OF JOHN PAUL II
TO THE BISHOPS
OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH
ON RESERVING PRIESTLY ORDINATION
TO MEN ALONE
Father Richard Kunst
In May of 1994, as a young seminarian, I was in Rome for my very first visit–the place I would come to love and visit nearly every year since because of my love of all things papal and because of my desire to share that love with others.
At the time of this Apostolic Exhortation, I just happened to be there when this binding announcement from Pope John Paul II was promulgated.
Married Clergy, Women’s Ordination Separate Issues
Father Richard Kunst
Once there was a priest who asked God when priests would be able to get married. God replied, “Not in your lifetime.” Then the priest asked God when women would be able to become priests, to which God answered, “Not in my lifetime.”
This is a humorous response to a serious question. It is common for the issues of women’s ordination and married clergy to be lumped together, but the issues are very different. One is a divine law, while the other is a human law (though guided by the Spirit). The issue of women’s ordination and the impossibility of it are what would be characterized as a divine law, which is not subject to change. The issue of married clergy will be discussed in a future apologetics column.
Pope John Paul the Great has said that the call to the priesthood is a free gift of God, and that no one has a right to it. John Paul says that in calling only men to be apostles, “Christ acted in a completely free and sovereign manner.”
Why is this important that Christ acted in a free and sovereign manner? Because there are those who believe that Jesus was bound by the social mores of his day, that women had little or no social standing in the ancient Jewish world, so Jesus could not possibly have chosen a woman to be an apostle. While it is true that women’s social standing was minimal, the argument is easily debunked by the calling of Matthew as an apostle.
Mathew was a tax collector. To the ancient Jew, that was the lowest form of human life. Tax collectors were not only traitors of the Jewish cause to the pagan Romans, they were also thieves because they would bilk the people out of their money by taking more from their fellow Jews than what the Romans required. The fact that Matthew was called to be an apostle illustrates that Jesus was not held captive to any of the cultural constraints of his day.
On the feast of Pentecost in 1994, Pope John Paul wrote an apostolic letter on the issue of reserving priestly ordination to men alone. In this short letter, he declared that all the faithful are to hold definitively that the church has absolutely no authority to confer priestly ordination on women. “I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and this judgement is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.” The document expresses that the role the priest plays in the church is in the place of Christ as the bridegroom’s relationship to his bride, the church.
All throughout the New Testament, Christ’s relationship to the church is couched in wedding imagery. Christ is the groom; the church is his bride.
At the consecration of the Mass, the priest speaks the words of Christ with reference to the sacrifice by which he offered his life for the church, his beloved bride. The Eucharist is the sacrament of the bridegroom and his bride. So the priest must represent Christ precisely in his capacity as the bridegroom of the church. In marriage, you cannot have two brides or two grooms; there is one bride and one groom. The church is the bride; Christ is the groom, so the priest is “in persona Christi,” in the person of Christ. There is only one priest and only one priesthood—the priesthood of Christ. Ordained priests are unique sharers in Christ’s priesthood.
Many people get bent out of shape by this teaching of Christ. They say that women are treated as second-class citizens. They are wrong. The priesthood, by its nature, is not a position of privilege or power. The nature of the priesthood is service to Christ and his people. Just as in the biological order, that there are different roles between male and female does not mean that one is better than the other. It does mean that they have different roles to play. So too in the spiritual order, that Christ has made clear through his church that only men can be called to the ordained priesthood in no way illustrates that men are better than women. Different roles do not imply one sex is better that the other. They are equal, but different.
All this being said, it is important to understand that the first requisite for ordination is a divinely inspired vocation. The vocation to the priesthood is the action of God, not man. The vocation to the priesthood is an action of God whereby he selects some to be his special ministers. “You did not choose me; it is I who have chosen you (John 15:16).
If the issue of ordained ministry being reserved for men alone is not acceptable to some people, then they are questioning the very nature of the church as the voice of Christ. Two thousand years of divinely inspired tradition has made clear that it is an impossibility for women to be ordained. Catholic Theology 101 tells us that the church is the mouthpiece of Christ. The scriptures have made clear, the pope has made clear and sacred tradition has made clear that this is an issue not subject to change.