Why Did Christ Ordain Only Men?

Anthony Zimmerman
Published in Fidelity (Australia)
December 1998
Reproduced with Permission

"He who meddles in a quarrel not his own is like one who takes a passing dog by the ears" (Prov 26:17)

When a priest who is not a Bishop takes up the sword to claim the ministerial priesthood for women, he meddles in a matter not his own. It is the prerogative of Peter and the Apostolic College to discern the matter. Advocacy at the grass roots level lacks relevancy, is out of bounds, is as ineffective as beating a dead horse. Only the Magisterium is anointed by the Spirit to discern with special assistance which doctrines are manifestly demonstrated in the Scriptures and Tradition, and which other teachings are essential in order to preserve the Deposit of the Faith intact. The Holy Spirit has not anointed the body of the faithful, in isolation from the Magisterium, to discern infallibly, and to proclaim with power, the teachings handed down once and for all by the Apostles. If we agitate for development of doctrine at the grass roots level, in isolation from the Magisterium, or in opposition to it, we are likely to grow a yard full of weeds.

Father John Woods, in Catholic Voice August 1998, incredibly omits mention of this basic difference in power of discernment about doctrine; about the great gulf which separates the territory of the Magisterium from that of the faithful in reference to serving the Depositum. Yet Christ has made that difference the keystone in the arch of the deposit of the faith in the Church. The advocacy of Fr. Woods and of Fr. Gerald Gleeson assumes wrongly that the faithful play on an even field with the Magisterium when engaging in doctrinal discernment. Fr. Woods wrote:

Fr. Gerald Gleeson enters the discussion with reference to c. 749/3: "No doctrine is understood to be infallibly defined unless this is manifestly demonstrated." He maintains that while strictly this applies only to solemn definitions, it should also analogously apply to the "ordinary" or undefined teaching of the bishops dispersed throughout the world. Yet, in contrast to clearly established criteria for recognizing papal infallibility, neither Vatican II nor the Code of Canon Law identifies the criteria for recognizing what is the "manifestly demonstrated" teaching of the world's bishops. He maintains that this is a matter for serious theological reflection. He posits that the 1995 CDF statement (ordination reserved to men) is a theological opinion that does not amount to a "manifest demonstration" that a teaching is infallible, "and only a manifest demonstration can demand the assent due to infallible teaching."

We ask of Fr. Gleeson: Who stands in need of this "manifest demonstration" about the infallibility of a teaching? Is it the Magisterium, or is it the faithful? Is it the College of Bishops in union with the Pope who are anointed by the Spirit to discern infallibility? Or does Christ anoint the hearers of the doctrine, namely the faithful including Fathers Woods and Gleeson, with this power? The response is that the Magisterium, and not necessarily the body of the faithful, has need of this charisma provided by the Holy Spirit, to identify infallibly the doctrines of the faith. For the Magisterium it is essential to discern in the Depositum a manifest demonstration of a doctrine that it teaches. The faithful also participate in this discernment when they receive the doctrine in obedience to its teachers. The Magisterium must know WHAT it teaches, the faithful must know THAT the Magisterium is teaching. The Magisterium discerns the doctrine in the Depositum, the faithful then receive the teaching in obedience as articulated by the Magisterium.

The Apostolic Letter "Priestly Ordination Reserved to Men Alone," which the Pope issued on May 22 1994, proposes the teaching in plain words. The sentences are manifestly intelligible:

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 faithful maintained by the Oriental Churches...

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 (The Pope SpeaksVol. 39, No. 5, pp. 319, 321).

The Magisterium has the obligation to not teach a doctrine as infallible unless the Magisterium itself finds it to be manifestly demonstrated in the Depositum. But the Magisterium is not prevented from teaching the same even if its internal truth is not manifest to the body of the faithful. The flaw in the reasoning of Fr. Woods and Fr. Gleeson is their non-advertence to this continental-divider which marks the difference between the Teaching and the Hearing Church.

Why Christ did not call His Mother Mary to the priesthood, and other holy women who followed Him closely during His earthly life, is known better to Himself than to us. If the Vicar of Christ were inclined to contest the teaching, it would be a matter between the Teaching Church and Christ, not between the body of the faithful and the Magisterium. Fathers Woods and Gleeson and the rest of us hoi polloi are members of the "Hearing Church" who know how to listen and to obey, whose practice of virtue is to believe first of all, with the hope that understanding will follow. Whether the body of believers also find a doctrine to be manifestly demonstrated in the Tradition, or whether not, is not the hinge on which infallibility swings. If the Magisterium binds a teaching to be received by us as infallible, this is a sure sign for us that the Teaching Authority, on whom Christ has established the Church, understands this doctrine to be manifestly demonstrated in the Depositum. That is sufficient to establish its infallibility. Whether the Listening Church agrees with the Teaching Church is of pastoral importance, but it is not the criterion by which the truth of a doctrine becomes manifestly demonstrated.

