Some Scriptural Arguments For The All-Male Priesthood
Apologetical tools seem periodically (if not constantly now) required to elucidate the Church's doctrine and practice reserving Holy Orders exclusively to men. Although this definitive teaching was reaffirmed authoritatively in Pope John Paul II's 1994 Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, many people appear not to grasp any solid rationale for this allegedly anachronistic, arbitrary, and unjust "discrimination." Otherwise, even after repeated declarations from Rome,1 one would not hear the tiresome and superficial refrain: "I don't see why the Church does not ordain women priests, because they can do just as good a job as men." In our egalitarian age infected by feminist influences, there is evidently a deeply entrenched reluctance to admit that the natural differences between the two sexes carry any theological relevance. Aside from modern attitudes so skeptical of Tradition, though, it is normal for our rational human nature to seek reasons for our convictions (see 1 Pet. 3:15).
In an earlier article containing a defense of this restrictive (and supposedly harsh) Catholic doctrine about the priesthood,2 I proposed a justification based on the philosophy of biology in conjunction with the meaning of sacramental symbolism. The intent of the current essay is to advance some Scriptural demonstrations sustaining the same thesis. But before undertaking the main burden of propounding these arguments, I shall review and amplify the core of my previous argument.3
Argument From The Philosophy Of Biology
God the Father eternally begets (by a mysterious spiritual generation) his eternal Word, God the Son, from both of whom the Holy Spirit proceeds. This procession within the self-sufficient triune Godhead involves no exterior dependence; hence, no external fertilization issuing in divine conception occurs. Moreover, the three Persons of the Blessed Trinity utterly transcend the universe. In other words, since they produce it out of nothing, the Divine Being is wholly other than creation and receives nothing from it. God takes total initiative, to which creatures can only react. The Deity is present everywhere within the universe by acting on it, but (contrary to pantheism) suffers from absolutely no immersive admixture (or entitative immanence) in it; i.e., there is no merger between the Divine Essence and any finite substance. In brief, God is Pure Actuality devoid of any passive potentiality from within or from without.
Furthermore, with regard to the salvific order (which in the New Covenant involves sacramental means of grace), Christ avers in John 3:3, NAB: "I solemnly assure you, no one can see the reign of God unless he is begotten from above." The footnote commentary in the New American Bible furnishes an exegesis of this verse. It explains, "the Greek verb can mean 'born' from a female principle, or 'begotten' by a male principle. As in John 1:13 ['who were begotten not by blood, nor by carnal desire, nor by man's willing it, but by God'], John primarily means it as 'begotten.'" In support of this interpretation, we may cite Deuteronomy 32:18, D-R: "Thou hast forsaken the God that begot thee, and hast forgotten the Lord that created thee."4 Hence, the concrete act of begetting is paralleled with the transcendent production of being ex nihilo.
Now a priest must function as a divine instrument, a mediating conduit for generating or increasing the supernatural life of grace within the human soul. As long as a sacrament is validly conferred, it is the recipient who acquires the new seed of divine life or undergoes intensification of that life not necessarily the channeling priest (who may theoretically be in a state of sin). Thus, insofar as the priest confects a sacrament (especially Baptism, Penance, Eucharistic Communion, Confirmation, and Extreme Unction), the direct result of the sacramental rite is a sheer transmission of grace to another; it is incidental to the rite per se whether the priest also receives grace (though this will consequentially transpire under the right circumstances). In sum, the priest as such transcendently begets spiritual offspring aside from any immanent reception.
But the sacrament of Holy Orders transforms a human person into a priest, with the supernatural power to convey the life of grace while undergoing no essential passive reception in the process. Moreover, according to the Catholic sacramental principle, a sacrament effects what it signifies and likewise signifies what it effects. Therefore, the valid matter of a sacrament must symbolically reflect the supernatural reality brought about by the sacrament. In other words, a sacrament will not "take" if it lacks the proper matter. In particular, the person who is the subject of Holy Orders must naturally exhibit the divinely transcendent activity of begetting without conceiving.
