In Accordance With Their Own Nature: Women and Equality in the Catholic Church



By Jo de Groot BSW PhD DipEd

30th March 2017


In this paper I present the historical development of the Catholic Church’s position on the acceptance of priesthood for males only. Whatever the reasons given, they are without reasonable foundation. I show that the Church is not keeping up with the generally accepted fact that women are as fully human as men and must be given the same respect and access to their human rights as men, thus given the opportunity to contribute fully to the betterment of the world.  Women have not all been able to wait for permission for their talents to be recognised in the Church. This has brought about a crisis that needs urgent attention.


Real Equality Means Equal Access For All

‘In civil law an unjust law will usually be changed only after it is violated. Subsequently, the case may be administered newly and the law may be readjusted to the new facts. This procedure is also applicable to Canon Law.’ So wrote Christine Mayr – Lumetzberger, a Catholic Womanpriest. (Hainz-McGrath 2008:17)

This paper is my contribution to the necessary new case to be administered by the Vatican hierarchy for the raising of women to the same status as men.


With Jesus Women Could Always Speak

I and all women in the Catholic Church have the right to make their voice heard in the ‘Body of Christ’. Everywhere in the developed world women have been recognised as equally worthy and capable of taking on responsibility in public life. Jesus broke the law of his time by speaking with women and so extending them the same dignity as men. There are numerous examples such as the woman who touched Jesus’ cloak (Lk 8:42-48) and the Canaanite woman (Mt 15:21-28). We have to conclude from his actions that Jesus was in synchronicity with the thinking and acting of the modern world in including women in the conversation.

It is important to note the cultural difference between the time of Jesus and today. We no longer live in a world ‘where cultural barriers were drawn that defined women as subhuman’. (Spong 1994:124) Thus I draw the conclusion that Jesus is in favour of our being granted equality within the Church.


Three Popes Have Attempted to Silence Women in the Catholic Church

Three popes, Pope Paul VI, Pope St John Paul II and Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI,  have all attempted to silence everyone in the Body of Christ on the issue of women’s equality. Paul VI acted, of course, in the context of the enormous sense of expectation of renewal set off by the Second Vatican Council, and it was, in my opinion, his way of coping with the sheer volume of change, as well as the relative ‘newness’ of women as equal, that put the issue of women’s place in the Church on the backburner. However, these three popes have not spoken ‘ex cathedra’ on the issue of women as priests and cannot do so because the conditions for an ‘ex cathedra’ pronouncement were not present. At least half the church, that is, the women, have not been heard on the topic, in fact the issue has not been properly dealt with at all. It is currently the case that all who are in favour of pronouncing women’s equality and speak or act upon it, are excommunicated by the all-male hierarchy(Cf Canons 30 and  1378 in Canon Law; Hainz-McGrath 2008:1), with the consequence that they are outside the Church and can thus be ignored as not belonging.  Currently there is a growing disgruntledness and indeed bitterness amongst Church women that I have noticed, for this obvious violation of their dignity and of being left in a powerless  position.  This amounts to mental, emotional and social violence, leaving them imprisoned while innocent. These Popes have spoken against the modelling of Jesus as described above.

Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI has continued to uphold the teaching of the two popes before him. He writes in his ‘Catechism of the Catholic Church’, (No 1577), ‘Only a baptized man (vir) validly receives sacred ordination (Codex Iuris Canonici, 547). 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 [ with references here  to gospels, epistles and Church Fathers]. 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.’ [My emphasis]. Pope Benedict cites his predecessor, St John Paul II, here from ‘Mulieris Dignitatem’ Nos. 26, 27, who, speaking of the bridal relationship of the Church with Christ, refers  constantly to the total accessibility of the Church’s ministries to all, men and women, and the requirement to give oneself in love for the growth of the Kingdom. I suggest that instead of then veering off into a description of Mary’s role as an example, it would have been perfectly tenable to hold up the role of holy women throughout history as pre-eminent models of the bridal relationship of the Church to Christ. Indeed, women by their very femininity ought to be acknowledged as preeminently models of the Church’s spousal relationship to God. Benedict also quotes his predecessor’s document ‘Inter Insigniores’ which I deal with in detail hereunder. The paragraph quoted here from the Catechism of the Catholic Church is the only reference to the issue of women and priesthood he makes, a solemn statement that the issue is now ‘dealt with’ and ‘completed’ as far as the hierarchical Church is concerned. My observation is that the voice of women and the issue of their position in the Church is conspicuously absent.


