By Father Robert A. Pesarchick
Second in a series that explains the priesthood during the Church’s Year of the Priest.
The 1983 Code of Canon Law in canon 1024 states that “only a baptized male can validly receive sacred ordination.” The canon is simply the legal expression of the uninterrupted tradition of the Church both in the East and the West. This tradition was reaffirmed by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith in its 1976 document Inter insigniores.
Again in the 1994 apostolic letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis Pope John Paul II reaffirmed the teaching and indicated that it must be definitively held by all the faithful, meaning that the teaching is not able to be changed: “that all doubt be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s spanine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (Lk. 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.”
This means that the teaching pertains to the deposit of faith and that the teaching requires the “definitive assent” of all the faithful. What the Pope has done in the letter is to make a formal declaration that the doctrine has been definitively taught by the “ordinary and universal Magisterium” of the Church.
The subject of the sacrament of orders must have the requisite conditions in order to be capable of receiving validly the sacrament; for example, the subject must be male and baptized. These two conditions on the level of validity make the subject a suitable instrument who can receive the sacrament of holy orders configuring him to Christ, the Head of the Church, enabling the recipient to act in the person of Christ.
The tradition and teaching that only baptized males can validly be the subject of the sacrament of holy orders is based on the conviction of the Church that this was the will of Christ and the Apostles so that this enters into the determination of the “substance of the sacrament” over which the Church has no power. Despite the various arguments for and against admission of women to the priesthood the Catholic Church has always held that it has no power to admit women to orders.
The reason is simple: the Church is convinced that this is the expressed will of Christ and the practice of the Apostles in obedience to His will for the ministerial priesthood that represents Him and acts in His person in sacramental actions. The logic is as follows:
The Church in confecting the sacraments does not proceed by her own initiative but by the initiative of Christ who established the sacraments. The power to link the conferral of sacramental grace to a particular sign that signifies that grace lies with Christ alone. It is he who determined the substance of the sacraments and in some cases this includes the basic sacramental sign and the material that comprises this sign. This is the constant teaching of the Church as solemnly affirmed at the Council of Trent [DS 1728] and reaffirmed in the 1947 document Sacramentum ordinis [DS 3857].
The Apostles and those who share in the Apostolic ministry represent Christ in the sense of being the sacramental sign of His Incarnate person. They act in person of Christ, Head and Spouse of the Church. They represent Him, Head and Spouse, to His Church, His Body and Bride. The natural symbolism of maleness provides the sacramental likeness between the priest and the male Christ who makes Himself sacramentally present through the ministerial priesthood.
In the sacraments there must be a natural resemblance between sacramental sign and what it signifies and this applies to things and persons. If the minister who represents Christ in the celebration of the Eucharist were not male this natural resemblance would not exist. For Christ was and remains a man.
In certain sacramental actions, (e.g. the celebration of the Eucharist) when the priest acts “in the person of Christ the Head,” the symbolic correspondence of gender to the male Christ as well as the priest’s sacramental ordination (the sacramental character conferred) are both required for the sacramental symbolization and representation of Christ the Head and Spouse of the Church.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church no. 1577 summarizes the Church’s teaching: “the Lord Jesus chose men to form the college of the 12 Apostles and the Apostles did the same when they chose collaborators to succeed them in their ministry … The Church recognizes herself to be bound by this choice made by the Lord himself. For this reason the ordination of women is not possible.”
Father Robert Pesarchick is the Academic Dean of the Theology spanision at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.