There is a question that still seems to be unsettled in the minds of many ordinary Catholics. It is a question that comes up when people positively assess our new Holy Father but think he still does not go far enough. The question: Why can’t women be Priests?
Many of the responses given to this question seem, in the end, to fall back solely upon authority. Pope Paul VI said that respect for the modern mind requires more than this.
In order to shed light on the questions of the present, Blessed John Paul II often led us back to the beginnings, to reflect on God’s creation of man and woman before the fall. It is incontestable that both man and woman were created in the image and likeness of God. Both are equal in dignity because of this. But this does not make them the same in every other respect. They are two different expressions of the human person, created to live in unity with one another, via a complementarity that assists them to reflect in some respect, the inner life of the Persons of the Trinity.
Further, Blessed Pope John Paul the Great said, in one of his many engaging teachings on man and woman, that the closer a person comes to God the more they become either mother or father. This is because God is Father. And both human motherhood and human fatherhood are reflections of God’s Fatherhood which is divine.
So women are meant to be mothers and men fathers. But there is a deep understanding required here. All men and all women are meant to be mothers and fathers, regardless of whether they are married, single, religious or ordained.
This means that a woman is not a mother simply because she has born a child or has a body capable of bearing children. She is called to be a mother because in her spirit she is maternal, and the physical realities of her body simply correspond to the deeper spiritual principle of her being. Likewise, men are not called to be fathers simply because they have bodies capable of begetting children. They are called to be fathers because in their spirits they are paternal. Their bodies too simply manifest the deeper spiritual principles of their being.
We know that the Church is a family, God’s family. Mothers and fathers are the essential elements for any family regardless of what the world says in its attempts to redefine family. Unless the paternal meets the maternal, life cannot be conceived, born, nor can it be nurtured to maturity. This is true in both the natural order and in the spiritual order as well.
In the Church, this distinction is sometimes referred to as the Petrine and Marian dimensions. St. Peter, the Pope, Bishops, Priests are called to be spiritual fathers to the whole people of God, and therefore need to be men. But mothers are also essential to this order and Mary, religious and all women, fill this role. In fact, the Church herself is called mother. It is why the Church has been stressing the importance of women so much, speaking about the feminine genius and the need for a greater presence of women and their gifts in the Church and in the world. It is the dimension that has not been understood or appreciated as well as it needs to be.
Paul Evdokimov, a famous Russian Orthodox theologian who was an official observer at Vatican II, said that without woman God cannot be born into the world. In the Incarnation, Jesus takes His flesh from the body of a woman. God establishes His link with humanity through maternity. This is a divine order that has not changed. JPII pointed out that because of the mystery of the Incarnation, Jesus links Himself with every human being who comes into the world. And in the order intended by God, that is through the body of a woman.
We know that the Priest brings Jesus to us in the Eucharist and in the sacraments. Yet if God calls us even before we are born (see Jeremiah) then there would be no Priests without women who give birth to them in the first place, and nurture the life of God within them.
The life of grace received from Priests in the sacraments also often needs this maternal care. A close friend confessed that before her conversion she was caught in an adulterous relationship she could not break. She knew it was wrong and took it to Confession a number of times. But within a week she was always back in the relationship. She finally got a Priest in Confession who told her she needed to find someone to walk her through it, someone she could call and talk to everytime she was tempted to go back. She befriended a religious woman, opened up to her, and after some time, was able to completely break things off. What was going on? She received grace in the sacrament but it was like a seed that needed nurturing and strengthening in her soul. Once it was rooted and grew, through contact with her friend, she became strong enough to withstand the temptations. That is the maternal charism in action. Hidden perhaps, but essential to both our natural and spiritual lives.
On one occasion I was challenged by a group of seventh grade girls on this issue of women in the priesthood. When the reality of the Church as the family of God was explained, and when the need for mothers and fathers was spoken about, there was no further argument. Too many of them came from single-parent families where they would’ve given anything to have had a mother and a father. They didn’t want their mother to be their father or their father to be their mother even though a mother can do many things a father can, and vica versa. They wanted a family with both. And they knew experientially and sadly that without both, something fundamental in their lives was missing.
In a beautiful passage, Blessed John Paul II says, “Mary was not called to the ministerial priesthood, but the mission she received had no less value than a pastoral ministry. Indeed it was quite superior. She received a maternal mission at the highest level, to be the mother of Jesus Christ and thus Theotokos the mother of God. This mission would broaden into motherhood for all men and women in the order of grace, and the same can be said of the mission of motherhood that women accept in the Church. They are placed by Christ in the wondrous light of Mary which shines at the summits of the Church and creation.”
We must have ultimate respect for the dignity of the ministerial Priesthood. But if women truly understood the magnificence and greatness of their own calling, and the urgent need which the world has for their gifts, they would not be interested in trading it for a false equality.
Sr. Anne Marie Walsh, SOLT