Sara Butler


Why not ordain women? In the April 11 issue of Commonweal, Robert J. Egan, SJ, invites readers to look again at this question. Egan doubts that “the tradition of excluding women from the diaconate, presbyterate, and episcopate” has “really been faithful to the teaching and practice of Jesus.” In his opinion, the tradition probably rests instead on “a mostly unexamined and partially unconscious bias for subjecting women to men’s authority and power.” Until the church honestly faces “the whole truth about our history,” he writes, Catholic women will continue to suffer a grave injustice.

Although Egan concludes that the church’s traditional practice was dictated chiefly by outdated socio-cultural considerations related to the status of women, he does not simply retrace the path taken by, for example, Haye van der Meer in Women Priests in the Catholic Church? (1969; English, 1973). The logic of his critique is closer, in fact, to that of Hans Küng in Why Priests? (1970) and Martin Luther in Babylonian Captivity of the Church and Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation (both 1520). Egan does not only question whether Jesus’ choice of men and not women to belong to the Twelve should be regarded as normative for priestly ministry in the church—the question posed and answered by the magisterium in its responses to the controversy over the priestly ordination of women. He also questions whether Jesus’ choice of the Twelve had any bearing on the shape of ministry in the apostolic church, and whether Jesus can be said to have instituted a priesthood of the New Covenant. On the grounds that critical historical scholarship is unable to reconstruct a firm connection between the commission given to the Twelve and the roles of bishop and presbyter, Egan concludes that the ordained ministry evolved gradually to meet the church’s organizational needs. In his opinion, this took place under the prompting of the Holy Spirit but without reference to the commission Jesus gave to the Twelve, and without any thought that the bearers of this commission exercised a priestly function. In the end, then, Egan shifts his focus from the ordination of women to the origin and nature of the ordained ministry itself. If, as he holds, Jesus’ call and commission of the Twelve does not stand at the origin of the ordained ministry, it clearly has no implications for the admission of women to the ministry.

Egan develops his argument in response to my effort to set out the logic of the church’s teaching in The Catholic Priesthood and Women (2007). He acknowledges the force of a distinction the magisterium draws between the “fundamental reasons” for the tradition of reserving priestly ordination to men and the theological arguments advanced, by way of the analogy of faith, to explain why it is “fitting.” But he then argues that these fundamental reasons rest on claims that cannot be adequately established by historical research and therefore do not warrant the assent of responsible scholars. “Reasonable people in good faith may remain unpersuaded,” he writes.

What are these fundamental reasons? According to Inter insigniores (1976), the church relies on the constant and universal tradition of reserving priestly ordination to men, a tradition it traces to Jesus’ example of choosing only men to belong to the Twelve, finds confirmed in the practice of the Apostles, and has always recognized as normative for the ministerial priesthood. In Ordinatio sacerdotalis (1994), Pope John Paul II likewise traces the tradition to the will of Christ, known by way of his choice of twelve men. He elaborates this point by underlining Jesus’ freedom from convention in relating to women—a freedom Egan does not think Jesus really had—and by describing more fully the biblical testimony regarding his call and commission of the Apostles. John Paul asserts, for example, that Jesus appointed these twelve men to represent him, and that the ministry committed to them was not entrusted to all of the baptized.

The idea that Christ’s will for the ministerial priesthood can be known by way of his choice of men and not women to belong to the Twelve is not new. It has often been included, along with appeals to the teaching of St. Paul, among the reasons advanced by theologians for reserving the priesthood to men. Its chief patristic warrant comes from the late fourth-century bishop St. Epiphanius of Salamis, who found evidence of the Lord’s will in the fact that he called no woman to belong to the Twelve, and that no woman was appointed to succeed the apostles as bishop or presbyter. Epiphanius is confident that if Jesus did not entrust sacerdotal functions to women, it was not for lack of worthy candidates, since he had his own mother and many holy women in his company. And yet he did not call women to this office. As the author of human nature, he knew best how to assign responsibilities in his community. The “Marian” version of this reasoning, long influential in the East, was reformulated in the West by Pope Innocent III in 1210 and passed along in the canonical tradition on which Scholastic theologians relied: “Although the Blessed Virgin Mary was of higher dignity and excellence than all the Apostles, it was to them, not her, that the Lord entrusted the keys of the kingdom of heaven.”

