Recently, I had a former student ask me why the Catholic Church only ordains men to the priesthood. Below is my admittedly long-winded answer.
I know that this is a stumbling block for many. As a young Catholic, I did not understand, nor did I accept the teaching. I couldn’t see how it was fair that men could have access to something that women could not. It wasn’t until I had my conversion experience at 17 that the matter became clear to me. For me it comes down to this: did Jesus know what He was doing or did He not? Knowing Jesus, I knew my answer.
In his 1994 encyclical Ordonatio Sacerdotalis, Pope St. John Paul II settled the matter once and for all. He stated that the Catholic Church has no power whatsoever to ordain women to the priesthood. It should be clear that his statement does not say the Church will not ordain women. It says the Church won’t ordain women. That is an important difference. The encyclical is incredibly short and does not elaborate much on the rationale. You can read the letter yourself at your leisure. Here are a few explanations as to why this teaching holds. Many of these ideas are from John Paul II himself and Sr. Sara Butler
1. Christ did not choose women for priesthood.
All of the ones that Christ chose to be priests were men. This is an undeniable fact of Scripture and Tradition
2. This choice was free
Some have argued that He was only acting in accord with His culture. But even a simple glance at the Gospels would dispel this notion. Jesus broke many social taboos, especially regarding women. We see this with the Sinful Woman in Luke and the Samaritan Woman at the Well in John. The Gospel portrait we have of Jesus is of a Person who cares little for social opinion if it gets in the way of the morally correct thing to do. It was one of the reasons why He was killed.
3.This choice was done under the influence of the Spirit.
The choice of the 12 was down after Jesus had spent the night in prayer. Acts 1:2 makes clear that this choice was made under the Holy Spirit’s guidance. This was not a simple bureaucratic or random choice. God the Son, in prayer to the Father and through the Spirit chose only men.
4. None of the successors to the Apostles were men
We must always go to those who knew Jesus as the first interpreters of Jesus’ words and actions. When they chose bishops and priests to follow them, they understood what was changeable and what was not. All of the Apostles were Jewish. But their successors were Jews and Gentiles. But not one of the bishops believe that they had the capacity to ordain women to the priesthood. And this has been the consistent teaching, unbroken, for centuries. This makes it part of unchanging Sacred Tradition
5. Matter matters
Catholicism is a religion that is heavily invested in meeting God through the complete human experience. We are spiritual, so we meet God by uniting our souls to Him in prayer. But God knows that we are not angels. We are embodied souls. So there is a strong material component to our spiritual lives. And in this, the material forms that shape our experiences matter.
We MUST use bread and wine at mass, not pizza and bear. We must use oil to anoint and not perfumed water. There is not simply the spiritual invocation of words. You must have valid matter to receive the transformation. If the words of consecration were said over pizza and beer, it would not become the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ. If you gave anointing of the sick with perfumed water, nothing would happen. And if the words of ordination were said over a woman, the sacrament would not be conferred.
Bread and wine were chosen because they were the best food examples of Christ’s body and blood. Water is the best symbol for Baptism because it represents the waters of death as we die with Christ and it represents cleansing. Christ, in His wisdom understood that men and women have different roles. The male priest best signifies Christ as the Bridegroom to His bride, the Church.
6. Priesthood is about service
Another incredibly important point is to reflect on the priesthood itself. From the outside, it looks like the priesthood give only men access to a power structure where they make the rules. And to be sure we have sadly had men throughout history who have seen it this way and used the clergy as a means to power. When this happens, the entire body of Christ suffers. But even that view is a small view of the priesthood. Ultimately, it is a ministry of
service. The only authority in Christianity is the authority of service. Remember Mark 10:45 “For the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and gives His life as a ransom for many.”
The priest is called to be “in Persona Christi” and to take on the Person of Christ in all ways, especially that of the One who came to serve. And here is the thing about service, if I truly turn to God and ask Him where He wants me to serve, I will humbly submit. The servant does not demand to serve in a specific way. The servant does only what the Master asks. I wanted to be a priest. God, in His wisdom, said no to my desire. If I wish to be a good servant, my response should not be, “But that’s not fair.” My response should be, “Then where shall I serve you, O Lord?” By His grace He led me to service to my wife and to my students.
7. We should strive to be saints, not priests.
Everyone who has studied Church history knows that it was St. Catherine of Siena who talked the Pope into return to Rome from Avignon. The pope himself is less-well known. St. Margaret Mary Alacoque was disbelieved by her bishop when she told him Jesus of the Sacred Heart was appearing to her. I cannot recall the bishop’s name. And it was members of the English clergy who sent St. Joan of Arc to the flames.
If their names are remembered, they are remembered with infamy. Those who are truly influential, from the standpoint of history and eternity, are the saints. And anyone, male or female can become a saint by the grace of God.
Next time I will discuss a more modern insight as to why Christ chose only men for his priests.