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Why Priests Are Men

June 16, AD2017 20 Comments

priests

It’s very common in our culture today for people to think that much of what we Catholics believe is behind the times and out of touch with the modern world. Most often, these sorts of accusations are leveled against the Church’s moral teachings (particularly in the area of sexuality), but that is not always the case. For example, most people see no reason why the priesthood should be reserved to men; they think that the Church’s refusal to ordain women is nothing more than a relic of the Dark Ages or a remnant of a patriarchal and superstitious culture that has no place in the twenty-first century. However, I would like to suggest that there is actually a good reason why women can’t be priests. Contrary to popular belief, there is, in fact, a real logic behind reserving the priesthood to men.

The Male Apostles

The most common explanation for this practice is that the Apostles, the first priests, were all men. Jesus could have very easily chosen female Apostles if he had wanted to, so it seems clear that he wanted the priesthood to be reserved for men. As a result, since the Church has no authority to go against the wishes of Jesus Christ, she also has no authority to ordain women.

While this is a good argument, it’s not exactly what I am going for here. It’s an argument from authority, so it simply tells us that women cannot be priests without explaining why this is so. However, I want something deeper; I want to give the inner logic of the teaching. Simply put, I want to find what it is about the priesthood that makes it appropriate for men rather than women.

More Than a Function

To understand why only men should be priests, we first need to understand that a priest’s role is not simply functional. In other words, priests don’t simply do certain things; they don’t simply perform certain functions. Rather, they are also supposed to be something: they are sacramental symbols of Jesus Christ himself, able to act in His person (in persona Christi). When a priest says the words of consecration over the bread and wine at Mass, he’s acting in the person of Jesus saying those very same words; when a priest says the words of absolution in confession, he’s acting in the person of Jesus offering God’s forgiveness to us.

Consequently, when the Church says that women cannot be priests, she is not saying that men can do certain things better than women. For example, she is not saying that men are better than women at running parishes or giving homilies. Rather, the argument is simply that women cannot be what a priest is supposed to be. Women cannot be sacramental symbols of Jesus the same way that men can.

The Man Jesus

Along these lines, you’ll often hear people say that since Jesus is a man, only men can symbolize him. This argument is on the right track, but it needs some nuancing. We need to explain why maleness is essential for symbolizing Jesus but other physical characteristics are not. For example, Jesus was Jewish, so why can non-Jews be priests?

To understand why Jesus’ sex is so important, we need to look at the Eucharist. When a priest celebrates Mass, he doesn’t just symbolize Jesus in general. Rather, he symbolizes Jesus precisely in his role in the Eucharist, and in this sacrament, Jesus is present to us as the bridegroom of the Church. In other words, he is present to us as our husband, and if there is one thing that only men can symbolize, it is a husband.

This may seem like a strange idea, so we need to unpack it a bit. In the Old Testament, God is often said to be the bridegroom of his people Israel. For example, the prophet Isaiah tells us:

“For your Maker is your husband,

the Lord of hosts is his name;

and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer,

the God of the whole earth he is called.

For the Lord has called you

like a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit,

like a wife of youth when she is cast off,

says your God.” (Isaiah 54:5-6)

Our Bridegroom

Similarly, when we get to the New Testament, we see the same kind of imagery. For example, St. Paul tells husbands to “love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25), and then he explicitly tells us that Jesus and the Church have a marital relationship (Ephesians 5:31-32). In fact, St. Paul in this passage goes beyond anything the Old Testament says about God’s love for his people. He isn’t simply saying that Jesus’ love for the Church is like marriage; he is actually saying that Jesus’ love for us is the model that marriage is based on. Just as he tells us earlier in the letter that human fatherhood is based on God the Father (Ephesians 3:14-15), so too is he now telling us that marriage is based on Jesus’ relationship with the Church.

When he says that Jesus and the Church have a marital relationship (Ephesians 5:31-32), he quotes Genesis 2:24, a verse from the story of Adam and Eve that explains that the deep compatibility between Adam and Eve, between man and woman, is the reason for marriage. However, unexpectedly, St. Paul tells us that this verse is actually “in reference to Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:32). While it obviously refers to human marriage, it also has a deeper, spiritual meaning: it’s about the loving union of Jesus and his Church. In other words, that union is the deeper, primary reality, and marriage is an image of it. That’s why he presents Jesus as a model of how husbands should treat their wives. Marriage is a living representation of the love between Jesus and the Church, so husbands should love their wives just as Jesus loves the Church.

Jesus’ Marital Act

Once we understand that Jesus is our bridegroom, we then need to look at why the Mass in particular is marital. Actually, we already saw this in our previous section. St. Paul told husbands to love their wives “as Christ…gave himself up for” the Church, a clear reference to his death on the cross. In other words, by dying for our sins, Jesus gave us the perfect example of how husbands should love their wives (and, of course, vice versa), so his death was in fact a marital act. Now, the Mass is a re-presentation of Calvary, a memorial of the cross; it makes Jesus’ death present to us here and now and enables us to receive its saving benefits. Consequently, since the cross is marital, so is the Mass.