Egan faults me for not fully facing up to the objections he raises, but his objections extend far beyond my brief in The Catholic Priesthood and Women. My objective was to explain why the Catholic Church reserves priestly ordination to men, not to defend the existence of the ministerial priesthood. This I take for granted. In fact, I regard it as required by Catholic faith that Jesus’ intention for this apostolic ministry is known by way of the mission he gave the Twelve, and that this office is passed on in apostolic succession by means of the sacrament of Holy Orders. This doctrine was reaffirmed and enriched at the Second Vatican Council (see Lumen gentium 18-28) and in the teaching of the postconciliar magisterium. Ordinatio sacerdotalis requires Catholics to hold that the church has no authority “to confer priestly ordination on women”—that is, to ordain women as presbyters or bishops, the two degrees of the sacrament of Holy Orders that comprise the “ministerial priesthood.” (In my book, I consistently refer to “the priesthood” rather than to “Holy Orders” or “ordained ministry,” because I intend to bracket the question of the diaconate.)

Egan’s appeal to the Second Vatican Council’s intention “to provide new foundations for a theology of the presbyterate” is genuinely puzzling. He suggests, contrary to all evidence, that Vatican II repudiates the Council of Trent on this subject. It is hard to reconcile his views with the teaching of Lumen gentium, which reaffirms Jesus’ call and commission of the Twelve, and declares the bishops to be the successors to the Apostles (20) and the episcopacy to be a sacrament that confers on its recipient the fullness of the priesthood (21). His views on the theology of the presbyterate are likewise hard to reconcile with the teaching of Presbyterorum ordinis (2). Did the council really “leave unresolved” the tensions evident in the early drafts, as Egan says? Two recent essays co-authored by Lawrence J. Welch and Guy Mansini, OSB, show how two conceptions of the priesthood (sacerdotium) of the presbyteral order were reconciled in the final document. They also assess the resolution of the postconciliar debate that influenced some Catholics to adopt an increasingly Protestant and even Congregationalist view of ecclesial office. (See their “Reflections on Presbyterorum ordinis,” Nova et Vetera, English Edition 5: 4 [2007]: 765-788, and “The Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests” in Vatican II: Renewal within Tradition, ed. Matthew Lamb and Matthew Levering [Oxford University Press, 2008]: 205-227; see also Cardinal Avery Dulles’s commentary on Lumen gentium in that same volume.)

Egan also reviews the magisterium’s “theological arguments.” These are the arguments that appeal to the theological significance of Jesus’ maleness, the sacramental symbolism of sexual difference, the nuptial relation between Christ the Bridegroom and the church his Bride, and so on. Since he dismisses the “fundamental reasons” for the tradition, it comes as no surprise that the theological arguments explaining them also fail to convince him. Ultimately, he concludes that the official teaching can rest only on what he regards as the original rationale for the tradition—that is, the conviction that women are not only different from men but also inferior by nature and destined to be subject to the authority and power of men. Since this conviction clearly conflicts with contemporary church teaching on the equality of women and men, he feels obliged to challenge it as unjust.

Egan’s objections touch on Christ’s intention to institute a New Testament priesthood, the nature of Holy Orders as a sacrament, apostolic succession, the constitution of the church, and the magisterium’s authority to teach. Egan’s views correspond closely, in fact, to a consensus found among many Anglican and most Protestant Christians for whom there is no theological objection to admitting women to the ordained ministry. As his essay illustrates, this question involves not only the sacrament of Holy Orders and the hierarchical structure of the church but also the role of Tradition and the magisterium in determining the teaching of the Scripture and the church’s authority to teach in a way that commands the assent of the faithful. As the 1977 “Commentary on Inter insigniores” cautioned, “Keeping to the sacred text alone and to the points of the history of Christian origins that can be obtained by analyzing that text by itself would be to go back four centuries and find oneself once more amid the controversies of the Reformation.”

