Women Bishops? Views in the Roman Catholic Church, official and otherwise

by John Wijngaards

Talk for the Symposium ‘Women and the Episcopate’, 11 March 2006; now published in Women as Bishops, ed. James Rigney, Continuum 2008, pp. 31-42.

The Roman Catholic Church is a vast body of more than a billion believers. It is an organization creaking in its joints, straddled as it lies on all continents, battered by secularisation and local pressures, torn by internal conflict on much needed reforms. Held together by vigorous control from its Vatican centre it gives the appearance of almost monolithic unity. Nothing is further from the truth.

However, the future of the Catholic Church does not lie in its organization, but in its soul, in the faith and faith images of its believers. And that future is bright for women in holy orders, for reasons I will briefly outline.

1. Reasons of the Mind

To understand the theological thinking on episcopacy and women in the Roman Catholic Church, we need to distinguish three realities:

  1. pronouncements by Church Councils
  2. the official doctrinal teaching emanating from the Vatican
  3. the opinions of the academic community of theologians.

a.   Pronouncements by Church Councils

Since the Reformation, and initially in response to it, Church Councils have stressed the unity of the sacrament of holy orders.

The Council of Trent declared during its Twenty-Third Session on the Sacrament of Ordination, on the 15th of July 1563:

Canon 6. –If anyone says, that, in the Catholic Church there is not a hierarchy by divine ordination instituted, consisting of bishops, priests, and deacons; let him be anathema.

Canon 7. –If anyone says, that bishops are not superior to priests; or, that they have not the power of confirming and ordaining; or, that the power which they possess is common to them and to priests, etc. etc. let him be anathema.(1)

This was interpreted  as meaning that bishops rank higher than priests, but share in the same sacrament.

The Second Vatican Council, while correcting many one-sided medieval and scholastic views on the episcopacy and the priesthood, basically re-affirmed their fundamental oneness. In its Decree Christus Dominus, for example, of the 28th of October 1965, § 15, it states:

Bishops enjoy the fullness of the sacrament of orders and both priests and deacons are dependent upon them in the exercise of their authority. For the priests are the prudent fellow workers of the episcopal order and are themselves consecrated as true priests of the New Testament, just as deacons are ordained for the ministry and serve the people of God in communion with the bishop and his presbytery.(2)

According to the most authoritative Catholic sources, therefore, priesthood and episcopacy are so closely united in the unity of holy orders and the unity of the local church round their bishop, that the question of women bishops and women priests are one and the same question.

b. the official doctrinal teaching emanating from the Vatican

This approach is clearly demonstrated in doctrinal documents emanating from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome, and, at times from the pope himself. In the decrees that exclude women from the priesthood, the episcopacy is either not mentioned at all, or mentioned in one breath with the priesthood. I will highlight examples from the main documents, the full texts of which are available on my website www.womenpriests.org.

The document with the most detailed argumentation, Inter Insigniores (15 October 1976), and the accompanying commentary, only mention the episcopacy once, namely in this quote: ‘the bishop or the priest, in the exercise of his ministry, does not act in his own name, in persona propria: he represents Christ’ (§ 25). The quote is said to derive from Saint Cyprian, who – interestingly – only mentions the priest.

Mulieris Dignitatem (30 September 1988) which empathically excludes women from the priesthood, does not mention the episcopacy. Neither does Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (22 May 1994) that declared the exclusion to be ‘definitive teaching’.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994) mentions them in one breath: “Only a baptized man (vir) validly received sacred ordination. The Lord Jesus chose men (viri) to form the college of the twelve apostles, and the apostles did the same when they chose collaborators to succeed them in their ministry. The college of bishops, with whom the priests are united in the priesthood, makes the college of the twelve an ever-present and ever-active reality until Christ’s return. The Church recognizes herself to be bound by this choice made by the Lord himself. For this reason the ordination of women is not possible.” (3)

The ordination of women to the priesthood and to the episcopacy are, therefore, one and the same question for the official Church. If women can be priests, they can be bishops. The two issues are inseparable in the official view.

