Human Dignity and Rights in the Context of Gender and the Sacramental Priesthood

In: Interdisciplinary Journal for Religion and Transformation in Contemporary Society
Tina Beattie School of Humanities, Digby Stuart College, University of Roehampton London UK

Search for other papers by Tina Beattie in
Current site
Google Scholar
Open Access


This paper considers the question of women’s ordination to the sacramental priesthood in the context of human dignity and rights. Differentiating between two forms of ontological or intrinsic dignity – the universal dignity of the human being made in the imago Dei, and the particular dignity of those baptised into the imago Trinitatis – it argues that the refusal of ordination to women is a violation of baptismal dignity that constitutes a refusal of women’s rights. It analyses the arguments against women’s ordination and shows them to be based on a misreading of Thomas Aquinas, on the innovative concept of sexual complementarity which has replaced the earlier hierarchical model of sexual difference, and on appeals to mystery that might be better described as mystification. It concludes that the refusal to allow women to respond to the call to ordination is based on a modern form of essentialised sexual difference that is alien to the Catholic tradition and that violates Christological orthodoxy, insofar as it suggests that women are not able to image Christ.


This paper considers the question of women’s ordination to the sacramental priesthood in the context of human dignity and rights. Differentiating between two forms of ontological or intrinsic dignity – the universal dignity of the human being made in the imago Dei, and the particular dignity of those baptised into the imago Trinitatis – it argues that the refusal of ordination to women is a violation of baptismal dignity that constitutes a refusal of women’s rights. It analyses the arguments against women’s ordination and shows them to be based on a misreading of Thomas Aquinas, on the innovative concept of sexual complementarity which has replaced the earlier hierarchical model of sexual difference, and on appeals to mystery that might be better described as mystification. It concludes that the refusal to allow women to respond to the call to ordination is based on a modern form of essentialised sexual difference that is alien to the Catholic tradition and that violates Christological orthodoxy, insofar as it suggests that women are not able to image Christ.

1 Introduction

In this paper I reflect on the ordination of women in the context of human dignity and in relation to the question of rights. My argument is speculative, open to challenge, and hinges on several distinctions with regard to the meaning of dignity.

I make a number of ontological claims in what follows, but I do so in the awareness that ontology is a disputed concept with different interpretations. My use of ontological language is, as will be seen, more by way of socially constructed narratives about the meaning of human existence than as an abstract philosophical concept. Within the narrative of the Catholic theological tradition, certain universal claims are made about what it means to be human, but these claims to universality are particular to this tradition. I am not denying that they may have deep resonances with other traditions, but they cannot be taken as meaning the same for every religious, cultural and philosophical worldview. For example, an ontology based on a linear concept of time within which the mortal human exists for a finite period as a unique individual who is subject to divine judgement (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), is very different from an ontology based on a cyclical concept of time within which life appears in many different forms in a hierarchy of beings determined by karma (Hinduism and Buddhism). These are complex issues, but my point is that an ontological claim only has demonstrable meaning within a wider narrative about the meaning of existence, and these narratives vary across cultures and religions.

I use ontological language in the context of contemporary Catholic doctrine, situating my analysis in a narrative context in which terms derive their meaning from the functions they perform in particular linguistic and social contexts. I would add the caveat that, contrary to the claims of some post-conciliar traditionalists, Catholic terms of reference change their meaning as the tradition flows through different historical and cultural contexts, morphing to fit the material realities within which faith finds incarnate expression. The quest to give linguistic expression to the divine mysteries meanders its historical path through dense thickets of analogical and metaphorical meanings intended to acknowledge that the elusive mystery they seek to name is beyond all human concepts. A living tradition develops by way of metamorphosis. Metaphorically speaking, one could say that its DNA remains the same, but its forms of life may change dramatically in different stages and ages. The Catholic tradition derives its enduring relevance from its capacity to use language and ritual creatively and dynamically. To suggest that such a tradition is best secured by imposing an essentially unchanging set of rules on the messy flux of the human condition is to subscribe to a modern literalist approach which displays a high degree of historical ignorance about how linguistic traditions function.

With those preliminary caveats in mind, in what follows I consider how claims are made with regard to the indelible or permanent character of baptism and the sacramental priesthood in modern Catholic doctrine and theology, in order to assess the significance of gender for priestly ordination. Focusing on human dignity and the rights associated with it, I ask if the essential maleness of the ordained priesthood can be interpreted as a violation of the dignity and rights of women, and on what basis such a charge could be made.

