily, she believes, would “enhance our worship” during the liturgy.

In fact, women already serve the Church in many important roles: as lay readers and extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, as musicians and pastoral associates, as catechists and professors of theology, as hospital visitors, as administrative assistants and social workers. Most likely, women publish the parish bulletin and serve up the casseroles at parish functions. Although their tasks are different from those of the ordained priest or deacon, they are critical to the success of the parish. They are not of less value in the eyes of God.

So Why, Then, Can't Women Be Ordained?

The Catholic Church has always taught, and Pope Francis has more recently confirmed, that “The door is closed to women's ordination.”

There is no “right” to the priesthood. Rather, the priesthood is a call from God, a summons to serve Him in a special way. To the young man who experiences the gentle nudge of the Holy Spirit toward the priesthood, it is a precious gift; but it is a gift which comes with a high price tag. The man will spill out his life in service to others, standing in for the crucified Christ.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church offers an explanation:

1577 “Only a baptized man (vir) validly receives sacred ordination.” The Lord Jesus chose men (viri) to form the college of the twelve apostles, and the apostles did the same when they chose collaborators to succeed them in their ministry. The college of bishops, with whom the priests are united in the priesthood, makes the college of the twelve an ever-present and ever-active reality until Christ’s return. The Church recognizes herself to be bound by this choice made by the Lord himself. For this reason the ordination of women is not possible.

The Catechism continues, explaining that “right” thing I just mentioned above:

1578 No one has a right to receive the sacrament of Holy Orders. Indeed no one claims this office for himself; he is called to it by God. Anyone who thinks he recognizes the signs of God’s call to the ordained ministry must humbly submit his desire to the authority of the Church, who has the responsibility and right to call someone to receive orders. Like every grace this sacrament can be received only as an unmerited gift.

But Why, Again, Can't Women Preach at Mass?

It's not because they're female that women are excluded from preaching. As a matter of fact, most men also cannot step up to the pulpit, read the Gospel passage, and preach a homily. Women (and most men) can't preach because they're not ordained—which, as we just learned, is not possible.

Father Dwight Longenecker explained this well in a recent column. “It’s not about women or men per se,” he wrote, “but about clergy and laity.”

“However,” he continues,

“...when it comes to Mass there is more going on than simply teaching the faith. The whole Mass is a liturgical expression of the incarnation. Every aspect of the Mass is a celebration and recognition of the incarnation, passion, death and resurrection of the Lord. Indeed, it is through the Mass that this mystery comes alive and is applied to the everyday needs of the faithful.

Father Longenecker urges Catholics (and all believers) to understand the Mass not as a mere pep rally where we sing happy songs and hear a speech about how to be nice to people. The Mass, likewise, is not a mere fellowship gathering, where people of faith hold hands and try to raise one another's self-esteem. The Mass is not just a religious lecture with the refreshments of bread and wine, and it's not an RCIA class with hymns. No, says Fr. Longenecker,

The meaning of the Mass is encapsulated in the words the priest says as he pours the water and wine into the sacred chalice: “Through the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in Christ’s divinity who humbled himself to share in our humanity.”

That’s it.

Now the reason for preaching being reserved to priests and deacons becomes clear. At the Mass the priest and the deacon stand in persona Christi. They represent Christ symbolically and liturgically. One as Christ the priest. The other as Christ the Servant. When they read and preach the gospel therefore they are exercising not only a teaching function, but a liturgical function. They are incarnating Christ the Teacher and Christ the Servant to the people.

This is why they are ordained. NOT just to be a social worker in black. Not just to be a theology teacher in a collar. Not just to be a spiritual director or a parish administrator or a fund raiser.

The priest and deacon are ordained and set apart from the laity for this reason: to help incarnate Christ in the world through their own person and through their own vocation. This is why the catechism teaches that one of the ways to objectively know that you have encountered the risen Lord is “in the person of the priest.”

Women may not preach because women are not priests. Women are not priests because Christ chose only men to fill that role, to represent him in the liturgy. That will not change.