and the Role of Women in the Church

by Dr Pia De Solenni

[Dr. Pia de Solenni is a moral theologian, ethicist and cultural analyst. She owns her own consulting company, Diotima Consulting. She is an expert in issues relating to women's health, life issues, the new feminism, Catholicism, and culture. Her work has appeared in various publications including The Wall Street Journal Europe, The Washington Post, National Catholic Reporter, Our Sunday Visitor, and National Review Online.

Dr. de Solenni has participated in many radio and television talk shows on various topics. She has appeared on MSNBC, "Hardball with Chris Matthews", "The O'Reilly Factor", CNN, ABCNews, among others. Dr. de Solenni has been quoted in newspapers nationwide, including The New York Times, The Washington Times, and The Associated Press.

Dr. de Solenni received her doctorate in sacred theology summa cum laude from the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, Rome. Her dissertation was published in the university series Dissertationes. On November 8, 2001, she received the 2001 Award of the Pontifical Academies for her doctoral work. The award was presented by John Paul II.

In addition to the doctorate, Dr. de Solenni holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Liberal Arts-Great Books from Thomas Aquinas College, California; a Sacred Theology Baccalaureate from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum), Rome; and a Sacred Theology Licentiate from Holy Cross, Rome.

Dr. de Solenni resides in Seattle, Washington.]


The question of the role of women in the Church provokes an impassioned response from almost every corner. The Church's position on this issue, however, transcends the conventional alternatives of liberal and conservative, left and right, which generate so much of the heat in the contemporary debate. John Paul II dedicated a good portion of his pontificate to articulating the dynamic reality of the Church's view of women. Despite his early media label as the "conservative rottweiler pope," Benedict XVI shows every indication of continuing his predecessor's efforts. As Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger oversaw the publication of the CDF document On the Collaboration of Men and Women. Long convinced that women suffer the most from the confusion of gender roles in the modern world, he helped to shape a document that would clarify the unique nature of women while at the same time affirming that women have a role to play in every aspect of society. Benedict thus appears positioned to take the conversation on women in the Church to the next phase.

To see where this conversation is going, it would be helpful first to examine exactly where the conversation has been. Until recently, the debate has focused on the priesthood and whether women may be ordained. I think this is due in part to the fact that too often we try to see the supernatural strictly through the lens of the natural. Whatever we see happening in society, we attempt to superimpose on the Church and we read the Church through societal constructs. In reality, the Church exceeds the bounds of what we see in any contemporary society. While we need the natural in order to understand the supernatural, we have to be careful not to confuse things that are natural in their essence with things that are a natural result of sin.

I recall my first visit to Rome. It was the fall of 1994. At the time, the Church was holding the Synod for Religious. Women religious from around the world, most particularly from the western part, addressed their role within the Church and asked for more power. Mother Teresa responded simply that these women needed to fall in love with their spouse, who is Jesus. Her analysis, I am sure, caused consternation, yet it speaks volumes. Within the context of sincere and authentic love, issues of power and authority rarely, if ever, remain unresolved. Outside this context, they take on a wholly different perspective.

Commenting on the 1976 declaration Inter insigniores, published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then Cardinal Ratzinger identified the specific misconception of power. He wrote:

The logic of worldly power structures does not suffice to explain the priesthood, which is a sacrament and not a form of social organization. The priesthood cannot be understood according to the criteria of functionality, decision-making power, and expediency, but only on the basis of the Christological criterion which gives it its nature as a "sacrament" as a repudiation of personal power in obedience to Jesus Christ."(1)

The re-examination of the role of women in the Church coincided with the mainstreaming of radical feminist thought. Those who identify themselves as conservative are often quick to dismiss feminism. One may not agree with the conclusions of feminist thinkers, but this in no way reduces the significance of the questions they have addressed. These questions arose within a particular time, concerning real individuals and real situations. To dismiss them would be to deny them the respect owed to all human persons. These questions, very frequently, arose from situations that faithful Catholics may recognize objectively as wounding, perhaps even traumatic, and definitely hurtful.

