Ask Miss Grace

“Ask Miss Grace”A new addition to the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church weekly bulletin announcements, “Ask Miss Grace” is known for her wise and contemporary council to churches nationwide.  She has recently come to our area and will be a feature article for the coming months.

Dear Miss Grace,

I recently attended one of the local Catholic churches for a baptism of one of my wife’s cousins.  As I watched the priest baptize the child, I realized that as Lutherans we are very similar in our worship practices, at least regarding baptism.  But then it got me thinking of all the differences between the Catholics and Lutherans.  Why can only men be priests in the Catholic Church and not women, like in the Lutheran and other Protestant churches?  What gives?  And why can’t priests get married and have children like our pastor can?

-Noah Fence


Dear Mr. Fence,

I’ve had other people ask me these same questions over the years and I’ll try to do my best to explain the Catholic perspective, knowing that I can only answer as a Lutheran.  

The Catholic Church would explain that Jesus instituted an all-male priesthood because each priest is to act In Persona Christi – in the person of Jesus Christ.  Christ is the high priest, and a man is ordained into HIs priesthood.  Like us, they would say that as God, Jesus is pure spirit without gender, but in his humanity, Jesus is a man.  But they would take that a step further and say that the Priest who acts in the person of Christ needs to be male in order to represent the Godman, Jesus.

Further, they would point out that at the Last Supper, our Lord ordained twelve of His apostles in the fullness of the priesthood.  They would say that if it was our Lord’s intention to ordain women, he certainly would have ordained one of the countless women who followed him when he preached all over Palestine.  They point out that his mother, Mary, was his most faithful and obedient disciple, yet she was not chosen to be an apostle.  Likewise, Mary and Martha were close to Christ and were loyal followers, but neither of them became disciples, either.  (For women to be allowed to be instructed and even be in conversation with Jesus, this was a radical concept for the first-century Jewish religion.)

The Catholic Church would theologically point out that in creation, God created man and woman as equals but with distinct roles.  Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict (who were the previous Popes before the current Pope Francis) both wrote that woman have a rightful calling that should not be overshadowed by the concept of women clergy.  Instead, they said that it is important to develop their role as generative and maternalNaturally, women possess qualities of nurturing, so they have distinct roles.  (To be fair, all three popes covering the past 40 years, including Pope Francis also note that women do equal work and should receive equal pay for that work, and should have equal opportunities for employment and education… neither man nor woman are better than the other but complement each other.)

Celibacy, remaining single, is a discipline that the Catholic Church connects with priesthood.  When a priest is ordained, he is also called to be celibate. Celibacy is the formal oath to never get married in order to dedicate oneself totally to God and Church.  The virtue of chastity (refraining from sexual intercourse) is of course implied in celibacy since sex is reserved for marriage.  The discipline of celibacy implies that the priest, who acts In Persona Christi, is married to the Church.  In celibacy, the priest freely gives up a wife and children in order to serve God and his parishioners, which becomes his family.  

Interestingly enough, in the very early church, many centuries ago, there were married clergy.  Indeed, many of the apostles, including St. Peter, were known to be married.  Celibacy became mandatory in the Roman Catholic Church (the Western Catholic Church) in 1075 under Pope Gregory VII.  In the Eastern Church, the Orthodox Church, celibacy is optional for priests.  Priests can marry but only once before ordination.  Even married Lutheran pastors who convert to Catholicism may be ordained and thus become married priests but only if they are married before their ordination in the Catholic Church. 

Interestingly, not all Protestant denominations allow women to be pastors/ministers.  Women may be ordained in our kind of Lutheranism, the ELCA, (and have done so for over 50 years!), but not in other Lutheran denominations like the Missouri-Synod and Wisconsin Synod.  The Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians, Congregationalists, MCC, UCC and Disciples of Christ all allow for the ordination of women.  But most of the various Baptist churches do not ordain women, especially the larger denominations such as the General Conference, American and Southern Baptists families.  And most non-denominational churches do not allow for their most senior ministry leaders to be women.

-Miss Grace