A friend of mine recently asked me if I had a blog post I could send him on why only a man can be a priest. I have touched on this in previous posts, but I realized I’ve never devoted a post specifically to this question, so here goes.
Without a doubt, the differences of men and women have been exaggerated in the past – typically in favor of men and to the disadvantage of women. The sexual and feminist revolutions of the 20th century were right to challenge certain roles conventionally limited to one or the other gender. However, we’ve now gone from one imbalance to the other: from wanting to exaggerate the differences of men and women to wanting to eliminate them.
Limiting priestly ordination to men makes zero sense … unless … unless priesthood inherently expresses that which only men can do. Women can certainly do most of the things men can do. Men can certainly do most of the things women can do. But there is something only men can do (because they’re men) and only women can do (because they’re women) and they must do it together in order to be able to do it at all…
Do you remember this old Mr. Rogers song?
Only boys can be the daddies
Only girls can be the mommies
Every body’s fancy, every body’s fine
Your body’s fancy and so is mine
The answer to the question “Why can’t women be ordained as priests?” lies within this simple observation of Fred Rogers. Priesthood is not a career choice. It’s not the same thing as a woman saying, “I can be a doctor or a lawyer or a politician.” No, priesthood is spiritual fatherhood. And because of the profound link between matter and spirit, in order to be capable of being a father in the spirit, one must be capable of being a father in the flesh.
The sexual difference and the call to fatherhood and motherhood inherent within it is the primordial sign of the divine mystery in the created world. I unfold its significance and then conclude with a reflection on the meaning of priestly ordination in the following excerpt from the revised, expanded, and updated edition of Theology of the Body for Beginners due out early next year:
The Spousal Analogy
Scripture uses many images to help us understand God’s love. Each has its own valuable place. But, as John Paul II wrote, the gift of Christ’s body on the cross gives “definitive prominence to the spousal meaning of God’s love” (MD 26). In fact, from beginning to end, in the mysteries of our creation, fall, and redemption, the Bible tells a nuptial or marital story.
It begins in Genesis with the marriage of the first man and woman, and it ends in Revelation with the marriage of Christ and the Church. Right in the middle of the Bible we find the erotic poetry of the Song of Songs. These bookends and this centerpiece provide the key for reading the whole biblical story. Indeed, we can summarize all of Sacred Scripture with five simple, yet astounding words: God wants to marry us.
For as a young man marries a virgin
So shall your Maker marry you;
And as the bridegroom rejoices over his bride,
So shall your God rejoice over you. (Isa 62:5)
Your breasts were formed and your hair had grown
You were naked and bare.
When I passed by you again and looked upon you,
Behold, you were at the age for love…
I entered into a covenant with you, says the Lord
And you became mine. (Ezek 16:7–8)
And I will betroth you to me forever;
I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice,
In steadfast love, and in mercy.
I will betroth you to me in faithfulness;
And you shall know the Lord. (Hos 2:19)
God is inviting each of us, in a unique and unrepeatable way, to an unimagined intimacy with him, akin to the intimacy of spouses in one flesh. In fact, as Pope Francis observes, “The very word [used in Scripture to describe marital union] … ‘to cleave’ … is used to describe our union with God: ‘My soul clings to you’ (Ps 63:8)” (AL 13). Because of the supreme bliss of union with God, “a love lacking either pleasure or passion is insufficient to symbolize the union of the human heart with God: ‘All the mystics have affirmed that supernatural love and heavenly love find the symbols which they seek in marital love’” (AL 142).
While we may need to work through some discomfort or fear here to reclaim the true sacredness, the true holiness of the imagery, the “scandalous” truth is that Scripture describes “God’s passion for his people using boldly erotic images,” as Pope Benedict XVI put it (DC 9). Elsewhere he declared: “Eros is part of God’s very Heart: the Almighty awaits the ‘yes’ of his creatures as a young bridegroom that of his bride” (Lenten Message 2007).
We are probably more familiar (and more comfortable) describing God’s love as agape—the Greek word for sacrificial, self-giving love. Yet God’s love “may certainly be called eros,” asserts Benedict XVI. In Christ eros is “supremely ennobled … so purified as to become one with agape.” Thus, the Bible has no qualms employing the erotic poetry of the Song of Songs as a description of “God’s relation to man and man’s relation to God.” In this way, as Benedict XVI concludes, the Song of Songs became not only an expression of the intimacies of marital love, it also became “an expression of the essence of biblical faith: that man can indeed enter into union with God—his primordial aspiration” (DC 10).
