Friday, April 1, 2011

Why a Male-only Priesthood?

A friend of mine had recently asked his friends how one explains why Christ instituted a male-only priesthood. Because of the emphasis our society puts on absolute equality- forgetting that equality in no way implies sameness –this question gets asked of Catholics quite a bit. As with non-Catholics not being able to receive Holy Communion, a woman not being able to become a priest is a sore spot for many people. Keep in mind, no matter what answer you provide, it is not likely to have an immediate effect on the inquirer. After all, if one subscribes to egalitarianism- the belief that men and women are not only equal but psychologically, sexually and spiritually the same –then this radical version of equality needs to be discredited before they accept the Christian version of equality.

In any case, there are three answers you can give. The first is quick and to the point; although true, it is not likely to win over many skeptics. The second answer better utilizes certain principles that are relevant in our entertainment culture. However, I consider this one to be more like an appetizer; hopefully it will lead to another explanation having more depth.

The third one requires that your listener has a long attention span. Most of the time simple answers are the way to go. But for this one, it really is worth it to chew on this explanation and let it settle. Americans, as Tocqueville once said, have an aversion to meditation and deep thoughts. They are more geared towards the practical doing. True enough. Still, I would press on with this third answer as to why Christ instituted a male-only priesthood. Challenge your audience- be it family, friend or co-worker –to think a little deeper and a little broader. I believe this to be the best answer once the other answers have been exhausted. It explains why C.S. Lewis could say: You can have your priestesses…but it will not be Christianity.

As I said, the first answer is quick and to the point: Christ instituted a male-only priesthood. The Catholic Church doesn’t have the authority to change it. And that's that! But this is a "...because I said so!" kind of an answer. It may be be true but it is not that satisfying to most. Invariably, you will get a response along the lines of: “Well, at the Last Supper, when the priesthood was officially instituted, only Jewish men were present. Why, then, did the Church go ahead and ordain Gentile men in subsequent decades?” I will leave it to you to explain why the ordination of Gentile men (non-Jewish men) and the ordination of women are apples and oranges. Perhaps the second answer will help.

The second answer: The Mass is rightly characterized as a prayer, the most perfect one on earth, which is directed to the Father through the Son and in the Holy Spirit. At the heart of this great liturgical prayer is a sacred act or play in which the sanctuary and altar is a kind of stage where the priest plays Jesus. That's right. The priest who presides at the Mass not only recites the words used at the Last Supper when Jesus said, “This is my body...” but he also acts out what Jesus did. Few think of the Eucharistic sacrifice as a play simply because it is often associated with entertainment. Nevertheless, by lifting the host and then the chalice the priest reenacts the part of our Lord at the Last Supper.

Now, even Hollywood can relate to this principle. If a movie were to portray the life of George Washington, for instance, who would doubt that a male actor would be chosen to play his part? True, what happens at the altar is more than just a play or a reenactment. Through the words of consecration the body, blood and soul of Jesus is communicated. Since his body is male in essence, it is only fitting that a male priest mediate the person of Jesus Christ. Indeed, in order to uphold the integrity of the play and the consecration of bread and wine, a male representative is required.

It would seem that the second answer to the question of why only men can be priests is a reasonable one. After all, Hollywood uses male actors to represent men in the story and the same goes from women. No one questions that policy. It would seem in the case of the Mass that requiring male priests to represent Jesus Christ, the Son of God, would apply even more considering the above stated reasons.

With that said, the second answer makes for a good segue into the third. If you think your listening audience can stomach it, then you might want to give the third answer a try...on the next blog.