“Why can’t a woman become a priest?” Asks an innocent and inquisitive student.
“Sorry, I can’t answer your question. The Pope said we aren’t allowed to talk about that,” retorts her teacher.
The teacher is likely referring to the following words from Blessed John Paul II’s apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis:
“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.”
Many Catholics have interpreted these words as a gag order. Nervous of the rise of feminism in the Church, the Pope tried to silence liberal theologians before they had the momentum to make any change. You will often hear educated Catholics claim that the Pope “not only forbid women’s ordination, but even forbid discussion of it.”
Now, the pope does state that it is impossible for the Church to ordain women to the priesthood. He reminds us that this position must be accepted by all Catholics. But nowhere does he forbid discussion of the topic or answering to simple questions like the one above.
So what is the source of so much drama? A comment from one priest on this topic says a lot:
“The Pope might be right, but he has no theology to back up his claim.”
Besides the fact that this claim is unfair, I believe it represents a backwards understanding of the role of theology. In this priest’s mind, theology comes first – Church teaching is the fruit of long theological reflection. But this is the opposite of what St. Augustine teaches “I do not understand in order to believe, I believe in order to understand.” Our faith is a gift received from God, transmitted to us via the scriptures and the tradition of the Church. Theological reflection seeks to understand the content of the faith, not to create it.
The Pope’s argument is not based upon theology – it is based upon tradition. He is restating what we have always believed. The work of theologians is to understand what this means.
There is much discussion to be had here! Why has the Church never ordained women? What parts of the traditional explanation fail to convince a modern audience? If women cannot be part of the magisterium what, if anything, is their role in the teaching and governing of the Church? What is their vocation? What does it mean that a woman can act in persona Christi, but not in persona Christi capitis? What does this say about women? What does it say about the priesthood? How is this teaching reconciled with the equal dignity of men and women?
No doubt, these questions are not easy to answer. No doubt, many in the modern age will not accept the answer given. But this does not mean we should not discuss them. On the other hand – because this is such a contentious topic, because it is an obstacle to many, because the answers are not simple – we have an even greater duty to discuss them. We must seek more thorough understanding of our faith to present it more convincingly to the men and women of today.
 Plenty of such reflection takes place in Inter Insigniores, released by The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith October 15th, 1976.