(Edited by Peter Moore, SPCK London, 1978)

5. Christian Priesthood and Women
(Louis Bouyer)

LOUIS BOUYER (b. 1913), educated at Strasbourg and Paris Universities, was a Lutheran minister until the Second World War. He is a priest of the French Congregation of the Oratory. He was a Professor of the Institut Catholique in Paris until 1963, and has since taught at universities in England, Spain, and the U.S.A., where he is at present Visiting Professor at the Catholic University of America. Twice appointed by the Pope to the International Theological Commission of the Roman Catholic Church, he has been a consultant in the Vatican Consilium for the Liturgy, the Congregation of Worship, and the Secretariat for Christian Unity. His numerous publications include, in English translations, The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism (1963) and three volumes of The History of Christian Spirituality.


The possibility of conferring the Christian priesthood upon women has become, for many people, an essential item in what they call the 'liberation of women'. However, it can be seriously doubted whether this would contribute to the end for which it is introduced, while it seems clear that it would ruin not only the whole conception and reality of the Christian priesthood but some of the most basic elements of any Christianity worthy of the name.

To begin with, to introduce a Christian priesthood of women accepts, at least by implication, the idea that the founder of Christianity, Christ himself, could be wrong on a central point of his teaching practice. It is useless to retort, as some try to do, that if Christ did not include women among his apostles, or more generally, those to whom he gave some part in the preaching of his gospel like the seventy, it was just a matter of chance or of a lack of opportunity. He did not call women, just as he did not call pagans, or blacks, or any other kind of foreigners—but, as these people say, the purely negative fact cannot permanently exclude women from the priesthood any more than it has excluded in the past converts from paganism, Negroes, or other people introduced into the Church at a later stage. The obvious answer is that our Lord had no actual opportunity to call any of the people mentioned, while he had just as many opportunities to meet women as he had to meet men. But even to say this is to say too little. In fact Jesus, in open contradiction to the usual practice of the rabbis, and although he was not a married man as they were, did not hesitate to admit women into his closest company, into his dis-cipleship. Therefore, if he did not call them either to the apostle-ship proper, or to any kind of apostolic ministry, it must have been as a matter not of chance, nor of a lack of practical and actual opportunity, but of principle.

Nor can it be said that he acted in such a way merely to counteract contemporary prejudices. First of all, no such prejudices existed. Among the priesthoods of antiquity, in his own times, many were open to women as well as to men, and some of the most respected ones were a special privilege of women. It is true that it was a distinctive feature of Judaism, following the tradition of the early Hebrew religion, that women were not admitted any more among the rabbis than among the priests. But the explanation sometimes given, that that could be accounted for only as a reaction against the nature-worship of the other Semitic people, which had led them to confer the priesthood upon women (who were in fact prostitutes), is self-destructive. In those shrines of the Babylonians or Canaanites, the 'sacred' prostitution of men as well as of women was accepted as a part of their priesthood.

More generally speaking, in the Old Testament already and in Judaism as well, the exclusion of women from the priesthood or the public teaching of doctrine, far from being linked with any diminished or impoverished idea of womanhood, went together with an esteem of women and a legal (and practical) situation for them in society which had no equivalent in antiquity, especially in the Greek-speaking world.

Against this, none of the objections often raised can stand. For example, how many times has the bereka (prayer) daily said by Hebrew males been quoted: '... Blessed art thou, O Lord, to have made me a man and not a woman .. .'? But it has been forgotten that the women were advised to say for their own part: 'Blessed art thou ... to have made me according to thy will.. .' (a sentence, let it be said, probably echoed in the answer of the Virgin Mary to the Angel). The rabbis explained that the men were taught to speak in that way to inculcate into them the idea that their responsibility for the divine worship was not to be interpreted so much as a burden (from which women were dispensed as a compensation for their family duties) but as an honour.

