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The Impossibility of Women Priests: A Response to Clare

A Letter from Clare

After reading a series of blog posts that I had written against women’s ordination, Clare composed the following letter:

Dear Father Joe,

I have a lot of respect for God’s Catholic Church. I see all of you as devoted, loving brothers and sisters. However, I cried a lot when I read your argument against the ordination of women to the priesthood. I felt that your arguments were good and well expressed and you show that you know far more than many of us could hope to know. I felt that something was missing, though, and that is God’s calling. I cannot and will not ignore God’s calling despite however many references and arguments there are against it.

I appreciate that I have little experience in theology, but I don’t believe it comes down to that entirely. I know God is calling me by my name and telling me to help and to serve his people through work in the clergy. I am not going to push God out. After your years in the Church, my approach probably sounds a little childish.  But I am one of God’s daughters, called to serve— called to the priesthood. I know you will never change your mind on the matter, but please just think about the calling that made you give up everything you loved— so that you might accept this new role.

I and thousands of women like me (and, indeed, men) live in that calling every day. There is not a minute of a day that it is not on my mind and in my heart. Call me a heretic. Call me a Satanist. Call me a witch. I am one of God’s children— and a priestess-to-be.

My love and prayers to you all,


“Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it” (Mark 10:15).

My Response to Clare

Dear Clare,

My posts on women’s ordination were composed some years ago, and so you will have to forgive me the fact that the arguments are not fresh in my mind. Originally they were written responses to a series of letters (in my pre-email days) to various advocates of women’s ordination. I am sorry if they made you cry. Nevertheless, the Holy Father himself has reiterated the impossibility of such a move. Lawful authority and obedience are essential ingredients to the faith of every Catholic; dissent leads to alienation from the Church and the loss of the sacraments. Ultimately, it is the usurpation of the truth by human whim and pride.

It is true that I possess a lot of book learning, but do not short-change yourself in exploring the serious questions of life and faith. In any case, what is more important is holiness of life. The devil himself has a brilliant intellect, but without divine grace, he really has nothing that matters. What is important is how we respond to what we know. I am convinced that God created us; sent his Son to redeem us; and has bestowed the Holy Spirit to safeguard the teaching Church with his truths and to empower the divine mysteries or sacraments. The posture of a disciple is always humility to the will of God as expressed by the shepherds given us by Christ. These shepherds, in turn, while not always the best of men, in union with the See of Peter, teach the faith without corruption and govern the family of God.

The matter at hand is a serious one. Disagreement, while academic or theoretical, is one thing— outright dissent means a dismissal of the very ecclesial structure instituted by Christ. Men called as priests pledge absolute obedience to this Church and to their direct superior or bishop. The bishop should express the will of God in a priest’s life. He goes where he is sent and he does the ministry that is given him. One could argue that it is the attitude of serious dissent, apart from the issue at hand, that invalidates the calling of one to any significant ministry in the Church.

Admittedly, in practice, churchmen sometimes soft-pedal certain teachings, or avoid them all together, to keep certain souls in the Church, at least in a juridical sense. I recall a young woman who used to run a youth group for me. She was good at the work and I did not want to lose her. I never went into great depth upon the topic of women’s ordination, as I knew her sentiments. The priest who followed me (when I was reassigned) got into a heated argument with her. She ended up leaving the Church. Last I heard, she attends an Episcopal faith community. Her anger is such that she will not talk to any Catholic priest, even one who counted himself her friend.

You may think I have some nerve to say what I must say. God may indeed be calling you to special service, but not within the ranks of holy orders. The former only you can know, the latter is the voice of the Church, herself. You might look outside Catholicism for ordination to priesthood; however, you would only be embracing a caricature of the truth without substance. There are many counterfeit churches today and impotent ministers without the priestly authority to forgive sins and to confect the Eucharist.

You need to listen to your head and to your heart. If you are a Catholic, then you need to understand the sacraments as the Church, herself, defines them. Do not let emotion get the best of you. What we feel can be very deceptive. Couples often become too intimate before marriage because on some level they feel it is right despite what the Church and the bible teaches. It still constitutes sin, endangers the relationship and brings spiritual harm to one another. Similarly, just as true marriage is undermined by such liaisons, so is a calling to priesthood by a sentiment that lacks validation from the true Church. I sensed a calling to priesthood as a young boy. However, I could not attest that it was authentic until the bishop called me by name. Many men with whom I studied, and despite their initial yearnings, discerned or were informed, that God was calling them to something else. The formation process depends upon humility and honesty from the candidate as well as good will and competence in the faith from those given charge of vocations.

