Should Catholic women preach at Mass? Here’s a better question.
Editors’ note: For another take on the question of women preaching during Mass, read “I’m a Catholic woman who was allowed to preach at Mass—until it was banned”
Catholics who have sat through enough bad homilies can find it difficult to understand why the church does not allow women (or laymen) to preach about the good news at Mass. We all know women who are knowledgeable in the Catholic faith and who could probably give a more engaging homily than Father who is struggling through his fourth Mass of the weekend. Besides, other Christian denominations allow women to preach in a ministerial role, and they do a fine job of it, bringing many souls to a greater love of God.
There is also the obvious reality that the church has been enriched by the witness of many brilliant women, above all Mary the Mother of God. And it is no accident that the risen Lord sent Mary Magdalene to tell the apostles of his resurrection. Because of this unique mission, St. Thomas Aquinas called her the apostle to the apostles (apostola apostolarum). The Samaritan woman at the well becomes a proto-evangelist when she goes back to her town to invite others to come to see Jesus. The past two millennia have seen women doctors of the church, women saints and countless holy women.
Catholics who have sat through enough bad homilies can find it difficult to understand why the church does not allow women to preach about the good news at Mass.
To be clear, the Catholic Church does allow women and non-ordained men to preach at the discretion of the local bishop. Laypeople may preach at retreats, offer reflections and so on, as clearly stated in Canon Law (No. 766). Nevertheless, Canon Law also specifies that the homily is a particular type of preaching, part of the liturgy of the Mass, and is reserved for the ordained—deacons and priests (No. 767). The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has further clarified that Canon No. 766 cannot be used in the space reserved for the homily during the Mass. In 2004, the Vatican also issued the instruction “Redemptionis Sacramentum,” which reiterates this continued teaching and practice, underscoring that wherever the practice has been changed it must be returned to the consistent teaching of the church (No. 64-66, 74 and 161).
We live in a culture that views and values persons in terms of their function—what they can do. And in the United States today, women and men can do most of the same things. Frequently, women surpass men with their abilities and academic accomplishments, making it all the more difficult to understand why a woman who could certainly write and deliver a better homily than a particular priest would not be allowed to do so.
Herein lies a significant challenge to understanding the situation. We have to move beyond our functional world to a more metaphysical world. In other words, we have to shift the conversation from doing to being. This is all the more difficult when our surrounding cultural norms maintain sexual differentiation as something fluid and not definitive.
We have to move beyond our functional world to a more metaphysical world. We have to shift the conversation from doing to being.
When it comes to the priesthood, the priest stands in persona Christi (in the person of Christ) in relation to the faithful, particularly in the Mass and in the sacrament of reconciliation. By virtue of his ordination, the church teaches that his soul has been indelibly marked. An ontological change has taken place. In effect, this means that no matter how wonderful or how terrible the priest may be, when he says the words of the consecration, he is able to change the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, by virtue of his ordination, not his moral character. So, too, with the words of absolution, the priest is able to forgive our sins. He is truly another Christ and able to do the things that only Christ could do. What he does is inextricably tied to who he is.
While some may be quick to identify this as a form of clericalism, I would offer that it is a grace and a mercy. If the priesthood depended on the character of the priest, history suggests that humanity would be found sorely lacking in acceptable candidates. Most of us, lay and cleric alike, have a long way to go in our personal sanctification.
The reality of the priest in persona Christi also has to do with Christ’s relationship to the church, namely that of the bridegroom to the bride, a specific image that points to a reality. In a 2015 interview, Pope Francis returned to this 2,000-year teaching when answering a question about the possibility of women’s ordination. “[It’s] not because women don’t have the capacity. Look, in the church, women are more important than men, because the church is a woman. It is ‘la’ church, not ‘il’ church. The church is the bride of Jesus Christ.”
In our marriages, we crave the same intimacy and love that exists between Christ and his church.
Countless works of art depicting Christ as the bridegroom, frequently with his mother representing the church as his bride, underscore a tradition and teaching that arguably predate the birth of Christ. The Old Testament introduces the idea of a marriage between God and his people and builds up the expectation of its fulfillment in the New Testament, both in Christ’s sacrifice and in the coming into being of the church.
Given our experiences of marriage, this teaching can be all the more challenging to grasp. But it can help to look to St. Thomas Aquinas, who identifies it as the perfect spousal relationship. In other words, our human experience is analogous. In our marriages, we crave the same intimacy and love that exists between Christ and his church, between God and his people, but our human imperfection will limit even the best marriages.
In the liturgy of the Mass, the priest stands not only as Christ but as Christ in relation to the church. Every part of the Mass reserved to a priest or deacon corresponds with an action that Jesus himself engaged in as the bridegroom of the church. That is why the Gospel cannot be read by a non-ordained person. And while many women and men are involved in the teaching of the Gospel in myriad ways, the specific form of the homily in the context of the Mass is about Christ’s spousal relationship to his church.
We have to advance the conversation beyond one that limits women to emulating male models but instead understands women and men in relation to one another.
This reality should serve to encourage our priests and deacons to prepare with the utmost care for the homily. As the priest is called to offer himself in persona Christi in the eucharistic sacrifice, he must do the same in his preaching. This sometimes means that he must preach a difficult message and be prepared to be persecuted as a result, just as Jesus was persecuted for his preaching, particularly his challenges to corrupt powers and authorities.
But the fact that some priests do not do homilies well or that some women could write and deliver them better does not change the reality of the spousal relationship of Christ and, in turn, the priest, to the church.
When Pope Francis gave his answer above, he also rearticulated the need for the development of a theology of women. I continue to maintain that we have to advance the conversation beyond one that limits women to emulating male models but instead understands women and men in relation to one another. We have already proven that women and men can do many of the same things. Now we need to advance the conversation to one of being. Specifically, how does the reality of being a specific sexually differentiated human person—a woman or a man—impact what a person does? Maybe the first question we need to ask is: Does being a woman or a man affect what I do?
Judging from our cultural perceptions of men, which limit in harmful ways what is considered to be properly masculine, we need to do this work as it relates to both women and men. Maybe even together.