One of the biggest criticisms that many non-Catholics and Catholics alike share is that there are no female clergy in the Catholic Church. These criticisms deserve to be heard and answered. As with many questions in our faith, those who have gone before us have spent a lot of time and energy answering these questions, so it can be helpful to look to them for help. In 1994, Pope John Paul II issued a very short (a page or two) letter definitively stating that the Church only has the authority to ordain men, meaning that all Catholics must believe this as part of the Catholic faith. This does not mean that we are not allowed to ask questions; quite the contrary! If you have never understood why there are only male clergy, I ask you to follow up on this and find the answer in the Scriptures and the Church’s Tradition. In the letter of John Paul II, he quoted Pope Paul VI who laid out the reasons for the male priesthood. These reasons are:
- The example recorded in the Sacred Scriptures of Christ choosing his Apostles only from among men;
- The constant practice of the church, which has imitated Christ in choosing only men;
- Her living teaching authority which has consistently held that the exclusion of women from the priesthood is in accordance with God’s plan for his Church.
Essentially, the basic reason for a male priesthood is that Jesus only chose men to be priests in the Scriptures, and the Apostles in the Scriptures only chose men to assist them as clergy. Some say that Jesus was constrained by the culture of his time and he did not want to challenge a sexist norm in ancient Israel. I think it is impossible to believe that Jesus would allow sexism to rule his actions, given that he is the Word made flesh and he is the very God who made humanity in his own image, male and female.
However, this does not explain why Jesus chose only men to be Apostles. The answer is found in the anthropology (human makeup) of the Church. Jesus wants priests to be spiritual fathers of his people. When priests celebrate the sacraments, they are acting as Christ who is the bridegroom of the Church. Jesus is espoused to the Church as a male, and he wanted male priests to represent him in the sacraments.
In no way does this need to take away from the role of women in the Church. John Paul II also wrote several letters addressed to the women of the world when he was pope. Jesus wants women to be spiritual mothers in the Church as counterparts to a male priesthood. Women religious embody the Church in a special way that men cannot: as mothers who love their spiritual children. Women also have a special connection to Mary, who is the mother of God and the mother of the Church. Mary is the only non-divine person in the history of the world who never committed a sin, and for this she is the most exalted of all the saints in heaven.
In God’s plan for the human race and the Catholic Church, he created a beautiful complementarity between male and female. This is clearly seen from the first book of Genesis to the last book of Revelation. When these distinct roles are obscured, the reality of marriage and the specific gifts of being male or female are often discounted. This has happened in many ways in our culture today. I hope that this article proves helpful to those who do not understand the male priesthood, but I hope it is only a piece of your journey as we all continue to grow deeper in our understanding and faith in God.