Part Five: The Iconic Role of the Priest

The following is the fifth in a seven-part series.

Here we come to the heart of the matter. All of the other arguments for the reservation of the priesthood to men ultimately come down to mere arguments from authority (as we have seen: the authority of the example set by Jesus Christ in choosing only men to be His apostles; the precepts of St. Paul that only men are to lead, preach and teach in the worship assembly; and as we shall see later, the authority of the magisterium to discern and define the truth in this matter).

Of course, authority is not a bad thing: To accept something as divinely revealed "on authority" only means that you accept it because it is based on the testimony of someone you have reason to believe is trustworthy. Jesus, the Son of God, is trustworthy. Saint Paul, his chosen apostle to the Gentiles, is trustworthy. But in most cases God does not ask us to accept things merely with "blind faith," just because someone "says so." Even with regard to the deepest mysteries of the Faith, such as the mystery of the Real Presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, or the mystery of the Holy Trinity, our Lord at least gives us some clues as to why things are the way they are. Jesus wants us to be able to "sing his praises with understanding" (Ps 47:7; I Cor 14:15) - to whatever extent that the finite minds of struggling sinners are capable of doing so.

The Catholic Church teaches that the priest is a symbolic representative or living "icon" of Jesus Christ in the sacraments. The priest must be male, therefore, because the priest iconically manifests the liturgical presence and action of Jesus, who was and is a male human being.

As we know, symbols can be very powerful. Christians use them constantly. The cross on the altar, for example, reminds us of the costly, sacrificial love of Jesus for us. The candles and flowers express that Christ is the true light and the true life of the world. We kneel to pray at Holy Communion, reinforcing the message that God is our Creator and our Shepherd, so much greater than ourselves (Ps 95:6-7). These symbols and images touch us in ways that go beyond mere words - that is why we commonly say "a picture is worth a thousand words."

Within all of this Christian symbolism, the tradition of the Church both east and west has always been that the priest symbolically represents and manifests the presence and action of the risen Lord Jesus at each of the sacraments. It is through His priests that Jesus ministers to us His sacramental graces, for Christ Himself is the true, invisible minister of each sacrament. The priest is merely His visible representative and instrument. That is why the priest has traditionally been called a living "liturgical icon" of Jesus Christ in the community of faith.

Whether the priest is giving a blessing, absolving a sinner, or consecrating the bread and wine at the Holy Eucharist, he acts as the visible representative and symbolic manifestation of Christ, whose instrument and icon he is. In fact, that is one of the reasons why priests wear glorious vestments whenever they perform sacramental actions: to hide their own particular personality, to some extent, and to express the fact that it is the risen Lord Jesus Himself who presides and administers His sacraments to His people.

It is inappropriate for a woman to be a priest, therefore, because she cannot iconically represent the man Jesus; she cannot play that role in the liturgies of the Church. It is not a matter of men by nature being more talented or more virtuous than women - not at all! In the drama of the Church's liturgical life, she just doesn't fit the part. As Catholic theologian Rhonda De Sola Chervin once said, she no more desires to see a woman in the priestly role than to see a man play the role of Mary in the annual Christmas pageant just to make the point that men and women are of equal value. Of course they are, but equality is not the issue here.

Again, this notion that the bishop or priest is the liturgical icon of Christ has a long Catholic history. You can find it expressed implicitly in the letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch in the early second century, but especially in the writings of St. Theodore the Studite in the midst of the iconoclasm controversy of the 8th century. Later, it appears in different ways in the reflections on the priesthood of St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Bonaventure. Today, even some Evangelical Christian writers are beginning to see the force of the argument. As the great Evangelical theologian J.I. Packer wrote:

Since the Son of God was incarnate as a human male, it will always be easier, other things being equal, to realise that Christ in person is ministering [to us] when His human agent and representative is male. ... All structures of ministry in the Church should be so designed as to create and sustain with maximum force the faith-knowledge that it is Christ Himself, Jesus of Nazareth risen and glorified, who ministers to us ....

Of course, those who support the ordination of women say that a woman too can represent Christ. She can do so by her faith and her love, just as well (if not better) than any man. And in a sense, that is true. But the issue is not about sharing faith and love with others. Any Christian, male or female, lay or ordained, can be an ambassador and expression of the love of Jesus in that sense. Rather, the core of the ordination issue is about iconically representing Jesus Christ in the rites of the Church.