For me, the work of St. Thomas Aquinas has been useful in examining the general topic of women and our vocation. Aside from the biological aspects of procreation, Aquinas perhaps most clearly indicates natural complementarity in a succinct response to the question of whether it was fitting that God created Eve from Adam's side. Aquinas explains that woman was not created from man's head to rule over him, nor from his foot to be ruled by him, but from his side to rule with him. (2) The order of creation and our sexually differentiated bodies confirms this sameness and difference.

Ecclesiology and Christology further develop the image of man and woman in complementary roles. These traditions present the relationship between Christ and the Church as the spousal relationship par excellence from which we borrow our notions of spousal relations.(3) Ironically, what we know first and best, namely the relation between husband and wife, is not the most perfect spousal relationship; rather, our notions are derivatives. The spousal relation exists most perfectly in the relation between God and the Church; we borrow from it to explain marriage between man and woman.

Scripture develops the notion of the spousal relation between Christ and the Church, perhaps starting most memorably with the Canticle of Canticles and further developed almost infamously with Ephesians 5:20-33.(4) Frequently, the only reference we hear to this passage is a hurried reading of the line, "Wives be submissive to your husbands." Sometimes the reading is even abridged so as not to offend. Unfortunately, such temptations only cloud the beautiful reality that is the relationship between Christ and the Church and the exhortation that husbands love their wives "as Christ loves the Church, giving himself unto death for her." This passage indicates substantial aspects of ecclesiology, Christology, and sexual complementarity. The passage rests on the reality that sexual differentiation is an essential part of our identity, almost an essential accident if you will.

In the paradigm offered by St. Paul, there are no power struggles because he situates masculinity and femininity within the context of authentic love. Again, I return to my initial remarks on some forms of radical feminism and its ensuing inquiries. Regardless of whether they are ultimately correct or not, they arose because of particular and actual situations for which we, as members of the Church, may have been responsible indirectly if not directly.

There can be no doubt that the Church has passed through great difficulties in the past century. I refer not only to persecution or to the sexual scandals that broke in 2002. Indeed, the Church does not convene Councils because everything is going well; it does so to address a particular crisis. Vatican II may have been the exception to this pattern, but among the various issues addressed by the Council documents, the emerging question could be summed up as an identity crisis of the Church, her members, and her priests. The apparent newness of lay spirituality and the dissemination of the message of the universal call to holiness subsequent to the Council indicate that such understandings were sorely lacking. As we have seen, the settling out of the Council is just beginning to occur. One pastor explained to me, "When you upset an old lady, it takes her a while to settle down. Well, the Church is a two thousand-year old woman. It will take her a while to settle down after Vatican II."

Questions of power and authority affect not only the Church, but civil society as well. The two are intricately united and what affects one, affects the other because they share the same members. In the secular world, there clearly have been abuses of power, not just between men and women, but between entire peoples. When power becomes the issue of contention, it is only natural those involved in the conflict should seek power because they are looking to correct an inequality. Strictly speaking, power resides in God. We call him omnipotent. Authority is the right to use power and it is a right that is given by the One who is Love. In an authentic theological context, authority is the force of love. Outside of this context, power becomes a love of force. Authority is given, power is taken.

Power today means being able to do what you want, as you will, and being able to have your say. This understanding of power has no relevance in the economy of the Church. Our bishops, our priests, our religious, our laity, no matter what authority they have been given, they do not have a right to say and do what they want if it is not in accord with God's design for the Church. A parish priest once told me, "If a priest gets up to preach and starts to tell you what he thinks, turn him off. He ought to be telling you what the Church thinks." Granted, one would hope that these would be the same. But most of us can attest to struggles where we have do put aside what "I think" and take up what the Church "thinks." It happens every time we enter the confessional. At the end of the day, authority has an essential sense of service. Even if notions of power and authority have been skewed, we must strive to keep in mind the authentic concepts and strive for them.

The 1994 Apostolic Letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis, On Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone, addressed the primary question situated in the power struggle. When the Church first released the document, I admit I was a little disappointed. After all, it was such a little document for such a big question. Ordinatio sacerdotalis is a summary document. It is short because it introduces nothing new. It simply articulates what the Church has always taught and will always teach. The exposition of the topic was done in the earlier declaration Inter insigniores. In a sense, Inter insigniores provides the discussion that explains the conclusion set forth in Ordinatio sacerdotalis.

