On Wednesday, October 17, I had the pleasure of visiting the third grade at St. Austin School. The same day, Fr René Constanza visited the first grade. I had gone there to speak about the Rosary (October being the month of the Rosary) and enjoyed it very much. What surprised me was that when I asked if there were any questions, one young lady in the class asked me why girls cannot become priests. Surprisingly, on the same day Fr. René received the same question from a girl in the first grade class.
This, in my humble opinion, shows how sharp and intelligent our St. Austin students are. They are interested in the Church and the larger world around them. That is a good thing. They also are willing to ask questions and that is a very good thing.
Now I attempted to answer the third-grader by explaining that Jesus was very open to engaging women, like the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well in John’s Gospel, Chapter 4, and treated women respectfully (like with Martha and Mary in Luke 10:38ff) and even had women followers. (See MT 27:55-56. The women who looked on at Jesus’ crucifixion had followed Him all the way from Galilee and had been providing for Him.) Yet, in spite of Jesus’ surprising openness to and acceptance of women, Jesus never called any women to be Apostles. The teaching of the Church interprets this as an indication of Jesus’ intention that only males be ordained priests, making it impossible for the Church to ordain women. Since the Church is usually not reticent to claim powers and privileges for itself, when the Church does claim its inability to do something then I am especially prone to notice. In the case of the ordination of women the Church professes its complete lack of ability to do so. That is worth paying attention to.
Fr. René, more recently from the seminary and much more up-to-date on all things theological than myself, took a different tack in answering the first-grader’s question, arguing that since the priest represents Christ, the priest is a type of icon of Christ the High Priest, and since Jesus was a male, a male priest better represents Christ, and hence all priests are males. No doubt he expressed it much more cogently than I have. Now I know this is an argument often advanced by our Orthodox brothers, who are also opposed to the ordination of women. There are no women Orthodox priests, and the two oldest branches of Christianity are both firm on not ordaining women. Nonetheless, I find the icon argument less than convincing. When a female delivery room nurse baptizes a newborn in danger of death we say that is a real Baptism. We also believe that in all the sacraments that Christ is active. So Christ in that case must act sacramentally through a woman and hence she represents Christ the Priest. Or so it seems to me.
While the teaching of the Church is not in question, and is perfectly clear that only men can be ordained priests (see Catechism of the Catholic Church #1577), what is not clear to many are the arguments supporting this position. Fortunately, we live in a society where gender equality is growing and even assumed. Therefore we need to be able to explain why it is that the practice of not ordaining women is not an arbitrary prohibition, but is more like the case of why a man cannot be a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader or why a woman cannot be a Dallas Cowboys linebacker. It is not prejudice, but rather simply they don’t have what it takes. Gender does, in some cases, make a difference. Mary could be the Mother of God (something no man could ever be), but yet could not be a priest.
Since people, even our little children, are asking about this, we owe it to them to find better arguments that are more compelling and satisfying. Pray for theologians and religious educators to frame more accessible answers.