The Redefinition of Priest

on Catholic Priestesses & the Loss of Catholicity

Over a half-century ago, C.  S. Lewis wrote an essay on the impossibility of the Church of England ordaining women to holy orders (“Priestesses in the Church?”, 1948). He argued that if the church did such a thing, it would cease to be part of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church of Jesus Christ. In that essay, he noted that although the proposal to open holy orders to women had been raised, it was most unlikely that the Church of England would take such a dramatic and irreversible step, which would cut it off from other Christian churches and from the consistent teaching of the whole church from its founding by Jesus Christ. Though the Church of England did not break from that teaching during Lewis’s lifetime, it and other branches of the Anglican Communion subsequently did so, thus aligning themselves with Protestant denominations that do not treat the priestly office the way Catholic, Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox churches do.

Within the Catholic Church, the matter was settled definitively in 1994 by Pope John Paul  II in his Apostolic Letter, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, which built on the earlier declaration, Inter Insigniores, issued in 1976 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) with the approval of Pope Paul  VI. It would be foolish to ascribe clairvoyance to Lewis, but a close reading of “Priestesses in the Church?” shows his prescience in predicting that if the Church of England ordained women to holy orders, it would result in serious division within the Anglican Communion as well as cut off the Church of England from the Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and Catholic churches.

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Edward G. Stafford is a retired U.S. Foreign Service officer who often focused on church-state relations in his diplomatic assignments. He now serves in the Roman Catholic diocese of Camden as a lector, catechist, and ESL teacher. He is married with three adult sons and five grandchildren.

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