This position, in fact, creates a major problem for the Magisterium. The unity of the sacrament of ordination also covers the diaconate. Well, women have been sacramentally ordained during the first nine centuries as international scholars have amply documented. (4) Since women were ordained as deacons, women can, in principle, also be ordained priests and bishops. It is the reason why the Vatican refuses to re-install the ancient diaconate.

c. The opinions of the academic community of theologians

In the community of Roman Catholic theologians I have not seen much, if any, evidence of trying to separate the episcopacy and the priesthood in the context of the women’s question. This is in contrast to the question of the diaconate. On that topic, some theologians contend that it would be perfectly possible for the Catholic Church to separate the two ministries in such a way that women could be given the sacrament of the diaconate, even though the priesthood was withheld from them. This is, for instance, the opinion  of the Orthodox Bishop Kallistos Ware (5) and the Catholic theologians Peter Hünermann, (6) Dorothea Reininger, (7) Phyllis Zagano.(8)  I believe that they are mistaken for two important reasons: a historical one and a Church-political one.  The admission to the diaconate and the priesthood will not so easily be separated in the Catholic Church.

For the community of Roman Catholic theologians the simple issue is: are the arguments for excluding women from ordination given by the Vatican valid or not? Did Jesus Christ establish a norm when only choosing men under the initial twelve? Did the subsequent reluctance to ordain women in the Church derive from cultural prejudices, or from an awareness of a presumed divine and revealed injunction originating in Jesus himself? The answer determines the fate of women deacons, priests and bishops – all in one stroke.

And what is their verdict?

By all evidence available to me, I estimate that three-quarters of Catholic theologians disagree with the official position held out by the Vatican. They do not accept as proven that Jesus Christ himself excluded women from future ministries. They point at cultural bias against women as the culprit of anti-women decisions in tradition.

I say: “by all evidence available to me”, for a blanket of silence has descended on the theological community after Ordinatio Sacerdotalis which effectively forbade discussion on the question. Moreover, the Vatican is trying to fill all structural positions with candidates favourable to its own views. Bishops are only chosen if they have first indicated that they agree with the Vatican. Parish priests and theologians in Church institutions have to swear an oath of loyalty that implies agreement with the Vatican. The CDF (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) follows up on these measures by censuring anyone who steps out of line. The Vatican criticises bishops in person if they have organizations in their jurisdiction that favour women priests. The Vatican sends letters to bishops ordering them to sanction church personnel who support women’s ordination. All this in spite of the solemn promise by the Second Vatican Council that “all the faithful, both clerical and lay, should be accorded a lawful freedom of inquiry, freedom of thought and freedom of expression”. (9)

As a result of Vatican pressure, many Roman Catholic theologians don’t publicly discuss the issue. But I know what they think from personal correspondence and from personal contacts. I am a member of the Catholic Theological Association of Great Britain, the Catholic Theological Association of Europe and the Catholic Theological Society of America. The credibility of the magisterium’s banning women from ordination borders on zero. Scholars agree with Hans Küng, not with Joseph Ratzinger.

Conclusion: the arguments of the central teaching authority regarding women and holy orders are rejected by the majority of Catholic theologians. The situation is not unlike that in the Soviet Republic before the collapse of communism: no self-respecting economist agreed to the doctrinal position of the establishment.

2. Reasons of the Heart

Theological debate on women’s admission to holy orders, however suppressed, is not the only reality of the moment; perhaps not even the most crucial one. Underneath rational arguments for or against, another conflict is deepening that will, in my view, prove far more fatal to the Vatican’s intransigence regarding women.

The conflict I am referring to concerns the Vatican claim that Jesus Christ can only be represented by a male and the deep-seated, truly ‘Catholic’, conviction that God most intimately relates to us through female images.

Let me explain to you what I mean.