How the Silencing Came About

Pope St John Paul II and Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI  have both based their directives on those of Pope Paul VI, the first pope to speak about the issue. It is important to realise that Paul VI’s directives were based on a six-word phrase in the Vatican II document ‘The Church in the Modern World’, No 60. The phrase is: ‘in accordance with their own nature’. But earlier in that same paragraph the Council Fathers speak of ‘the right of all men – and this “men” must be understood to mean “people” since that is the constant understanding in the English language – to a human and civic culture favourable to personal dignity and free from any discrimination on the grounds of race, sex,[my emphasis] nationality, religious or social conditions.’ (Abbott, 1967:266) Hence the above-mentioned phrase ‘in accordance with their own nature’ should not be used in contradiction to the tenets of equal dignity as described in that same paragraph. As a result we have a line of thinking by the last three popes that is contrary to what the Council Fathers intended. Paul VI did not write his directives personally but asked The Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to write a statement. It was entitled, ‘Declaration on the Question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood’ or ‘Inter Insigniores’ (1975) and signed by +Franjo Cardinal Seper.

The first observation to make on this document is that the question about who practises the formal priesthood has nothing whatsoever to do with the deposit of faith, the kerygma, and so the question has to be asked, ‘Why was this disciplinary question answered by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith?’ There appears to be a patriarchal motivation that the people of God are being led to believe, erroneously, that this pronouncement is central to the deposit of faith and is therefore unchangeable. However, Pope Francis has said that ‘the door is shut but not locked’ on the issue. There is still room for further debate, discussion, meditation, listening, and conversation about this immensely important topic involving the future of the Church.

The Declaration ‘Inter Insigniores’ acknowledges that some women have felt a vocation to the priesthood but it then immediately denies any possibility that this could be genuine. ‘Attraction’ is played down as merely ‘subjective’ in these women, whereas we know that the vocation to the priesthood in males also generally begins with such an ‘attraction’. The Church responds to males but does not respond to females to discern their vocation.

One must question why  the Declaration purports that human rights for women must be fostered in the world but not in the Church. If, as I showed above, the priestly  vocation is not central to the ‘kerygma’ but a matter of discipline, one can state that human rights ought to be observed in the Church. In fact, the Church ought to be ahead of the world in showing injustice for what it is and respond to eradicate it. It is moreover in the Church more than anywhere else that we should look at the ‘signs of the times’, that is to say, to observe and respond to the changes in culture of the world in which we find ourselves, in particular the undeniable recognition that women have equal capacity to men once they are educated.

Of course one must agree that the priesthood does not form part of the ‘rights of the individual’, an opinion the Declaration would attempt to deny to women or feminists, but we do not take it to be so. We simply ask for the vocation when extended by God to be given the chance, the freedom, to be tested and fostered. A priestly vocation does stem from the ‘economy of the mystery of Christ and the Church’, and this again does not mean that (the female) half of the Church does not get included in the mystery of Christ and the Church. Neither does a person, male or female, who might apply to the Church authority to have a vocation discerned and fostered, necessarily have the ‘ goal of social advancement’, and of course we accept that a vocation is of ‘another order’, the order of faith in Jesus Christ, which is undoubtedly open to both females and males.

The document confirms we must continue to meditate on the nature of the real equality of the baptized, which is what I am fostering with this paper.  In addition to meditating I suggest we should also listen to one another. Women must speak for themselves to confirm their equality in Christ, their vocation to serve, administer the sacraments, to speak and to be heard in the Church. It is important we look once again at the terms used by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. It asks us not to confuse: ‘equality’, ‘identity’ and  ‘role’, but we do not do this. Women as well as men understand what is meant by ‘role’, and they ask for acceptance into the freedom to discern their vocation to the priestly role with the same freedom as is given to males. They understand the term ‘identity’ to mean ‘the state of being a specified person’ with the associated uniqueness and variety of attributes which in some women may be most suitable for the role of priest. The term ‘equality’ we understand according to the tenets registered so well in the charter of the United Nations  and which underpin the statement in the Vatican II’s document ‘Gaudium et Spes’ No 60 as referred to above.

