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A Question of Faith: Priesthood reserved to men for historical and theological reasons

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Q: If priesthood was historically limited to men, what was the reason? Does this reason still prevent women from becoming priests?

A: The reservation of the ordained priesthood to men has been the constant practice of the Catholic Church (and the Eastern Orthodox) but many, especially in the last 50 years, have asked whether the teaching should be changed. Those who think that the time has come to ordain women base their understanding on a sense of justice or egalitarianism, believing that an all-male priesthood is exclusionary and harmful to the church.

What is the basis for the church’s teaching? First, the tradition of the church has upheld the choice of Christ to choose only men for the priesthood. Jesus instituted the priesthood, calling the Twelve Apostles to be his successors and with authority to call forth other men for this specific form of service. Many believe that this choice was culturally conditioned and should not be considered a valid reason for reserving priesthood to men, but Jesus was not sexist. In the first century, when the role of women was more limited than today, Jesus showed profound respect for women. Women were among His closest followers; they (unlike most of the apostles) did not abandon Him when He was suffering on the cross and were the first to give witness to His resurrection. Despite this, Jesus called only men for the particular vocation of priesthood.

Secondly, the priesthood helps communicate who God is. It can be argued that the priesthood must follow the imaging of God as male. Since God has been revealed as “Father” and Jesus was born as the Son of God, the man called to the priesthood can best image the presence of God to and among the members of the church. The priest, for instance, prays during the Mass, “This is my body … Do this in memory of me,” taking on the words and example of Christ as his own. Using nuptial imagery, the church sees the priest as united to the church, his bride, and this mystical relationship is fruitful through the sacraments of the church through the priest.

The reservation of the priesthood to men is often misunderstood as devaluing women. It is not a failure of the church to recognize the dignity of women. The church acknowledges in its teaching that men and women share equal dignity. And priests – as we know all too well – are not necessarily more virtuous, wise, or holy than others. But this is not to say men and women are the same. Women possess a certain “genius” (as St. John Paul II called it) that men do not have. Mary, as a woman, was chosen to bear Jesus and is rightly called Mother of God – a place in God’s plan for salvation which is exulted over any priest. Nor is the priesthood about power or domination, but instead a role of sacrifice and service. The degree to which priests have not lived as servants, they have not configured their lives to Christ as priests.

The church has consistently taught and practiced the reservation of the ordained priesthood to men. The same reason there were no women priests in the early church is the reason women are not ordained today. Based on the witness of Christ, the church does not believe it has the authority to change the practice. Because Jesus revealed God as father and Christ instituted priesthood through the calling of the apostles, priests as men are called to image Christ and make known His presence today as in every age.

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