Religion and preconscious symbols

The study of religion in a number of disciplines has shown that religion is not defined so much by doctrines as by images. It is a preconscious activity beginning in that edge of our personality where our consciousness fades off into unconsciousness. Religion has its origins in that borderland of consciousness where metaphors and stories, images and symbols, daydreams and fantasies occur. As Clifford Geertz expresses in his classic definition: “Religion is a system of symbols   .   .   .” (10)

Further studies have narrowed this down by showing that people have two principal kinds of religious experience. The first is a merging in God as the Source of our Being; the second is an encounter with God as the Totally Other.

The contemplative experience exemplifies the first approach. God is perceived as a mystery underlying the whole of reality as we know it. God is the “immanent ground and operative principle of all being”.(11) We try to unite ourselves to God by partaking in sacred images, by climbing God’s mountain or bathing in God’s sacred river; or simply by honouring the symbol that mediates God’s presence. In its highest forms this approach leads to mysticism. It is based on our experience of our mother.

For our first experience as a child is that of being enveloped by our mother. As we lie in her womb or suck her breasts we receive warmth, security and satisfaction. Psychologists call this the oral phase and characterise the experience as a participation in the oceanic oneness of the universe. It gives us the basic trust we need for life, trust in ourselves and in others. Dolls and toys function as substitute mothers in our early life. In the same way, images and symbols are substitute “breasts” through which we feel one with the “mother” of ultimate reality. (12)

The prophetic approach, on the other hand, experiences God as a Person, usually as a male person, who has revealed a message and who imposes his commands. By word and divine will God compels us to either accept or reject his lordship. His revelation comes through human mediators and addresses itself to concrete human realities. God is experienced as the unexpected, the totally other, the one to whom the believer submits in an act of obedience and surrender. It derives from the experience of our father which, as psychologists tell us, happens in a later phase. (13)

Through the challenge of our father’s face, voice and word we learn our own identity as a separate person. It is a step to becoming adults. We discover the otherness of other persons. We learn to see ourselves as distinct. We also acquire our super-ego, our conscience, which will guide us throughout life. Here, too, there are consequences for our religious awareness. The experience of the ‘father’ releases in us the possibility to respond to the prophetic pattern of religion.

Both forms of religious experience have their roots in crucial stages of our psychological growth. That is why they come so naturally to us and why we feel the need of both the one and the other. But there is no doubt that either the mother experience or the father experience of God predominates in individuals and in religious systems. (14)

The characteristically ‘Catholic’ imagination

Some of the marked differences between the Catholic and the Protestant experience of Christian faith can be seen in the religious context I have so briefly sketched above.

David Tracy’s seminal study, The Analogical Imagination, posits  that the Catholic imagination is ‘analogical’, that is: based on image, and the Protestant imagination is ‘dialectical’, that is: based on word. The Catholic Christian experience assumes a God who is present in the world, a self-dis­closing God in and through creation. The world and all its events, objects, and people tend to be somewhat like God. The Protestant Christian experience, on the other hand, assumes a God who is radically different from the world and who discloses his/her self only on rare occasions (especially in Jesus Christ and him crucified). The world and all its events, objects, and people tend to be radically dissimilar from God.

The Catholic tends to see society as a ‘sacrament’ of God, a set of ordered rela­tionships, governed by both justice and love, that reveal, however imperfectly, the presence of God. Society is ‘natural’ and ‘good’, and people’s ‘natural’ response to God is social. The Protestant, on the other hand, tends to see human society as ‘God-forsaken’ and therefore unnatural and oppressive. The indi­vidual stands over against society and not integrated into it. So far what David Tracy says. (15)

These approximations, always in danger of being overplayed, yet explain a verifiable fact. Protestants treasure the inspired word, austere churches with the pulpit at their centre, the pursuit of Christian holiness in a hostile world. Catholics love images and pictures, colourful churches with statues of saints, devotions that speak to the heart, ritual rather than sermons.