The three popes mentioned in this paper, Paul VI, St John Paul II and Emeritus Benedict XVI, have basically given three reasons which they keep reiterating and embroidering. Pope Paul VI’s letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury and Primate of the Anglican Church on 30th November 1975 defends the  position the Catholic Church has taken based on: ‘1. The example recorded in the Sacred Scriptures of Christ choosing his Apostles only from among men; 2. The constant practice of the Church which has imitated Christ in choosing only men; 3. 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”.(Reichel, 2000:76)

These exact same words are repeated by St John Paul II in his Apostolic Letter ‘Ordinatio Sacerdotalis’, dated 22nd May 1994, as follows: “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”.(Reichel, 2000:78)

Benedict XVI, in his Catechism of the Catholic Church has simply referred to the above statements and regarded the issue as a ‘fait accompli’, as I have shown above. (1577)  All three statements have been excellently shown by a number of feminist theologians and others to be untrue. Jesus did choose disciples from among women; it has not been the constant practice of the Church throughout its history to have only male priests; and the Church’s living teaching authority has not consistently held that only men could be priests. In addition, it has been the case that the Church has changed its ways of sharing the Good News according to the changing conditions of the world around it.


Why Women Should Be Priests

Considering women make up half of the Catholic Church and considering the different culture in today’s world, women ask for what is their due entitlement that priesthood should be accessible to them if they are called by the Holy Spirit. As some as yet illicit but validly ordained Women Priests explain: ‘We are loyal members of the church who stand in the prophetic tradition of holy obedience to the Spirit’s call to change an unjust law that discriminates against women. We are obeying well-formed consciences. We want no “winners and losers”. We want no “fight”. We want balance, a more holistic image of God, renewal. We want unity in a community of equals where all are welcome at the table. We want no more – and no less – than our brother Jesus wanted two thousand years ago’. (Hainz-McGrath, 2008:2)                               

Although not Roman Catholic, an episcopalian woman priest tells her story and how she came up against prejudice. The Rev. Betty Bone Schiess was inspired by Betty Friedan’s seminal book, ‘The Feminine Mystique’ (2011) in which Friedan wrote about ‘the problem that has no name and consists of the unhappiness of housewives who were unhappy despite living in material comfort and being married with children.’ Friedan wrote: ‘We can no longer ignore that voice within women that says: “I want something more than my husband and my children and my home”.’ (2011:2-18) Schiess pointed to the search for truth and wisdom and full development that is felt by women in order to make the best possible contribution to humankind. The Teillardian call to evolution from the animal to the spiritual level must be acknowledged here. It is in line with the wisdom of the well-known psychologist, Abraham Maslow, famous for outlining the developmental stages or hierarchy of needs of human beings in their quest for full development. Those steps are, from the lowest to the highest level: 1. Physiological; 2. Safety; 3. Love/belonging; 4. Esteem; 5. Self-actualisation.(1954). Maslow discovered this ‘ladder’ by studying the healthiest cohorts of the students, rather than looking at dysfunction. Later in his life he wrote in more detail about the highest level, that of self-actualization.(1971: 259) He is quoted by Coon as follows: ‘Here he refers to meganeeds as follows, “The self only finds its actualization in giving itself to some higher goal outside oneself, in altruism and spirituality. Transcendence refers to the very highest and most inclusive or holistic levels of human consciousness, behaving and relating, as ends rather than means, to oneself, to significant others, to human beings in general, to other species, to nature, and to the cosmos.”’(2012)

Women have successfully fulfilled clerical leadership roles in previous times. Many people are still being inspired by the leadership of St Brigid, the Abbess of Kildare, in Ireland circa 525AD in developing the faith of the Christian population. The following testimony comes from George Otto Simms in ‘Commemorating Saints and Others of the Irish Church’. It reads as follows: ‘The role-call of the saints of the Celtic church in Ireland is so male-dominated that the honoured place given to Brigid of Kildare is itself a testimony to her leadership qualities.’(1999: 1) This would seem to negate the argument that women cannot be priests based on their ‘otherness’ as put forward by St John Paul II in his ‘Mulieris Dignitate’. (1988) John O’Riordan also writes about Brigid’s role stating she is a significant symbol for seekers of gender equality and parity of esteem.(2015:30)


