The teaching that the sacrament of holy orders can be conferred only on a baptized male is an infallible teaching of the Catholic faith which has been passed down since the time of Jesus. Of necessity, this has been clearly re-stated in recent documents of the Magisterium. We here present the two most important documents, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis and the CDF’s response to a question concerning it, both of which were writter or ordered by Pope John Paul II. For further background we have also included a letter by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger concerning the CDF reply and the document 1976 CDF document Inter Insignores, which goes into the reasons for a male priesthood.
- Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (John Paul II, 1994)
- Responsum ad Dubium (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 1996)
- Letter Concerning the CDF Reply (Joseph Ratzinger, 1996)
- Inter Insignores (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 1976)
Pope John Paul II
May 22, 1994
Apostolic Letter on Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone
1. Priestly ordination, which hands on the office entrusted by Christ to his Apostles of teaching, sanctifying, and governing the faithful, has in the Catholic Church from the beginning always been reserved to men alone. This tradition has also been faithfully maintained by the Oriental Churches.
When the question of the ordination of women arose in the Anglican Communion, Pope Paul VI, out of fidelity to his office of safeguarding the Apostolic Tradition, and also with a view to removing a new obstacle placed in the way of Christian unity, reminded Anglicans of the position of the Catholic Church: “She holds that it is not admissible to ordain women to the priesthood, for very fundamental reasons. These reasons include: the example recorded in the Sacred Scriptures of Christ choosing his Apostles only from among men; the constant practice of the Church, which has imitated Christ in choosing only men; and her living teaching authority which has consistently held that the exclusion of women from the priesthood is in accordance with God’s plan for his Church.”
But since the question had also become the subject of debate among theologians and in certain Catholic circles, Paul VI directed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to set forth and expound the teaching of the Church on this matter. This was done through the Declaration Inter Insigniores, which the Supreme Pontiff approved and ordered to be published.
2. The Declaration recalls and explains the fundamental reasons for this teaching, reasons expounded by Paul VI, and concludes that the Church “does not consider herself authorized to admit women to priestly ordination.” To these fundamental reasons the document adds other theological reasons which illustrate the appropriateness of the divine provision, and it also shows clearly that Christ’s way of acting did not proceed from sociological or cultural motives peculiar to his time. As Paul VI later explained: “The real reason is that, in giving the Church her fundamental constitution, her theological anthropology– thereafter always followed by the Church’s Tradition–Christ established things in this way.”
In the Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem, I myself wrote in this regard: “In calling only men as his Apostles, Christ acted in a completely free and sovereign manner. In doing so, he exercised the same freedom with which, in all his behaviour, he emphasized the dignity and the vocation of women, without conforming to the prevailing customs and to the traditions sanctioned by the legislation of the time.”
In fact, the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles attest that this call was made in accordance with God’s eternal plan: Christ chose those whom he willed (cf. Mk 3:13-14; Jn 6:70), and he did so in union with the Father, “through the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:2), after having spent the night in prayer (cf. Lk 6:12). Therefore, in granting admission to the ministerial priesthood, the Church has always acknowledged as a perennial norm her Lord’s way of acting in choosing twelve men whom he made the foundation of his Church (cf. Rev 21:14). These men did not in fact receive only a function which could thereafter be exercised by any member of the Church; rather they were specifically and intimately associated in the mission of the Incarnate Word himself (cf. Mt 10:1, 7-8; 28:16-20; Mk 3:13- 16; 16:14-15). The Apostles did the same when they chose fellow workers who would succeed them in their ministry. Also included in this choice were those who, throughout the time of the Church, would carry on the Apostles’ mission of representing Christ the Lord and Redeemer.
3. Furthermore, the fact that the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God and Mother of the Church, received neither the mission proper to the Apostles nor the ministerial priesthood 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. Rather, it is to be seen as the faithful observance of a plan to be ascribed to the wisdom of the Lord of the universe.
