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)
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.
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.
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.