In fact, we can even take this imagery one step further. At Mass, we receive the Eucharist and unite ourselves physically to Jesus, just like a man and a woman do in the marital embrace. The role of the Eucharist in our spiritual lives is similar to the role of conjugal relations in the life of a married couple: they both create a real physical bond. As a result, the Mass is in fact very marital. It’s one of the times in the life of the Church when Jesus’ role as our bridegroom comes most to the forefront.

Sacramental Symbolism

From all this, it’s clear that women can’t symbolize Jesus during Mass the way men can. Only men can symbolize his marital relationship with the Church; only men can represent Jesus as our bridegroom. However, this may seem rather abstract. While the argument makes sense from a purely logical point of view, it may not appear all that important. Why does it matter that priests symbolize Jesus specifically in his role as our bridegroom?

In a nutshell, it matters because symbolism is an essential element of the sacraments. They are not simply opportunities to receive grace; rather, they’re also opportunities to experience God in a physical way. We need to experience God in a way that is suited to our nature, and since we’re physical creatures, we have to experience him physically. The symbolism of the sacraments is a key part of this physicality. It allows us to experience God through our sense of sight, so it’s very important that the symbolism of the sacraments not be obscured.

More specifically, the symbolism of the male priesthood is important because the marital analogy is an essential element of our faith. Whenever we see a priest consecrating the Eucharist, we should be reminded that Jesus loves us so much that the best analogy for his love in the human world is marriage. Nothing else captures the closeness and intimacy that he wants with us, so it’s important that we be reminded of it again and again. The priesthood is an important way that Jesus teaches us about his love for us, so it’s important that priests reflect that love properly.

The Other Sacraments

When we think about it this way, we can see that the symbolism of the male-only priesthood actually extends to the other sacraments as well. While the marital nature of our relationship with Jesus may not come to the forefront in those other sacraments the way it does in the Eucharist, it never goes away entirely. If he is our bridegroom in the Eucharist, then he’s our bridegroom all the time. Just like a husband and wife do not stop being married when they do things that aren’t specifically marital (like going grocery shopping or hanging out with friends), so too does Jesus remain our bridegroom even after Mass is over. He’s always our bridegroom, so when priests symbolize him in other sacraments, like confession and anointing of the sick, they are also symbolizing him as our bridegroom, even if that aspect of our relationship with him is not front and center in those sacraments.

Conclusion

From all this, we can see that reserving the priesthood to men is not at all a relic of the Dark Ages or a remnant of a patriarchal and superstitious culture. There’s actually some pretty solid reasoning behind it. Priests symbolize Jesus precisely in his role as the bridegroom of the Church, and only men can do that. As a result, even though women can run parishes and give homilies just as well as men, the one thing they cannot do, the role of Jesus that they cannot symbolize, makes all the difference.

 

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

JP Nunez has been a theology nerd since high school. He has master's degrees in both theology and philosophy (with a concentration in bioethics) from Franciscan University of Steubenville, and he spent three years in Catholic University of America's doctoral program in biblical studies before realizing that academia isn't where he wants to be. During his time in Steubenville, he worked for two years as an intern at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, where his responsibilities included answering theological questions and helping to format and edit their Journey Through Scripture Bible studies. He blogs at JP Nunez: Understanding the Faith Through Scripture.

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  • kronzypantz

    Yet why can men take on the feminine role of bride to the bridesgroom?

    What deeper reality is being represented by maleness? It seems the only argument here is that men appeal to our fallen perception to remind us of Jesus in some way. Not that there is any real spiritual and ontological difference between men and women.

  • Karen

    Husbands = Male
    Husbands = Jesus
    Jesus = God

    Women = Church
    Church = Human
    Human < God

    Therefore Male < Women

    The truth, which you are too much of a coward to state openly, is that Catholics believe women are inferior to men. Please, just be honest about it. Stop all this sophistry. I'm sure there are plenty of women who agree that they are worse and less in the image of God than men are. Those women will be good, obedient doormats.

    • Caine

      Karen, Blessed Mother is the highest solely Human in Heaven after Jesus. If Catholics truly believed women were so inferior to men, how do you explain their reverence to Mary?

    • Karen

      The church hierarchy made up the Mary stuff to suit itself so I don’t believe any of it has any authority. If you do accept the Mary stuff, you also have to accept that no human can possibly imitate her. Real, live women are still below all men in Catholic dogma because we aren’t good enough to be the Image of Christ. In Catholicworld the practical, everyday order is 1. Priests, 2. Males, 3. Nuns, 4. Married women, 5. Unmarried non-nuns.

