The Catholic hierarchy resolutely refuses to accept the ordination of women priests. They maintain this position in the face of the service of women as priests and ministers in other Christian communities. They do so also in opposition to the desire of a majority of Catholic people, at least in the United States. They justify their stance as based on Scripture.
A careful examination of Scripture undermines this claim.
In the first place, Jesus did not discriminate against women. Fatih, not gender, opened the way to God’s kingdom. The patriarchal cultures of Palestine and Rome sanctioned legal and religious inequality; Jesus openly flouted their norms. He recognized and rewarded faith in his divine mission, not adherence to law as interpreted by official representatives of political and religious societies.
In the second, women shared equally with men in the exercise of God’s gifts to the new religion. Women brought the good news of salvation as apostles (Mary, the Samaritan Woman, Magdalene, Junia); they prayed prophetically (Mary and Elizabeth and Anna, women in Corinth, the daughters of Phillip); they taught others about Jesus and his mission (Mary and Prisca); they served the needy as deacons (Phoebe and others); they supported Jesus and his followers with their personal resources (Mary and Mary Magdalene, Mary and Martha, Joanna and Suzanna, and others); they hosted house churches in which Christians met, prayed, and celebrated (Phoebe and Prisca, Mary and Lydia).
The church in the New Testament had not yet constituted itself in a hierarchical structure. It had apostles, women among them. It ordained deacons, women included. It established church administrators in local communities, patrons and patronesses, hosts and hostesses, who filled an early position of overseer, manager, or bishop. These administrators participated in local councils of elders, either drawn from them or functioning as their presiding officer. We have no evidence of ordination in the beginning to the episcopacy or the presbyterate; later, bishops would be ordained and elders would become priests as the hierarchical structure became solidified and the distinction between clergy and laity became fixed.
We find in the Scriptures only one instance of a position held by male disciples alone: the circle of Twelve Apostles. This group chosen by Jesus served a foundational role in the nascent community. Symbolically, it carried on the special history of God’s people established in the Old Testament; eschatologically, it would fulfill the destiny of that people in judging all nations at the end of time. To offer this message of Scriptural fulfillment to a patriarchal Jewish society, these Twelve Apostles had to be men. As the identification between Judaism and Christiainty gradually dissolved, so did the position of the Twelve-circle decrease in importance, finally to disappear. It did not succeed itself.
In order to buttress its claim to apostolic succession, the Catholic hierarchy makes these non-scriptural assertions:
1) Twelve men, and only men, were apostles;
2) The Twelve Apostles, and only they, were episkopoi (bishops);
3) The Twelve Apostles, ordained by Jesus at the Last Supper to celebrate the Eucharist, alone celebrated it or ordained others to do so;
4) Peter as leader of the Twelve established apostolic succession from Christ to Peter to the episcopacy of Rome;
5) The episcopacy of Rome alone establishes the validity of apostolic succession.
We are, finally, left with one question. We need not ask if women cannot be priests because the Twelve were all men. Instead we must wonder how apostolic succession descends from a Twelve that did not replicate itself. Perhaps apostolic succession flows, instead, from a believing people that continually celebrates the ongoing victory of its Risen Lord.