The Unjust Law Is Broken: We Have Women Priests

The following report is taken  from ‘Women Find A Way’:-

‘On the 29th June, 2002, seven women went on a ship on the Danube, in Passau, prepared to be ordained by a Roman Catholic bishop with apostolic succession….we found two bishops from two different countries who were both convinced that it was necessary to ordain women…. on March 25th we had a lovely diaconate ordination in a private house in Austria. The ordained women were Dr Ida Raming, Dr Iris Muller, Dr Gisela Forster, Christine Mayr-Lumetzberger, Viktoria Sperrer, and Adelinde Roitinger…. For the big priestly ordination….There would be three ordaining bishops…. (Forster, G. In Hainz-McGrath, 2008:9ff)

Such an event was repeated in America as Schiess reports. She and ten other women, known as the ‘Philadelphia Eleven’ were ordained in Pennsylvania by a group of retired bishops on July 29, 1974 in the episcopalian church. First off, she was rejected, but later accepted in the wider church by Bishop Ned Cole in 1976. She was a leader and advocated for change for other injustices occurring.


Recognition of a Woman’s Calling to the Priesthood

Catholic Womanpriest, Bridget Mary Meehan, ordained in 2006 in Pittsburgh, writes, ‘Roman Catholic womenpriests are dreaming daring dreams and discovering fresh visions. Jack Duffy, one of our Sarasota house church members, shares what it means to worship in spirit and truth as the Body of Christ: “In this small, intimate, friendly, around-the-table setting, the worship was deep, spiritual, holy. We could all really sense that Jesus was there with us. This is the way early Christians celebrated the Lord’s Supper, during the time of he Acts of the Apostles, and for the first 200 to 300 years, before we became encumbered with big buildings.” ‘(2008:93)

It must be understood that people like Bridget Mary Meehan and her associates have taken very seriously the preparation for their priestly task. Meehan earned a master’s degree from the Catholic University of America, a Doctor of Ministry degree from Virginia Episcopal Seminary and spent many years in pastoral ministry as well as producing books and television programs.

Meehan continues, ‘We believe that Christ is calling us to go forth, filled with God’s love and compassion, to minister as partners and equals with all God’s people. The world is our parish… I believe that Christ is calling us to step out of the boat and walk on water.  Acting contra legem is the only way forward. We must break the law in order to change the law. An unjust law, as St Augustine said, is no law at all. We have an obligation to disobey an unjust law.’ (2008:93)

Furthermore, Meehan quotes Cardinal Walter Kasper, head of the Vatican Pontifical Commission for Christian Unity, as follows, ‘Some situations oblige us to obey God and one’s own conscience, rather than the leaders of the Church. Indeed, one may even be obliged to accept excommunication, rather than act against one’s conscience.’ (Idem:93-94) And she adds, ‘St Thomas Aquinas once said, “I would rather die excommunicated than to have violated my conscience.” ‘(Idem: 94).


The Dalai Lama on Women’s Ordination

In a 2007 statement the Dalai Lama spoke as follows: ‘In today’s world, women are playing major roles in all aspects of secular life, including government, science, medicine, law, arts, humanities, education, and business. Women are also keenly interested in participating fully in religious life, receiving religious education and training, acting as role-models, and contributing fully to the development of human society. In the same way, nuns and followers of Tibetan Buddhism around the world are keenly interested in full ordination for nuns within the Tibetan tradition.’ Given that women are fully capable of achieving the ultimate goal of the Buddha’s teachings, in harmony with the spirit of the modern age, the means and opportunity to achieve this goal should be completely accessible to them. This opportunity would enhance their capacity to benefit society.



In summary I must state that it is crystal clear that the three reasons given that it is  God’s will that only men should be priests, are without proper logical or moral foundation. Pope Paul VI simply brushed the issue aside, women not being regarded as on a par with men, and there were too many other issues to which he had to give his attention. Pope John Paul II continued along the same lines, again not delving into the situation of the changing world culture in which women were rising and proving themselves to be equal to men in every respect but ‘according to their own nature’. Pope Benedict XVI, to conclude, totally disregarding the female voice, took his predecessors’ opinions as ‘given’, without any further attention. Since there cannot be an ex cathedra pronouncement according to their statements, and since the unjust law has already been broken, the ground is clear for the mounting of the new case to be administered by the Vatican, that of the legitimacy of Women Priests.



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