Is priestly ordination reserved for men alone in the Catholic Church because of an arcane and unjust historical context? Or is it something more? To best understand the Church’s teaching on this issue, one must consider both tradition and the iconic nature of the priesthood.

The years following the Second Vatican Council and the Sexual Revolution in the mid- to late-20th century presented a period of confusion regarding what seemed to be an open question of exploring the possibility of ordaining women to the priesthood. This practice was found acceptable by some Christian communities — for example, the Anglican Communion — but unacceptable by other churches — for example, the Orthodox. It is noteworthy that much of what the Catholic Church teaches on the reservation of priesthood to men alone also is embraced by the Orthodox churches.

To help put this matter to rest, the Catholic Church, in 1976, reiterated that the priesthood should be reserved for men alone when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, at the behest of Pope Blessed Paul VI, issued the declaration Inter Insigniores.

The Will of Christ

Inter Insigniores was written to defend the Church’s position on ordination with both fundamental and theological reasons. The primary fundamental reasons given relate to Christ’s attitude regarding ordained ministry, considering both his example and that of Christian tradition.

Although women were actively involved in the life of Christ during his ministry, Jesus did not appoint women to the apostolic office. “Jesus Christ did not call any women to become part of the Twelve” (No. 2). This is not to say that Jesus was discriminatory toward women, however. As Inter Insigniores points out, “His attitude towards women was quite different from that of his milieu, and he deliberately and courageously broke with it” (No. 2).

Jesus’ break with cultural treatment of women is seen in multiple places throughout the Gospels. It is also seen clearly in the Easter story, in which women were “the first to have the privilege of seeing the risen Lord,” yet were not “the official witnesses to the Resurrection” (No. 2). Following this example, the Church carries on Christ’s will in regard to sacramental orders. “By calling only men to the priestly Order … the Church intends to remain faithful to the type of ordained ministry willed by the Lord Jesus Christ and carefully maintained by the Apostles” (No. 1).

Taking up the themes of Inter Insigniores— namely, that “in fidelity to the example of the Lord” the Church “does not consider herself authorized to admit women to priestly ordination” (Introduction) — Pope St. John Paul II firmly reiterated its teaching in his 1994 apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis. With this document, Pope John Paul II sought to dispel any lingering doubts regarding the Catholic Church’s teaching on women’s ordination. And so, with great solemnity, he provided unambiguous teaching on the issue: “Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful” (No. 4).

It is important to note that this statement by St. John Paul fulfills the conditions for an infallible statement as taught at the First Vatican Council and is clearly phrased in such a manner. By virtue of his ministry as universal shepherd and teacher ex cathedra, the pope has the power to define a matter concerning faith and morals, which are to be held by the universal Church as “infallible.”

Theological Reasons

While both Inter Insigniores and Ordinatio Sacerdotalis present the essential reasons against the ordination of women as pertaining to the mind of Christ and the tradition of the Church, they also refer to various undergirding theological reasons that must be investigated as well.

The theological rationale regarding the priestly ordination of men alone must be seen through what is called the “analogy of faith” (Inter Insignores, No. 5). Theologically speaking, there is one priest, Jesus Christ. Every priest analogously shares in his one priesthood. Included here are a variety of anthropological dimensions of ordained priesthood.

As the priesthood’s primary task is to preside at the Eucharist, it is fitting to explore this issue within a Eucharistic context. This is especially important here because the Eucharist is the heart of the Church — the “source and summit” of the Church’s life, in the words of Vatican II (Lumen Gentium, see No. 11). In the Eucharistic celebration, the priest has an iconic character whereby his representation of Christ expresses his role to act in the person of Christ, in persona Christi. In fact, this is the “supreme expression” of the priest’s representation of Christ (Inter Insigniores, No. 5). In the Eucharistic celebration, which is the “source and center of the Church’s unity,” the priest takes “the role of Christ, to the point of being his very image, when he pronounces the words of consecration” ((Inter Insigniores, also No. 5). Inter Insigniores quotes the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas by noting that the sacraments “represent what they signify by natural resemblance.”

“The same natural resemblance is required for persons as for things: when Christ’s role in the Eucharist is to be expressed sacramentally, there would not be this ‘natural resemblance’ which must exist between Christ and his minister if the role of Christ were not taken by a man: in such a case it would be difficult to see in the minister the image of Christ. For Christ himself was and remains a man” (Inter Insigniores, No. 5).

As Christ was a man, so, too, must be priests. This clearly echoes the famous phrase coined by the Council of Trent — “as human nature demands.” In order to act in persona Christi, a male priesthood is required.

This aspect of the theological anthropology of the priesthood further is illustrated in the nuptial imagery used throughout the Bible in God’s plan of salvation. Salvation often is described in Scripture as a nuptial mystery existing between God and his chosen people. Christ and his Church, as bridegroom and bride, bring forth the culmination of salvation in the New Testament. And so, “we can never ignore the fact that Christ is a man” (Inter Insigniores, No. 5). Christ himself revealed this important and necessary symbolism, whereby ordained priests represent Christ himself, the Bridegroom and Head of the Church, “exercising his ministry of salvation — which is in the highest degree the case of the Eucharist — his role (this is the original sense of the word persona) must be taken by a man” (No. 5).

The nuptial relationship between Christ and the Church illustrates the importance of the divine plan for nature — that human sexuality matters. And since the priesthood is a calling, and not a right, priesthood’s ministry of service is not superior to others, as all Christians are called to love. Importantly relevant in this discussion is the fact that “the greatest in the kingdom of heaven are not the ministers but the saints” (Inter Insigniores, No. 6).

Further arguments also concern the theological anthropology of the Church, respecting the gifts and talents inherent to men and women by their very nature. The dignity of women, and their indispensable role in the preaching of the Gospel, is stressed by St. John Paul in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (see No. 3). Likewise, concerning the nuptial imagery relative to the Church, the masculinity and femininity of the Church is explored in depth by theologians such as Hans Urs von Balthasar. His works promote the respective roles of men and women in the Church. Inter Insigniores appropriately and concisely expresses what is found in his theology: as men fittingly represent Christ, women suitably represent the Church, for their role is of “capital importance” in the modern age “both for the renewal and humanization of society and for the rediscovery by believers of the true face of the Church” (Inter Insigniores, No. 6).

It’s clear that the Catholic Church has rich and definite reasons as to why women may not be admitted to the priestly order. The reservation of priestly ordination for men alone is built on a firm basis rooted in the will of Christ and the tradition of the Church — namely, that Christ did not apostolically commission women and the Church has never ordained them to priesthood. Likewise, the Church offers strong theological and anthropological reasons for this teaching, particularly that men represent Christ’s priesthood in an iconic way. And, importantly, this teaching of the Church regarding ordination must not be taken without an equally clear teaching regarding the dignity of women and their crucial role in the mission of the Church.

Michael R. Heinlein is editor of Simply Catholic. Follow him on Twitter @HeinleinMichael.