Only males, however, possess the biological capacity of begetting outside their bodies (however transitory their function), while never conceiving inside their bodies. On the other hand, in procreative congress females conceive only inside their bodies and can never beget outside their bodies by inseminating a cooperating mate (although, after an immanent process of gestation and labor, they do eventually give outward birth to progeny). This indicates that females naturally mirror the receptive immanence of the cosmos awaiting impregnation from without in order to bear fruit from within (see Rom. 8:22-23, RSV, about the inward "groaning in travail" of creation). In addition, the copious number of highly motile, teleologically directed sperm cells released by the male (like abundant, tiny rain droplets watering parched soil) reflects the prolific generosity of the Creator in lavishly ensuring the propagation of the species, whereas the comparatively passive state of the proportionately larger female ovum (like an apparently inert or dormant seed hidden in the recesses of the ground) images the indigence of the barren earth. If we apply this generic male-female dialectic to humanity and invoke the Catholic sacramental perspective on reality, it follows that men alone are suitable candidates for priestly ordination.5
To assert that the above chain of reasoning concludes or insinuates that men are more "godlike" than women, without making relevant distinctions, would be to misconstrue the terms of the question. Of course, both genders are equally made in the image of God (see Gen. 1:26-27) in the sense that both are intellectual / volitional creatures endowed with a spiritual and immortal soul, which will be reunited with the body at the resurrection. But the whole point in debate here, which cannot be dismissed, is appropriate sacramental symbolism.
Let us first address the general objection about "godlikeness." We know that the angels (whether good or demonic) are metaphysically (by virtue of their lofty, purely spiritual essences) more "godlike" than human beings. Yet in the supernatural order of grace, the peerless Blessed Virgin Mary is more "godlike" than all the angels and every other human individual (whether male or female). In short, the term "godlike" is equivocal: it can be taken in two senses, the natural and the supernatural. The first connotes no personal merit whatsoever; instead, it is the second sense (i.e., the degree to which intellectual creatures approach God by sharing the divine life of charity through sanctifying grace) that determines their everlasting destiny and status of glory.
Here is an example pertinent to the narrower topic of sacramental symbolism. Although wheat bread and grape wine constitute the valid matter for the Holy Eucharist, this fact does not without qualification make them more "Christlike" substances than water. Wheat bread is more suitable for signifying the Body of our Lord and grape wine is more apt for representing the Blood of our Savior in the Blessed Sacrament than all other forms of food and drink; however, water is a more fitting symbol than anything else for the cleansing and regeneration unto new life effected in Baptism. Because in Baptism the soul is initially configured to Christ by a special spiritual character, water (the valid matter for this sacrament) is just as "Christlike" (if that makes any sense) as wheat bread and grape wine.6 The seal of Confirmation (with its own character) further enhances this Christological configurement by rendering the recipient capable of militantly Catholic action; nonetheless, anointing with olive oil (rather than water or grape wine) is most conducive to signifying mature Christian witness through the power of the Holy Spirit.7
Thus, with regard to sacramental signification, so-called "superiority" is a relative matter. One must qualify the discussion by contextualizing the terms. Superior in what way? Superior for what? The "superiority" in question may hold merely in a very limited (but nevertheless critical) respect. The appropriateness of a physical substance for a particular sacrament depends on the natural properties of the matter relative to the purpose for the sacrament. That males as a class (on account of God-given physiological symbolism) are more naturally suited for representing the priestly rank of Christ as mediator or bridge-maker (pontifex in Latin) between heaven and earth does not detract one iota from a positive evaluation of females as a class. In particular, it does not imply that an individual man is superior in nature to an individual woman; for in fact every human being possesses equal ontological value or dignity of personhood. Nor does the natural fittingness (or obediential potency) for the incorporation of men into the ecclesial hierarchy entail higher personal nobility or sanctity than women. There is simply no correlation between such personal qualities of excellence and the possibility of filling official roles in the Church. The Christlike configuration manifested by the unique spiritual character impressed in Holy Orders does not of itself make the priest holier (or more "godly") than anyone else; the seal of Orders merely marks the man as a member of a certain office.