In raising these questions, I acknowledge at the outset that the sacramental priesthood is not a right but a vocation that makes sense only within the tradition of the Catholic faith in its doctrines, liturgies and ministries. Before one can argue for ordination in terms of equal rights and opportunities, one must ask if it is coherent to do so within the context of that tradition. Does it make sense for a woman to claim a vocation to ordination, if she is making such a claim within the parameters of the Catholic understanding of priesthood, sacramentality and ecclesiology? Only if the answer to that question is yes can we begin to ask if it is a violation of her dignity and rights to refuse to allow her to test that vocation by offering herself as a candidate for ordination through a process of personal and communal discernment and formation.

Let me begin then, by asking what is at stake if we make human dignity a central organising focus for reflections on sacramentality, equality, and rights.

2 Forms of Dignity

The term dignity has a long and complex history and is widely contested in contemporary philosophical and theological discourse.1 Nevertheless, it is foundational to modern Catholic theological anthropology and ethics, even if its meaning remains open to debate in terms of its ontological significance. For my purposes here I am using interpretations found in post-conciliar theological writings and church teachings on the topic. I should add that I am focusing only on human dignity, but in his 2015 encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’, Pope Francis refers to “the intrinsic dignity of creation”.2 This applies the concept of dignity in a much wider context which has far-reaching implications for the doctrine of creation.

First, I propose a distinction between two forms of ontological human dignity – that which derives from being created in the imago Dei, and that which derives from being created anew through baptismal rebirth in the imago Trinitatis. The first is ontological, inviolable and universal, the second is ontological, inviolable and particular. This is not in any sense a hierarchical relationship that would imply that the human dignity of the baptised is greater than the dignity of the rest of humankind. It is rather a recognition that Catholic teaching regards the sacrament of baptism, along with confirmation and ordination, as effecting an irreversible and unrepeatable change in a person’s way of being in the world – an insertion into an ontological narrative about the meaning of life which goes to the very core of that person’s identity and sense of self.

Some would challenge the appeal to ontology in this context, arguing that references in the doctrinal tradition to an indelible mark or character or a spiritual seal do not constitute an ontological change. Andrew Boyd cautiously suggests that it might be more acceptable to speak of a change in our “ontological relationships”.3 However, if we understand the nature of being as essentially relational – an anthropological insight which informs much contemporary theological and philosophical reflection – then I suggest that there is an ontological change if all our relationships are permanently transformed by a sacramental rite. Otherwise, we have to posit some abstract level of being at which the essence of what it means to be human floats free of all linguistic, relational and interdependent contexts, and that would be inconsistent with the Catholic understanding of the person made in the image of God and interwoven with all other forms of created life. This relational understanding of being was obscured by what Pope Francis refers to as the “excessive anthropocentrism” of modernity,4 but it surges back into view in Laudato Si’ and in many recent feminist and contextual theologies. It is in this relational context that I use the language of ontology.

With regard to the ontological and inviolable dignity of the human made in the image of God, this has been a consistent aspect of church teaching from the beginning, even if the historical application of the teaching has been less than consistent and the terminology has varied in different eras and contexts. Those whose human worth was ranked according to social status in the ancient world – in descending hierarchies from the male citizen down to women, slaves and children – were recognised from the beginning of the Church as fully and equally human ontologically and eschatologically, even if in the order of creation the male sex was by nature authoritative and the female sex was by nature subordinate (about which I shall say more later). Whenever the universal equality of human personhood has been called into question, whether by the conquistadores encountering indigenous peoples in Latin America in the sixteenth century, or Darwinians seeking to apply the theory of evolution to differentiate between fully and partially evolved humans or even to assign some races to different species in the context of later imperial encounters, in teaching if not in practice Catholicism has always upheld the fundamental equality of all humankind. Today that would be understood in the context of the dignity that derives from being created in the imago Dei.5

The modern concept of universal human rights is grounded in an affirmation of the inherent human dignity from which all rights flow. The Preface to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”.6 For an understanding of the inviolable nature of human dignity in Catholic teaching, we might turn to Pope Francis’s Evangelii Gaudium, where he writes that God confers upon all humans “an infinite dignity”7 and “no one can strip us of the dignity bestowed upon us by [Christ’s] boundless and unfailing love”.8 Elsewhere, in expressing the modern Church’s opposition to the death penalty, he writes that “not even a murderer loses his personal dignity, and God himself pledges to guarantee this”.9

