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Women and Clergy in the Catholic Church – Mixed Feelings

Man and woman leading the sermon together The Church of England is poised to bring in women bishops by next year after opponents agreed not to block a fresh move to do so.
Men and women lead Mass. The Church of England is poised to bring in women bishops by next year. When will the Catholic Church follow?

In his first exhortation pope Francis excludes women from priesthood, reaffirming the church’s stance on the matter of the Holy Orders. It is a pity and an unlawful discrimination to allow only men to accede this consecrate office.

A Roman Catholic, me?

I am christian, not roman catholic. To be a follower of the papal institution would imply I support the violation of a fundamental principle in international human rights law: non-discrimination. As a last-year law student passionate about human rights, I therefore dismiss the Holy See.

Catholic women can engage in a variety of occupations within the roman religious institute, from working as missionaries to contemplative prayer. The ordination of women to accede the Holy Orders of the Church, however, is an impossibility.

This gender-based discrimination violates international and regional human rights treaties. Discrimination is unlawful when it makes a distinction between individuals based on objective criteria nor reasonable justification.

Moreover, the discrimination of women in the church cannot be legitimized by the goal it allegedly serves and the disproportionate and unnecessary means used to achieve it.

There is no objective reasoning whatsoever to be found in the Church’s doctrine on the ordination of women. The theological explanation argues that in the Bible, the male represents the transcendent and the female the immanent. The male’s transcendent nature and paternity after ordination would make him more suitable for leading positions within the church.

Confusing a symbolic order with a real life social order, this argument can be easily dismissed. We do not confuse the book of Genesis with the scientific explanation of the birth of life either. The application of views and interpretations of religious texts such as the Bible and the Koran to the letter is untenable in reality.

Every individual is equal

Catholics from the women priest movement stand in front of the Vatican.
Catholics from the Women Priest Movement stand in front of the Vatican.

The non-discrimination principle of human rights law is founded on the deep-rooted belief that every individual is equal. In this respect, proponents of a men only clergy again operate an argument confusing a symbolic order with a real life social order and actual discrimination. They argue that the ordination to the Holy Orders does not put men higher in the ranks of sanctity and worth as compared to any other baptized member or the church. The fact that those who acceded the Holy Orders can take upon them leading roles, is overlooked in this argument.

Another false argument proponents of only men clergy pretend is by referring to the exclusion of married men to accede the Holy Orders. The proponents argue that by also excluding men from the Holy Order, the church does not target women in any way. Again, an argument to be refuted as a male who gets married and thus excludes himself from ordination has made a choice, to be born a women is not.

Opening up the Holy Orders to women will definitely cause a tumult. World history and human dignity have shown us this is inevitable when discriminatory institutions are abolished or reformed, take for example the abolition of slavery and the end of apartheid.


My mixed feelings arise from on the one hand my christian belief and on the other my dedication to human rights and the institutional discrimination of women by the catholic church. I am also disappointed, the church could contribute more to the observance of human rights around the Globe. Primarily through exemplary conduct; by applying the principles it declares every day to its own organization and by stopping the use of double standards.

This long lasting discussion does not foster hope for change. Especially not since the publication of pope Francis’ first exhortation reaffirming the church’s outdated view on women and the clergy. Despite bleak prospects, as a christian, I remain fateful to the idea that christianity and gender ought to be more than that.

Maria-Clara Van den Bossche is a Newswire Guest Writer.

Translated from the Dutch by Johan Roggeman.

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Maria-Clara Van den Bossche