Are you being childish? Perhaps, but I can appreciate your sincerity and faith.  Catholicism by its very definition is a corporate religion. Protestantism tends more to an individualistic approach to faith, placing one’s particular relationship and personal inspiration above the tenets of any teaching Church. Put bluntly, those churches that would presume to ordain women as priests usurp the authority of the Pope. Indeed, they go further as the Pope acknowledges that he does not have the authority to effect such a change in ministries. Women who would fashion themselves as priests have taken on the mantle of God, allowing that for which there is no divine approbation or mandate.

Yes, be like a child obedient to her parents, not childish. Your namesake did many great things for the Church, and yet, neither Clare nor Francis was ever a priest. Could God be calling you to the Poor Clares? Think about it, and pray for a submission of will.

As we all should, I have often thought about my calling. If the Church had said that I was not worthy for priesthood, I would have accepted it as the will of God. This is the Catholic way. I did not deserve to be a priest. No one does. It is a gracious gift from God and from the Church. Most men will never be priests. No women will ever be priests. Nevertheless, the greatest human being, next to our Incarnate Lord, was the Virgin Mary. Priesthood is no guarantee of greater holiness. Seek holiness and practice humility. This is your great calling. The latter is sorely being tempted.

Did I call you a heretic or a Satanist? You have said nothing about the practice of Wicca, so why would I label you a witch? As for a priestess-to-be, I cannot fathom how you will make it a reality. A label will not make it real. Who will ordain you? What creed and Church will you confess? Think over carefully what you plan to do. I will be praying for you.

As I review your letter, did I presume incorrectly in our discussion that we were both within the Catholic camp? If you are Anglican, then the specifications of your ecclesiastical communion might allow you entrance into its clergy. However, note that Catholics differ with the definition of “priesthood” and the substance of its transmission. In other words, except for the Anglo-Catholics, we would be talking at cross-purposes, about two distinct and different things.

Catholics view the priest as an “alter christus” or another Christ who makes present the sacrifice of Calvary in a real though unbloody way. Many Anglicans would permit the notion of sacrifice, but as a prayer of praise, not as an actual prayer of propitiation or satisfaction. Catholics believe that priests have the personal power to apply Christ’s saving act of a forgiveness of sins in an immediate way. Episcopal theology, as usually professed, stipulates that the priest merely gives an avenue by which the forgiveness of Christ already accomplished in a general manner is acknowledged or externalized by ritual. Catholics believe that for a genuine ordination, the subject must be valid (a man of faith), the bishop must lay hands upon the man, and the bishop’s intention must be in conformity with the Church in consecrating a priest to re-present the oblation of Christ. Because of a historical breach with Cranmer’s initial Book of Common Prayer, the Anglican Communion forfeited apostolic succession. Thus, except for a possible few ordained by Old Catholics and Orthodox Bishops, even the male clergy of the Anglican Church (called Episcopal in the U.S.) are not valid priests. Women’s ordination would finish what Cranmer started, the abolishment of a genuine Anglican priesthood. 

I recall a preaching seminar I attended in 1986. The somewhat liberal coordinator invited a female Presbyterian minister and an Episcopal priest to celebrate Mass with the Catholics. Out of a group of thirty, I was the lone holdout. The word came the next day from the bishop that they had to cease or face censure. The other priests told me that they knew it was wrong, but were afraid to speak out. The female Episcopalian priest wept in my arms. I tried to console her, but not at the expense of what I knew to be true. We prayed together, as all Christians should. But, the concelebrating of the Mass— the ultimate sign of unity— was out of the question. The Episcopal Church has an open table with little regard about variant beliefs in the real presence. The Catholic Church retains the ancient practice of the closed table so that we might hunger for true unity.

Hope this helps in your reflection.