This concept of dignity needs to be further refined in the context of what James Hanvey refers to as extrinsic and intrinsic dignity.10 Intrinsic dignity is ontological and absolute. Extrinsic dignity is teleological and contingent. In classical treatments of the subject, it is the dignity that belongs to different ranks and offices in the social order, but it can be used more broadly to refer to our personal characteristics and virtues in relation to how we live our lives and perform the roles assigned to us. The good life is one in which extrinsic dignity accrues through the exercise of discipline in the service of virtue. We can squander our extrinsic dignity through sin, and it can be violated by others through abuse, injustice and exploitation. When we abuse others, we diminish our extrinsic dignity, but no violation whether as perpetrator or victim can deprive a person of their intrinsic dignity.

If we apply these distinctions to the three relationally ontological sacraments, a question arises about how dignity is to be understood with regard to baptism, confirmation, and ordination. My proposal here is that baptism is strictly speaking the only sacrament which can be termed ontological, insofar as it brings about a change in a person’s being that is the precondition for every other sacrament: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here” (2 Corinthians 17). Pedro Lombardia describes baptism as “a person’s ontological-sacramental insertion into the people of God”.11 As a relevant aside, it is important to remember that in Catholic theology grace works with rather than against nature. The old is transformed, not destroyed, and nothing is lost – all is redeemed and renewed by grace through baptism. Even if confirmation and ordination are regarded as permanent marks upon a person’s character (here I set aside possible objections to these claims), only baptism constitutes the transformation by grace of an individual made in the imago Dei into a person organically and ontologically incorporated into the body of Christ through rebirth in the imago Trinitatis.

Baptism brings with it the gift of grace by way of which the Holy Spirit inspires a person to grow into the likeness of Christ in all their attitudes and activities in the world, but even if this gift is refused, the baptism remains valid. So, we could say that the baptised have intrinsic or ontological and inviolable dignity because they are remade in the imago Trinitatis, even when they violate their extrinsic dignity by failing to live a Christian life. They do not cease to be baptised members of the body of Christ when they transgress, however extreme the transgression. Even excommunication does not undo the reality of baptism. In the words of the Catechism:

Incorporated into Christ by Baptism, the person baptized is configured to Christ. Baptism seals the Christian with the indelible spiritual mark (character) of his belonging to Christ. No sin can erase this mark, even if sin prevents Baptism from bearing the fruits of salvation. Given once for all, Baptism cannot be repeated.12

It might be helpful here to refer to Robert Rodes’s suggestion that the validity of a rite can be understood by way of J.L. Austen’s concept of “performative utterances”.13 These are socially and/or legally binding linguistic acts that do not offer information or express emotion or function according to any other normal linguistic usage. Rather, they enact a change in status that brings with it new rights, duties and relationships.

If we apply this to baptism, the baptised person has certain fundamental rights which are not earned but are freely given by God through grace to the baptised, and these are the sacraments that correspond to the natural stages of life and are formative of the new life in Christ initiated by baptism. The Catechism summarises what this means:

Christ instituted the sacraments of the new law. There are seven: Baptism, Confirmation (or Chrismation), the Eucharist, Penance, the Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders and Matrimony. The seven sacraments touch all the stages and all the important moments of Christian life: they give birth and increase, healing and mission to the Christian’s life of faith. There is thus a certain resemblance between the stages of natural life and the stages of the spiritual life. […] [T]he sacraments form an organic whole in which each particular sacrament has its own vital place. In this organic whole, the Eucharist occupies a unique place as the ‘Sacrament of sacraments’: ‘all the other sacraments are ordered to it as to their end.’14

Ordination, then, corresponds to a stage of sacramental life when a fully formed adult responds to a vocation. This sacrament, however, is denied to women on account of their sex even though they are incorporated into the body of Christ by baptism, nurtured along life’s way by the Eucharist, and able to mark the stages and transitions of life by way of the other sacraments. Why should sex rather than baptism be the criterion for deciding who is called to ordination? I want to consider that question now.

3 The Rights of the Baptised

The debate about women’s ordination is sometimes formulated in the language of equality and rights – terms borrowed from secular discourse that many argue are not appropriate in the context of ordination, because ordination is a vocation and not a right. My response is yes and no, and this is where I distinguish between the ontological universality of human dignity and the ontological particularity of baptismal dignity. Only if a teaching can be shown to violate either of these forms of dignity can it be challenged in the language of rights.

