On his flight back to Rome, Pope Francis was asked, by Maria Sagrarios Ruiz de Apodaca, "will we one day see women priests in the Catholic church", to which Pope Francis replied:
...on women priests, that cannot be done. Pope St. John Paul II after long, long intense discussions, long reflection said so clearly. 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. And the Madonna is more important than popes and bishops and priests. I must admit we are a bit late in the elaboration of a theology of women. We have to move ahead with that theology. Yes, that's true.Here Pope Francis is referring to the apostolic letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis, issued by Pope St. John Paul II in 1994 and further explicated by the Responsum of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger of 1995, in which it is declared with absolute finality that the Church lacks the authority to admit women to Holy Orders. Here is the specific wording of OS (§4):
Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church's divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful.Note that nothing is said here about women per se that would indicate the reason why they could not, even in principle, be admitted to Holy Orders should the requisite authority exist in the Church to confer Ordination on whomever the Church should please to confer it. Earlier in the same letter JPII mentions the teaching of Paul VI, who said virtually the same thing and grounded his position on the Tradition of the Magisterium. JPII also mentions, without quoting any of them, "other theological reasons which illustrate the appropriateness [my emphasis] of the divine provision".
Ultimately, then, the reason given for the continuing (and unalterable) ban on admitting women to Holy Orders is an ecclesiological one: the Church lacks the authority to act otherwise. This may appear to be a minor point, but that would be merely an appearance: in fact it is quite important, and you're about to find out why.
The alternative would be to give an ontological reason, to say what it is about being a female that bars one from being admitted to Holy Orders. Some theologians have, indeed, speculated about such ontological reasons, but all such speculation is not only speculative, it is also dangerously misguided. To argue that there is something about being a female that is essentially different from being a male is to move dangerously towards maintaining that there is some specific difference between the two sexes. But the Church has never taught de fide that there is any such difference, and that's a good thing because such a teaching would fly in the face of what the Church says about the essence of humankind more generally. God created man (hominem) in his own image; male and female he created them. There is one kind of thing (homo) existing in two sexes, not two kinds of things. There cannot be any specific difference between male and female—the differences that distinguish them are material, not formal, and material differences, however great, do not add up to essential differences.
To make the ecclesiological claim is not to make any particular ontological claim about women, but some have claimed that it does either entail or else "suggest" ontological claims about women. This is incorrect, and it is important to see why. The ecclesiological claim, as stated in OS, is an instance of the via negativa: it is a declaration of what is not possible, rather than a positive declaration of something that is the case. Theologically this is a much safer position to take, since it avoids possible empirical refutations of what one might claim to be the case were one to take the positive declaration route.
However, suppose someone were to suggest "Even though the Church lacks the authority to ordain women now, it might be given the authority to ordain women later." This, after all, would appear to be consistent with the claim that the teaching is ecclesiological rather than ontological, that it is about the nature of the Church rather than about the nature of women. But again this would be a mere appearance, for this possibility is excluded by the fact that Revelation is closed: it is an unchangeable matter of de fide doctrine that everything that was to be revealed about the Sacraments was already revealed in the life of Christ. So if the Church lacks such authority today, it will always lack such authority. Nice try, heretics.
As I mentioned above, the fact that the teaching is essentially ecclesiological has not stopped some pundits from finding ontological claims in the, shall we say, penumbra, of the teaching. John Zuhlsdorf, for example, a rather flamboyant blogger, began his post on this matter with the claim "women don't have the capacity to receive the sacrament of holy orders because they lack maleness". Now, I didn't actually laugh out loud at that when I read it, but only because I wasn't altogether sure whether he saw himself as offering an explanation or a reason, and in this case his intentions would make a difference to how laughable the statement is. If we focus on the word "because" it begins to appear that he sees himself as offering at least a reason, if not an explanation. It can't be an explanation, because of course all he is really saying is that women cannot be ordained because they are not men, and that cannot be an explanation because to offer it up in that capacity would be to beg the question. "Women cannot be ordained to the priesthood." "Why not?" "Because they're not men." "But why can men be ordained to the priesthood?" "Because they're men." That's obviously not going anywhere explanatorily, but could it at least count as a reason?
If "not being a man" were an actual property, it might go some ways towards counting as a reason, but "not being a man" is not an actual property, it is a linguistic model for the privation of a specific property. Lots of things fit that description: women are non-men; pieces of chalk are non-men; the oak tree outside my office window is a non-man, etc. Some might object that this is to confuse contraries and contradictories. Being female is not the same thing as the general contradictory "not being a man", it is in fact a specific contrary property—being female, which is opposed to "being a man" as a contrary. But this cannot be either a reason or an explanation, for the reasons given above: if it is to count as a difference maker in this case, it would have to be a marker of a specific difference, something formal rather than material.
So to say "women don't have the capacity to receive the sacrament of holy orders because they lack maleness" is at best to utter a tautology. It is neither controversial nor, in this case, informative, which is to say it is neither a reason nor an explanation, it is simply a statement of the principle under discussion. So he should have left out the word "because": "women don't have the capacity to receive the sacrament of holy orders, only men have that capacity." But that wouldn't be nearly as flamboyant, nor would it satisfy the person who wants to know why women don't have the capacity to receive the sacrament of holy orders. If someone asks you, "Why doesn't this medicine make my headache go away?" it would not be much of an explanation to say "Because it doesn't". Saying "Because it can't" isn't a lot better, but it's a step in the right direction; for whatever reason Zuhlsdorf prefers the first to the second, the vapid to the tepid.
Ed Peters is not at all flamboyant, but he is a lawyer, which tempts him to say things like
Ordinatio sacerdotalis, AS IT IS PHRASED in the operative no. 4, is not a statement about women, it is not a statement about sacraments, it is, by the PLAIN TEXT OF THE DOCUMENT, a statement about ecclesiology. [CAPS in the original--maybe he's more flamboyant than I give him credit for!]So we have a kind of legal version of sola Scriptura, if you will, a claim that the "plain text of the document" ought to settle all disputes among reasonable people. Good luck with that, my friend. As we have seen, the putative plainness of the text belies the difficulty of its interpretation. He's right, of course, that the statement is an ecclesiological one and that, perhaps, is all that a lawyer really cares about—what do I need to prove my case? But as a hermeneutical principle the solus textus approach can lead one into troubled waters. In particular, when Peters goes on to say "OS does not exclude ontological reasons, or sacramental ones; indeed it seems to suggest both in places" he makes the very mistake I have drawn attention to above, looking for the ontological in all the wrong places, possibly for all the wrong reasons.