Ordinatio sacerdotalis makes three basic points:

1. Christ, in ordaining only men, acted freely without constraint by cultural norms.

2. Non-admission to the priestly ordination is not a sign of lesser dignity.

3. The Church does not have the faculty to ordain women.

Perhaps the most frequently used argument in favor of the ordination of women is that of cultural norms. The argument maintains that Christ did not ordain women because to do so would have gone against cultural norms and standards. Women, allegedly, did not have an active role in society and, therefore, Christ was only respecting the cultural norms and mirroring them in his own choice of the male apostles. Given the changes in the role of women in our culture, where women excel at the same education and professional realm as men, it would seem that the Church ought to reflect this cultural change in the priesthood, allowing women to be ordained just as they have been allowed into professional realms.

The problem with this argument lies in the very premise that Christ maintained the cultural norms of the time. In fact, the Gospels indicate that he repeatedly broke with tradition, particularly in his regard for and rapport with women.(5) One of the Gospel narratives which can further our understanding is Christ's encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well.

Jesus said to her, "Believe me, woman, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You people worship what you do not understand; we worship what we understand, because salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth; and indeed the Father seeks such people to worship him. God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in Spirit and truth." The woman said to him, "I know that the Messiah is coming, the one called the Anointed; when he comes, he will tell us everything." Jesus said to her, "I am he, the one who is speaking with you."(6)

The Gospels do not report Jesus revealing himself as Messiah so directly and with such clarity to anyone but this woman. Remarkably, not even to the apostles who subsequently question his encounter with the Samaritan woman does he reveal himself with such clarity as he did to her.

Secondly, Ordinatio sacerdotalis explains that the non-admission to priestly ordination is not a sign that women are of lesser dignity.(7) The whole history of the Church witnesses to the presence and active participation of women. It was the consent, understanding, and devotion of a woman that brought the Church to us. It is a woman, in the room of the Last Supper, who on the Sunday of Pentecost is the authority of grace for the apostles. Her active openness to grace is essential for salvation history. It becomes the example for each member of the Church, whether man or woman. Mary, the mother of God, the authentic model of feminine virtue provides the understanding for the place of women and their authority in the Church. The fact that she was not chosen by her son to receive priestly ordination indicates that the sacrament does not discriminate on the basis of dignity or merit. Her role of authority is one to which all priests, all men, and all women are subject.(8) For this we recognize her as the Queen of Heaven. This title represents a permanent reality, not a mere pious sentiment. Ordinatio sacerdotalis invites us to discover or perhaps rediscover this reality.

At the same time, the reality of Mary's maternal and regal authority over all the members of the Church, and through her maternal authority even over the Head of the Church, indicates another reality, namely that the Church does not have the faculty to ordain women.(9) If it were a question of holiness or intellectual understanding, no one would have been more suited for ordination than Mary. The ordination of women is not a matter of opinion. The fact that women cannot be ordained will not change regardless of our personal convictions. Like all matters referring to the deposit of faith, the reality remains such no matter what we may think based on our human experience.

Ordinatio sacerdotalis refers to the reality of the spousal relationship that is most obviously indicated by our bodies and, in turn, by our souls. It characterizes this relationship as that of either the bridegroom or the bride. Despite whatever gifts a particular woman or man may have, she or he will always be a woman or a man and, as such, called to be either bride or groom. In essence, the apostolic letter is a call to reexamine Inter insigniores and a challenge not to confine the question of the vocation of women to the discussion of ordination. Woman will never be the bridegroom, in any form. The temptation to force upon woman a masculine paradigm arises from our confused notions of power and authority that, in turn, devalues her vocation as bride, which Mary clearly illustrates, even if we have not given her serious consideration or have clouded the way we view her. At the same time, Ordinatio sacerdotalis affirms what has always been the authentic tradition of the Church also reiterated by Inter insigniores, "The greatest in the kingdom of heaven are not the ministers but the saints."

