Part One: The Church and the Priesthood Belong to Jesus

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

Men and women were both created in the "image of God," right?

And the Church teaches that men and women are of equal value in the eyes of God, right?

Then why does the Church still say that only men are called by God to the Catholic priesthood, and therefore that only men can be ordained?

From the outset, we need to remember that a "calling" from God is not primarily an inner feeling or deep desire that someone may have to undertake a particular role or task. This is hard for us to understand in North America today, because we tend to put great store on the feelings of each individual in our culture, as if feelings are always sacrosanct: an accurate barometer of the truth about ourselves, our identity, and about what we have a "right" to be and to do.

But feelings can be deceptive. We can feel drawn to lifestyles that are unnatural to us as men and women, and even in the long run self-destructive. So we always need to check our feelings against what we can know by reason is good for us, drawing upon the best scientific and philosophical thought to aid us. Similarly, what one feels and longs for in one's relationship with God needs to be checked against some objective criteria - such as God's will, revealed in Holy Scripture and Sacred Tradition - to enable us to discern whether those inner movements of one's heart are really coming from God or just from one's own psyche (or even, sometimes, from that great deceiver-in-chief, the devil!).

Moreover, the issue of who can be ordained cannot be reduced to a matter of anyone's natural "rights." First of all, the Church is not primarily a natural but a supernatural body, in so far as it was founded by the divine Son incarnate, Jesus Christ, and suffused with His Holy Spirit to be the Body of Christ on earth. Second, precisely because the Church is primarily a supernatural body, the calling to be a priest is a supernatural calling, so no one, male or female, can claim a natural, "equal right" to be a priest. What matters here is simply what God has revealed about the essential constitution of His Church and its ministry. After all, the Church does not belong to us, or to humanity in general, to arrange and order as we see fit. Rather, it belongs to Jesus Christ. As He once said: "On this rock I will build my church" (Mt 16:18). What He has revealed through Holy Scripture and Sacred Tradition, therefore, should be our beacon, our guiding light for discerning the authentic structure that He intends for His Church and its ministry.

We also need to bear in mind what a Catholic "priest" essentially is ("elder," "presbyter" or "bishop," as they are called in the New Testament), according to Scripture and Tradition. Saint Paul taught that there are a variety of ministries in the Church, gifted and empowered by the Holy Spirit: first apostles, then prophets, teachers, evangelists, administrators, healers, etc. (see 1 Cor 12:28 and Eph 4:11). The ministry of bishops and priests, however, was intended to be an "apostolic" leadership ministry patterned after that of the apostles themselves and delegated to each new generation of bishops and presbyters by "apostolic succession" from the previous generation.

In fact, Jesus started this whole process of calling and delegating authority for leadership in the Church when He chose 12 apostles to be His chief ambassadors to the world (and by the way, notice how little this had to do with any subjective feelings of "calling" on their part. I doubt that any of the apostles, before they were definitively chosen to be apostles, said to Jesus, "I really feel called in my heart to the highest level of leadership among Your followers." More likely, when they were verbally chosen by Him, their first thought was "Who, me?" Not that the desires of the heart are irrelevant to discerning His calling to the priesthood today, when we no longer have Jesus with us in an earthly body to be able to hear His call to us with our ears. But still, all this shows us how such feelings should not be of prime importance in that whole discernment process).

The important thing is that they were called and chosen, not their desires or their feelings about it. Jesus said to His apostles: "As my Father has sent me, even so I send you" (Jn 20:21) and again, "He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives him who sent me" (Mt 10:40; cf. Lk 10:16). Clearly, they were to be His representatives in a special way in the mission He gave to His Church.

This apostolic ministry, this role as the chief ambassadors of Jesus Christ, was to be expressed in three ways: a ministry of preaching the Gospel (especially at the Eucharist, in the worship assembly), of administering the Sacraments, and of pastoral, servant-leadership in the community of faith. Thus, the apostolic ministry, passed down to the bishops in apostolic succession, was a threefold ministry of Word, Sacrament, and Pastoral Oversight (the word "bishop" in Greek, episcope, actually means "overseer").

