Catholic Culture News
Catholic Culture News

The Nature of Priestly Ordination: Theological Background and Some Present Concerns

by Lawrence J. Welch, Ph.D.


A sect called "Roman Catholic Womenpriests" announced in a news release dated October 15, 2007 that it would be undertaking a ceremony on November 11, 2007 at the synagogue building of Central Reform Congregation, St. Louis, that would purport to ordain two women to the Roman Catholic priesthood. The following article serves to present briefly the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church regarding the ordained priesthood and who may be admitted to Holy Orders. The article is followed by links to some helpful supplemental resources, and a perspective on concerns regarding interfaith relationships arising from Central Reform Congregation's hosting of the November 11 event.

Publisher & Date

Archdiocese of St. Louis, November 9, 2007

It has been the universal and consistent practice of the Church to ordain only men to the priesthood. This practice is based upon Christ's manner of acting in choosing only men as his apostles. The Church believes that Christ's way of acting was not an arbitrary one and did not proceed from sociological or cultural motives peculiar to his time but was in keeping with the divine plan for the Church. The constant teaching and practice down through the centuries has always maintained that the reservation of the priesthood to men is part of the fundamental structure Christ gave to the priesthood and, in turn, is in accordance with His plan for the Church.

As Pope John Paul II pointed out on a number of occasions, the Holy Scriptures proclaim that Christ's plan for the Church is spousal and marital. This plan was foreshadowed in the Old Testament, as we see in the prophet Isaiah (54:4-8, 10), who portrayed the Covenant between the Chosen People and God as a "marriage" whereby God himself was understood to be a husband steadfast in his love for his wife.

In the Gospel According to Saint John, John the Baptist announces that "he who has the bride is the bridegroom [Jesus]" (John 3:27-29). John the Baptist is not the Messiah, the Christ, but is only "friend of the bridegroom." In the Gospel According to Saint Mark (2:19-20), Jesus attributes the title of "bridegroom" to himself when he explains that his disciples do not fast because "they have the bridegroom with them."

In his Second Letter to the Corinthians, Saint Paul uses the same spousal imagery of the Church and Christ when he admonishes the readers that he feels a "divine jealously" with regard to them, "for I betrothed you to Christ to present you as a pure bride to her one husband" (2 Corinthians 11:2). In the Letter of Saint Paul to the Ephesians (5:21-32), the relationship of Christ and the Church is said to be a great mystery in the likeness between a man's love for a woman and Christ's love for the Church. Christ is the Head and Bridegroom of the Church who "loved the Church and gave himself up for her that he might sanctify her." (5:25) Loved by Christ, the Church is joined to him as a wife is to her husband: "the two shall become one flesh" (Genesis 2:24).

The sacrament of ordination to the priesthood of Jesus Christ participates in Christ's spousal relationship to the Church. When a man is ordained to the priesthood, he is changed and configured to Christ, the Head and Bridegroom of the Church. In his ordination, a man is taken up into a new relationship with the rest of the baptized, Christ’s Body and his Bride. The priest is sacramentally empowered to represent Christ in a specific way as Bridegroom of the Church. In other words, when a man is ordained to the priesthood he becomes a sacramental sign of Christ in relation to the Church.

It is helpful to recall what is written in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 875:

"How are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher? And how can men preach unless they are sent?" (Romans 10:14-15). No one—no individual and no community—can proclaim the Gospel to himself: "Faith comes from what is heard" (Romans 10:17). No one can give himself the mandate and the mission to proclaim the Gospel. The one sent by the Lord does not speak and act on his own authority, but by virtue of Christ's authority; not as a member of the community, but speaking to it in the name of Christ. No one can bestow grace on himself; it must be given and offered. This fact presupposes ministers of grace, authorized and empowered by Christ. From him, bishops and priests receive the mission and faculty ("the sacred power") to act in persona Christi Capitis; deacons receive the strength to serve the people of God in the diaconia of liturgy, word and charity, in communion with the bishop and his presbyterate. The ministry in which Christ's emissaries do and give by God's grace what they cannot do and give by their own powers, is called a "sacrament" by the Church's tradition. Indeed, the ministry of the Church is conferred by a special sacrament.