The Essence of Biblical Faith
Let’s try to let that sink in: the Song of Songs, this unabashed celebration of erotic love, expresses the essence of biblical faith. How so? The essence of biblical faith is that God came among us in the flesh not only to forgive our sins (as astounding as that gift is); he became “one flesh” with us so that we could share in his eternal exchange of love. In the first of his many sermons on the Song of Songs, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux aptly describes marriage as “the sacrament of endless union with God.” Revelation calls this endless union the “marriage of the Lamb” (Rev 19:7).
But there’s more. Remember that pithy rhyme we learned as children: “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby in the baby carriage”? We probably didn’t realize that we were actually reciting some profound theology: theology of the body! Our bodies tell the story that God loves us, wants to marry us, and wants us to “conceive” eternal life within us. “What is happening here?” asks Saint Bonaventure. When God fills us with his divine life, it is “nothing other than the heavenly Father by a divine seed, as it were, impregnating the soul and making it fruitful” (BFC).
For Christians, the idea of divine impregnation is not merely a metaphor. Representing all of us, a young Jewish woman named Mary once gave her “yes” to God’s marriage proposal with such totality and fidelity that she literally conceived eternal life in her womb. In a hymn addressed to her, Saint Augustine exclaims: “The Word becomes united with flesh, he makes his covenant with flesh, and your womb is the sacred bed on which this holy union of the Word with flesh is consummated” (Sermon 291). Mary’s virginity has always been understood by the Church as the sign of her betrothal to God. She is the “mystic bride of love eternal,” as a traditional hymn has it. As such, Mary perfectly fulfills the spousal character of the human vocation in relation to God (see CCC 505).
In turn, Mary fully illuminates the theology of a woman’s body. In her, woman’s body has literally become the dwelling place of the Most High God — heaven on earth! Every woman shares in some way in this incomparable dignity and calling. Every woman’s body is a sign of heaven on earth. And, oh, how lovely is your dwelling place, Lord, mighty God (see Ps 84:1). Continue unfolding this astounding mystery and it’s not difficult to recognize that the theology of a man’s body can be described as a call to enter the gates of heaven, to surrender himself there, to lay down his life there by pouring himself out utterly. In this way the man images the eternal outpouring, the eternal life-givingness of God as Father.
Can we even imagine a greater sacredness, a greater holiness, a greater goodness and glory ascribed to our maleness and femaleness, our sexuality? Oh, Lord, show us who we really are! Give us eyes to see so glorious a mystery revealed through our bodies and in the call of man and woman to become one flesh!
Penetrating the Essence of the Mystery
In the midst of unfolding the biblical analogy of spousal love, it’s very important to understand the bounds within which we’re using such language and imagery. Analogies, of course, always indicate both a similarity and an even more substantial dissimilarity. Without this recognition, there is a real danger of inferring too much about divine realities, based on human realities.
“It is obvious,” writes John Paul II, “that the analogy of … human spousal love, cannot offer an adequate and complete understanding of … the divine mystery.” God’s “mystery remains transcendent with respect to this analogy as with respect to any other analogy.” At the same time, however, John Paul II maintains that the spousal analogy allows a certain “penetration” into the very essence of the mystery (see TOB 95b:1). And no biblical author reaches more deeply into this essence than Saint Paul in his letter to the Ephesians.
Quoting directly from Genesis, Paul states: “‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’” Then, linking the original marriage with the ultimate marriage, he adds: “This is a great mystery, and I mean in reference to Christ and the Church” (Eph 5:31–32).
We can hardly overstate the importance of this passage for John Paul II and the whole theological tradition of the Church. He calls it the “summa” (“sum total”) of Christian teaching about who God is and who we are (see LF 19). He says this passage contains the “crowning” of all the themes in Sacred Scripture and expresses the “central reality” of the whole of divine revelation (see TOB 87:3). The mystery spoken of in this passage “is ‘great’ indeed,” he says. “It is what God … wishes above all to transmit to mankind in his Word.” Thus, “one can say that [this] passage … ‘reveals—in a particular way—man to man himself and makes his supreme vocation clear’ (GS 22)” (TOB 87:6; 93:2).
