Why can only men be ordained as priests?

In our politically charged world, the debate over the restriction of ordination to men alone too often focuses on the political rather than the theological.  Moreover, how some people receive the Church’s teaching also seems to focus on a political framework rather than a theological.  Concerning the political sphere, we must remember that because of our theological foundation, the Church has condemned discrimination based on sex:  “Forms of social or cultural discrimination in basic personal rights on the grounds of sex, race, color, social conditions, language or religion must be curbed and eradicated as incompatible with God’s design” (Vatican II, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, #29).

Therefore, to understand the Church’s position for reserving the Sacrament of Holy Orders and thereby the ordination of deacons, priests, and bishops to men only (cf. Code of Canon Law, #1024), we must leave politics and turn to our theological foundation.  Here we remember that by definition a sacrament is an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace.  First, Christ instituted the Sacrament of Holy Orders.  According to His plan, He called 12 men as His apostles.  Nowhere in the gospel do we find evidence of Jesus giving “orders” to women to baptize, to anoint the sick, to confect the Holy Eucharist, or to forgive sins as He did to the apostles.

Some might respond, “But in Jewish society at that time, women were not considered equal to men.  Women were seen in a second class way, and that is why Jesus only chose men as apostles.”  To some extent, this statement is true.  However, Jesus was not constricted by such social custom.  Even His adversaries stated, “Teacher, we know you are a truthful man and teach God’s way sincerely.  You court no one’s favor and do not act out of human respect” (Matthew 22:16).  Actually, our Lord went against the grain of society and not only associated with women but clearly showed a respect for them equal to males.  While Jewish law allowed men to divorce their wives but not vice versa, Jesus spoke of marriage as a covenant between a man and a woman as two equals made in God’s image and likeness (Matthew 319:3ff).  He spoke with the Samaritan woman, a public sinner, whom “good” rabbis would have avoided (John 4:4ff).  He acknowledged the presence of Mary Magdalene and forgave her sins although she was considered “untouchable” by other religious leaders (Luke 7:36ff).  Many women did follow our Lord during His public ministry, and witnessed His crucifixion and burial.  On Easter, women were the first to discover the empty tomb, and Mary Magdalene was the first to see the risen Lord.  Moreover, Jesus clearly honored His blessed Mother, Mary, for whom He even performed the first miracle at the wedding feast at Cana even though His time had not come.  Clearly, Jesus did not omit calling woman as apostles because of some social or political convention.  Pope John Paul II in his apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem stated, “In calling only men as his apostles, Christ acted in a completely free and sovereign manner.  In doing so, He exercised the same freedom with which, in all His behavior, He emphasized the dignity and the vocation of women, without conforming to the prevailing customs and to the traditions sanctioned by the legislation of the time” (#26).

Moreover, there is no indication in the history of the Church of women being called to Holy Orders.  For instance, although women, including our Blessed Mother, were with the apostles in the “upper room” after the ascension (Acts 1:14), St. Peter addressed the “brothers,” concerning the selection of a replacement for Judas, and the Eleven apostles chose Matthias, one of two men nominated (Acts 1:15ff).  If we examine the Didache (the first manual of doctrine, morality, and spirituality of the Church written about AD 80 and attributed to the apostles) or survey the writings of the Church Fathers, such as St. Clement (d. 101) or St. Ignatius of Antioch (d. 110) to name just two, we find a clear testimony that men were chosen as bishops, priests, and deacons.  I remember Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said, “If our Lord would have ordained women, He would have definitely ordained His own Blessed Mother, free of sin, but He did not” (Preached at a Priests’ Retreat, 1974).  Therefore, the Church remains faithful to the type of ordained ministry willed by Christ and maintained by the apostles.

Second, the Church must also be faithful to the sign value or the substance of the sacrament.  Pope Pius XII, echoing the teachings of the Council of Trent, stated, “The Church has no power over the substance of the sacraments, that is to say, over what Christ the Lord, as the sources of Revelation bear witness, determined should be maintained in the sacramental sign” (Sacramentum Ordinis, #5).  These sacramental signs are symbolic of actions and things, such as water in baptism symbolizes life and cleansing, and reminds us of the parting the waters to bring life at Genesis, the flood waters which destroyed evil in Noah’s time, the parting of the Red Sea to bring the people out of slavery, and the water which flowed from the heart of Christ on the cross.  These signs also unite a person to the everlasting, eternal ministry of Christ Himself.  For example, the Mass is not just a ritual meal or pious remembrance of the Last Supper; the Mass participates in and makes present now the everlasting, eternal sacrifice of our Lord on the cross and His resurrection.