The Magisterium doesn't pretend to know why Christ decided to ordain only men; but it does know that "Christ established things in this way" (see Apostolic Letter May 22, 1994). Clearly, Christ chose to call twelve apostles to be priests, and they were all men. For three years He trained them and taught them His ways in preparation for their future work. When the time came for His departure, He had them prepare for the Passover Supper.

And when the hour came, he sat at table, and the apostles with him. And he said to them, "I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you I shall not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God."... And he took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, "This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me." And likewise the cup after supper, saying, "This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood" (Lk 22:14-16;19-20).

No contestation against ordaining only men is recorded in the Scriptures. The Acts relate how various problems pressed upon the Church and how she dealt with them one after the other: Judas had gone his way, so they cast lots for another to take his place; Hellenists murmured against the Hebrews because of an inequity in the daily distribution of food, so they elected deacons to take care of the problem; taboos against "unclean" foods were still ritualized in the emerging Church, but the Council of Jerusalem set them aside; the Spirit had come upon Cornelius and his household who were baptized without submitting to the Jewish practices, and this precedent was upheld as legitimate; circumcision became non-obligatory; food offered to idols could be consumed provided there was no major scandal. The problems were many, and were solved gradually. Conspicuous by its absence is mention of a problem about the male priesthood. Evidently the early Church received the rule peacefully as mandated by Christ.

Do we have reason to contest it today? Because Christ mandates the practice, any contestation against it would more properly be made by the Magisterium against Christ, than by the faithful against the pope. Even if the Magisterium were inclined to contest it, to exchange opinions with Christ, He is beyond reach of such contestation. What is left for the Church, then, but to "stare decisis," to stand by the Tradition? Like Job, we may be aching and hurting to have the Church confront Christ and argue, but Christ cannot be summoned into court. He made His revelation once and for all, and when the last Apostle died, public revelation ceased. Like Job, we have to wait for a response until we meet the Lord:

Oh, that I knew where I might find him, That I might come even to his seat!
I would lay my case before him
and fill my mouth with arguments...
There an upright man could reason with him,
and I should be acquitted for ever by my judge.
Behold, I go forward, but he is not there;
and backward, but I cannot perceive him (Job 23:3- 5;7-8).

Faith Comes by Hearing

Unlike science and mathematics, we appropriate revealed doctrine by hearing, not by intuition, not by wise human counsel, not by astute reasoning. When Christ announced the mystery of the Holy Eucharist, "the Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, `How can this man give us his flesh to eat?'" (Jn 6:52). Jesus did not stoop to explain how. He said it, didn't He? That must be enough. He said to the Twelve: "Will you also go away?" (Jn 6:67). Had they gone, that would have ended their apostolic career. For Jesus it was essential that they believe Him and obey Him. It was not essential that they understand the Mystery. The bottom line was: BELIEVE! If you can't understand how this can be, believe anyway.

"Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth" begins the Encyclical Fides et Ratio. Reason is of our own making and wells up from within us. Revelation is not of our own making but is received by hearing from a source outside of us. Reasoning people had obvious objections against the Holy Eucharist: "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" Reasoning people today can find a hundred arguments why the Church ought to admit women to the ordained priesthood. What is decisive here, however, is not reason but Christ's decision.

The Church learned much from Christ, and recalls mysteriously what she needs to know of these teachings by the prompting of the Holy Spirit. Much that Christ taught during His lifetime on earth and before His Ascension may not be articulated in the written words of Scripture and Tradition. Parents teach their children more by their action as role models than by means of words. In like manner, the Church looks to Christ and to the Apostolic Tradition as to a role model. Non-ordination of women is apparently one of the unspoken Traditions that the Church received from the Apostles, without need of a record of written words. The Tradition is still alive, kept so by the Holy Spirit, who lives the Gospel within the Church: "For he dwells with you, and will be in you...He will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you" (Jn 14:17,26). If the Pope alone, and/or if the College of Bishops with the Pope as its head, believe that the reservation of the priesthood for men is manifestly demonstrated in the Tradition, that is decisive.