In my judgment, Egan’s article succeeds in showing that John Paul II was correct when he asserted that the question of priestly ordination of women pertains to the church’s divine constitution, because the arguments Egan advances in its favor cast doubt on settled points of Catholic ecclesiology. Those arguments will inevitably be found on the ecumenical agenda. They should not pose a problem for Catholics.  


Robert J. Egan


My article began with a specific question: “Why are women excluded from being deacons, presbyters, and bishops in the Catholic Church?” My main concern was to provide a clear, fair-minded analysis and evaluation of the reasons given currently for this exclusion, as they are expounded by Sara Butler, MSBT, in her recent book.

The focus of my concern was to maintain a respectful attitude and tone while being scrupulously honest about the current relevant scholarship and the cogency of the author’s arguments. In addition, I wanted to locate this discussion in the context of a deeply troubling situation of broken communication in the church today and a resulting tension at its very heart as a community of faith and love. It was my intention to avoid interjecting merely personal opinions about these issues in what was essentially a review essay.

My article also ended with a question: “Has the tradition of excluding women from the diaconate, presbyterate, and episcopacy really been faithful to the teaching and practice of Jesus? Or has it been part of a mostly unexamined and partially unconscious bias for subjecting women to men’s authority and power?” This was not a conclusion, but a question: “a very important question,” one that “urgently needs and deserves an open, prayerful, learned, patient, and discerning conversation among Catholics today.” In such a conversation, we might learn new things, feel them in new ways, see them from new angles, or have new thoughts about them. Such experiences might help us understand each other better and make out more clearly what God asks from us today.

In her response to my article, Butler does not deal directly with my central argument. She leaves much of it out of consideration altogether. By making assumptions about my opinions and conclusions, and attaching these to passages culled from various parts of my article, Butler frequently portrays me as saying things I do not say. I would have to repeat much of my article to set the whole record straight. On the basis of her testimony, she tries hard to characterize my views as Protestant. This falls short of being a reasoned argument, and seems to me a type of name-calling one would like to think had become obsolete in an ecumenical age.

In her first paragraph, she speaks of my “doubts” and my “opinion” and talks about a “grave injustice,” though there is nothing about any of this in my article. She says that I deny “Jesus’ freedom from convention in relating to women,” though in fact I explicitly affirm it, while pointing out this doesn’t mean Jesus could communicate with his contemporaries in gestures or symbols they didn’t understand. She says I suggest that Vatican II “repudiates” the Council of Trent; but to notice that on certain subjects Vatican II clearly goes beyond Trent is not fairly described as “repudiation.” She says my appeal to Vatican II’s attempt “to provide new foundations for a theology of the presbyterate” is “genuinely puzzling.” Yet most commentators on the council speak explicitly of this new theology, which emphasized the presbyter’s relationship with his bishop, his leadership role in the community, his pastoral service to his people, and especially his ministry of the Word, in ways that go beyond what Trent emphasized.

Butler speaks of arguments she imagines I have advanced in favor of women’s ordination. She speaks twice of my concluding that the church’s traditional practice was dictated chiefly by “the conviction that women are not only different from men but also inferior by nature and destined to be subject to the authority and power of men.” These claims are false. I reported that the inferiority of women to men and their subjection to the authority of men (taken for granted throughout most of the church’s history) was the explanation often given for their exclusion from ordained ministry… no one denies. Whether or not it was the main factor that dictated this exclusion is a question I suggested deserves prayerful discussion among us.