The American sociologist Andrew Greeley has shown in further studies that this ‘Catholic imagination’ has far-reaching consequences for the way God is perceived. While Protestants do more naturally refer to God as ‘father’, ‘master’ and ‘king’, Catholics tend to think of God as ‘a mother’, ‘a spouse’ or ‘a friend’. (16)

In other words: in the Catholic imagination the mother experience predominates. God is touched through sacraments, images and symbols. They function as ‘substitute breasts’ through which we relate to the ultimate mystery. God is seen more easily in feminine images, of which Our Lady, the ‘Mother of God’, is a reflected example.

The clash between image and authority

Having taking you on such a lengthy detour, I can now come to the specific point I want to make. Image stands central in the Catholic tradition. Image featured prominently in the clashes regarding icons during the 8th and 9th centuries and at the Reformation. Catholic tradition has always affirmed that God has overturned the Old Testament ban against images by revealing himself in Jesus Christ, in sacraments and ritual. Regarding women, image again stands central.

The Roman Catholic Church is at the moment in the grasp of a rigid, masculine, patriarchal system of control. This heavy-handed masculine hierarchy has, moreover, proclaimed a monopoly over the image of God. “Only a male can represent Christ at the eucharist.” In Mulieris Dignitatem, Pope John-Paul II even uttered the assertion, never before made in the Church, that Jesus Christ had to become incarnate as a male – to represent the Father -, and that therefore only a man can be his (and the Father’s) image at the eucharist. (17)

This claim clashes directly with the deep-seated experience of  Catholics that they touch God in feminine images. Indeed, the absence of women at the altar went largely unnoticed in the past, when patriarchalism was the dominant cultural climate. Things have now changed. Our present-day renewed social awareness is waking up more and more women and men to the intolerable absence of women as representatives of Christ presiding at the eucharist. The clash manifests itself in many Catholics saying spontaneously: “I’m sure that this is not what Jesus wanted, nor is it what God wants now”. The mismatch angers women. It makes many men uneasy, also bishops and priests.

This often not precisely definable sense of anger and unease has considerable ecclesial significance.

  1. The Second Vatican Council has stressed that the carrier of inerrancy is thesensus fidei, the ‘sense of faith’, that rests within the body of the Church.

“The entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief.  They manifest this special property by means of the whole people’s supernatural discernment in matters of faith when “from the Bishops down to the last of the lay faithful” they show universal agreement in matters of faith and morals.”(18)

An amendment proposed at Vatican II to the effect that the infallibility of the magisterium is the source of the people’s infallibility was rejected by the Council as being contrary to tradition. The Pope and the college of bishops have the role of articulating matters of faith and morals through their authoritative teaching. However, this exercise is grounded in the infallibility of the whole people of God, not the other way about. (19)

  1. As Henry Newman pointed out when describing latent tradition, a truth or value carried by thesensus fideidoes not need to be clearly articulated in order to be valid.

“The absence, or partial absence, or incompleteness of dogmatic statements is no proof of the absence of impressions or implicit judgements, in the mind of the Church. Even centuries might pass without the formal expression of a truth, which had been all along the secret life of millions of faithful souls.” (20)

iii.  Recent studies have reiterated the ancient tradition, re-affirmed in Vatican II, that a doctrine proposed by the teaching authority needs to be received by the body of the faithful to be fully authenticated.  The faithful, therefore, have a role not only in providing initial impulses on formulating a new understanding of doctrine, but also through a process of feedback. (21)

Conclusion: The Vatican attempt to make the living image of Christ in priests and bishops a male preserve, is doomed to fail. Catholic consciousness will not tolerate it. Doctrinal pronouncements will be overturned by faith in the heart.

John Wijngaards


(1)   Denzinger, Enchiridion Symbolorum, Freiburg 1955, no 963 & 964.

(2)   A. FLANNERY, Vatican Council II, New York 1988, p. 571.

(3) Catechism of the Catholic Church, Chapman, London 1994, pp. 353-354.

(4) JOHN WIJNGAARDS, No Women in Holy Orders? The Women Deacons of the Early Church, Canterbury Press, London 2002; see extensive bibliographies on pp. 137-143; 211-214.