The Gospels tell us, for example, that Jesus explained His teachings in private in detail to his 12, chosen apostles (Mk 4:34) and then commissioned them to lead the preaching and teaching of His message to all the world (Mt 28:19-20): "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you ...."

He instructed His apostles to celebrate the Holy Eucharist: "Do this in remembrance of me" (Lk 22:19 and I Cor 11: 23-26). Jesus also set the apostles over the community of His disciples as pastoral "stewards" of the household of God, to give His people their "food" (that is, the spiritual food of the Word and Sacraments) at the proper times (Lk 12:42).

As the original 12 died off, this threefold ministry was passed on in the Church in its fullness to the principal missionary delegates chosen by the apostles during their lifetimes (people such as Timothy and Titus in the New Testament, who had been given oversight not just over a local congregation, but over many churches within a whole geographical region; see I Tim 1:3-4, 5:17-22; II Tim 1:6-22; Tit 1:5). They in turn continued the apostolic tradition of ordaining elders and presbyters for all the local churches under their care, and supervising the pastoral work of the local elders and presbyters (see Acts 14:23 and Tit 1:5).

Today we call those apostolic delegates, in apostolic succession, our "bishops," and the ones they ordain and authorize to look after parishes and local congregations "priests" (a shortened form of "presbyter," which in Greek meant "presider"). The threefold apostolic ministry in its fullness, therefore, is entrusted to each bishop at his consecration, and he delegates portions of that ministry to be carried out by each priest whom he ordains (always reserving to himself as bishop the power to assist in the consecration of other bishops, to ordain new priests, and ordinarily to administer sacramental Confirmation - which some theologians have called "ordination to the lay apostolate").

The Bible includes two clear indications that Jesus does not call women to this form of service - the apostolic ministry of bishop and priest - in His plan for the Church. The first is the example He set Himself of calling only men to be apostles, and the second is the precepts and roles assigned to men and women in the Church by His chosen apostle to the Gentiles, St. Paul.

The Sacred Tradition of the Church also includes two clear indications that our Lord does not call women to the priesthood in His plan for His Church (and by the way, by "Sacred Tradition" here we do not mean just customs, or "the way we have always done things," but things passed down from the time of the apostles, interpreted and unpacked in the consensus teachings of the Fathers and saints, and often found also in the creeds, councils, and papal decrees - all of this is evidence the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church; see Mt. 16:19, 18:18; Jn 16:13; Acts 15:28; I Tim 3:15).

The first indication from Sacred Tradition is the way the saints and the Fathers understood the symbolic and sacramental role of the priest as the liturgical "icon" of Jesus Himself in the life of the Church. The second is simply the fact that the Magisterium - the trustworthy teaching authority established by Jesus of the pope and the bishops - have definitively spoken and settled this matter under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

In this series of articles, we will look at each of these four indications of the will of Jesus Christ for His Church in turn, beginning with the example set for us by Jesus Himself.

As we proceed, however, let's also keep in mind the limitations of what we are attempting to do here in this web series. The ultimate goal of this kind of discussion should not be just the negative one of justifying the traditional prohibition of women in the priesthood, but also, and principally, the more positive goal of discerning the role of women in the mission of the Church and in God's plan of salvation. The truth is that women have a role in God's plan which is far superior to the institutionalized and hierarchically ordered apostolic ministry reserved for men (and it's not just a collection of "consolation prizes": "Well, you ladies cannot be priests, but at least you can run the parish choir, or sit on a diocesan committee, or be in charge of a Catholic school or a community of nuns," etc.).

In this series of articles we will only have time and space to focus primarily on the reasons for the reservation of the priesthood to men. But you can explore the more positive discernment of the true dignity and role of women in God's plan by reading the series of articles that appeared largely in 2018 on this website (and provocatively titled) "The New Catholic Feminism."

In short, don't forget the broader context of this issue. Christ's "no" to women in the priesthood only can be fully understood in the context of His "yes" to the feminine genius and the critical role that women are called to play in the triumph of God's Kingdom and the civilization of love.

Next time: The Example Set by Jesus Himself

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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Why does the Church still say that only men are called by God to the Catholic priesthood? Dr. Robert Stackpole explains.
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