The Jewish tendency to keep women inside the family circle could not be given as the motive for Jesus' failing to call them to the ministry of the gospel. It seems that he made it clear that women were henceforth not only to be freely admitted on a footing of perfect equality, together with men (as the rabbis already agreed), to participation in the service of the people of God, but that now they were to be made partakers of the full collective responsibility for its celebration. It is certainlv under his personal influence that, from the very beginnings of the Christian Church, women were admitted to take part, exactly as men were, in the prayers of the faithful, in the offering of the gifts for the Eucharist, and in the communion. They were equally admitted, very early, to a diaconal ministry, which seems to have been an exact equivalent of that of men-deacons; but they were never called, nor supposed to be able to be called, to the apostolic functions of exercising pastoral responsibility, together with publicly announcing the Word, and presiding at the eucharistic consecration. This, from the first, has been understood as an apostolic ordinance backed by the practice and the undoubted intention of Christ himself.

That it did not mean any aspersion on the possible equality of women with men concerning spiritual things is made perfectly clear by two considerations. The first is the very high regard for the Virgin Mary in Christian esteem, already manifest in Luke and John. It went so far indeed that very early it was accepted that in the Church Mary had a position and a role not only as high as those of the apostles, of the Twelve, and St Paul, but much higher —although hers was not the same role as theirs. The second evidence for the same point is in the position officially recognized in the ancient Church of the 'Virgins' and the 'Widows'. It is not an exaggeration to say that they were very early acknowledged as two 'orders' of consecrated persons, having in the Church an official status of which there was no equivalent even for male ascetics.

Here, maybe, we have the final clue to the distinctive vocations ascribed to men and to women in the Church from the beginning. The special public vocation of man in the apostolic ministry was seen as a vocation to represent, among all the members of Christ, the Head, a vocation which, like that of the Head itself, belongs to men only. Similarly, the public vocation of women was understood as a vocation to represent the Church as a body, as the Bride of Christ, in its unity as well as in its eschatological integrity. This could be the vocation of women only, as it had been the special vocation of Mary. Once again, no possible idea of inferiority could be connected with that specialization, since the Virgin Mary was soon to be considered as higher, in the Church, than the Twelve and St Paul.

We come to a very remarkable correspondence with something which has been revealed by the most recent researches in both psychology and sociology, about the 'equality' of women with men. As the Dutch scholar Buijtendijk has said very impressively in his book on Woman, it is only at an embryonic stage of modern 'feminism' that it was naively supposed that equality for women had to mean doing all those things that men do. This, as he points out and demonstrates very conclusively, far from involving a true acknowledgement of the positive and unique contribution of women to humanity, was a last attempt to subject them to purely masculine criteria and, therefore, a way of admitting them to full humanity only through depriving them of their femininity. The true, and the only true, way to an equality with men, which will not prove destructive of their own integrity, is not their admission to a kind of bogus masculinity, but the admission of the unique importance of what they only can do and be. Their contribution to human existence is no less important or honourable than (though fundamentally different from) the masculine contribution.

If there is a field where this has to be understood and applied, it is par excellence that of the Christian ministry. We are, certainly, to restore to women those ministries they had in the primitive and early Church, which have since fallen into disuse. And we should be aware of the many still too little (or not at all) used opportunities we have of putting their proper gifts to the service of the Church. But let us not fancy we could do them any real service by encouraging them to do and to be what could only result in a loss of identity. We are precisely where we, theologians and canon lawyers, have found ourselves in so many other cases since the sixteenth century. That is to say, when we intend to be 'modern', 'up to date', 'with it', and so on, we usually just manage to consecrate and introduce into the very temple of the one true God the idols of yesterday, at the exact time when the children of the world, who are no fools, are seeing through them, exploding them, and sweeping away the dust of their broken images. May we once again be saved from that sham 'modernity' which will only succeed in making us the laughing-stock of our more perceptive contemporaries, while diluting in tepid and polluted waters the ever-fresh mainspring of Christianity. We are to transmit it from one generation to another, certainly adapted ever anew, although the same always; however, true adaptations have never been, and will never be, of a refashioned gospel of mere fancies, but only of the true gospel, the true reality of mankind... womankind!