With the foregoing clarification stated up front, I shall now present three Scriptural arguments for the all-male priesthood. They will be gathered under three headings: the sacrificing-priesthood and victim argument, the priest-father argument, and the feet-washing argument.8 All three proofs employ the spiritual sense of Sacred Scripture, especially the allegorical sense. That is, we begin by accepting the fundamental premise of Biblical typology that the Old Testament prefigures or foreshadows corresponding fulfillments in the New Covenant. The Catholic Faith insists that neither principal subdivision of the Bible can be adequately interpreted without the other.9
Sacrificing-Priesthood And Victim Argument
I maintain that the all-male priesthood of the Old Testament is an authentic type of the New Testament priesthood. This proposition is certainly true for the mysterious priesthood of King Melchizedek (see Gen. 14:18-20) perfectly fulfilled forever in Christ, as suggested in Psalm 110:4 and amply articulated in Hebrews 5:5-6; 7:1-28. But the claim is true, as well, for the Levitical priesthood of Aaron that was (as such) eventually abolished. Indeed, despite the formal abrogation of the Aaronic priesthood, Isaiah 66:21, RSV, uses Levitical language to prophesy about the remotely adumbrated New Covenant priesthood: "And some of them also I will take for priests and for Levites, says the LORD." Observe that Leviticus 6-8 perpetually restricts hierarchical participation in the sacred rites (which were commanded Moses by God) to males: specifically, "to Aaron the priest and to his sons, as a perpetual due from the people of Israel . . . throughout their generations" (Lev. 7:34, 36, RSV; see also Num. 18). Now if it were a mutable Hebrew custom that males alone could serve as priests, Christ would undoubtedly have annulled the practice upon the institution of his new priesthood10 just as the early Church changed the official day of community worship from Saturday to Sunday.
In particular, the divine decree that the Passover lamb be a "male without blemish" (see Exod. 12:l-28, esp. v. 5, and Lev. 1:10-11), whose expiatory blood would rescue from wrath those submissive to God's ritual command, is an allegory for the heavenly mission of the "Lamb of God" (see Isa. 53:7; John 1:29, 36; Acts 8:32; 1 Pet. 1:18-19; Rev. 5:6-8, 12-13; 7:9-10, 13-17; 21:9, 14, 22-23; 22:1, 3), whose bloody death redeemed mankind from the clutches of the evil Serpent (see Gen. 3:15). The mandate that the Paschal lamb be male cannot be ignored or relegated to insignificance. It has serious repercussions for the sacrament of Holy Orders, whose very purpose is a sacrificing priesthood prolonging through the ages the Lamb's unique atonement to God for our sins under the unbloody appearances of bread and wine (offered according to the order of Melchizedek). The priests of the New Covenant, like the priests of the Old Testament (whether the Levites or Melchizedek), must be male, for they act in the name and power of the Victim-Person of the male Lamb of God, who is the eternal high priest of the everlasting dispensation under the law of grace.
Abraham is called "father" in many verses of Sacred Scripture (e.g., Gen. 17:4-5, Isa. 51:2, Sir. 44:19, Matt. 3:9, Luke 16:24, John 8:56, Acts 7:2, Rom. 4:16-18). But God made him "the father of a multitude of nations" (Gen. 17:4-5, RSV) only because he obeyed, with a heroic act of faith, the divine command to sacrifice his son Isaac, through whom God's covenant would be established (see Gen. 17:19, 21). Now the promised child Isaac is a type of Christ (as shown by Gen. 22:1-10 and Heb. 11:17-19). Thus, Abraham, in his willingness to physically immolate Isaac on a pile of wood carried up the mount by Isaac himself, made a mystical oblation of Jesus Christ on the Cross on Mount Calvary. In spiritually offering up his sole son of the covenant, Abraham represented God the Father, thereby acting symbolically as a supreme high priest himself. Consequently, there is a strong (even coextensive) relationship between priesthood and fatherhood.
Another Old Testament account lending much credence to an all-male priesthood is the tale of Micah and the Levite in Judges 17:7-13. This text narrates the search of a young Levitical tribesman from Bethlehem (literally meaning "the house of bread") for another residence. During his journey he met a layman named Micah who offered to take him into his home like a son, providing him with food, clothing, and a stipend 151; all in exchange for spiritual service. Micah implored the young man (in Judg. 17:10, RSV): "Stay with me, and be to me a father and a priest." The paradoxical thing here is that the foster father pleaded that his adopted son also be his "father"! The hermeneutical clue to comprehending this seemingly odd reversal of relationships resides in the role of priest. Micah realized that the Levite's religious function elevated him to the rank of spiritual fatherhood, notwithstanding the disparity in the chronological ages between the two men. A later episode centering on this young Levite is recorded, in which he finally agrees (under pressure from a delegation of intruders) to leave Micah's house and function as "father and priest" for "a tribe and family in Israel" at a different locale (see Judges 18:1-27, esp. v. 19, RSV). The main lesson here is that the priesthood is being intimately linked with fatherhood and hence masculinity.