Inter insigniores develops the notion of complementarity by referring to the Pauline letters. As the declaration explains, biblical exegetes put forth the differences in the two formulae used by Paul in his addresses. He uses two formulae: "my fellow workers" (Rom 16: 3; Phil 4: 2-3) and "God's fellow workers" (1 Cor 3:9; cf. 1 Thess 3:2). When he uses "my fellow workers," Paul addresses both the men and women helping him in God's work. Paul uses the phrase, "God's fellow workers" when referring to Apollos, Timothy and himself because they are specifically apostolic ministers entrusted with the preaching of the Word in the specific manner of Christ. As ordained ministers, they act on Christ's behalf and with his divine power.(10)

The declaration also addresses the argument of fundamental equality: if men and women are fundamentally equal, should not they be able to receive the same sacrament of priestly ordination? Citing Galatians 3:28: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus." On face value, it appears that even sexual differentiation does not create such a significant difference that it would preclude women from receiving what men may receive. In fact, the Pauline teaching confirms a fundamental equality based on divine filiation, not on ministry. In other words, men and women are equal in so far as they are made in the image of God, which allows them to be able to share in divine filiation through the marvelous gift of sanctifying grace. Divine filiation is equally available to both sexes. The basis for this equality is not ministry. Ministry is something apart from the underlying shared equality.

The declaration then turns to the discussion of sacrament. This lays the basis for the affirmation in Ordinatio sacerdotalis that the Church does not possess the faculty of ordaining women. While the sacrament has superhuman power, it is not without limits. The limits of the power are not the power itself, which is divine omnipotence and, therefore, unlimited. Human nature, on the other hand, is limited in its capacity to receive. It is not that God lacks the power to ordain women. Rather, human nature does not include this particular capacity to receive except among men. The declaration cites Pius XII (from the apostolic constitution Sacramentum ordinis): "The Church has no power over the substance of the sacraments, that is to say, over what Christ the Lord, as the sources of revelation bear witness, determined should be maintained in the sacramental sign."(11) The sacraments precisely represent actions and things. Priestly ordination represents the reality of the relationship of Christ to the Church. That relationship, no matter the moral character of the priest, is that of a bridegroom to a bride. Just as there can be bad husbands, there can be bad priests but they will still be priests. A woman, on the other hand, will never be a husband, good or otherwise. No matter her personal dispositions, tendencies or gifts, she is and represents a different spousal reality: bride. Similarly, although man may need to learn from woman what it is to be bride and the part of the Church who is bride, no man will ever be a bride. In the end, respect for the sacrament is also acceptance of the reality signified and actualized by the sacrament. To ordain a woman would be in essence to show complete disregard for the reality she is as a woman, as a bride. In fact, contrary to the current commonplace, to promote the ordination of women is a sign of misunderstanding and even disrespect for the dignity of woman. Upon reflection, Christian women should feel offended by the proposal to be ordained.

The reality signified by the sacrament of ordination is a reality tied to the supreme event of salvation history: the nuptial covenant and the nuptial mystery. The sexual differences reflect a greater difference than other differences that are only skin deep or due to social status, such as differences of race or social status. Cardinal Ratzinger explained that the concept of a sacrament is the symbolic representation that makes and impregnates symbols with a concealed reality. Man and woman have a symbolic place in the Christian understanding of relation, each having equal rights and equal dignity. They differ in their testimony. Ratzinger noted two challenges to the Church in promoting the equality of women and the understanding of the sacrament of ordination. He explained, "Though it may not seem so at first sight, it is a question here of woman's right to be herself, not in an equivocal equality which considers the sacrament as a career and so changes it into a dish of lentils which is not worth buying."(12)

The priest symbolizes Christ. Woman, no matter who she is, is a bride and as such symbolizes the Church. The fact that we are at a point where the significance of feminine identity is so largely misunderstood or even disregarded, indicates that our very notion of Church is in peril. For many, the Church has ceased to signify bride and mother. For these people, she has, in a very real way, lost her personality. She has become an "it", a mere institution rather than a living being. It is no wonder then, that so many understand the authority of women only in terms of the all-male priesthood. At the same time, women have also lost their place in the natural world as the family has gradually begun to disappear, particularly in much of the Western world. Our society underestimates what a woman contributes as wife and mother because her contribution cannot be empirically measured in monetary quantities.(13) In fact, at the risk of sounding extreme, the discussion of women's ordination has been an "overestimation of the masculine", as if the feminine had no real value, as if the Church has no intrinsic value outside of the clergy. Instead of an atmosphere of complementarity the modern world sets the masculine and the feminine against each other.