The presence and the role of women in the life and mission of the Church, although not linked to the ministerial priesthood, remain absolutely necessary and irreplaceable. As the Declaration Inter Insigniores points out, “the Church desires that Christian women should become fully aware of the greatness of their mission; today their role is of capital importance both for the renewal and humanization of society and for the rediscovery by believers of the true face of the Church”.
The New Testament and the whole history of the Church give ample evidence of the presence in the Church of women, true disciples, witnesses to Christ in the family and in society, as well as to total consecration to the service of God and of the Gospel. “By defending the dignity of women and their vocation, the Church has shown honour and gratitude for those women who–faithful to the Gospel–have shared in every age in the apostolic mission of the whole People of God. They are the holy martyrs, virgins, and the mothers of families, who bravely bore witness to their faith and passed on the Church’s faith and tradition by bringing up their children in the spirit of the Gospel”.
Moreover, it is to the holiness of the faithful that the hierarchical structure of the Church is totally ordered. For this reason, the Declaration Inter Insigniores recalls: “the only better gift, which can and must be desired, is love (cf. 1 Cor 12 and 13). The greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven are not the ministers but the saints”.
4. Although the teaching that priestly ordination is to be reserved to men alone has been preserved by the constant and universal Tradition of the Church and firmly taught by the Magisterium in its more recent documents, at the present time in some places it is nonetheless considered still open to debate, or the Church’s judgment that women are not to be admitted to ordination is considered to have a merely disciplinary force.
Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that 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.
Invoking an abundance of divine assistance upon you, venerable Brothers, and upon all the faithful, I impart my Apostolic Blessing.
From the Vatican, on 22 May, the Solemnity of Pentecost, in the year 1994, the sixteenth of my Pontificate.
Joannes Paulus Pp. II
1. Paul VI, Response to the Letter of His Grace the Most Reverend Dr. F. D. Coggan, Archbishop of Canterbury, concerning the Ordination of Women to the Priesthood (30 November 1975): AAS 68 (1976), 599.
2. Cf. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration Inter Insigniores on the Question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood (15 October 1976): AAS 69 (1977), 98-116.
3. Ibid., 100.
4. Paul VI, Address on the Role of Women in the Plan of Salvation (30 January 1977): Insegnamenti, XV (1977), 111. Cf. also John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles Laici (30 December 1988), 31: AAS 81 (1989), 393-521; Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1577.
5. Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem (15 August 1988), 26; AAS 80 (1988), 1715.
6. Cf. Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, 28; Decree Presbyterorum Ordinis, 2b.
7 Cf. 1 Tim 3:1-13; 2 Tim 1:6; Tit 1:5-9.
8 Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1577.
9 Cf. Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium, 20, 21.
10 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration Inter Insigniores, 6: AAS 69 (1977), 115-116.
11 Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem, 27: AAS 80 (1988), 1719.
12 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration Inter Insigniores, 6: AAS 69 (1977), 115.
Responsum ad Dubium
October 28, 1995
Dubium: Whether the teaching that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women, which is presented in the Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis to be held definitively, is to be understood as belonging to the deposit of faith. Responsum: In the affirmative.
This teaching requires definitive assent, since, founded on the written Word of God, and from the beginning constantly preserved and applied in the Tradition of the Church, it has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium (cf. Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium 25, 2). Thus, in the present circumstances, the Roman Pontiff, exercising his proper office of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32), has handed on this same teaching by a formal declaration, explicitly stating what is to be held always, everywhere, and by all, as belonging to the deposit of the faith.
The Sovereign Pontiff John Paul II, at the Audience granted to the undersigned Cardinal Prefect, approved this Reply, adopted in the ordinary session of this Congregation, and ordered it to be published.
Rome, from the offices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, on the Feast of the Apostles SS. Simon and Jude, October 28, 1995.
