In answer to the further question of why Jesus did not share the sacrament of Order with women,Inter Insigniores quotes St. Thomas Aquinas, who explained that “sacramental signs represent what they signify by natural resemblance” (emphasis added). The ordained priest is a sacramental sign who acts in persona Christi (“in the person of Christ”). Anyone who acts for Christ in this way needs to have a “natural resemblance” to him. Christ was a man and thus the priest who acts for him—not just in his “name,” but in his person—needs to be a man.
This explanation of why women cannot be ordained to the sacred priesthood seems deceptively simple on its face. Upon reflection, however, it should become clear that it is a rather profoundtheological explanation. The priesthood does not just entail a “function” that can be performed indifferently by anybody (standing at the altar, preaching, sitting in the confessional, etc.). Rather, it is a state of being with powers conferred by Christ and transmitted down through the generations in the Church. Think of the “indelible mark” you were told you acquired at baptism; what is acquired at ordination is similarly “indelible” (“You are a priest forever”!).
It is not the case, though, that the priesthood could never have been, theoretically, conferred on a woman because of her supposed interior nature or something of that sort. That is emphatically notthe Church’s view of the matter. In the Church’s view, women are fully equal to men in their dignity as human persons. But in point of fact, the apostles Jesus chose who were to be given his sacramental powers were all men.
Inter Insigniores explains that Jesus did not limit his selection of apostles to men alone because of the culture of his times that did not admit women to leadership positions in society. The document affirms what the record of the New Testament attests to in any case, namely, that Jesus was in no way bound by the culture of his times. In fact, he regularly treated women as the equals of men. The New Testament record clearly shows that women formed a vital part of his following; and were the ones, moreover, who stuck with him at the foot of the cross—just as Mary Magdalen was probably the first witness of the Resurrection.
Still, Jesus did not include any of them in the special group of apostles that he appointed, not even his mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the human being whom the Church exalts above all others. Jesus seems to have believed that women and men, although equal in their human dignity, had somewhat different roles in the family and in society.
However that may be, it is quite remarkable how both the early Church, and the medieval Church always consistently adhered to a male only priesthood. Scarcely any questions were even raised about it until modern times. Today, however, not only because of the rise of feminism with its numerous supporters, but also perhaps because most Protestant churches have accepted women as ministers, the question of possible female ordination has arisen and has become quite insistent. Inter Insigniores was issued precisely in order to deal with the question.
However, it should immediately go without saying that not all of the demands of contemporary feminists have proven to be either true or just. The Church is in no way obliged just to go with the fashions of the times. She has her own ways of acting and operating, some of them literally going back to the time of the apostles. And as for the Protestant acceptance of women ministers, it should be recalled that the Protestants rejected the very notion of a sacramental priesthood, and thus they are not constrained in the same way as the Catholic Church (and the Eastern Orthodox Churches), acting “in fidelity to the example of the Lord.”
In this perspective, the National Catholic Reporter’s call for agitation by the Catholic laity in favor of a change in the Church’s teaching on ordination must be seen as profoundly misguided. This is nothow Catholic teaching is arrived at or verified. The same thing is true of the idea that women have some kind of a “right” to ordination, or that they are somehow being unjustly “discriminated” against by being excluded from it. These are ideas imported into the Church from the reigning secular liberal culture; they simply do not apply to the kind of sacramental ordination practiced by the Catholic Church. Similarly, the idea that a Maryknoll priest should be allowed to go on publicly agitating against the Church’s teaching can in no way be justified.