Perhaps the clearest definition of the rights associated with human dignity is that offered by the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes, which refers to

a growing awareness of the exalted dignity proper to the human person, since he or she stands above all things, and his or her rights and duties are universal and inviolable. Therefore, there must be made available to all people everything necessary for leading a life truly human, such as food, clothing, and shelter; the right to choose a state of life freely and to found a family, the right to education, to employment, to a good reputation, to respect, to appropriate information, to activity in accord with the upright norm of one’s own conscience, to protection of privacy and rightful freedom even in matters religious.15

My appeal to dignity in this paper relates to the vocation to the sacramental priesthood as an expression of “the right to choose a state of life freely, […] to respect, to appropriate information, to activity in accord with the upright norm of one’s own conscience, […] and rightful freedom even in matters religious.” I ask, if a baptised Catholic woman in good standing with the Church is convinced that she has a vocation to ordination, is it a denial of these rights and therefore a violation of her dignity to forbid her from responding to that vocation in a way that is consistent with ecclesiological and sacramental conditions pertaining to ordination? If the only reason for denying such a person an opportunity to test her vocation is the fact of her biological sex, is that in itself a sufficient reason?

Rights and duties go hand in hand. The right to religious freedom originates in the believer’s fundamental duty to God, because where there is a duty there must be a corresponding right. In the Catholic tradition, participation in the sacraments is an essential aspect of the duty to worship God, and therefore the baptised have a right to the sacraments. To quote Terence Tierney, “Full access to the table of the Word and the Bread and Cup are natural, or perhaps supernatural, rights which inhere in the profession of belief and celebration of baptism.”16 This means that the church authorities have a corresponding duty to meet these rights, and the faithful must trust that there will be enough people called to the sacramental priesthood to provide access to the sacraments. Those who are called to the priesthood by God have a duty to respond, and that means they have a right to respond, and the church authorities have a duty to honour that right.

Unless it can decisively be shown that there is something in the very nature of the female body that precludes ordination, then to deny ordination solely on the grounds of sex is a violation of the rights owed to women on account of their baptism. In situations such as today when there is a shortage of priests, it is also a denial of the right of the baptised to have access to the Eucharist. There is of course a process of discernment and selection – “many are called but few are chosen” (Matthew 22:14) – but sex alone should not be a factor in that process. All must be treated as equals according to the baptismal formula of Galatians 3:26–29:

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. Here is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

In the transformation of being that Saint Paul describes, the biological kinship group with its natural gendered hierarchies and allegiances loses its claim upon the baptised, who are initiated into a new form of interpersonal unity through communal participation in the Church. This baptismal kinship group is predicated upon adoption. Baptism calls individuals out of the community of natural or biological inheritance and makes them children of God the Father through incorporation into the maternal body of the Church which constitutes the sacramental body of the Son through the mediation of the Spirit.

The right of access to the sacraments – including the priesthood – does not pertain to the ontological dignity of the human but to the ontological dignity of the baptised. It makes no sense to speak of a universal right to any sacrament in the language of secular human rights discourse but only in the context of the baptismal, eucharistic community. However, men have a right of access to seven sacraments, but one of these – Holy Orders – is denied to women solely on account of biological sex.

I appeal to ontology (intrinsic dignity) rather than ethics (extrinsic dignity), because I want to resist arguments that support women’s ordination as a means to improve the moral character of the priesthood or to challenge clericalism. It may well achieve these secondary aims, but ordination is a mystery of grace and not a rational means to a practical end. Extrinsic dignity – i.e. moral character and integrity – is a factor in the process of discernment and selection of candidates for ordination, but women as well as men must by right have access to that process because the right inheres in the dignity of the baptised, unless it can be shown that there is a substantial and valid reason why the female body is excluded from this particular sacrament.

4 Women’s Dignity and Ordination

So, what are the arguments that justify the exclusion of women from the sacramental priesthood? Do these arguments stand up to scrutiny in the light of my suggestion that the capacity for ordination belongs to the ontological dignity of the baptised? I consider Pope John Paul II’s 1988 apostolic letter “On the Dignity and Vocation of Women” (Mulieris Dignitatem), focusing on questions of dignity, vocation, and ordination.