+ Joseph Card. Ratzinger
+ Tarcisio Bertone
Archbishop Emeritus of Vercelli
October 28, 1995
Concerning the CDF Reply
Regarding Ordinatio Sacerdotalis
Prefect, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
The ecclesiological significance of this Apostolic Letter was underscored even by its date of publication, for it was on that day, May 22, 1994, that the Church celebrated the Solemnity of Pentecost. Its importance, however, could be discovered above all in the concluding words of the Letter: “in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that 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” (n. 4).
The Pope’s intervention was necessary not simply to reiterate the validity of a discipline observed in the Church from the beginning, but to confirm a doctrine “preserved by the constant and universal Tradition of the Church and firmly taught by the Magisterium in its more recent documents,” which “pertains to the Church’s divine consitution itself” (n. 4). In this way, the Holy Father intended to make clear that the teaching that priestly ordination is to be reserved solely to men could not be considered “open to debate” and neither could one attribute to the decision of the Church “a merely disciplinary force” (ibid).
The fruits of this Letter have been evident since its publication. Many consciences which in good faith had been disturbed, more by doubt than by uncertainty, found serenity once again thanks to the teaching of the Holy Father. However, some perplexity continued, not only among those who, distant from the Catholic faith, do not accept the existence of a doctrinal authority within the Church — that is, a Magisterium sacramentally invested with the authority of Christ (cf. Lumen Gentium, 21) — but also among some of the faithful to whom it continued to seem that the exclusion of women from the priestly ministry represents a form of injustice or discrimination against them. Some objected that it is not evident from Revelation that such an exclusion was the will of Christ for his Church, and others had questions concerning the assent owed to the Letter.
Certainly, the understanding of the reasons for which the Church does not have the power to confer priestly ordination on women can be deepened further. Such reasons, for example, have been set out already in the Declaration Inter Insigniores (October 15, 1976), issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and approved by Pope Paul VI, and in a number of the documents of John Paul II (for example, Christifideles Laici, 51; Mulieris Dignitatem, 26), as well as in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1577). But in any case it cannot be forgotten that the Church teaches, as an absolutely fundamental truth of Christian anthropology, the equal personal dignity of men and women, and the necessity of overcoming and doing away with “every type of discrimination regarding fundamental rights” (Gaudium et Spes, 29). It is in the light of this truth that one can seek to understand better the teaching that women cannot receive priestly ordination. A correct theology can prescind neither from one nor from the other of these doctrines, but must hold the two together; only thus will it be able to deepen our comprehension of God’s plan regarding woman and regarding the priesthood — and hence, regarding the mission of woman in the Church. If however, perhaps by allowing oneself to be conditioned too much by the ways and spirit of the age, one should assert that a contradiction exists between these two truths, the way of progress in the intelligence of the faith would be lost.
In the Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis the Pope focuses attention on the figure of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, and Mother of the Church. The fact that she “received neither the mission proper to the Apostles nor the ministerial priesthood 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” (n. 3). Diversity of mission in no way compromises equality of personal dignity.
Furthermore, to understand that this teaching implies no injustice or discrimination against women, one has to consider the nature of the ministerial priesthood itself, which is a service and not a position of privilege or human power over others. Whoever, man or woman, conceives of the priesthood in terms of personal affirmation, as a goal or point of departure in a career of human success, is profoundly mistaken, for the true meaning of Christian priesthood, whether it be the common priesthood of the faithful or, in a most special way, the ministerial priesthood, can only be found in the sacrifice of one’s own being in union with Christ, in service of the brethren. Priestly ministry constitutes neither the universal ideal nor, even less, the goal of Christian life. In this connection, it is helpful to recall once again that “the only higher gift, which can and must be desired, is charity” (cf. 1 Cor. 12:13; Inter Insigniores).
With respect to its foundation in Sacred Scripture and in Tradition, John Paul II directs his attention to the fact that the Lord Jesus, as is witnessed by the New Testament, called only men, and not women, to the ordained ministry, and that the Apostles “did the same when they chose fellow workers who would succeed them in their ministry” (n. 2; cf. 1 Tim. 3:1ff; 2 Tim. 1:6; Tit. 1:5). There are sound arguments supporting the fact that Christ’s way of acting was not determined by cultural motives (cf. n. 2), as there are also sufficient grounds to state that Tradition has interpreted the choice made by the Lord as binding for the Church of all times.