The Apostolic Tradition, we know, does not grow out of the faith of the body of believers. The faithful receive the teachings of Tradition, they do not compose them. They receive by hearing, by being instructed, and by obeying the Tradition as proclaimed with authority by the College of Bishops in union with Peter. The saying "We are Church" is not true if the hearers are cut off from the authorized teachers and custodians of the Tradition handed down by the Apostles. Paul thundered to the Galatians: "As we have said before, so now I say again, If any one is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed" (1:9). If we look for the Church to grow out of the grass roots level, we look in vain. Christ set His Church squarely on a solid Rock, not on spongy grass. And the Rock is Peter. Saint Irenaeus has some good advice for us about looking to Rome for the true Tradition.


When Irenaeus (125-207) was a priest and then bishop of Lyons in France, the echo of apostolic teaching still rang in his ears. He knew Polycarp, who knew John, who knew Jesus. Irenaeus loved the Tradition, and made this love contagious through his works. "Everything in Irenaeus is bathed in a warm and radiant joy, a wise and majestic gentleness. His words of struggle are hard as iron and crystal clear...so penetrating that they cannot fail to enlighten the unbiased observer," wrote Hans Urs von Balthasar (cover, The Scandal of the Incarnation, Ignatius Press, 1990).

"Go To Rome For Pure Doctrine"

Dissenters against Catholic teaching got nowhere with Irenaeus. "Listen to Rome," he said simply, he said always, he said with finality. He wrote in Adversus Haereses:

The tradition of the apostles, which has been manifested throughout the world, can be examined by all who want to see the truth. We can enumerate the bishops instituted by the apostles in the Churches, and their successors down to our own day. These men never taught nor knew anything like what [the heretics] rave about today...

It would be too tedious, in a work like this, to go through the succession lists of all the Churches. We shall, therefore, take just one, the greatest, most ancient Church, the Church known to all, the Church founded and established in Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul. By showing that the tradition which she received from the apostles, the faith which she proclaims to men, has come down to us through the succession of bishops, we confuse all those who, in whatever manner,...set up conventicles. With this Church, because of its more excellent origin, every Church (in other words, the faithful everywhere) must agree (Against the Heretics,III,3,1-3; translation by John Saward in The Scandal of the Incarnation, 80).

Linus, the one whom Paul mentions in his letters to Timothy, followed Peter, continues Irenaeus; then came Anacletus, and after him Clement. (The translation of the next paragraphs is mine):

And because Clement himself saw the apostles and dealt with them, their preaching was still ringing in his ears; the picture of their tradition was still fixed in his eyes. Not he alone but many others who had been taught by the apostles were still alive. Under this Clement, when no small dissension arose among brethren living in Corinth, the Church that is in Rome wrote powerful letters to call them together in peace, to repair their faith, and to announce the tradition which had recently been received from the apostles.

The letters proclaimed one God who is almighty, who made heaven and earth, who fashioned man, who brought on the cataclysm [flood], who called Abraham, who led the people out of the land of Egypt, who spoke with Moses, who dispensed the law and sent the prophets, who prepared the fire for the devil and his angels. This is the Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ who is proclaimed by the Church. They [the Corinthians] can learn from the Scriptures themselves if they want to, and thereby come to know the apostolic tradition of the Church; for those letters are older than (the people) who are now teaching falsehoods, who lie that another God above the Demiurge is the maker of all these things that exist.

The successor to this Clement was Evaristus; after Evaristus came Alexander; then Sixtus was constituted the sixth successor to the apostles; then Telesphorus who also performed a glorious martyrdom; then Hyginus, then Pius, after whom came Anicetus. And after Ancetus came Soter; now the twelfth bishop after the apostles is Eleutherius.

By this sequence and succession the tradition in the Church, the very same one that came down from the Apostles, and the knowledge of the truth, has come down to us as well. And this is the most solid proof that the one and same life-giving faith which has been preserved in the Church from the apostles until now, is identically the same one which has been handed to us in its genuine content (III,3,3).

Take it from Irenaeus: never settle for any teaching which differs from that of Rome. If you're a teacher, a priest, a parent, learn straight from the Catechism which was made in Rome. Check it against dissenters. If they differ from Rome, don't believe them. Bless the priest, the catechist, the bishop, who is as wise as Irenaeus. After Eleutherius the line of Rome's bishops continues unbroken until today, when Pope John Paul II wears the stole as the 263rd successor of Peter. He still teaches what Clement taught, what Eleutherius taught, what Christ taught.