Mulieris Dignitatem affirms “the essential equality of man and woman from the point of view of their humanity. […] The woman is another ‘I’ in a common humanity”.17 Humankind “is created in the image and likeness of God [which] means that the human is called to exist ‘for’ others, to become a gift.”18 The document lists numerous ways in which the Bible refers to God in both masculine and feminine terms, and it insists upon the analogical nature of all such language. “Thus even ‘fatherhood’ in God is completely divine and free of the ‘masculine’ bodily characteristics proper to human fatherhood”.19

This analogical perspective should introduce a strong sense of caution about any attempt to make a literal connection between the sexed human body and the divine mystery. However, the language of sexual difference in Mulieris Dignitatem is inconsistent, for it is used analogically or metaphorically in some places (i.e., in the language of gender) and literally in others (i.e., in the language of biological sex), with no attempt to explain why this is so. Particularly with regard to the language of femininity, womanhood and motherhood, it shifts between applying these terms exclusively to women as ontological characteristics specific to the female sex and applying them more generally to the Church and humankind in ways that deconstruct their ontological significance. So, as woman, Mary is, writes John Paul II, “the representative and archetype of the whole human race; she represents the humanity which belongs to all human beings, both men and women.”20 Her motherhood is not just bodily but spiritual, and this spiritual motherhood is inclusive. It is a model and type of the motherhood of the Church. However, then the text shifts to a more exclusive portrayal of Mary as signifying “the fullness of the perfection of ‘what is characteristic of woman’, of ‘what is feminine’”. She is “the culminating point, the archetype, of the personal dignity of women”.21

John Paul II cannot develop the elaborate analogies and gendered fluidities of Mulieris Dignitatem in the direction they lead because he must defend the exclusion of women from the sacramental priesthood. The Bride is “a collective subject, […] a community made up of many persons”, in such a way that “all human beings – both women and men – are called through the Church, to be the ‘Bride’ of Christ […] In this way, ‘being the bride’, and thus the ‘feminine’ element, becomes a symbol of all that is ‘human’”.22 Femininity thus has porous boundaries and shifting meanings, but masculinity is not analogous when it applies to Christ and the priesthood – though short of priestly ordination, it too would seem to have a certain fluidity.

With regard to the maleness of Christ, John Paul II writes that “Christ is the Bridegroom. […] The symbol of the Bridegroom is masculine”. He continues to say that Christ

revealed […] the dignity belonging to women from the very “beginning” on an equal footing with men. […] Christ’s attitude towards women serves as a model of what the Letter to the Ephesians expresses with the concept of “bridegroom”. Precisely because Christ’s divine love is the love of a Bridegroom, it is the model and pattern of all human love, men’s love in particular.23

This inclusive model (all human love) is then qualified with reference to ordination:

Against the broad background of the “great mystery” expressed in the spousal relationship between Christ and the Church, it is possible to understand adequately the calling of the “Twelve”. In calling only men as his Apostles, Christ acted in a completely free and sovereign manner.24

There follows a tortuous reflection on the priesthood of all believers in the context of nuptial theology, along with the affirmation that:

All the baptized share in the one priesthood of Christ, both men and women […]. Universal participation in Christ’s sacrifice, in which the Redeemer has offered to the Father the whole world and humanity in particular, brings it about that all in the Church are a “kingdom of priests”.25

It is impossible to discern a coherent anthropology within Mulieris Dignitatem, because it imposes the transcendent mystery of the symbols and sacraments of redemption upon the ordering of human sexual relationships and identities in such a way that time and again it forgets the metaphorical nature of that to which it refers and shifts to a more essentialist and literal interpretation. Christ and the Church are the Bride and the Bridegroom into whose relationship all the baptised are incorporated. Mulieris Dignitatem affirms that masculinity and femininity are attributed to God only analogically, and divine generativity is not to be identified with human sexual procreation. Femininity embraces a complex array of gendered identities, referring to female bodies as virgins, mothers and brides, but also to male bodies. It refers collectively to humankind, and to the Church. Masculinity has a less clearly articulated generic significance, but it refers exclusively and only to the male body as the Bridegroom, Christ, in the priesthood. In fact, we could go so far as to suggest that there are no men in creation, only women. The ordained body puts on a divinised masculinity over and above its essentially feminine nature when it stands on the altar in persona Christi, in a nuptial ecclesiology that has become worryingly literal in its sexual allusions under Hans Urs von Balthasar’s influence.26

For all its inspiring insights into the potential of nuptial and maternal analogies of love, Mulieris Dignitatem offers no substantial account of a gendered aspect of human dignity that would be unique to women. Nevertheless, as bridegroom Christ is masculine, and that which is feminine can never occupy the position of the essentially masculine priesthood. In seeking to explain the concept of complementarity in a way that would affirm the personal dignity of women while also affirming the exclusive masculinity of the priesthood, John Paul II leaves us with a model of essential man (only men can be priests because the Bridegroom is masculine) and inessential woman (all are called to be the Church as Bride).