In the same way, through Holy Orders, a priest is called to represent Christ Himself, to be an alter Christus.  For instance, at Mass, the priest acts in persona Christi— “the priest enacts the image of Christ, in whose person and by whose power he pronounces the words of consecration” (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, III, 83, 1, 3).  In this sense, an intrinsic part of the sacramental sign of Holy Orders is the manhood of Christ.

Using St. Paul’s analogy on Christ’s relationship to the Church as the groom with His bride, Pope John Paul II (as did Pope Paul VI) reflected that our Lord’s sacrifice on the cross with the offering of His body and blood “gives definitive prominence to the spousal meaning of God’s love” (Mulieris Dignitatem, #26).  Christ is the bridegroom who has offered Himself completely as Redeemer to His bride, the Church, which He has created.  The Holy Eucharist continues to make present the redemptive act of our Lord, and continues to nourish the Church.  Thereupon, Christ, the bridegroom, is united with His bride, the Church, through the Eucharist.  The Holy Father concluded, “Since Christ, in instituting the Eucharist linked it in such an explicit way to the priestly service of the Apostles, it is legitimate to conclude that He thereby wished to express the relationship between man and woman, between what is ‘feminine’ and what is ‘masculine.’  It is a relationship willed by God both in the mystery of creation and in the mystery of Redemption.  It is the Eucharist above all the expresses the redemptive act of Christ, the Bridegroom, toward the Church, the Bride.  This is clear and unambiguous when the sacramental ministry of the Eucharist, in which the priest acts ‘in persona Christi,‘ is performed by man” (#26).  For a fuller discussion of this point, please confer Pope Paul VI’s Declaration on the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood (Inter Insigniores) and Pope John Paul II’s Mulieris Dignitatem, #26.

Pope Paul VI echoed these points when he wrote to Archbishop Coggan, Archbishop of Canterbury and spiritual leader of the Anglican Church, concerning the ordination of women to the priesthood (November 30, 1975):  “[The Catholic Church] holds that it is not admissible to ordain women to the priesthood, for very fundamental reasons.  These reasons include:  the example recorded in the Sacred Scriptures of Christ choosing His apostles only from among men; the constant practice of the Church, which has imitated Christ in choosing only men; and her living teaching authority which has consistently held that the exclusion of women from the priesthood is in accordance with God’s plan for His Church.”

The Catechism also addressed someone’s “right” to be a priest:  “No one has a right to receive the sacrament of Holy Orders.  Indeed, no one claims this office for himself; he is called to it by God.  Anyone who thinks he recognizes the signs of God’s call to the ordained ministry must humbly submit his desire to the authority of the Church, who has the responsibility and right to call someone to receive orders.  Like every grace this sacrament can be received only as an unmerited gift” (#1578).

Despite the consistent teaching of the Church concerning this matter, Pope John Paul II deemed it necessary to reiterate it once again in his apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (May 22, 1994):  “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, 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” (#4).  The Holy Father’s answer is clear and definitive.

The restriction of Holy Orders to men alone does not denigrate the role of women in the Church.  Think of some of the great female saints like St. Clare, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. Catherine of Sienna whose spiritual writings and example are still honored today.  Think of remarkable work of Mother Teresa (God rest her soul) or Mother Angelica and how many lives they touch.  Think of famous women in our American Church:  St. Elizabeth Ann Seton (a wife, mother, and religious), Blessed Katherine Drexel, St. Frances Cabrini, and Blessed Kateri Tekawitha.  Our country in America has a beautiful legacy of women religious who have served in schools, hospitals, and  orphanages.  Each parish benefits greatly from the services of lay women who offer their time and talent in numerous capacities.  Pope John Paul II emphasized in his apostolic letter, “The presence and the role of women in the life and the mission of the Church, although not linked to the ministerial priesthood, remain absolutely necessary and irreplaceable” (#3).

In all, I remember how our Holy Father addressed this question when he visited Philadelphia in 1979, while I was still in the seminary.  He reminded us that Christ calls each of us to share in His mission.  Some people are called to be priests, some religious brothers and sisters, some as spouses, some as parents, some as single laity.  A vocation a not “right” but a call from Christ through the Church as He has established it.  The distinction is not based on superiority, but on a difference in the levels of function and service.  Everyone shares in the mission of Christ according to His plan and design, and by His grace helps build-up the Kingdom of God.  As counseled by Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, may we faithfully, humbly, and respectfully submit to the teachings of our Church as guided by the Holy Spirit.  In pondering this politically charged question, we are mindful that we must strive to live in the Kingdom of God and faithfully and humbly submit to the teaching of our Church guided by the Holy Spirit.