Bevil Bramwell OMI: Why is the priesthood male? Because Christ is male, and the men are there to represent Christ, in persona Christi.
The issue of women priests comes up every so often, but the questioner rarely asks simply to know the truth about the matter and then commit his/her mind to it. Instead, it becomes clear that the questioners have a really odd idea of the Church.
They think of the Church the way the Left views social institutions. For the Left, institutions exist mainly to realize political goals. So, for example, a government department exists to help members of the party find employment, to extend the power of the party, and only last to fulfill the department’s stated functions. Is there time for all these things? Similarly, marriage is all about power and so is every other relationship. So, in their eyes, the Catholic priesthood is all about politics and power, not grace and communion.
Clearly, the Left’s power framework offers no way to describe the Catholic priesthood. It is like trying to describe the space shuttle, but only using words that start with the letter A. What the revolutionaries forget is that no human organization – not even an ambitious political party – can design a totally valid religion.
The best that such a party can come up with is the party itself (and in many countries their secret police). For example, when Martin Luther designed a new religion, he took pieces of Catholicism, violated others, e.g., his vows; married a nun; dropped tradition; dropped the priesthood, etc. What he created was very much a political entity – he chose popular teachings and was protected by the emperor against the pope.
A better explanation about the why’s of the male priesthood, one that is true, comes from what God has done, and is doing in our history. We learn what religion is from God. We do not instruct God on what religion we will tolerate.
After all, God reminds us, “as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:9) God does not say that once you have joined the “right” political party you can dispense with my ways. The party may think that way, but that is because it’s just a political party.
Our terms come from the Scriptures and the tradition, where God reveals himself to us and interprets what he is saying and doing. The terms come to us. We cannot “re-imagine” them or subject them to “paradigm shifts.” We do not have that kind of standing.
Vatican II taught that: “The Lord established ministers among his faithful to unite them together in one body in which, ‘not all the members have the same function’ (Rom 12:4).” Jesus chose his ministers – the apostles. They were all men even though there were dozens of religions with priestesses at the time of Christ.
Yet Jesus did change other, merely cultural things like eating on the sabbath, eating with sinners, having women among his followers, etc. So the old chestnut that Jesus was bound by the culture of his time simply does not wash.
The punch line is that “Jesus chose his ministers. They were men.” There you have it in a nutshell. There is a male priesthood because Christ did it that way. Jesus is God and so does nothing accidental or based on a prejudice. Not allowing him the sovereign freedom of God means your Christology is off. When Jesus walked the earth, there was no debate about political correctness. There was no polling of believers.
Moreover, “the Sacred Council teaches that bishops by divine institution have succeeded to the place of the apostles as shepherds of the Church, and he who hears them, hears Christ, and he who rejects them, rejects Christ and Him who sent Christ.” (Vatican II)
By these words, the Council fathers meant a particular kind of personal presence, an embodied presence – otherwise there would have been no hearing of the Word – and that means a gendered presence. In this case, a male presence.
It is male because Christ is male, and the men are there to represent Christ. The priest’s natural imaging of the male Christ through embodied interaction is used by Christ’s supernatural power and the priest becomes the instrument of the Lord.
This is so because “only God can offer worthy sacrifice to God,” in the brilliant formulation of the priest/philosopher Robert Sokolowski. By ordination, male priests participate in his crucified and glorified presence, so that they can act in persona Christi (in the person of Christ), within his Bride the Church, as the perfect sacrifice is offered to God.
As St. Thomas Aquinas explained: “[Holy] Orders are about relationship.” So we have what is spiritually “spousal” in nature where the spiritual takes up the temporal for its purposes. Highlighting the marital language of the Scriptures, the Council said Jesus “unceasingly ‘nourishes and cherishes’ [the Church] whom, once purified, he willed to be cleansed and joined to himself, subject to him in love and fidelity, and whom, finally, he filled with heavenly gifts for all eternity.”
Not a word about political power anywhere in sight. Lots of mention of Jesus and his spousal relation with his spiritually feminine Church community.
Welcome to God’s religion.
Bevil Bramwell, OMI
Fr. Bevil Bramwell, OMI, PhD is the former Undergraduate Dean at Catholic Distance University. His books are: Laity: Beautiful, Good and True; The World of the Sacraments; Catholics Read the Scriptures: Commentary on Benedict XVI’s Verbum Domini, and, most recently, John Paul II’s Ex Corde Ecclesiae: The Gift of Catholic Universities to the World.
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