Consider: what is an "icon"? As the Eastern Christians say, it is "a window into heaven," a holy image that helps and enables us to experience the presence of the heavenly person whom the image depicts. Surely, a male human being better fits the part because Jesus was and is a man. Maleness is just one of the things needed to be able to play that iconic role.

Some are quick to point out that Jesus was also a Jew, and we do not restrict the priesthood to members of the Semitic race. So why must we restrict the priesthood to men? However, the variety of races in the world is largely an historical accident, based on who-mated-with-who over thousands of years. Originally, according to the Bible, we were all a single race, and essentially we still are: we are all members of the human race. The distinction between male and female, however, is not an historical accident: it is one of the original, creation-purposes of God, what theologians call a "creation ordinance." "In the beginning ... he made them male and female," Genesis says: two equal, but different and complementary ways of being fully human. And this distinction is essential to being human; essentially, human beings come in two, distinct, fully human forms. Thus, we would expect to find the male and female ways of being human utilised somewhat differently in God's plan of creation and salvation.

In fact, that is precisely what we do find. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us as a male human being, Jesus of Nazareth. His priestly, iconic representatives in the Apostolic Ministry are male as well. At the same time, women and feminine imagery have an important and complementary role to play. For example, the Church is rightly called "the Bride of Christ," and "our Holy Mother the Church" who nurtures her children in faith. The "Marian charism" of every baptized Christian - to surrender ourselves in trust and love to the Holy Spirit, as Mary herself did from the Annunciation onward - is the fundamental charism of the Church. That's why in Catholic Christianity women lead the way in manifesting to the world the new life of sanctity in Christ. And that's also one reason why the first and greatest of all the saints is the Blessed Virgin Mary, archetype of the Church, Mother of Mercy and Queen of the Apostles, the most exalted of all of God's creatures. (On all this, please see my web series titled The New Catholic Feminism, archived on this website). Men and women are certainly equal in value in God's eyes, but "equal" does not mean "completely interchangeable" in every role and vocation, or in every aspect of God's plan.

Proponents of women's ordination commonly say: "You do not have to be male to symbolically represent Jesus Christ; all you have to be is human, for it is Jesus' humanity, not His maleness that is of saving significance. Of course, to some extent that is true. Jesus died for our sins, and the fact that He died as a male rather than a female human being hardly makes a difference to the quality of His sacrificial love for us.

On the other hand, it would be reckless indeed to say that there is no lasting significance in the fact that the Word became flesh for us as a man. The deepest, most intimate union of love possible between human beings is spousal love: the union of mind, heart, and body between husband and wife in a loving marriage. That is precisely the kind of love-relationship that God wants to have with us: a loving union with, and interpenetration of our hearts and bodies which can only be described in the poetry of spousal love. All of the greatest mystical writers of the Church proclaim this: St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. John of the Cross, and St. Theresa of Avila, for example. They call this summit of the Christian life a "mystical marriage" and a "nuptial union" between Jesus Christ, the "Bridegroom," and the human soul whom he seeks out and claims as his "Bride." The Bible tells us in many places that the God of Love wants to be a loving Bridegroom to us: read the book of the prophet Hosea, the Song of Solomon, St. Paul's Epistle to the Ephesians chapter 5, and the book of Revelation - indeed, our Lord Jesus in the Gospels refers to Himself as "the Bridegroom" (Mt 9:15; 25:1-13; cf. Rev 21:2). This is the deepest mystery of the love-relationship to which He invites us. Moreover, the Holy Eucharist, "the source and summit of the Christian life," is also (according to Pope St. John Paul II) a nuptial mystery: "the sacrament of the Bridegroom and the Bride" where we become "one flesh" with Jesus (see the Apostolic Letter, Mulieris Dignitatem, "On the Dignity of Women," 1988, section 26).

It is not hard to see how all of this affects the issue of who can be ordained. For if a priest is meant to be the liturgical icon of Jesus our Savior, the Bridegroom of the Church, then how can the Bridegroom of our souls, especially at the nuptial banquet of the Eucharist, liturgically be represented by a female? The iconography just doesn't fit.

Next time: The Witness of the Magisterium and the Early Church

Follow the entire series.

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception.

©Congregation of Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception, 2019

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