Fr. Joe

2 Responses

  1. You articulated this very well. I’m still a baby Catholic (baptized in 2021) and not always well equipped yet to explain the church’s teachings particularly to fellow millennial women who bemoan the lack of female representation in the church. The beauty of catholic marriage and motherhood is often undersold to young women but there are also so many other callings for women. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Fr. Joe,
    I am a mathematician. So when I am trying to prove something-I look to counterexamples. One counterexample is enough to show something is not true.
    I understand the theological reasons the RC church teaches what it does. I understand it on an intellectual level. However as you say we are not just supposed to rely on intellect. The devil has a keen intellect.
    So here is a “counterexample”-a reason why the proof that the priesthood should be entirely male. Think about abuse victims who were traumatized in the confessional. No feeling human being would make them confess to a male priest again. And as you know confession is required once a year. So there is a disconnect there. The heart says that this is not okay. To say that these kinds of victims MUST confess to male priests in order to remain Catholics in good standing and have access to Eucharist is itself retraumatization.
    This is not a theoretical example. Recently I tried starting a support group for abuse victims who never-the-less were remaining in the RC church. I had many fruitful conversations but no one was interested in actually joining. Someone told me that her husband was a victim. She told me victims of RC clergy leave the church for the most part. Ask yourself why there are so few support groups for victims of clergy abuse that are RC?
    I cannot believe these people who left due to extreme trauma at the hands of priests are somehow cut off from God. In fact, I am fairly certain they are actually closer to God even if they feel like they had no choice but to attend a church of a different denomination or simply pray to God by themselves. As a woman I cannot buy that I must confess to a man. I just can’t.
    This is not an extreme example. This is a very real and lived experience that many people are currently going through. This has to do with the love of God-of our Savior.



    Let me begin with a correction to a misconception. Catholicism does not subscribe to the notion of faith over reason. Rather, our tradition insists that we should employ our intellect and rational thinking to the important questions about the things of God. Having done this, we must maintain a healthy respect for mystery.

    We can be hurt by men and women, in and out of the Church. When this happens there is a natural resentment and distrust. While anger can be focused to a particular gender, I suspect the woundedness in the priest scandals centers more upon the betrayal of a profound trust by a person in authority. We see this with how some people regard about the police. If someone feels wronged by authorities then recrimination targets all the men and women in uniform. Indeed, when it comes to racial divides, angry critics will even condemn those officers who share their ethnicity, saying they are neither white nor black, but blue. The crimes committed by a few priests have harmed more than the immediate victims— the whole body of the Church is wounded. If real healing is to begin, then there needs to be encounters that go beyond the fear, not with the abusers, but with those who take their promises seriously. Most priests are compassionate healers. I know what you are taking about though, even if not always in confession. A priest counsels and prays with many women who distrust men for the sins committed against them. Most often they are fortunate in encountering men who will love and help them as daughters of the Lord. A priest cannot violate the seal of confession, but he can refer violated and broken (men, women and children) to others (including women counselors, therapists and healthcare workers) for follow up assistance and care. (I am not sure I see any argument against a male priesthood in any of this.)

    If a person hates the Church and is angry with God, it is unlikely that he or she would go immediately to any priest (regardless of gender) for confession. Given time and maturity there can be healing and the realization that one Judas does not invalidate the larger ministry and the saving faith. Further, when it comes to confession (and counseling) we would hope to convince abused penitents that the wrong perpetrated is not their fault. Too often the innocent feel guilty for what is done to them. The confessor’s role in such cases is to offer the graces of God for healing and to pray for justice.

    My experience as a priest is that with gentleness there need be no re-traumatization.

    I do not know who you are or what your qualifications might be to lead a support-group for abuse victims. Note that you base assumptions on what a spouse told you about her husband. Speaking from personal experience— such is not the same as talking with the actual hurting person, him or herself. Many people today leave the Church for many reasons. As for support groups, they are usually operated without fanfare— probably more than you suspect.

    But I suspect that the real issue in your message comes at the end. You write: “As a woman I cannot buy that I must confess to a man. I just can’t.” If such is the case then you have a serious conundrum with which to deal. You see Jesus is the Way and the Truth and the Life. All ordained men share in his one high priesthood. There is no other way to the Father then through Jesus Christ. And the last time I checked, he was not only God, but a man.

    I will keep you in prayer. Peace!

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