Here, however, we find ourselves before the essential interdependence of Holy Scripture and Tradition, an interdependence which makes of these two forms of the transmission of the Gospel an unbreakable unity with the Magisterium, which is an integral part of Tradition and is entrusted with the authentic interpretation of the Word of God, written and handed down (Dei Verbum, 9 and 10). In the specific case of priestly ordination, the successors of the Apostles have always observed the norm of conferring it only on men, and the Magisterium, assisted by the Holy Spirit, teaches us that this did not occur by chance, habitual repetition, subjection to sociological conditioning, or even less because of some imaginary inferiority of women; but rather because “the Church has always acknowledged as a perennial norm her Lord’s way of acting in choosing the twelve men whom he made the foundation of his Church” (n. 2).
As is well known, there are reasons ex convenientia by which theology has sought and seeks to understand the reasonableness of the will of the Lord. Such reasons, expounded for example in the Declaration Inter Insigniores, have their undoubted value, and yet they are not conceived or employed as if they were strictly logical proofs derived from absolute principles. At the same time, it is important to keep in mind, as these reasons help us to comprehend, that the human will of Christ not only is not arbitrary, but that it is intimately united with the divine will of the eternal Son, on which the ontological and anthropological truth of the creation of the two sexes depends.
In response to this precise act of the Magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, explicitly addressed to the entire Catholic Church, all members of the faithful are required to give their assent to the teaching stated therein. To this end, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, with the approval of the Holy Father, has given an official Reply on the nature of this assent; it is a matter of full definitive assent, that is to say, irrevocable, to a doctrine taught infallibly by the Church. In fact, as the Reply explains, the definitive nature of this assent derives from the truth of the doctrine itself, since, founded on the written Word of God, and constantly held and applied in the Tradition of the Church, it has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary universal Magisterium (cf. Lumen Gentium, 25). Thus, the Reply specifies that this doctrine belongs to the deposit of the faith of the Church. It should be emphasized that the definitive and infallible nature of this teaching of the Church did not arise with the publication of the Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis. In the Letter, as the Reply of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith also explains, the Roman Pontiff, having taken account of present circumstances, has confirmed the same teaching by a formal declaration, giving expression once again to quod semper, quod ubique et quod ab omnibus tenendum est, utpote ad fidei depositum pertinens. In this case, an act of the ordinary Papal Magisterium, in itself not infallible, witnesses to the infallibility of the teaching of a doctrine already possessed by the Church.
Finally, there have been some commentaries on the Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis which have suggested that the document constitutes an additional and inopportune obstacle on the already difficult path of ecumenism. In this regard, it should not be forgotten that according to both the letter and the spirit of the Second Vatican Council (cf. Unitatis Redintegratio, 11), the authentic ecumenical task, to which the Catholic Church is unequivocally and permanently committed, requires complete sincerity and clarity in the presentation of one’s own faith. Furthermore, it should be noted that the doctrine reaffirmed by the Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis cannot but fther the pursuit of full communion with the Orthodox Churches which, in fidelity to Tradition, have maintained and continue to maintain the same teaching.
The singular originality of the Church and of the priestly ministry within the Church requires a precise clarity of criteria. Concretely, one must never lose sight of the fact that the Church does not find the source of her faith and her constitutive structure in the principles of the social order of any historical period. While attentive to the world in which she lives and for whose salvation she labours, the Church is conscious of being the bearer of a higher fidelity to which she is bound. It is a question of a radical faithfulness to the Word of God which she has received from Christ who established her to last until the end of the ages. This Word of God, in proclaiming the essential value and eternal destiny of every person, reveals the ultimate foundation of the dignity of every human being, of every woman and of every man.
+ Joseph Card. Ratzinger