'No' to women priests is definitive, Vatican consultor says

NOTE: The issue of women’s ordination is again generating headlines, in part due to a recent decision of the Anglican synod in England to open the door to female bishops, in part due to a disciplinary action in St. Louis against a religious sister who attended a women’s ordination ceremony. The July 11 issue of L’Avvenire, the official newspaper of the Italian bishops’ conference, featured an interview on the issue with Monsignor Antonio Miralles, a consultor to the Vatican’s doctrinal office. The interview was conducted by Italian journalist Gianni Cardinale. The full text appears below in an NCR translation.


The decision of the Anglican Synod of England to open the door to the nomination of female bishops has generated ample media coverage. On the subject of why the Catholic church admits only men to the priesthood, Avvenire put certain questions to Monsignor Antonio Miralles, of the clergy of Opus Dei, and an ordinary professor of sacramental theology at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross. A Spaniard from Salamanca who has spent 47 years in Rome, Miralles is a consultor of the Congregation for the Clergy and, since 1990, of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Monsignor Miralles, why does the Catholic church not admit women to the priesthood?

In 1975, the Archbishop of Canterbury at the time, Donald Coggan, informed Pope Paul VI that the Anglicans were on the verge of admitting women to the priesthood, which they later did. Pope Montini wrote him a letter to explain that the Catholic church does not feel authorized to do the same, because it is constrained by the choice made by Jesus, the Lord, to choose only men as his apostles. In that context, the pope asked the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to prepare a document that provided the reasons for this position, which was how the declaration Inter insigniores, published in 1976, was born. In it, the argument given by Paul VI is explained more fully. In May 1994, this position was confirmed in a definitive way with the apostolic letter of Pope John Paul II, Ordinatio sacredotalis.

But some object that the choice of Jesus may have been determined by the historical context, the mentality of the epoch.

It’s an objection that does not have any foundation. Jesus demonstrated that he felt free from the conditioning of the society in which he was born. He demonstrated this freedom, to take just one example, when he opposed the custom of Jewish society of his day, as well as of Greco-Roman society, permitting men to repudiate their wives … in other words, divorce. Certainly, women were among the most faithful followers of Jesus, beginning with his mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary – at the foot of the Cross there were several women, but only one disciple! Nevertheless, Jesus deliberately and freely chose only men as his apostles. This choice cannot be anything but binding for the community that wants to be his church.

Why did Jesus make this choice?
tTheologians try to answer this question, which is their duty. But all the explanations that can be given in response to this question always remain secondary with respect to the choice itself made by Jesus, which the church must follow. The church can’t change that choice to suit its own tastes, or on the basis of the desires of sectors of public opinion, however large they may be.
Isn’t the exclusion of women from the priesthood an offense against their dignity?

The dignity of women in the church certainly does not depend upon access to the priesthood. The history of the church, from the Blessed Virgin Mary to so many saints and beatified women, makes the point.

Why did the magisterium wait until 1975 to solemnly proclaim that women cannot be admitted to the priesthood?

Simply because prior to that moment, the fact that the priesthood is reserved to men was an uninterrupted praxis that had not been placed into discussion for almost 2,000 years, not even when the church began to expand in cultural and religious contexts where there were already forms of female ‘priesthood’ (I’m thinking, for example, about the Greco-Roman world), and not even in the face of vocational scarcity or a shortage of clergy. The magisterium normally does not intervene to resolve a dispute when a given truth is peacefully accepted and not under discussion.

Is it possible that in the future the Catholic magisterium, having reflected more on the question, could arrive at a different conclusion and thereby open the door to women’s ordination?

This possibility is excluded. That’s because the all-male priesthood is a truth considered part of the inviolable deposit of faith – in other words, it belongs to Tradition with a capital “T”. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith underscored the point in a formal way with its document ‘Response to a doubt concerning the doctrine of the Apostolic Letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis’ published in October 1995, with the approval and at the request of Pope John Paul II. Some Catholic authors have insinuated that the ‘no’ to women’s ordination should be considered provisional and open to future reconsideration, but in fact that’s not how things are.

Monsignor Miralles, will the decision of the Anglican Synod to admit women to the episcopacy further distance it from the Catholic church??

Relatively. The dramatic rupture occurred with the Anglican decision to admit women to the priesthood. The choice to admit them also to the episcopacy is, in itself, a secondary consequence, which cannot help but worsen a situation that has already deteriorated.

A final ‘secondary’ question. What’s the status quaestionis on the issue of the ordination of women to the diaconate?

On this issue, there has not yet been a pronouncement from the magisterium as there has been on women priests. The current norms, however, and ecclesiastical practice restrict the diaconate to men. It’s true that in the early centuries of Christianity there were references to ‘deaconesses,’ but it would seem that they were not simply a female equivalent of male ‘deacons.’ For now, the permanent diaconate is restricted to men, but the question is still under study.

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