    • Caine

      “The church hierarchy made up the Mary stuff to suit itself so I don’t believe any of it has any authority.” – If the Church places women in such low regard, why would they bother to make up the Mary stuff? Isn’t that a contradiction of your earlier statement? Plus, arguing that the Church made up the Mary stuff is not an argument that is based in fact. Please provide evidence.

      “If you do accept the Mary stuff, you also have to accept that no human can possibly imitate her.” – Do you recall in the Bible where Jesus was speaking to his apostles and said, “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matt. 5:48)? If that’s not a call for the followers of Jesus to imitate perfection, as Catholics try to do with all of the saints and Mary, I don’t know what is.
      Lastly, I would never place Mother Teresa below myself as a male, let alone any of the other number of female saints. I don’t believe your hierarchy list.

    • Karen

      Mary is useful to the hierarchy precisely because she IS mostly fiction. She is a mother who never had sex, eternally young and beautiful and perfectly, completely PASSIVE. She does nothing;’she is done to. The ideal willing object without any will or ideas of her own. Real women cannot attain this perfection so men can hit them over the head forever with their deficiencies compared to the perfect ideal of Mary. Does your wife age? Complain about how you never help with the housework or spend ever Saturday on your hobbies? Tell her to shut up and be like the uncomplaining Mary!! Do women in the congregation want a voice in Church decisions? Preach lots of sermons on how Mary passively accepted her fate and suggest that somehow she was really active, as though she could have told God ‘no, thanks, not interested.’ Mary is not a mother; she is a bludgeon created by males to beat women into helpless inferiority.

    • Caine

      Again, you’ve failed to provide proof that Blessed Mother was not real. The Bible is one of, if not the, most accurate history books that exist. The Bible is often used as a reference to other historical books to demonstrate historical context when referring to non-miraculous or faith based facts. Was Mother Teresa fake too? Were any of the tens of thousands of female saints fake?
      Additionally, Blessed Mother launched the public life of Christ by telling Him to turn water into wine, “On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.”
      “Woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.”
      His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” . . .
      What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” (John 2:1-11)

    • Karen

      Female saints fall into three categories: women in Bible stories, women who died rather than have sex or because of terrible pregnancies, and nuns. This leads me to conclude that the Catholic values women who never have sex or who die because they did.

    • kronzypantz

      Yet if Mary came down and presided over Eucharist, it would not be valid under current Catholic understanding. Second only to Christ in grace, yet deficient compared to any priest.

  • adam aquinas

    Reasons for the Catholic masculinization of the priesthood can be approached from the esoteric (contrived Biblical interpolation and papal decrees). Then there are contextual and logical interpretations. Jesus was a Jew and the teachers called Rabbis were all men. Many who followed Jesus considered him a Rabbi, a teacher….hence his followers were men, except Mary M. They were all married men except for the favorite John and they all had families. Jewish culture had the women take care of the children, the household, etc. So the apostles, who were really not priests were all married men (except John whom Jesus had a special love for). Jews in the early centuries were misogynists, and so tradition continued. Misogyny under the guise of religion is still misogyny. Ya can’t explain that away….historically.

    • Ronky

      You certainly have a creative imagination, but please don’t insult our intelligence by asking us to accept your inventions as historically accurate or “logical”. Our Lord had scores of women followers during His earthly life, as the Gospels repeatedly mention. There is no evidence that any of the Apostles was married and a good deal of evidence that most if not all of them were celibate. Our Lord repeatedly alluded to the Apostles being His priests of His New Covenant. In fact that was the primary reason why the most powerful (in an earthly sense) of the priests of the Old Covenant at the time arranged to have Him killed.

    • Karen

      St. Peter was married.

      This is a really easy one to knock over.

    • TomFromMD

      Also 1 Cor 9:5, where Paul says “Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas?” (With Cephas being Peter)

    • captcrisis

      Not only that but bishops had several wives. We know this because Paul wanted them to have only one. (!)
      1 Timothy 3:2

    • Appleman

      Idiot.
      You gays don’t know squat about the Bible.

    • adam aquinas
  • captcrisis

    Seems like one reason would be enough, but you’ve given us four. Shows a lot of creativity.

    In past centuries the Church supplied other reasons, of course.

    • Ronky

      Such as?

    • captcrisis

      1. They were stupid.
      2. They were morally weak.
      3. A male priest could have several wives, but a woman could not have several husbands (this is going way back).
      4. Only pagan religions had priestesses.
      5. Their presence caused men to stumble.
      6.
      5. They were unclean due to menstruation.
      6. Their place was in the home.
      7. It violates some notion of “complementarity”.
      8.

  • Caine

    This wouldn’t even be an issue if only men and women could have the humility of our Mother, who so perfectly stated, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38)