Nevertheless, we may consider some auxiliary points. The young man, though descended from the tribe of Levi, had been staying in a town of the tribe of Judah: namely Bethlehem, "the city of David" (Luke 2:4, 11; see also 1 Sam. 16:1, 4). Yet he emigrated from there, only to receive an invitation to priestly service elsewhere for other tribes of Israel. His departure and later spiritual exaltation can be construed as an allegory of Christ's universal redemptive mission, since these events recall the prophecy in Micah 5:2, RSV, and Matthew 2:4-6, RSV: "But you, O Bethlehem-Ephrathah, who are little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days." (See also 2 Sam. 5:2, Isa. 49:6, John 7:42.) This young man appears to be a sort of transitional type-figure. While still a descendant of the Levitical line of priests, he mystically shares in and foreshadows to some extent the Eucharistic priesthood of Jesus Christ, the "Son of David", born in Bethlehem (see Matt. 1:1; Mark 11:10; Luke 20:41-44), which is thus the original terrestrial dwelling of the "Heavenly Bread of Life" (see John 6:35, 51, 58).
Another element to emphasize within the Micah-Levite story is the very designation "father" granted to a priest. This title has been Catholic tradition for all priests especially the pope ("Papa"), who is fondly addressed as the "Holy Father." At any rate, the priesthood is intimately entwined with the symbolism of fatherhood, which can be represented (and hence sacramentally enshrined) only via maleness.11
Finally, in Titus 1:6, NAB, St. Paul instructs: "[A] presbyter must be irreproachable, married only once, the father of children who are believers . . . " The logic of this sentence is hypothetical: If a priest is married with children, then that priest is a father, hence a man. So St. Paul implicitly rules out women as priests. In light of this verse, it is impossible to entertain the idea that the early Church permitted female priests.
The Feet-Washing Argument
This is an intriguing and sophisticated argument. On account of its complicated subtlety, though, some background is needed. I beg the reader's patience with what might seem at the outset an aimless digression. Loose strings will be tied up at the end.
1 Samuel 11 recounts how King David contrived a scheme (encompassing a second plot after his first plan failed) to cover up his adulterous guilt for the pregnancy of Bathsheba. Unfortunately for David, her husband Uriah had been at battle away from his wife. David could not afford to let more time pass out of fear lest his deed be discovered. Upon learning that Bathsheba was with child, he hastened to recall Uriah home. Desperately scrambling to escape blame in the hope that Bathsheba's condition would be attributed to her husband, he told Uriah: "Go down to your house, and wash your feet" (1 Sam. 11:8, RSV). Now this was a Hebraic circumlocution, which Uriah well understood. For in later explaining to the King why he could not accede to David's request, Uriah replied that he did not think it right to "go to my house, to eat and to drink, and to lie with my wife" (1 Sam. 11:11, RSV). Hence, "wash your feet" (spoken to a man, at least) was a euphemism for advising engagement in conjugal intercourse. We may speculate that this decorous phrase probably arose as a synecdoche, intended to include purifying the remainder of the legs in preparation for marital coitus.
This episode is hardly the only place in the Bible where feet-washing is linked with masculine procreative activity. Another instance occurs in Genesis 18:1-10, where the Lord appeared to Abraham in the form of three male guests (perhaps, therefore, a Trinitarian theophany). In verse 4 Abraham offered them water to wash their feet. In verse 10 the triumvirate predicted that Abraham's wife Sarah would bear a son within a year. Thus, God performed a miracle by causing an evidently sterile couple to beget and conceive. Consequently, this famous passage associates divine power to create human life with washing of the feet in this case the metaphorical "feet" of the Lord (visibly represented by the three men).