As Pope John Paul II observed, it is the Eucharist above all that expresses the redemptive act of Christ, the Bridegroom, towards the Church, the Bride. This is clear and unambiguous when the sacramental ministry of the Eucharist is performed by an ordained man who acts in the person of Christ. The priest is the living image of Jesus Christ, the spouse of the Church. Understood against this background, we can better see why Christ called only men to be apostles who speak and act in his name for the Church.

There is another perspective that is helpful for understanding the Church's practice of ordaining only men. The sacraments of priesthood and marriage stand together. Marriage is a sacrament because it is a sign of, and a participation in, the spousal covenant of Christ and the Church. If the manhood of Christ is theologically insignificant for the priesthood, then sexual differentiation must be immaterial to the sacrament of marriage as well. It cannot become irrelevant for one without becoming irrelevant for the other.

On the contrary, what the Church teaches and what she proclaims in the sacraments is the truth that sexuality is not only part of God's good creation but that in Christ it holds a meaning more profound than we ever could have imagined. In other words, masculinity and femininity in the human order complete and explain one other. In Christ, we have the one who enters our history and remains as the Bridegroom, as the one who has given himself in the most complete and radical way, laying down his life for his Bride, the Church. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ enables us to participate in his love, in his sincere gift of self, and so enables us to live the full truth of our sexuality as men and women.

For more information regarding the Roman Catholic Church's teaching on priestly ordination, please see the following resources:

Some Reflections From an Interfaith Perspective
By Father Vincent A. Heier, director, Office for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs,
Archdiocese of St. Louis

As one who has promoted and fostered good Catholic-Jewish relations for many years, the fact that a Jewish congregation would host an event that undercuts the belief and practice of Catholics is very troubling. Since I heard about this event, I have been in regular contact with the leaders of the Jewish community, who too, as is demonstrated in the Jewish Community Relations Council statement (see below), have expressed their regret that such an action has been taken by Central Reform Congregation. It is my hope that Catholics recognize that each congregation within Judaism is independent and free to do certain things if agreed to by that congregation. But we should recognized that Central Reform Congregation is acting outside the bounds of our common dialogue and as such is not showing proper respect for the teaching of the Catholic Church and the Archdiocese. This has been communicated to Rabbi Susan Talve as well as the president of Central Reform Congregation with the assurance that the Archdiocese will not partner with them in any future interfaith endeavor.

Jewish Community Relations Council Statement on Central Reform Congregation Hosting Women’s Ordination Ceremony
October 26, 2007

The Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis (“JCRC”) has been informed that the Central Reform Congregation has agreed to allow its synagogue building to be used in November for a ceremony for the ordination of two Roman Catholic women.

Many of our Catholic friends have expressed dismay at a Jewish congregation being involved with such a ceremony, since current Roman Catholic doctrine does not allow women to be ordained.

We wish to clarify that in the Jewish faith, there is no ecclesiastical hierarchy. Each congregation is free to act in accordance with its own understanding of Jewish tradition and law. The organized Jewish community recognizes this congregational autonomy and the right of each congregation to conduct its affairs as it deems appropriate. Accordingly, Central Reform Congregation’s decision to make its facilities available for the ordination event represents the action of that congregation, not of the organized Jewish community of greater St. Louis.

The JCRC regrets any pain inuring from Central Reform Congregation’s association with the ordination event to any of our many friends in the Roman Catholic community of St. Louis, with whom we have worked closely over the years. Several decades of honest dialogue, and partnership in efforts to better our community, have led to a relationship of mutual respect between Jews and Catholics in St. Louis. Even when we disagree on theological or political issues, we do so with a sense of understanding of one another. It is our hope that an isolated act on the part of a single congregation will not be allowed to disrupt the long tradition of continued dialogue and mutual respect between our Jewish and Roman Catholic communities.

(The Jewish Community Relations Council is the public affairs arm of the organized Jewish community of St. Louis. It represents 19 member organizations and 14 at-large members.)

© 2007 Archdiocese of St. Louis

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