Perhaps the most worrying claim is in the 1976 Declaration on the Question of Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood (Inter Insigniores), published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. There, Thomas Aquinas is invoked in support of the following claim:

‘Sacramental signs,’ says Saint Thomas, ‘represent what they signify by natural resemblance.’ The same natural resemblance is required for persons as for things: when Christ’s role in the Eucharist is to be expressed sacramentally, there would not be this ‘natural resemblance’ which must exist between Christ and his minister if the role of Christ were not taken by a man: in such a case it would be difficult to see in the minister the image of Christ. For Christ himself was and remains a man.27

Italian theologian Andrea Grillo points out that such interpretations are “not understood according to their original version, but distorted and bent to new demands”.28 Drawing on the work of Serena Noceti, Selene Zorzi and others, Grillo argues that Thomas is concerned with the relationship between priesthood and authority. His argument against women’s ordination is based not on theology but on an appeal to reason, informed by the beliefs of his time which understood women to be by nature subordinate to men. Since women naturally lack the authority associated with priesthood, they cannot be priests.

Applying these insights directly to a question I posed in social media about that quotation from Thomas in Inter Insigniores, Grillo demonstrates that the quotation is primarily concerned with different kinds of subjugation which are an impediment to ordination. In the section of the Summa Theologiae dealing with the creation of woman, Thomas distinguishes between two kinds of subjection. There is subjection as servility where a person is subject for the benefit of a superior, which comes after sin. However, another form of subjection is when it is exercised for the benefit of the one being subjected, and it is for woman’s own good that she is naturally subject to man “because in man the discretion of reason predominates”.29 This form of subjection is part of the order of creation and is not a consequence of sin. So, argues Grillo, according to Thomas

the slave is such ‘for the interests of others’, while the woman is subject ‘for her own good’; the slave is such ‘by tradition and convention’, while the woman is subject ‘by nature’. For these ‘rational’ reasons, the slave can emancipate himself, and the impediment against him works ‘necessitate praecepti’, while the woman, in this system, cannot emancipate herself, and the impediment to ordination results for her in ‘necessitate sacramenti’, and is therefore insuperable.30

With the modern doctrine of sexual complementarity, church teaching has decisively rejected the argument that sexual difference is hierarchical or that women are by nature subordinate to men. Rather, it now affirms equality in difference, though many would argue that the same old hierarchies prevail in different guise. This would certainly be the case with regard to ordination. Whereas once the exclusion of women from ordination was justified by an appeal to the authority of the priesthood, which women could not exercise because they were viewed as naturally subordinate to men, today it is justified by an appeal to the male sexual body. This has ushered in an essentialist understanding of sexual difference which comes perilously close to excluding the female body from the redeeming grace of the incarnation. If the redemptive power of Christ’s humanity resides in his assuming male flesh rather than human flesh, then one might ask what becomes of the ancient doctrine that “what was not assumed was not redeemed by Christ”. As Grillo argues, “what Inter Insigniores believes it can deduce from Thomas’ quotation is a modern reconstruction without any foundation in Thomas’ text, which never speaks of ‘sexual similarity between the minister and the Lord’.”

In John Paul II’s apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, which authoritatively confirmed the reservation of priestly ordination to men alone, he appeals to both Mulieris Dignitatem and Inter Insigniores but omits the latter’s problematic reference to Thomas in spelling out the reasons, appealing rather to scripture and tradition and the rather nebulous claim that “Christ established things in this way”.31 In fact, the Commission appointed by Pope Paul VI in 1976 to study the role of women in scripture and the possibility of admission to the sacramental priesthood concluded that scripture is inconclusive on this question.32