A few other passages exemplify this theme revolving around male generation of offspring in relation to feet-washing. Two of these feet-washing incidents concern this theme in a negative way: namely, Genesis 19:2 (in the context of an angelic visitation to punish the citizens for perversion of the male procreative faculty) and Judges 19:21 (also connected with a gruesome sequel to the corruption of male sexuality).
But the remaining stories are positive. For instance, the feet-washing in Genesis 24:32 occurs in the context of procuring a wife for Isaac.
Particularly interesting is Genesis 43:24, a feet-washing verse that appears in the context of the poignant reunion of Joseph and his brother Benjamin. In order to bargain further with Joseph for relief from the famine gripping the Middle East, his half-brothers had to bow to Joseph's demand that they leave Simeon behind as a hostage and return with Benjamin a kind of offering to Joseph in exchange for grain. Jacob was understandably disconsolate over the threat of the loss of his youngest son, after (so he thought) irretrievably losing his son Joseph. But in order to redeem Simeon and save his family from starvation, Jacob felt compelled to sacrifice Benjamin, the last male offspring of his union with his wife Rachel. Yet, in the end, everyone benefited from the gift of a renewed lease on life through Joseph's generous deeds as "lord" and "father" (Gen. 45:8).
Other texts explicitly connect feet-washing with priestly service a ministry of spiritual regeneration. A notable passage wherein the Lord prescribes this washing for Aaron and his descendants before they could officiate at worship ceremonies is Exodus 30:17-21 (see also Exod. 40:30-32 and Leviticus 8:6). In Joshua 3:13-17; 4:3, 9, 18, we read that the ark-bearing Levitical priests, whose feet merely step into the Jordan River, are endowed with divine power to divert the flow of the water thereby ensuring both the immediate physical safety and ultimately the spiritual life of the Israelites in their promised land. In addition, this narrative prefigures the dominion over the supernaturally vitalizing waters of Baptism exercised by the New Testament priesthood.
Two Old Testament passages, while not referring to foot lavation, nevertheless associate the feet with spiritual generativity or fruitfulness: in fact, these texts contain prophecies of the coming Redeemer. In Genesis 49:10, RSV, Jacob (on his deathbed) foretells the advent of the sovereign ruler who will inherit the "scepter" or the "staff" that will not depart "from between the feet" of Judah. The use of "feet" here undoubtedly constitutes a euphemistic transference from the center of the procreative faculty (indeed, the NAB renders "feet" as "legs" and the D-R as "thigh"). Isaiah 52:7 portrays the expected Savior arriving "upon the mountains" with "beautiful feet," because he brings glad tidings announcing the reign of God and the way to salvation.12
Let us keep firmly in mind the entire Old Testament backdrop delineated above. The diverse texts examined are united in a pervasive motif that irrefutably juxtaposes feet-washing with male generative power. In light of these historical precedents, we can understand the culminating, profound significance of our Lord's washing of the Apostles' feet during the Last Supper on Holy Thursday a scene depicted in John 13:2-15. Since at this Passover meal Jesus first authorized his Apostles to confect the Sacrament of his Body and Blood, telling them to "do this in remembrance" of him (Luke 22:19 and 1 Cor. 11:24-25, RSV), we conclude that the washing of their feet was a fulfillment of Old Testament symbolism relating this cleansing ritual to masculine begetting of life in marriage. Of course, in this case it is a spiritual (rather than a biological) fecundity that supernaturally channels the life-giving grace of Christ into souls through the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.13 The washing of their feet by the Head of the Church was thus a preparatory purification for their assimilation into his eternal priesthood a protracted ordination ceremony that began on Holy Thursday night and ended on the evening of Easter Sunday, when our Lord empowered his Apostles to forgive sins (see John 20:21-23). His washing of their feet can, by the same token, be viewed as a pre-nuptial purification for their wedding to the Church, the Bride of Christ (see Rev. 21:2 and Eph. 5:22-33) consecrating each of them as a groom acting in the Person of Christ. A woman could not, of course, play this role without conjuring baneful lesbian symbolism. The upshot of Christ's handling of the crucial Old Testament typology is that his hierarchical priesthood is restricted to men.