Starting in 1994, Pope John Paul II took the discussion in a different direction. He stopped discussing whether women could be ordained priests. While it may be difficult for some to accept, the question has been settled. Since 1994, rather than continuing to discuss whether or not women may be ordained, he shifted the discussion to women and the unique role of Mary. The program set before us, then, is to recover the sense of the relation between the feminine vocation and the priesthood. While not the same, they certainly are not at odds.

Modern challenges to the feminine vocation include the loss of the sense of family, the loss of the sense of the Church as Mother, and confusion surrounding the concepts of maternity and paternity. No doubt, women need a voice in the Church, but it must be an authentic voice and not their voice made to sound like a man's. At the same time, I would caution the presumption that women do not have a voice. Although different, it already exists even if often unused.

Commenting on Inter insigniores, Ratzinger noted specifically the shortcomings of the modern consideration of women:

Where namely the connection is lost to the will of the Creator, and in the Church, to the will of the Redeemer, functionality easily becomes manipulation. The new esteem for woman, which was the justified point of departure of modern movements, ends then soon in contempt for the body. Sexuality comes no longer to be seen as an essential expression of human corporeality, but as something external, secondary, and ultimately meaningless. The body no longer reaches what is essential to being human, but comes to be considered an instrument we employ.(14)

This passage, published almost ten years before On the Collaboration of Men and Women, almost sets the stage for the later document, for moving the discussion beyond priesthood, beyond woman alone, to the complementarity of man and woman and perhaps engaging even more those who have refused aspects of the Church's teaching on women.

When the Collaboration was released in August 2004, the rapid response basically accused the Church of wanting to keep women barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen. It set the stage to begin a theological conversation on sexual differences. Ratzinger noted the need for this conversation long before, when he commented on Inter insigniores. Also, the document was not about women. It was about women and men because that is how we exist in reality — together, not apart.

The Collaboration identified the core Christian belief that women and men are complementary because of their fundamental equality. Both exist equally in the image and likeness of God by virtue of their very being and creation. But the reality of sin has also affected this created reality. As John Paul II noted in Familiaris consortio, the differences between man and woman are good and constructive. They existed before the Fall. Rather, original sin creates the tension — not the differences — between man and woman. The Collaboration in fact gives a very moving account of the effect of sin on the relations between the sexes and identifies it as ". . . a relationship in which love will frequently be debased into pure self-seeking, in a relationship which ignores and kills love and replaces it with the yoke of domination of one sex over the other." As I wrote at the time, there is nothing Pollyanna about the Church's perception of this reality. And the document continues, "It follows then that the relationship is good, but wounded and in need of healing."(15)

In other words, the battle of the sexes has not brought about healing or resolution. And so Ratzinger offered us the tradition of the Church, namely the paradigm of man and woman's sexually differentiated participation in salvation history. Again, as in the discussion of priesthood and women's ordination, we find ourselves drawn back to the consideration of the spousal relationship between God and the Church. This same topic became the basis of Benedict's first encyclical, Deus caritas est. God is love. Again we are faced with the reality: "God's way of loving becomes the measure of human love. This close connection between eros and marriage in the Bible has practically no equivalent in extra-biblical literature," wrote Benedict.(16) This is why Christianity, the Catholic Church in particular, possesses the means to advance the conversation.