Butler writes, “Egan concludes that the ordained ministry evolved gradually to meet the church’s organizational needs. In his opinion, this took place under the prompting of the Holy Spirit but without reference to the commission Jesus gave to the Twelve.” This is not a coherent summary of anything I actually wrote, but the main idea is hardly “my” conclusion in any case. We know there were different forms of governance and types of ministry in the early Christian communities. There was no single structure, the same in every place. It isn’t my opinion but our common faith that the church’s life unfolds under the influence of the Spirit. It seems apparent that different kinds of assistance, leadership, and service evolved gradually, and only gradually became identified with particular offices, and subsequently with “priesthood.” But during these developments, references were, in fact, being made to several key biblical passages that became influential, including references to the commissioning of the Twelve.

To make all this an issue about me is misleading. None of this discussion is a personal idiosyncrasy on my part. It reflects aspects of the work—not just of Anglicans and Protestants—but of many Catholic scholars as well, including Paul Bernier, Raymond E. Brown, John J. Burkhard, John N. Collins, Bernard Cooke, Alexandre Faivre, Richard R. Gaillardetz, Daniel J. Harrington, Richard P. McBrien, John P. Meier, Nathan D. Mitchell, Thomas F. O’Meara, Kenan B. Osborne, Karl Rahner, Edward Schillebeeckx, Carroll Stuhlmueller, and Francis A. Sullivan, among others. In particular, important work has been done in recent years on the meaning of “the Twelve,” the distinct category of “apostles,” and the origins and development of the roles of presbyter, overseer, and deacon, much of it in the years since the promulgation of Inter insigniores (1976). It is, I believe, mainly Butler’s neglect of this literature that is at the heart of the conflict between us.

Finally, Butler provides an astonishing list of my purported “objections” that she claims includes “the nature of Holy Orders as a sacrament, apostolic succession,” “the hierarchical structures of the church...the role of Tradition and the magisterium in determining the teaching of the Scripture and the church’s authority to teach in a way that commands the assent of the faithful.” These strike me as reckless claims: reckless in their choice of words, and reckless in their willingness to accuse. Any such interpretation is inconsistent with my intention in this article. As a Catholic theologian and a Jesuit, I do not dispute the sacramentality of ordination, the idea of apostolic succession, the hierarchical structure of the church, the role of tradition and the magisterium in the interpretation of Scripture, or the teaching authority of the church, although I think commanding the assent of the faithful is unlikely to produce fruitful results in our present situation.

Still, theology as a social practice has an obligation to examine the community’s faith as something living, challenged by new events and circumstances, adapting to different cultures and historical periods, and appropriating the questions, research, reflection, and discernment of each new generation. Theology has the vocation of working for the church in its own continuing development. This is why the world’s bishops, gathered at the Second Vatican Council, trusted the theologians they invited as advisers and collaborated with them in such a fruitful and historic way.

The church’s understanding and teaching has developed over two millennia. On some subjects it has remained substantially the same. On others, it has changed dramatically, in ways that could not have been foreseen: on slavery, women’s inferiority, the divine right of kings, the uses of torture, the status and dignity of the Jewish people, the execution of heretics, the idea of religious liberty, the moral legitimacy of democratic governments, the indispensability of Thomism, and the structure of the universe itself. New questions arise, and new horizons open, cultures themselves are transformed, and the fund of human knowledge changes.

Through all this, we are called to remain faithful to God, confident that God understands us and will remain faithful to us in our pilgrimage through time. Sometimes we disagree about what this faithfulness requires in regard to a particular issue. I think the best we can do, in our own day, is to remain in attentive, thoughtful conversation with each other, to speak and listen with respect and candor, and always with charity. These sustained conversations, rooted in hope, patience, and reasonableness, and nourished by prayer, are entrusted to the special care of our church’s leaders, who are missioned to inspire, protect, and guide them, in the communion of love made possible by the Holy Spirit. 

Sr. Sara Butler, MSBT, teaches at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, New York. Her Cardinal Cooke Lecture on the subject of the ministerial priesthood is available on her faculty page.
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