Some people (notably adherents of women's studies programs) seem hostile toward those who would dare adduce apologetical arguments attempting to vindicate Catholic dogma about the kind of human subjects constituting valid "matter" for priestly ordination. Their resentment can sometimes appear to be fueled by the belief that discrimination (which simply means the recognition of differences) is always invidious and malevolent, hence illegitimate and oppressive. But this unproved assumption seems in turn to stem from a tacit identification of personal worth with executive power as though all those deemed equally valuable as human persons must be accorded the same roles of public service and governance (whether sociopolitical or ecclesiastical). The inference is drawn that the exclusion of some people from what is perceived as a domain of prestigious power is tantamount to a marginalizing devaluation of them, and thus perpetrates a degrading injustice toward them. The fact that this thinking is not acknowledged as erroneous betrays, not only a failure of logical analysis, but also (and perhaps even worse) a subjectivist denial of the intrinsic natures of things. For the reality of objective differences implies that not everything is equivalent to everything else in the ability to display specific symbolic features. Matter really matters!
Just as men should not feel slighted on account of their utter inability to experience childbirth and its bonding ramifications, so also women ought not feel demeaned because they are a priori deprived of the opportunity to be ordinary celebrants of the sacraments (with the single exception of Matrimony). Those tempted to confuse personal standing with external control should contemplate the model of the Holy Family. There St. Joseph, as earthly head of this royal household, had divinely mandated charge over the immediate destinies of both Jesus Christ and his Mother Mary (see Matt. 2:13-15, 19-22). Yet the esteemed patriarch, with all his natural and supernatural greatness, was infinitely inferior in the order of nature and grace to his foster Son, the Lord of nature and Author of grace. And, though equal to his spouse in the possession of human dignity, in the order of grace St. Joseph was beneath our sublimely Blessed Lady who, despite her fullness of grace, was never a suitable candidate for priestly ordination.
Dr. David P. Lang holds degrees in both philosophy and mathematics. His book, Why Matter Matters: Philosophical and Scriptural Reflections on the Sacraments, is available from Our Sunday Visitor Press. His last article in HPR appeared in October 2001.
1 In 1976, through the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Pope Paul VI issued Inter Insigniores, which proclaims the impossibility of female ordination to the priesthood. The 1983 Code of Canon Law, can. 1024, asserts unequivocally: "Only a baptized man can validly receive sacred ordination." The Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1577, makes basically the same statement.
2 See David P. Lang, "The Gnostic Resurgence: Why Matter Matters," Homiletic and Pastoral Review (October 2001), pp. 44-47. See also Chapter 5 of my book Why Matter Matters: Philosophical and Scriptural Reflections on the Sacraments (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 2002).
3 As I noted in my previous article (although I should have documented the source more precisely), I credit the tenor of this philosophical argument based on biological symbolism (which I find very cogent) to Louis Bouyer, Woman in the Church (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1979).
4 Instead of the verb "create" in the D-R (following the Vulgate), the NAB and RSV render the Hebrew word as "give birth". But the latter translation is inconsistent with other passages where "form" is used (e.g., Psalm 90:2, RSV). Moreover, the KJV also uses "form."
5 See Mark P. Shea, "Ordination Is Not a Right," This Rock (May-June 2001), pp. 22-23.
6 For more details vindicating the sacramental substances water, wheat bread, grape wine, and olive oil, see Chapters 1-4 Why Matter Matters.
7 See also Col. 1:15-16; Gen. 2:22-23; 3:16-19; 1 Cor. 11:3, 8-9.
8 I am indebted to my apologist friend David L. Vise for the gist of these three arguments. I use the following abbreviations of Scriptural translations: RSV for the Revised Standard Version (Catholic Edition), NAB for the 1970 New American Bible (Saint Joseph Edition), and D-R for the Douay-Rheims translation (Challoner revision).
9 See Catechism of the Catholic Church, nn. 115-119,128-130.
10 In his 1988 Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem, Pope John Paul II wrote that "Christ acted in a completely free and sovereign manner" when choosing men for his Apostles.
11 In Isaiah 22:20-24 (foreshadowing the reign of Jesus in Revelation 3:7), a kind of priestly authority is invested in Eliakim, who is designated as a "father." Both texts suggest the papal office of Vicar of Christ instituted by our Lord in Matthew 16:19.
12 See also Exod. 4:25.
13 See Matt. 19:10
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