Because sexual differentiation is a creative reality that is more than skin deep, the Collaboration goes on to assert that women should have a role in every aspect of society. At the same time, pushing beyond some feminist theories, women should not be measured solely or even primarily in professional or economic terms. Here Ratzinger offers the impetus to the next level of the discussion. Rather than talking about what women do, we need to begin discussing who they are. Just like men, they are known in relation to others, ultimately God; but men and women need each other to know and understand this reality. On a practical level, we are seeing complementarity play out in many professional areas, like business, medicine, and politics. Women now make up a significant portion of those occupied in these fields and their contributions have facilitated many advances.

I like to think that Ratzinger issued an invitation to put the battle axes down and start a conversation, not just with feminist thinkers but among ourselves, and especially a conversation between women and men. He offered a reality, one that he would later address as Pope Benedict in his first encyclical. It now remains whether we, the daughters and sons of the Church, will except the dynamic reality or remain entrenched in our various diatribes that bear little resemblance to that reality.

With regard to the specific role of women in the Church, the specific question arose when Benedict met with the Roman clergy in May 2005. A young priest asked him if women would not be able to do more since they are already very involved in parishes and have demonstrated their competence. Benedict responded first by addressing the fact that the priesthood is a type of service that requires humility. It must not become a power grab. He went on further to state that it would be impossible to imagine the Church without all the contributions that women have made. This does not make the case for women having a greater ministerial role per se. Quickly reviewing sacramental theology, he makes clear that a greater role can't mean that women become priests. But he seems to indicate that there is more to be done regarding the role of women in the Church . . . without confusing it with the priesthood.



1. From Inter Insigniores to Ordinatio Sacerdotalis: Documents & Commentaries, USCCB, Washington, DC 1998, 15.

2. Summa Theologiae, I, q.92, a.3.

3. Cf. Chrysostom, John, Homily On Ephesians 5, St. Vladimir Seminary Press.

4. Martin, Francis, "The New Feminism: Biblical Foundations and Some Lines of Development," in Women in Christ: Towards a New Feminism, Michele Schumacher, Editor, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI, 141-168, 2004.

5. Jn 4,27; Mt 9,20-22; Lk 7,37; Jn 8,11. Cf. Inter insigniores, 4: "No one however has ever proved — and it is clearly impossible to prove — that this attitude is inspired only by social and cultural reasons."

6. Jn 4, 21-26

7. Ordinatio sacerdotalis, n. 3.

8. Cf. Jn 2,5, the wedding at Cana, "Do whatever he tells you."

9. Ordinatio sacerdotalis, n. 4: "Ut igitur omne dubium auferatur circa rem magni momenti, quae ad ipsam Ecclesiae divinam constitutionem pertinet, virtute ministerii Nostri confirmandi fraters (cf. Lc 22,32), declaramus Ecclesiam facultatem nullatenus habere ordinationem sacerdotalem mulieribus conferendi, hancque sententiam ab omnibus Ecclesia fidelibus esse definitive tenendam."

10. Inter insigniores, n. 3.

11. Cf. Martimort, A.G., "The Value of a Theological Formula 'In Persona Christi'". Martimort citing Aquinas: "[T]he priest himself is and must be a sign, and therefore he must confirm the conditions required for that: 'cum sacramentum sit signum, in his quae in sacramento aguntur requiritur non solum res sed signum rei.' [In IV Sent., Dist. 25, q. 2, art. 2, quaestiuncula 1, corp.] The principal condition is that the sign should have a natural resemblance with what is signified: 'Signa sacramentalia ex naturali similitudine repraesentant.' [Ibid., ad 4um]. These two principles are invoked by St. Thomas, as is known, to explain that women cannot receive holy orders."

12. Ratzinger, Joseph, "The Male Priesthood: A Violation of Women's Rights?" L'Osservatore Romano, May 12, 1977, 6-7.

13. Cf. Familiaris consortio, n. 86: "The future of the family passes by way of the family."; Mulieris dignitatem, n. 29; Little, Joyce, "Women Are Called to Bear Christ into Their Families and the World," L'Osservatore Romano 22:47, November 1995, 2-3;

14. From Inter, p. 9.

15. On the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World, Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith, 2004, n. 8.

16. Deus Caritas Est, Benedict XVI, 2005, n. 11.

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