So what is this “supreme vocation” we have as human beings that Ephesians 5 makes clear? Stammering for words to describe the ineffable, the mystics call it “nuptial union” … with God (see NMI 33). Christ is the new Adam who left his Father in heaven. He also left the home of his mother on earth. Why? To mount “the marriage bed of the cross,” as Saint Augustine had it, unite himself with the Church, symbolized by “the woman” at the foot of the cross, and consummate the union forever. Archbishop Fulton Sheen elaborates:
Now we’ve always thought, and rightly so, of Christ the Son on the cross and the mother beneath him. But that’s not the complete picture. That’s not the deep understanding. Who is our Lord on the cross? He’s the new Adam. Where’s the new Eve? At the foot of the cross … If Eve became the mother of the living in the natural order, is not this woman at the foot of the cross to become another mother? [How does this spiritual motherhood happen?] … As St. Augustine puts it, and here I am quoting him verbatim, “…As it were, the blood and water that came from the side of Christ was the spiritual seminal fluid.” And so from these nuptials “Woman, there’s your son” this is the beginning of the Church. (FS, p. 60)
“On the Cross, God’s eros for us is made manifest,” proclaims Pope Benedict XVI. “Eros is indeed … that force which ‘does not allow the lover to remain in himself but moves him to become one with the beloved.’ Is there more ‘mad eros’ … than that which led the Son of God to make himself one with us even to the point of suffering as his own the consequences of our offences?” he asks (Lenten Message 2007).
The more we allow the brilliant rays of Christ’s “mad eros” to illuminate our vision, the more we come to understand, as the Catechism observes, how the “entire Christian life bears the mark of the spousal love of Christ and the Church. Already Baptism, the entry into the People of God, is a nuptial mystery” (CCC 1617). Here “the ‘imperishable seed’ of the Word of God produces its life-giving effect” (CCC 1228). The “imperishable seed” is given by Christ as Bridegroom and received by the Church as Bride. And through these glorious, virginal nuptials the Church brings forth sons and daughters “to a new and immortal life” (CCC 507).
Still, as glorious as baptism is, it’s only our entry into the Christian life, not its summit. Baptism opens the way to the sacrament of sacraments, the mystery of mysteries; baptism “is so to speak the nuptial bath which precedes the wedding feast, the Eucharist” (CCC 1617).
The Summit of the Spousal Analogy
In the Eucharist, “Christ is united with his ‘body’ as the bridegroom with the bride,” John Paul II tells us. As such, the Eucharist illuminates with supernatural brilliance “the relationship between man and woman, between what is ‘feminine’ and what is ‘masculine’” (MD 26). It is in the Eucharist that the meaning of life, love, sex, gender, and marriage is fully revealed! How so?
There is such a strong temptation to disincarnate and, thus, neuter our faith that we’re often oblivious to the profound significance of the fact that there is a man on the cross and a woman at the foot of the cross. It can’t be the other way around. In the spousal analogy, God is always the Bridegroom and humanity is always the Bride. Why? Because humanity is first receptive to the love of God: “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that he first loved us” (1 John 4:10). The woman’s body primarily tells the story of receiving divine love while the man’s body primarily tells the story of offering that love, of pouring it out.
The more we press in to this divine love story, the more we realize why only a man can be an ordained priest: It’s the bridegroom who gives the seed or inseminates; it’s the bride who receives the seed within and conceives new life. This is why a man trains to be a priest in the seminaryand, once ordained, is called Father. A woman cannot be ordained a priest because she is not ordained by God to be a father; she is ordained by God to be a mother. This is where the sexual difference matters––in the call to holy communion and generation. If a woman were to attempt to confer the Eucharist, the relationship would be bride to bride. There would be no possibility of Holy Communion and no possibility of generating new life.
Of course, a world that insists two women can marry will also insist that a woman can be a priest, but both ideas come from the same failure to recognize the essential meaning of the sexual difference. Since grace builds on nature, when we’re confused about the natural reality, we’re also confused about the supernatural reality: “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe,” asks Jesus, “how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” (John 3:12).
The more deeply we enter into the “great mystery” of Ephesians 5, the more we will see how and why the sexual difference is just as important to the Holy Communion of the Eucharist as it is to the holy communion of marriage. In fact, as John Paul II teaches, we cannot understand one without the other. Perhaps the following story will illuminate what he means. I never met my father-in-law, he died when my wife was a girl, but I admire him tremendously because of the intuition he had as a brand new husband. At Mass the day after his wedding, having consummated his marriage the night before, he was in tears as he came back to the pew after receiving the Eucharist. When his new bride inquired, he said, “For the first time in my life I understood the meaning of those words, ‘This is my body given for you.’”
Make no mistake: when all the smoke is cleared and all the distortions are untwisted, the deepest meaning and purpose of human sexuality is to point us to the Eucharist, the “marriage supper of the Lamb” (Rev 19:9). And this is precisely why questions of sex, gender, and marriage place us right in the center of “the situation in which the powers of good and evil fight against each other” (TOB 115:2).
Image: Schoenstatt unity cross.
For such a time as this have we been given Saint John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. By taking us beyond the alternatives of prudish repression and damaging indulgence, the Theology of the Body opens the path to the redemption of sexuality and the real healing of our wounds. Learn more by watching my short film, The Cry of the Heart. Watch the trailer below.