To the disappointment of many, Francis has done little by way of pastoral reflection and nothing by way of doctrinal reinterpretation to move beyond these problematic contradictions and inconsistencies. Indeed, he merely parrots them in some rather bizarre off-the-cuff explanations. For example, responding to Swedish journalist Kristina Kappellin when she asked him about women’s ordination on the flight back to Rome from Lund after his visit to Sweden in November 2016, he repeated in almost identical words a response he had given to another journalist on a previous occasion:

In Catholic ecclesiology there are two dimensions to consider: the Petrine dimension, from the apostle Peter, and the apostolic college, which is the pastoral activity of the bishops; and the Marian dimension, which is the feminine dimension of the Church, and this I have said more than once. I ask myself: who is most important in theology and in the mystery of the Church: the apostles or Mary on the day of Pentecost? It is Mary! The Church is a woman. She is ‘la Chiesa’, not ‘il Chiesa’ […] and the Church is the spouse of Christ. It is a spousal mystery. And in light of this mystery you will understand the reason for these two dimensions. The Petrine dimension, which is the bishops, and the Marian dimension, which is the maternity of the Church […] but in the most profound sense. A Church does not exist without this feminine dimension, because she herself is feminine.33

It is amusing to note that in Polish – the native language of John Paul II – the noun for church (kościół) is masculine! These convoluted nuptial explanations only make sense if they are uncoupled from all biological essentialisms to usher in the sacramental performativity of ontological transformation described in the baptismal formula of Galatians.

Whereas Thomas proposed a philosophical argument informed by reason as to why women could not be priests because they are “by nature” lacking in authority, the modern Church maintains the same position but now claims that it is a “mystery” why this should be so. Here it is tempting to invoke Denys Turner’s distinction between “the mystery of God” and “merely idolatrous mystifications”.34

As a convert from evangelicalism, I was attracted to Catholicism by the rich cross-fertilisation between reason and revelation, nature and grace, philosophy and theology. I continue to be inspired by the distinction between the revealed mysteries of faith which are discovered in scripture and doctrine and can be known only in prayerful contemplation, and those teachings that are contingent, contextual and open to rational scrutiny. The sacramental priesthood belongs within the revealed mysteries, but the insistence upon the sexual significance of the male body is a theological innovation which trails in its wake any number of theological problems.35

Given that most Christian churches today do ordain women, and given that many women feel called to ordination, and given that a shortage of priests means that the baptised risk being denied the right of access to the sacraments, the official magisterium needs to give much more robust reasons than it has for why women cannot be ordained. The arguments offered to support the mystery of the exclusively male priesthood violate that majestic tradition of reasoned reflection which has shaped Catholic theology. One day, I suspect they will join the condemnations of Galileo and Luther, as shameful moments in the Church’s history for which an apology will be offered.


Tina Beattie is Professor of Catholic Studies and Director of Catherine of Siena College at the University of Roehampton. Her main research interests are in the fields of Catholic sacramental theology, psychoanalytic theory and gender; theological approaches to women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights, and theology and art. She is the author of numerous journal articles and book chapters and several monographs including Theology after Postmodernity: Divining the Void – A Lacanian Reading of Thomas Aquinas (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), and New Catholic Feminism: Theology and Theory (Abingdon and New York, NY: Routledge, 2006). Tina also writes for the media and contributes to a number of radio and television networks around the world. She is a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day.


  • Beattie, Tina: New Catholic Feminism. Theology and Theory. London and New York, NY: Routledge, 2006.

  • Boyd, Andrew: “Are Catholic Priests Ontologically Different from the Rest of Us?”, in: Quora, 18.06.2019, (date of last access: 03.02.2020).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Case, Mary Anne: “The Role of the Popes in the Invention of Complementarity and the Vatican’s Anathematization of Gender”, in: Religion & Gender 6 (2/2016), p. 155172.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Catechism of the Catholic Church, Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1993.

