In recent decades, the question of the exclusively male ministerial priesthood has raised major debate issues, based on the twin notions of equal justice and equal dignity and gifts. These issues have proven divisive for a variety of reasons, and have further divided Christian denominations from one another. The Church has weighed in on these issues in two major documents…
- Declaration Inter Insigniores on the Question of Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood
- Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis of John Paul II to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone
The bottom line in these documents is that the Church does not have the authority to ordain women to the priesthood. That argument, of course, is based on the historical (in the sense of constant tradition) and scriptural record.
That leaves an important open question. Why would Jesus intend to limit the ministerial priesthood to men, alone? A related question is this: although there are several biblical types who prefigure the role of the Blessed Virgin Mary, why did God choose to raise up a sinless woman to represent a feminine ideal to balance, or to otherwise define/delineate the meaning and purpose of a male savior? And, in particular, why was Mary not given priestly duties, as such? Furthermore, does exploration of this question help to answer the first question about the exclusively male priesthood?
To answer the first question, it is surely essential to begin with a summary of biblical types that the Gospels allude to in connection with Jesus' identity and mission.
- John 3:14-15
- "Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life." Referring to Numbers 21:4-9.
- John 6:32-33,35
- "Amen, amen, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world… I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst." Referring to Exodus 16:4-5, . See, also,
- John 3:29
- "The one who has the bride is the bridegroom; the best man, who stands and listens to him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. So this joy of mine has been made complete" alluding to Isaiah 62:5. See, also, Matthew 9:15 and parallel passages.
- John 1:25
- "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world." Referring to Exodus 12
One can also point to the curious circumstances of the planned sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham, which prefigured the sacrifice of Jesus by the Father, and which, in a sense, typified the transition from the Old to the New Testament. See, for example, Hebrews 11:17-19. Indeed, Genesis 22:6 may carry special symbolic significance.
There is also, I believe, a correlation between John 3:14-15, Numbers 21:4-9 and the covenant of circumcision established in the time of Abraham… Genesis 17:11. (See, also, Deuteronomy 10:16 and parallels.) The term translated as "fiery" is actually the same Hebrew term translated as "seraph" (plural, seraphim, the highest of the nine choirs of angels in Christian tradition). Indeed, the same Hebrew term is used by Isaiah in Isaiah 6:2,6. There is, I believe, a strong suggestion of potency, such as Sigmund Freud noticed. The image of fire in Isaiah 6:2 also suggests purification and holiness. Thus Jesus' relation of his impending sacrifice to Numbers 21:4-9 combines potency, obedience and holiness in the one image of his sacrifice on the cross. That very same connection is presented in the rite of circumcision in the covenant of God with Abraham.
Note, too, going back to the fall of Adam and Eve: the sin seems to be committed under the initiative of Eve, but God holds Adam responsible first. There is a tradition among biblical scholars that Adam was present, but remained passive, during the temptation of Eve. Thus, Adam's sin was not just one of disobedience, but a sin of omission, a failure to exert his potency in the protection and correction of Eve. The loss of that potency is expressed in Adam's flimsy excuse in Genesis 3:12. God's punishment of Adam (Genesis 3:17-19) emphasizes Adam's loss of potency, while his punishment of Eve (Genesis 3:16) intensifies her dependence on her man, thus making her emotionally subordinate to him. She, too, had committed a sin of omission in not consulting with Adam about the choice presented to her by the serpent in the garden. That subordination is, by far, the dominant pattern in virtually every culture that has arisen in the history of humanity, the myth of the Amazons notwithstanding.
Given that primordial history, it seems clear enough that God's intention in his covenant with Abraham was to emphasize that proper exercise of human (especially male) potency consisted in subordinating that potency to the will of God.
The obedient sacrifice of Jesus on the cross on Calvary Hill is the definitive correction of the sin of Adam. The obedient and contemplative deference of Mary to her son, Jesus, and her sharing of his suffering in a way that echoes Eve's suffering in childbirth (Luke 2:35) is the definitive correction of the sin of Eve. Thus, both fulfilled, for the first time, the full promise God intended for the first man and woman.
The sacramental nature of the priesthood in the New Testament echoes these biblical types. The priest is intended to function in the person of Christ, as head (in persona Christi, capitis). Thus, the male priest both presides at the Eucharistic liturgy and identifies himself with Jesus in the Eucharistic sacrifice in a singular way.
Note, also what Jesus said about celibacy for the kingdom of God.
His disciples said to him,
"If that is the case of a man with his wife,
it is better not to marry."
He answered, "Not all can accept this word,
but only those to whom that is granted.
Some are incapable of marriage because they were born so;
some, because they were made so by others;
some, because they have renounced marriage
for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven.
Whoever can accept this ought to accept it."
[Matthew 19:10-12] Thus, in the sacred tradition of the Church, women taking a vow of celibacy do so in emulation of the virginity of Mary, the new Eve, while men taking a vow of celibacy do so in emulation of Jesus, the new Adam. The celibate priesthood represents a joining together of the submission of Jesus and his unique sacramental power.
In the history of the Church, there have been many women who achieved holiness so great as to share in the healing power of Jesus, and even in other forms of mastery over nature, through prayer. There is, however, no instance of a woman, no matter how holy or wise, sharing in the sacramental power of the priesthood of Jesus. The two exceptions, Baptism and Matrimony, are not specifically configured either to priesthood or (in the case of Baptism) even to Christianity. Even a non-Christian, with the proper intent, can baptize someone in an emergency. And, since the sacrament of Matrimony is actually performed by the exchange of vows between bride and groom, and merely witnessed by a designated witness of the Church (and, indeed, Matrimony of a Christian bride and groom does not even have that requirement in order for it to be validly sacramental), there is no specific connection to the male priesthood in this sacrament.
None of this, I am sure, has escaped the notice of the Fathers of the Church or the Magisterium. Ultimately, God's plan for humanity, a plan which assigned unique and complementary roles to men and women as husbands and wives, fathers and mothers (including spiritual fathers and mothers) is realized in spiritual patterns perfected by Jesus and Mary. Jesus is the perfect spiritual husband and father. Mary is the perfect spiritual wife and mother. These roles are distinct and complementary, just as God's original plans for Adam and Eve (and, hence, male and female in all humanity) were distinct and complementary.
It's only been in modern and post-modern times that every bit of this has been denied.
Although the Church has undoubtedly known all of this from very early times, it's only been in times of heresy, the denial of a basic Christian truth, that the Church has responded with clear teaching setting forth the meaning and purpose of God's design. That response has often taken centuries to complete. There should be no surprise, here, that an insignificant priest should be emboldened to set forth an attempt to clarify that design in the face of clear opposition from the wider culture.
My efforts will undoubtedly be reformulated and corrected many times before the Church decides on an official doctrine concerning the meaning of the specifically male sacramental priesthood. Indeed, it seems quite likely that such a definitive statement will incorporate important aspects of Pope St. John Paul II's Theology of the Body. As for me, I make no claim to personal inerrancy in this matter.