(5)   ‘Man, Woman and the Priesthood of Christ’, in Th. Hopko (ed.), Women and the Priesthood, New York 1983, pp. 9-37.

(6)  P. HüNERMANN, ‘Conclusions regarding the Female Diaconate’, Theological Studies 36 (1975) 325-333; here pp. 327-328;  ‘Diakonat ‑ ein Beitrag zur Erneuerung des kirchlichen Amtes? Wider‑Holung’, Diakonia Christi 29 (1994),13‑22;  ‘Lehramtliche Dokumente zur Frauenordination’, in: Walter Groß (Hg.), Frauenordination, München 1996, 83‑96; ‘Theologische Argumente für die Diakonatsweihe van Frauen’, in Diakonat. Ein Amt für Frauen in der Kirche – Ein frauengerechtes Amt?, Ostfildern 1997, pp. 98-128.

(7)   DOROTHEA REININGER, Diakonat der Frau in der Einen Kirche, Schwabenverlag, Ostfildern 1999.

(8)   P. Zagano, Holy Saturday, New York 2000.

(9)   A. FLANNERY, Vatican Council II, New York 1988; Gaudium et Spes, § 62 p. 968.

(10)   CLIFFORD GEERTZ, The Interpretation of Cultures, Basic, New York 1973; “Religion is a system of symbols which acts to establish power­ful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in people by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.”

(11)   RADHAKRISHNAN, The Hindu view of Life, London 1927, pp.24-25.

(12)   E.H. ERIKSON, Identity, New York 1968; pp.96ff.; H. FABER, Cirkelen om een geheim, Meppel 1972; W. VELDHUIS, Geloof en Ervaring, Ambo, Bilthoven 1973, pp.11-16.

(13)   A.H. HIDDING, De Evolutie van het godsdienstig bewustzijn, Utrecht 1965; H. FABER, “Wisselende patronen van religieuze ervaring”, Tijdschrift voor Theologie, 11 (1971) 225-248.

(14)   A. HARDY, The Divine Flame, Collins, London 1966, pp.l56-175; The Spiritual Nature of Man, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1979, pp. 134-136. Hardy traces the two approaches even further back in evolution. He relates them to two social bonds rooted in animal nature dependence on the mother and submissive attachment to the dominant leader of the pack.

(15)   D. TRACY, The Analogical Imagination. Christian Theology and the Culture of Pluralism, SCM Press, London 1981.

(16)   ANDREW GREELEY, The Catholic Myth. The Behavior and Beliefs of American Catholics, Scribner, New York 1990, pp. 41-52.

(17) “The bridegroom – the Son consubstantial with the Father as God – became the son of Mary; he became the ‘son of man’, true man, a male. The symbol of the bridegroom is masculine  .  .  .  It is the Eucharist above all that expresses the redemptive act of Christ, the bridegroom, toward the church, the bride. This is clear and unambiguous when the sacramental ministry of the Eucharist, in which the priest acts in persona Christi, is performed by a man. This explanation confirms the teaching of the declaration Inter Insigniores, published at the behest of Paul VI in response to the question concerning the admission of women to the ministerial priesthood.”

(18) Lumen Gentium, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, 21 November 1964,  § 12.

(19) Vatican II, Acta Synodalia III/I, pp. 198-199; R.R.Gaillardetz, Teaching with Authority. A Theology of the Magisterium in the Church, Liturgical Press 1997, p. 154.

(20) Henry Cardinal Newman, ‘A University Sermon Preached on the Purification’, Sermons, Oxford 1843; see also his  ‘On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine’,The Rambler, July 1859.

(21) Richard R. Gaillardetz, ‘The Reception of Doctrine: New Perspectives’, Authority in the Roman Catholic Church, Bernard Hoose (ed.), Ashgate 2002, pp. 95-114; see also http://www.womenpriests.org/teaching/gaill6.asp.