  • Francis [Pope]: “Evangelii Gaudium. Apostolic Exhortation on the Proclamation of the Gospel in Today’s World”, 24.11.2013, (date of last access: 03.02.2020).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Francis [Pope]: “Letter to the President of the International Commission Against the Death Penalty”, 20.03.2015, (date of last access: 03.02.2020).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Grillo, Andrea: “Quaestio de mulierum similitudine. Tommaso d’Aquino, la donne e lo Schiavo”, in: Munera. Rivista europea di cultura, 30.10.2019, (date of last access: 03.02.2020).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hanvey, James, SJ: “Dignity, Person and Imago Trinitatis”, in: Christopher McCrudden (ed.): Understanding Human Dignity. Oxford: Oxford University Press and British Academy, 2013, p. 209228.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • John Paul II: “Mulieris Dignitatem. Apostolic Letter on the Dignity and Vocation of Women”, 15.08.1988, (date of last access: 03.02.2020).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • John Paul II: “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis. Apostolic Letter of John Paul II to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone”, 22.05.1994, (date of last access: 22.04.2020).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Lebech, Mette: On the Problem of Human Dignity. A Hermeneutical and Phenomenological Investigation. Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2009.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Lombardia, Pedro: “The Fundamental Rights of the Faithful”, in: Petrus Edelby Neophytos/Teodoro Jimenez-Urresti/Peter Huizing (ed.): The Future of Canon Law. New York, NY: Paulist Press 1969, p. 8189.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • McCrudden, Christopher (ed.): Understanding Human Dignity. Oxford: Oxford University Press and British Academy, 2013.

  • O’Connell, Gerard: “Pope Francis. Some Final Thoughts on the Flight Home”, in: America, 28.09.2015, (date of last access: 03.02.2020).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Paul VI: “Gaudium et Spes. Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World”, 07.12.1965, (date of last access: 03.02.2020).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Rodes, Robert E. Jr., “On Validity and Invalidity of Sacraments”, in: Theological Studies 42 (4/1981), p. 580600.

  • Ruston, Roger: Human Rights and the Image of God. London: SCM Press, 2004.

  • Sala Stampa Della Santa Sede: Bollettino, 01.11.2016, (date of last access: 03.02.2020).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Sidler, Arlene/Sidler, Leonard (ed.): Women Priests. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1977.

  • Tierney, Terence E.: “The Right of the Faithful to the Sacraments”, in: The Catholic Lawyer 23 (1/1977), Article 7, p. 5768.

  • Turner, Denys: God, Mystery, and Mystification. Indiana, ND: University of Notre Dame Press, 2019.

  • Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (date of last access: 10.05.2019).


See the essays in McCrudden (ed.): Understanding Human Dignity. See also Lebech, The Problem of Human Dignity.


Francis, Laudato Si’, no. 115.


Boyd, Are Catholic Priests Ontologically Different?


Francis, Laudato Si’, no. 116.


Ruston, Human Rights and the Image of God.


Preface to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, no. 178.


Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, no. 3.


Francis, Letter to the President of the International Commission Against the Death Penalty.


Hanvey, Dignity, Person and Imago Trinitatis, p. 213.


Lombardia, The Fundamental Rights of the Faithful, p. 85 et seq.


Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1272.


Rodes, On Validity and Invalidity of Sacraments, p. 581 et seq.


Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1210 et seq., quoting Thomas Aquinas, ST III, 65, 1 and ST III, 65, 3.


Paul VI, Gaudium et Spes, no. 26.


Tierney, The Right of the Faithful to the Sacraments, p. 62.


John Paul II, Mulieris Dignitatem, no. 6. All italics in quotations from Mulieris Dignitatem are as given.


John Paul II, Mulieris Dignitatem, no. 7.


John Paul II, Mulieris Dignitatem, no. 8.


John Paul II, Mulieris Dignitatem, no. 4.


John Paul II, Mulieris Dignitatem, no. 5.


John Paul II, Mulieris Dignitatem, no. 25.


John Paul II, Mulieris Dignitatem, no. 24.


John Paul II, Mulieris Dignitatem, no. 26.


John Paul II, Mulieris Dignitatem, no. 27.


For more on this, see Beattie, New Catholic Feminism.


Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Inter Insigniores, no. 5, quoting Thomas Aquinas, IV Sent., dist. 25 q. 2, quaestiuncula 1a ad 4 um.


Grillo, Quaestio de mulierum similitudine.


ST I, q. 92.1, a. 2.


Grillo, Quaestio de mulierum similitudine.


John Paul II, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, no. 2, citing various sources in church teaching.


Biblical Commission Report, Can Women Be Priests? in Swidler/Swidler, Women Priests, p. 338–346.


Sala Stampa Della Santa Sede, Bollettino. See also O’Connell, Pope Francis.


Turner, God, Mystery, and Mystification.


See Case, The Role of the Popes in the Invention of Complementarity.

Content Metrics

All Time Past Year Past 30 Days
Abstract Views 0 0 0
Full Text Views 2429 504 29
PDF Views & Downloads 2256 558 36