The Catholic Church is often accused of being behind the times and out of touch with the modern world. In particular, people frequently see the Church’s moral teachings (specifically, those about sexual morality) as relics of the Dark Ages or remnants of a patriarchal and superstitious culture that have no place in the 21st century. But her moral teachings aren’t the only ones that are viewed this way; the Church is also criticized on similar grounds for reserving the priesthood to men. Most people today see absolutely no reason other than sheer sexism why women cannot be priests.
In response to these charges, Catholics often point out that all of the Apostles were men. Since Jesus could have very easily chosen female Apostles if he wanted to, this shows that he wanted only men to be priests. However, this argument by itself is inadequate. While it is sound, it is simply an argument from authority. It shows that Jesus wanted only men to be priests, but it does not explain why. There has to be an inner logic to this doctrine, a legitimate reason why Jesus wanted to limit the priesthood to men; otherwise, it is simply arbitrary and unfair. To truly understand why only men can be priests, we have to dive into the reasoning behind this difficult teaching and understand what makes the priesthood appropriate for men but not women.
More Than a Function
To do that, we need to understand something about priests: their role is not simply functional. They do not simply do certain things; they do not just perform functions. Rather, they are also supposed to be something: they are supposed to be sacramental symbols of Jesus Christ. When a priest says the words of consecration over the bread and wine at Mass, he is symbolizing Jesus saying those very same words; when a priest says the words of absolution in confession, he is symbolizing Jesus offering God’s forgiveness to us.
So when the Church says that women cannot be priests, she is not saying that men can do certain things better than women. For example, we do not think that men are better than women at giving homilies or running parishes. Rather, the Church is simply saying that women cannot be what a priest is supposed to be: a woman cannot be a symbol of Jesus the same way that a man can.
The Man Jesus
Along these lines, many people argue that since Jesus is a man, priests have to be men as well. This line of thought is on the right track, but it still leaves us with a key question: why is maleness so important while other physical characteristics (such as his ethnicity) don’t matter?
The key here is the nuptial character of the Mass. The Mass is the celebration of the nuptial relationship between Jesus and his bride the Church, so to stand in for Jesus in his role as the bridegroom, a priest has to be male. A woman simply cannot symbolize Jesus as a husband. This is a dense concept, so we need to unpack it a bit.
Jesus’ Marital Act
In the New Testament, Jesus’ crucifixion is presented as a marital act. This may seem strange, but it actually makes perfect sense given God’s relationship with his people Israel in the Old Testament. For example, the prophet Isaiah tells us:
“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)
And when we get to the New Testament, we see this same sort of imagery transferred to Jesus. St. Paul tells husbands to “love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25), and then he quotes an Old Testament text about marriage and applies it to Jesus and the Church (Ephesians 5:31-32, quoting Genesis 2:24). In this passage, we learn that by sacrificing himself on the cross, Jesus “gave himself up for” his bride and provided the perfect example of how husbands should love their wives, so that sacrifice was a marital act.
The Mass Is Marital
This is significant because the Mass is a re-presentation of Jesus’ death on the cross. It makes Jesus’ sacrifice present to us here and now and enables us to participate in that sacrifice and receive its saving benefits. Consequently, since the cross is marital, so too is the Mass. Every time we celebrate it, we celebrate our marriage to Jesus, our divine bridegroom.
Moreover, at Mass we also receive the Eucharist, the very body and blood of Jesus, which unites us to him physically, 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.
Why Only Men Can Be Priests
That is why priests have to be men. Women simply cannot symbolize Jesus in his role as bridegroom of the Church, in his marital sacrifice for his bride. Women cannot symbolize Jesus as a husband, so they cannot symbolize Jesus at Mass, which is one of most important things that a priest is supposed to do.
And this same logic applies outside of Mass as well. Jesus is always our bridegroom, just like a married man is always his wife’s husband even when he is not performing specifically marital acts. Consequently, for priests to properly represent Jesus in relation to us, they have to represent him as our bridegroom all the time. That is an essential element of our relationship with him, so priests, as sacramental symbols, always need to be signs of this nuptiality. No matter what a priest does, when he acts as a sacramental symbol of Jesus, he always has to image Jesus as our bridegroom, and only men can do that.