THE ALL MALE-PRIESTHOOD
by Fr. William Saunders
With all the news surrounding the Episcopalian Church of England's
decision to ordain women as priests, I was trying to explain to a friend
of mine about the reason for the male priesthood in the Catholic Church
Can you help me?
In our politically charged world, the debate over the ordination of women
too often focuses on the political rather than the theological. We must
first 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 condition, language or religion must be curbed and
eradicated as incompatible with God's design." (Vatican II, "Gaudium et
Spes," No. 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," No. 1024), we must 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 customs. 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 of human respect." (Mt 22:16)
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. (Mt 19:3 ff) He spoke with the
Samaritan woman, a public sinner, whom "good" rabbis would have avoided.
(Jn 4:4 ff) He acknowledged the presence of Mary Magdalene and forgave her
sins although she was considered "untouchable" by other religious leaders.
(Lk 7:36 ff)
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 of feast at Cana, even though
His time had not come. Clearly, Jesus did not omit calling women as
Apostles because social or political convention.
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 1:15 ff) 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"
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." ("Sacrament-um Ordinis," No. 5)
These Sacramental signs are symbolic of actions and things. 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 flooded 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
In the same way, through holy orders a priest is called to represent
Christ Himself, to be an alterChristus. For instance, at Mass, the priest
acts -- "the priest enacts the image of Christ, in
whose person and by whose power he pronounces the words of consecration."
(St. Thomas Aquinas, , III, 83 1, 3) In this sense, an
intrinsic part of the sacramental sign of holy orders is the manhood of
Christ. For a fuller discussion of this point, confer "Declaration on the
Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood" (1976) and Pope John
Paul II's "Mulieris Dignitatem," No. 26.
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 Siena, whose spiritual
writings and example are still honored today. Think of remarkable work of
Mother Teresa 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,
Blessed Kateri Tekawitha. Our country in America has a beautiful legacy of
women religious who have served in schools, hospitals, orphanages and
Our Holy Father addressed this question when he visited Philadelphia in
1979. 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.
Fr. Saunders is pastor of Queen of Apostles Parish and president of Notre
Dame Institute, both in Alexandria.
Taken from the May 19, 1994 issue of THE ARLINGTON CATHOLIC HERALD.