I often tell people that I could never be a mother because I am too much of a wimp. This is not a variant of pious political correctness, nor even a denial of wholesome masculinity, it is just a fact. Mothers are some of the toughest people I know and, I might add, they are far and above the most practical people I know, often diagnosing problems and “putting out fires” hundreds of times a day; only to do the same thing again tomorrow. By their nature, mothers are other-oriented and give their lives for the well-being of others; namely their children. We could say the same thing about spiritual maternity as well. I had the splendid privilege of attending St. Edith Stein’s canonization in Rome in October of 1998 and have since spent a number of years studying her writings on the nature of femininity and masculinity. Edith Stein (St. Teresa Benedicta a Cruce), undoubtedly one of the great feminine voices of her time (1891-1942), argued that men and women are distinct in many ways yet equal in their ontological nature.
This is frequently a puzzling concept for those of us in western culture, primarily because we tend to equate equality with “sameness,” which is to say that we are equal to the extent that we can “do” the same things. This is simply not the case. Just because I would make a pretty pathetic mother does not mean that I am somehow inferior to women, or vice versa. The secularized phenomenon of equating sexual equality with sameness not infrequently leads to gender relativism or social androgyny, the cultural fruit of which is not pretty. Arguably one of the greatest ironies in the ‘equal but different’ understanding of the sexes is that it is so clearly recognizable that it often goes unrecognized by many. Case in point, anyone who has been married more than 30 minutes knows that he/she is different than his/her spouse, and this difference does not render one somehow subordinate or inferior to the other, but rather adds to the masculine and feminine complementarity of the nuptial bond and attraction.
On May 31, 2004, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) promulgated a document addressing the nature of sexual complementarity entitled On the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith). In the document Cardinal Ratzinger warns against false feminisms which either relativize the contrasts between the sexes or are blatantly antagonistic towards men. While it is certainly true as the Church has argued, that woman have historically suffered much at the hands of abusive men, this does not justify a societal venom (odium theologicum) towards men, at times latent and sometimes evident, nor a relativizing of sexual differentiation.
Along these lines, it is worth recalling that Catholicism teaches that God’s highest creation was in fact not a man, but rather a woman: the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Catechism of the Catholic Church refers to the Virgin Mary as God’s “masterwork” (CCC#721). The Mother of God is the model par excellence of receptivity of Divine love, and as our Mother, her pure femininity summons us to this same receptivity to the Holy Spirit, which we simply cannot do if we are filled with ego, pride, and self-reliance. In his Letter to Women (1995) and his Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem (1988), Blessed John Paul II underscored the ontological, emotional, and physical realties of sexual differentiation but similarly the equality which accompanies it. God has fashioned this sexual differentiation and attraction of man and woman towards each other, which is therefore to be protected and guarded against lust or carnal utilitarianism.
All of this is pragmatically significant for Catholics in the pews, because on any given Sunday one can wonder, “Why can’t women become priests?” Some have been Catholic their whole lives and their best response to this question would perhaps be: “Because the Vatican says so.” For those of us that have spent our lives in the faith we often don’t think much about it, however, it is an obvious question for many non-Catholics who visit our parishes or even for children and young adults. The answer harkens back to Adam and Eve. In Genesis 2:22 we hear that the Lord God cast a deep sleep on the man and took a rib from his side and created the woman (also in His image and likeness) and brought her to the man. It is worth asking a critical question here: “Why would God use part of man to create woman?” Could he not have also used the earth in creating woman as he did the man? Among other things, this underscores that Adam and Eve are equal and yet they harmonize with each other magnificently. This is seen in Adam’s expression of wonder at Eve’s personhood and complementarity: “This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called ‘woman,’ for out of ‘her man’ this one has been taken” (Gn 2:23). Thus, As John Paul II notes in his Theology of the Body, in the bodily recognition of Eve as a person (not simply a body), Adam recognized in her body a person like himself, both receptive to his love and willing to give hers to him as well. This complementarity impacts both the physical and metaphysical sphere of the sexes, as created in God’s image and likeness and called to love as God loves, namely by self-giving.
When applied to the role of the sacramental priesthood, the priest stands in persona Christi Capitis, or “in the person of Christ the Head.” The bride of the priest is the Church, just as the Bride of Christ is the Church (Eph. 5). Just as St. Edith Stein spoke of the efficacy of spiritual maternity, there is likeness the moral efficacy of spiritual paternity as well, thus for instance we refer to the Pope as “Holy Father.” In spite of a priest’s particular weakness and fallibility, as a minister of the Church, Jesus Christ has ontologically (in his very being), transformed him forever at his ordination, as we hear in Psalm 110:4: “You are a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek.” This is a mark that is forever tattooed on his soul. Even should a man leave the active ministry he will always be marked on his soul as a priest. The actual maleness of a priest is a prerequisite for Holy Orders in the same way that bread and wine are proper matter to confect the Eucharist at mass. Not only were there never female priests in the ancient tradition of Hebraic law, from a Catholic perspective, as Pope’s Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI have all noted, this is a completely unchangeable and infallible doctrine, and thus at no point in the future can it be altered.
In his 1994 Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (May 22, 1994), John Paul II notes: “Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32), I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.” He likewise remarks that Jesus Christ himself only chose men to be priests and thus we cannot change this historical fact. We have to trust that Jesus knew what he was doing even if we don’t apprehend it completely with the western mind. During his Pontificate, Pope Paul VI reiterated this teaching several times as well, especially in the letter Inter Insigniores (October 15, 1976) and his letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Most Reverend Dr. F.D. Coggan (November 30, 1975).
At his ordination and at every Chrism mass during Holy Week, it is made evident by the bishop to his priests that they are called to service of the people of God, rather than to be served by them. Jesus Christ could not have been clearer in this regards: “The son of man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mt 20:28). Pope St. Gregory the Great (d. 604) habitually referred to himself with the title servus servorum Dei, or the “Servant of the Servants of God.” As Gregory’s title denotes, the Pope is not a monarch or some kind of clever statesman, nor, as George Weigel has accurately noted, is he the “C.E.O. of Catholic Church, Inc.” (Legacy, 2004). Rather, the Pope is a servant of humanity, and not simply Catholics, though he is the spiritual shepherd of 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide. Though it is one of sacred office, the Catholic priesthood is also fundamentally one of humility in service; service to death. There is no discrimination or latent misogyny in the presence of an all-male priesthood within the Catholic Church. Rather, as Jesus Christ himself embodied authentic humility in being born into abject poverty, entering Jerusalem seated on a donkey, washing the feet of his own creation at the Last Supper, coming under the unpretentious forms of bread and wine at mass, and ultimately dying at the hands of man, so too are each of us invited to serve others and to become a gift in order to be given away. This is especially true for the men ordained to the holy priesthood of Christ.