Deacon Rohrbacher

Gender and the Ministerial Priesthood

Along the Way
A Monthly column in the Southeast Alaska Catholic by Deacon Charles Rohrbacher

I had the experience a few weeks ago of having a long conversation with a person who asked me to explain to him why the Catholic church doesn’t ordain women as bishops and priests. After all, he said, women are clearly as talented and capable as men and in the contemporary world women participate equally in endeavors and enterprises that were closed to them just a generation ago. So why does the Catholic Church continue to ordain only men as bishops and priests? (The tradition of deaconesses in the ancient Church and admissibility of the ordination of women to the diaconate in the present day is an important question but outside of the scope of that conversation and this column.)

It’s complicated—not because of Church teaching, which is simplicity itself: the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Catholic Churches and the Orthodox Churches believe as a matter of doctrine that the Church simply doesn’t have the authority to ordain women as bishops and priests.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church at § 1577 states: “Only a baptized man validly receives sacred ordination. The Lord Jesus chose men to form the college of the twelve apostles, and the apostles did the same when they chose collaborators to succeed them in their ministry. The college of bishops, with whom the priests are united in the priesthood, makes the college of the twelve an ever-present and ever-active reality until Christ’s return. The Church recognizes herself to be bound by this choice made by the Lord himself. For this reason the ordination of women is not possible.”

Not difficult reasoning to understand but complicated nonetheless. Why? Because the argument from tradition, that is, fidelity to the teaching and example of Christ himself, and the apostles, which is the Church’s strongest doctrinal reason for ordaining only men as bishops and priests, is the least persuasive reason for contemporary men and women in western Europe, the United States and Canada. That the Catholic and Orthodox churches would seemingly deny women equal access to Holy Orders because Jesus chose twelve men as apostles two thousand years ago, is rejected out of hand by many of our contemporaries (and some of my fellow Catholics) as unreasonable and wrong because it appears to be arbitrary, unjust and discriminatory. I realize too that this is a difficult and even painful teaching for many in our diocese, especially women.

Yet I think that where one stands on this question depends on whether one regards the selection by Jesus of twelve men as his apostles to be part of Holy Tradition or outside of it. Holy Tradition, or the ‘deposit of faith’ (depositum fidei) is explained in the Catechism in this way:

The Tradition here in question comes from the apostles and hands on what they received from Jesus’ teaching and example and what they learned from the Holy Spirit. The first generation of Christians did not yet have a written New Testament, and the New Testament itself demonstrates the process of living Tradition. (CCC §83)

The Magisterium (or teaching office of the bishops in union with the successor of St. Peter, the Bishop of Rome) teaches that the tradition of ordaining only men as bishops and priests is definitively a part of Holy Tradition (the deposit of faith) and as such is not subject to change.

As the 1976 declaration Inter Insignores states:
“The practice of the Church therefore has a normative character: in the fact of conferring priestly ordination only on men, it is a question of unbroken tradition throughout the history of the Church, universal in the East and in the West, and alert to repress abuses immediately. This norm, based on Christ’s example, has been and is still observed because it is considered to conform to God’s plan for his Church.”

Bound up in the apostolic tradition is the Church’s understanding of the sacramental nature of the priesthood. We believe that it is always Jesus who acts in and through the person of the bishop or priest. We see this most clearly in the liturgy itself, the various ritual actions of respect and honor paid to the person of the bishop and the priest. While having no illusions about weaknesses and fallibility of her priests and bishops, the respect shown them is always directed towards Christ himself, made visible to us in their persons. The Church teaches and believes that the bishop or the priest, by the conferral of Holy Orders and in the exercise of his ministry, does not act in his own name, but acts in persona Christi.

Thus the person of the ordained minister is itself a sign of Christ whom he images. This iconic resemblance of the bishop or priest makes Christ visible and accessible for the people of God and for the world. We believe that Christ, the one High Priest who is the Mediator between the Father and all of humanity, is invisibly but truly present and active in the life of the Church. It is always Christ, embodied in the person of the bishop or the priest who presides at the Eucharist, offers the sacrifice, and in the Sacrament of Reconciliation forgives sins.

Thus, according to the Church’s reasoning, Christ, who was incarnate as a man, is, in our unbroken Tradition, necessarily imaged for us by a man and not a woman. Implicit is the proposition that gender is an essential and integral dimension of human identity (in the way that physical appearance, ethnicity, race, language or culture are not). Instead, male and female are equal, complementary but distinctly different ways of being human.

This complementary difference is the effect of God’s will from the beginning of human history: “male and female he created them [human beings]. (Gen.1:27) Gender, while not the most significant aspect of Jesus’ humanity, was at the same time not irrelevant either. Rather, gender was and remains an indivisible and permanent dimension of his human nature, which, with his divine nature, are uniquely united in the Person of Jesus.

The Catholic tradition of both the Eastern and Western churches believes that the gender of Jesus, far from being inconsequential or provisional, is profoundly bound up in its faithful witness to the mystery of the Word of God incarnate in Christ Jesus. Jesus reveals himself to be the obedient Son of the Father and was acclaimed as the Messiah, the Son of David, both in his lifetime and after his resurrection from the dead. He is the Suffering Servant and the Good Shepherd who brought to fulfillment the rich nuptial imagery of the psalms and the prophetic books of the Old Testament, Christ is revealed in the New Testament as the Bridegroom wedded to his Bride, the Church, which was born on the Cross from pierced side of Christ, the Second Adam as Eve was born from the side of the first Adam.

That this teaching of our Church presents great difficulties for many faithful contemporary Catholics is not surprising. Yet, I can’t help but think about how the teachings and example of Jesus contradicted the deeply held beliefs of his own society: when he declared marriage indissoluble; when he practiced non-violence and taught love of enemies; when he invited his followers to eat his flesh and drink his blood in the Eucharist and when he claimed not only to be the Messiah but to be the divine Son of God.

When the Church, in faithfulness to Christ and the apostolic tradition, calls only men to be its bishops and priests, this too is a difficult teaching for many Roman Catholics, because it appears to go against deeply held, seemingly self-evident beliefs in our society about justice, equality and gender.

Yet I am grateful for ancestors in faith who struggled, sometimes for centuries, to understand and to embrace those teachings of Jesus and his Church that challenged and contradicted their cultural and religious assumptions. I am confident however, that future generations of Christians will be grateful to us for our faithful engagement with those Church teachings that are difficult for us.

To read more about the Church’s official teaching on the question of admitting women to the ministerial priesthood, see the declaration Inter Insignores at:

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