Why Women Cannot Be Priests

G.K.Chesterton said, “Every argument is a theological argument.” Therefore we must be aware, in the argument for women’s ordination (and indeed in every argument) what forms of argumentation are being made, and where the essential truths lie for Catholics.

Those who argue for women’s ordination usually do so using three forms of argumentation: 1. Utilitarianism 2. Sentimentalism  3. Civil Rights. The utilitarian argument goes like this: “Jane can do the job just as well–and better than a man. She has a degree in theology. She’s a great preacher. She is a sensitive pastor and a good servant of the Lord. Women have shown that they can do any job as well as a man. We need good priests. These women would be great priests.

The sentimental argument goes like this, “Sally is such a nice person. She is so loving and funny and kind and good. How can you be so cruel and unkind not to let her be a priest! It is so unfair and so hurtful. Sally’s mother was a pillar of the church and she’s such a good Christian woman. How can you hurt her like this? Don’t you know what pain you’re causing?”

The civil rights argument is simple: “Women and men are equal. You’re discriminating against women by denying them. By denying them ordination you’re treating them as second class citizens.”

These argument can be part of the greater discussion, but they don’t have much weight in the Catholic Church, because the Catholic Church works from a different premise to start with. We begin with theology and the truth of the theology governs all other decisions. Practical and sentimental and civil rights questions–while important in civil society– are very low in priority when making decisions within the Catholic Church.

The Catholic argument in favor of reserving the priesthood to men begins with the creation of man and woman. Man and woman were both created co-equal in the sight of God–both created in his image. Adam and Eve show us therefore the equality of the sexes, but also their complementarity. Adam and Eve are used by Jesus Christ and St Paul and unbroken Christian tradition to reflect the profound aspect of sexuality within the human condition.

We are not simply a-sexual human beings. We are not identical. Our humanity is intrinsically tied up with being male or female. This sexual identity has to do not only with who we are, but who we are meant to be. Our human identity (and therefore our being male or female) has to do with our eternal destiny. Our sexuality is not a mistake or an accident or an insignificant detail.

Furthermore, Adam and Eve picture for us the proper and natural relationship between the sexes. God commands them to “be fruitful and multiply” therefore they also picture the ideal of marriage. Man and woman are created for one another, and they are fulfilled as men and women through the sacrament of marriage. This is the way they find their destiny. This is the way they find their salvation. This is the way they find out what it really means to be human.

A man, therefore is most fully a man when he is a husband and father. A woman is most fully a woman when she is a wife and mother. This is the natural-supernatural condition, and this relationship of love which brings new life is at the heart of the created order and at the heart of human existence and life and it is also the foundation of the church and the foundation of human society.

This understanding of man and woman is crucial to the greater discussion of women’s ordination. If this is the case, then we are considering how the economy of salvation works through the mystery of human sexuality. We see this in the relationship between Jesus Christ and his mother. St Paul says in I Corinthians 11,  “in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman.  For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman.” The New Testament and the history of Catholic spirituality show that the Blessed Virgin shared intimately with the actions of redemption that her Son undertook. “A sword pierced her own heart also.”

Just as the first Adam and the first Eve show us what it means to be human and therefore what it means to be man and woman, so the second Adam and second Eve show us how to be redeemed human beings–therefore redeemed men and redeemed women. The Blessed Virgin Mary shares in Christ’s redemptive work as a co-Redeemer, but she does so as a woman and fully as a woman. She does so as a mother, and fully as a mother. Christ, the great high priest does so as a man, and in his case fully as a man as a Son. The sexuality of both are not accidental, but a crucial part of who they are and the way the effect salvation.

This lead us therefore, to the role of the priest within the liturgy. The priest is alter Christus. He plays the part of Christ and Christ works through the priest in the action of the Eucharistic sacrifice. As a man his sexuality matters because he brings to this action of redemption the fact that he is not only a human, but like Christ, he is a man. Women participate in the redemptive sacrifice as did the Blessed Virgin–as women and as mothers. For a woman to be a priest is therefore as impossible as it would be for a man to be a mother.

I fully understand and accept that this teaching may be offensive to some and incomprehensible to others. I also fully understand that not all women are mothers. Nevertheless, this is the basic theological model which the church in her history and teaching supports and promotes as the essential structure for human life, faith and the plan of salvation.

When we play about with these core truths that come to us from the natural order we do so at our peril, for they were put there by the creator himself for our good and the good of the whole human race. How do we “play about with these core truths”? Our whole society is at war with these core truths: all the sexual sins violate these core truths for they violate marriage and the foundation of the family.

Women’s ordination is part of the same assault, and this is why we will continue to resist it–because it is not just about whether Jane would be a good preacher or it hurts Sally’s feelings not to be ordained or because it’s “not fair.”

It’s all much bigger than that–so much bigger, and so much part of the given-ness of the created order and the divine economy of salvation that the church herself cannot ordain women as priests–even if we want to. So the Catholic teaching is clear: “The Church does not have the authority to ordain women as priests.”

UPDATE: I realize that my words about a man being fully a man when he is a husband and father and a woman being fully a woman when a wife and mother excludes consecrated celibates and single people. I plan to write on this further question tomorrow. Stay tuned in!

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