Addressing the Women’s Ordination Conundrum

COMMENTARY: Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had the answer to the recent question of the president of the Central Committee of German Catholics on women’s role in the Church.

 Irme Stetter-Karp is the president of the Central Committee of German Catholics.
Irme Stetter-Karp is the president of the Central Committee of German Catholics. (photo: Thomas Lohnes / Getty Images)

Nowhere in the Bible or Catholic Church teaching will one find that priests and bishops are the greatest in heaven. Nowhere. And, yet, when it comes to talking about roles in the Church, the conversations keep coming back to the question of who can be ordained, particularly whether women can be ordained. In light of what we know about our ultimate goal, that we are called to be saints whatever our vocation, that makes little sense.

The recent report on the remarks of Irme Stetter-Karp, president of the lay Central Committee of German Catholics, included her comments when addressing the question of ordained ministry and how she asked, “How do you explain the multiple gifts and vocations of women in the Catholic Church worldwide if the Holy Spirit did not want it? I would like an honest answer to that.”

In 1977, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, wrote an article for the Vatican newspaper, LOsservatore Romano, looking precisely at the question of women and the priesthood, and he spoke of a “woman’s right to be herself.” 

To my mind, we fall into two traps when considering women’s ordination. First, we clericalize women. Clericalism seems one of the few things that opposing camps in the Church agree upon. Some give too much deference to the priest immediately, as in not questioning anything said or done by a priest.

Then there’s the type of clericalism that similarly sees the priesthood as a source of power and influence — in blatant contradiction to the Catechism (1551), not to mention Christ himself — and logically asks why women cannot also take part in that power. Both types of clericalism contributed to the sex-abuse scandals. Neither has a place in the Church; neither corresponds to the reality that should correspond to Christ. Both camps communicate very effectively that women don’t have a voice because they are not ordained.

To be fair, some would also argue that women should be able to serve in the same way as priests and as Christ. After all, we frequently hear that each is called to take up the cross of Christ. St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s desire to be a priest likely fell into the sense of service and love. The saint’s acceptance of this Church teaching, which conflicted with her own desires, became part of her journey to grow in her love and trust of Christ. Indeed, in the 125 years since her death, she probably positively impacted many more people with her “Little Way,” which earned her the rare title “Doctor of the Church,” than many priests have impacted. And for some, this might underscore the need for women’s ordination all the more. But that would miss the point. She is not a saint because of her impact or even her title as “Doctor of the Church.” She’s a saint because of her faith in God. Indeed, the Holy Spirit beautifully made manifest her gifts and her vocation.

When we look at the example of Jesus Christ and his selection of the Twelve Apostles who became his first priests, we have to enter into a mystery. Among those first 12, was Judas, a man whom Jesus knew had already betrayed him. Not among them was Mary, his mother — a woman conceived without sin, a woman who understood more than anyone else the divine will of God, a woman of great faith and tremendous understanding that no other person, regardless of his or her sex, will ever attain. 

Some will argue that Jesus was constrained by the cultural preferences of his time, something that even a fairly cursory read of the Bible will disprove. If he wasn’t constrained by cultural customs and he had the best of humanity from which to select his first priests, the fact that he didn’t should give us pause and make us wonder if perhaps we need to further explore this mysterious reality.

To enter more deeply into this reality, we need to better understand the significance of the male and female sexually differentiated bodies. This brings me to my second point — we need to understand differences in a constructive way. For many, including Stetter-Karp, differences oppose each other. She explained, “The stubborn adherence to the dual anthropology and the confinement of women to the space outside of the ordained ministry tends to drive women, especially young women, out of the Church in the 21st century.”

I’d be interested to see the data she has on young women leaving the Church. A good summary of the most comprehensive studies on people leaving the Church in the United States can be found here. While young women may not agree with Church teachings, I’m not seeing the data to back up the claim that it’s this one teaching on ministerial ordination that causes these women to leave.

Nevertheless, this teaching needs further consideration. When Jesus declined to ordain women, particularly his mother, I think he was communicating to us that sex differences go beyond the type of genitalia of a particular body. In fact, I think he was signaling that sex differences profoundly impact us and, further, that the differences are constructive.

Whatever we experience or do in life, we do it through a sexually differentiated body. On a very basic level this differentiation is required for procreation. In turn, this manifests the natural union of woman and man which societies and religions have protected in marriage as wife and husband. This natural manifestation of the ability of the different sexes to be in relation together indicates many things. It confirms that differences can be constructive, particularly sex differences. But it also points to a much more profound reality: the reality of the relationship between Christ and the Church. 

The language of Scripture gives us rich imagery of a nuptial or spousal relationship that exists between Christ and his Church. St. Thomas Aquinas argued that the true spousal relationship is that one, that the spousal relationships we experience on earth, between husbands and wives, are only nuptial relationships in an analogous sense. Through them, we should be drawn into a deeper understanding of that spousal relationship which exists perfectly between Christ the Bridegroom and his Church the Bride. 

While this substantial topic deservedly has been the subject of many lengthier works, here I simply hope to start a process of discussion and discovery. 

As long as we continue to discuss a woman’s vocation in terms of the ordained or ministerial priesthood, then we limit, as Cardinal Ratzinger suggested, her right to be herself and what is unique to her.

In 2004, almost 30 years after his column on women in L’Osservatore Romano, Cardinal Ratzinger issued another document, “On the Collaboration of Men and Women in Society.” In this document, he articulated that women have a role in every aspect of society and that the role of women is to model to men and to the entire Church how to be bride.  

On a practical level, certainly a woman can be involved in many aspects of governance in the Church. But the reality is that the Church is not the locus of power in our Western countries that she once was. In fact, if we want to talk about power or influence, I would argue that we should look to the diversity of the body of Christ, particularly as we engage in the world. Few are concerned that their children will be impacted in any way by the Sunday homily. But most parents are very much aware of the impact of society and culture on their children. And it’s here that I think we need to go back to Cardinal Ratzinger’s directive that women have a role in every aspect of society. 

Unpacking the impact that women can have in the family and in the broader culture would allow for much more diversity and freedom than simply discussing a woman’s vocation in terms of ministerial ordination.


Pia de Solenni, SThD, is a moral theologian, ethicist and cultural analyst.