The Gnostics who opposed Irenaeus are dead and gone, and their teachings remain as a curious monument of ancient history. Whereas the teachings of Rome, now gathered into the Catechism, remain eternally consistent and applicable from generation to generation. The content is still as the Bishop of Lyons taught it, as Peter learned it from Christ, and as he recalled it by the prompting of the Holy Spirit. Fashions come and fashions go, but the teaching of Rome will endure until the end of time, until this globe eschatologically heats up and liquefies and evaporates in a spectacular fiery conflagration.

But we ask again: Why?

Christ knows very well why He ordained men only, better than we can ever know. Surely, the reason is not that He does not love women. The women whom He personally designed when He, with the Father and the Spirit, created man "male and female." How can He not love what He makes, even more than an artist loves what he paints? He knows the dynamics of the people whom He made. May I speculate about one possible reason why He chose not to ordain women to the priesthood. It is a providential decision I think - other reasons aside - made by One who knows what is in man. It is designed specially to guarantee that reluctant males will come to church and do their share of praying.

I remember attending Mass on Christmas in Havana before Castro came into power in the early 1950's. Men escorted their wives and children as far as the door of the church; the wives and children entered, but the men sat down outside on the sunny steps. They smoked cigars and chatted while the while the women did the praying..

"Women are more spiritual; men are more materialistic." So taught Dr. Alphonse Clemens who conducted a family life course for many years at the Catholic University of America. If true, then men might not come to church very much if there were no need for them at the altar.

"Men believe in things like seek your own counsel and so forth. The men see themselves as independent, silent, strong, self sustaining, determined, resolute; but it's the sort of determination that often makes them keep right on driving EAST when all the signs indicate they are going WEST. Despite some subtle communication from the wife that the sun does not usually set in the east." So spoke Professor of Psychiatry at Creighton University, Beverley T. Mead, M.D. at a Human Life International Convention some years ago. It appears that it is harder for the men to acknowledge their dependence on God, to get down on their knees, than it is for women. Had Christ not astutely arranged that only men can be priests, thereby also encouraging fathers and husbands to do their share of praying, perhaps there would be far less prayer on earth by males.

Mothers pull the ears of boys when they don't say their prayers. And girls tattle on the boys who misbehave in church, or make funny faces to distract them. Women wash the altar linen whose need Father doesn't see. They also bring fresh flowers to the altar, and they pretty up the boys and girls for First Holy Communion. If Christ had not picked men only for the priesthood, men might not come to church very much on Sundays. The faithful might be mostly by women, the men would behave even worse than they do now, and the choirs of heaven might become unbalanced with predominantly soprano singers but few bass voices. Maybe. At any rate, women should be eternally grateful to Christ that men pray at all. If women pay a price by sitting in the pews while a man monopolizes the seat of the presider, so be it. Would our Church have lasted through the ages if Christ had made different arrangements about ordination? I say, perhaps. At any rate, Christ knows best why He ordained only men to the priesthood and made this a fixture in the Church. Let not His arrangement trouble us unduly.

Shall we nevertheless agitate for womens' ordination?

Why agitate for what will not be changed? It is Christ who began the Tradition. He would not come - so we should expect - even if an "ordained" woman would pronounce the words of Consecration. The bread would remain bread, the wine would remain wine, no change, no transubstantiation. Yet, by agitating, eventually some Bishop might "ordain" women, and so begin a sorry chapter in the local area. The Preacher is right: "I know that whatever God does endures forever; for nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has made it so, in order that men should fear before him" (Eccles 3:14).

Why agitate for what will never be, especially when the futile commotion disturbs the faith of sensitive believers? Feminists are out there inflaming innocent people with an animus against the Church. That is not exactly what Christ expects of Catholic people in influential positions. Inflammatory rhetoric is dangerous. Proverbs warns: "Like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows, and death, is the man who deceives his neighbor and says `I am only joking'" (26, 18-19). In Nigeria recently a pipeline burst and spewed out gasoline in geysers. Hundreds came with buckets to collect free fuel for their homes, getting soaked in the process. Then a spark flew. In a split second flames flashed down the line and people holding buckets full of gasoline became screaming firebrands. Some 600 died.

Today many more than 600 believers have been set afire by agitation for womens' ordination. Some of them literally scream with resentment against the Church. Troublemakers should take heed. Far better that we all encourage our fellow believers to listen to Peter. Christ gave Peter to the Church to confirm us in truth. Pope John Paul II reminds us in Fides et Ratio: "The obedience of faith must be given to God who reveals himself." To which he adds: "This brief but dense statement points to a fundamental truth of Christianity. Faith is said first to be an obedient response to God." He was not referring specifically to faith in the reservation of ordination for men. Nevertheless this is the same pope who also wrote: "The Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and...this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful."