Continuing our series of questions from High School students, comes the following: Why can’t women be priests? As Catholics, doesn’t that mean we (are not?) equal, open and progressive?
First, I added what is in the parenthesis, as the question didn’t make any sense without something in there.
This question comes up repeatedly, and I answered in a positive way here. (What I mean by ‘positive’ is instead of answering a ‘negative’ question (why can’t…), I addressed why only men can be ordained.)
The first thing is always to indicate that this does not intimate that the church somehow looks down on women as inferior, far from it! Rather, the question of reserving the priesthood to men is reflective of the differences between men and women, how we give life and how we look at the world.
Ultimately, the question of an all male preisthood derives, for the Church, from the mind of Christ. It has been the constant teaching of the Church that the fact that Jesus chose only men to be priests was a significant decision, and as the guardian of the deposit of faith, the Church is powerless to change that teaching.
Saying that, we must seek to understand why it is important that Jesus taught this, and not just dismiss it out of hand. The answer to this question becomes much more speculative, as we can’t go back to read His mind or ask him a further clarifying question, but those much smarter than I have proposed the following answers:
1) It reveals the primary difference in how men and women relate to one another, and that the person of the priest, as ‘Father,’ more closely represents that image of paternity in both the physical and spiritual sense. ‘Fathers’ tend to be the ‘rub dirt in it’ type of parent, challenging their children to grow in the face of adversity. Fathers give life by giving of the themselves outwardly, rather than nurturing inwardly.
2) The Church has always been personified as a feminine entity, leading to a dynamic that sees the priest as ‘wedded’ to the Church, his bride. In this way, the priest stands in the place of Christ, and as He did, the priest gives his life so that the Church might live.
3) Finally, since God was revealed to be ‘Father’ by Our Lord in the New Testament, the male preisthood better represents that. While in the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament, there are personifications that refer to the Divine in a feminine way, Jewish and Christian thought never adopted that as the norm for our approach to God, and having a male preisthood again supports this better than an ‘open’ priesthood.
On to the question about this preventing the Church from being ‘equal, open and progressive’: it must be remembered that ‘equal’ does not mean ‘same.’ There are fundamental differences between men and women, just looking at physical characteristics reveals that. However, these differences do not equate a difference in equality, for in Christ there is neither male nor female, all are one in Christ Jesus.
I really do not know what it means to be ‘open and progressive,’ as stated in the original question. The Church is certainly open to all people, and there is a universal call to holiness. But where I think some fail is in that in this desire for openness, the call to ongoing conversion is missed. Yes, Christ’s message is universal, but it is up to the individual to receive and respond to that call. What comes to mind for me, at this point, is John 6. At the end of the Bread of Life Discourse, some of the disciples of Jesus (not the Twelve) turn and walk away from Him. They have questioned Jesus about his saying that unless one eats his flesh and drinks his blood, there is no life within. Unable to accept this teaching, they turn to walk away. Instead of backing down, Jesus turns up the heat even further. Peter and the Twelve are presented as some of the few who stayed. The Evangelist John puts beautiful words on the lips of Peter, as Jesus looks and asks if they, too, want to go. Peter replies: ‘Lord, to whom else shall we go? We have come to know and believe that you have the worlds of Eternal Life!’ Once we, too, become convinced of this same fact, the ongoing call to conversion will be easy to respond to with a generous heart.
I still am not sure about ‘progressive,’ I think I’ll just leave it at this: any organization that is 2,000 years old will never be ‘progressive,’ nor should it be. It is to be remembered that the Church is the guardian of truth, not the determiner of it.
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