The Catholic Church has no shortage of difficult teachings. Whether you look at her moral precepts, her beliefs about the triune nature of God, or her understanding of the Eucharist, it’s not hard to find doctrines that people today have a tough time believing. In this article, I want to look at one of those hard teachings: the male-only priesthood. The way many see it, this teaching is badly outdated and absolutely nonsensical. Women can do the job just as well as men, so there’s simply no reason why they can’t be priests.
However, I would suggest that there is in fact a legitimate basis for this teaching. If we look deeper than just functional capacity, we’ll see that there is actually a very good reason why only men can be priests.
The most common argument you’ll hear in defense of this doctrine is that the Apostles, the first priests of the Church, were all men. Jesus could have very easily chosen women if he wanted to, but he didn’t. As a result, it seems pretty obvious that he wanted the priesthood reserved to men.
Now, that’s a good argument, but it’s not what I’m looking for here. It’s an argument from authority, so it only tells us that women can’t be priests without explaining why that is so. In other words, it tells us that the Church’s teaching on the matter is true, but it doesn’t explain the logic behind it. I want to find what makes the priesthood appropriate only for men, so we need to go deeper.
More Than a Function
To really understand why women can’t be priests, we need to first understand the nature of the priesthood. As I said before, people often argue that women can do the job just as well as men, so there’s no reason why this office shouldn’t be open to them. Now, there is some truth in this argument (women can perform the functions of a priest just as well as men can), but it has a fatal flaw: the priesthood isn’t just about doing a job. Priests aren’t just supposed to do certain things; they’re also supposed to be something. They are sacramental symbols of Jesus Christ. When a priest says the words of consecration over the bread and wine at Mass, he symbolizes Jesus saying those very same words. When he absolves penitents of their sins in the sacrament of confession, he symbolizes Jesus saying those very same words to us.
Consequently, when the Church says that women can’t be priests, she’s not saying that women can’t perform the functions of a priest; that would be ridiculous. Women can give homilies, run parishes, and lead people in prayer just as well as men can. However, they can’t be sacramental symbols of Jesus in the same way that men can, and that makes all the difference.
The Man Jesus
Along these lines, the second most common argument you’ll hear in defense of this teaching is that Jesus is a man, so only men can symbolize him. Just as you wouldn’t have a woman playing the role of a man in a movie or play, so too should priests be men to properly symbolize the man Jesus in the life of the Church. Now, this line of thinking is right as far as it goes, but we need to take it a bit further.
See, whenever people hear this argument, it almost always raises an immediate question: why is Jesus’ maleness more important than his other physical characteristics? He has several attributes that most priests don’t share (such as his ethnicity), so it’s not immediately obvious why they have to share his gender. To understand this, we need to turn to the Bible and look at a theme that we find in both the Old and New Testaments.
The Divine Bridegroom
In the Old Testament, God often told the Israelites that their relationship with him was like a marriage. For instance, we read in the book of Isaiah:
For your Maker is your husband,
the Lord of hosts is his name;
and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer,
the God of the whole earth he is called.
For the Lord has called you
like a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit,
like a wife of youth when she is cast off,
says your God. (Isaiah 54:5-6)
Similarly, when we turn to the New Testament, we see this same language applied to Jesus’ relationship with the Church:
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her…"For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh." This is a great mystery, and I mean in reference to Christ and the church. (Ephesians 5:25, 31-32)
This is a really important passage because it goes beyond what we read in the Old Testament. St. Paul isn’t simply using a metaphor to describe Jesus’ relationship with the Church; rather, he’s saying that Jesus’ relationship with us is actually the model that human marriage is based on. He quotes Genesis 2:24, a verse from the story of Adam and Eve that explains why men and women marry each other, and he tells us that it actually applies first and foremost to Jesus and the Church. The love between Jesus and the Church is the blueprint for marriage, and marriage is an image, an earthly symbol of it.
Jesus’ Marital Act
And there’s more. Just as marriage has its own proper and unique act that unites spouses as one (sexual intercourse), so too does Jesus’ relationship with the Church have its own unique act that unites us to our divine bridegroom. St. Paul doesn’t explicitly identify it, but he subtly hints at it when he tells husbands to love their wives “as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” Jesus “gave himself up” for the Church on the cross, where he obtained the forgiveness of our sins and reconciled us back to God, so that was his great act of love for his bride, the great marital act that unites him and the Church as one.
Now, the Mass is a re-presentation of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, making the saving benefits of his death and resurrection present to us here and now, so if the cross is marital, so too is the Mass. Every time we celebrate it, we celebrate our great marital act with our divine bridegroom, Jesus. Moreover, the Eucharist, the highpoint of every Mass, is also marital. When we receive it, we unite ourselves physically to Jesus, just like spouses do when they have sex. It creates a real “one flesh” union between us and our divine bridegroom just like sex does between a husband and wife. As a result, the Mass is a very marital event; every time we celebrate it, our nuptial relationship with Jesus comes front and center.
The Male Priesthood
Once we understand that, we can see why only men can be priests. One of the most important functions of a priest is to celebrate Mass, and when he does so, he symbolizes Jesus to his congregation. More specifically, he is a sacramental symbol of Jesus precisely in his role as our divine bridegroom, and that’s why Jesus’ maleness is so important. Only men can symbolize him in that specific way. Women may be able to perform the functions of a priest just as well as men, but they can never sacramentally symbolize Jesus as our bridegroom.
And we can take this one step further. While the marital nature of our relationship with Jesus doesn’t come to the forefront at other times like it does during Mass, it’s never entirely absent. Just as spouses don’t stop being married when they do things that aren’t specifically marital (like going to the movies or hanging out with friends), so too does our relationship with Jesus never lose its nuptial character. If he is our bridegroom at Mass, then he’s our bridegroom all the time. Priests are always supposed to symbolize him in this role, no matter what they are doing. As a result, being male really is an essential element of the Catholic priesthood because Jesus’ maleness is an essential part of his relationship with us. Priests are symbols of Jesus precisely in his role as the Church’s bridegroom, something women simply can’t be.