The All-Male Priesthood

Author: Fr. William Saunders

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 resurrection. 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 other institutions. 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.