Why Can Only Men Be Catholic Priests?

Priest Ordination

The male only priesthood is a common critique of the Catholic Church, but I’d like to show you that the Church’s position on this is as charitable as it could be.

First off, like all things, we need to look into the purpose of the priesthood. What is it for? Where do priests get their authority? In Israel, there was a tradition of priesthood (for what it’s worth, almost all ancient civilizations had some sort of priesthood): the entire Levite tribe were priests, offering sacrifices of animals to atone for Israel’s sins. They also proclaimed the Word of God and gathered the community in prayer. Israel was actually unique in that only men were priests, while other contemporary pagan religions had female priests, too. Jewish priests could get married and have families. But nearly everything changed when Jesus came along. Jesus was a celibate man and He is our eternal high priest, in the line of Melchizedek (1 Timothy 2:5, Hebrews 5:10). Only God Himself could offer a perfect sacrifice in order to give us the grace of the possibility of redemption, which He did at Calvary. So you might ask what role do priests play nowadays? St. Thomas Aquinas said, “Only Christ is the true priest, the others being only his ministers.” So though priests today offer a sacrifice, it is in the place of Jesus, with Jesus doing the actual sacrifice- a re-presentation of the sacrifice on Calvary. (Note: not a re-sacrifice, but a re-presentation of the one eternal sacrifice) This sacrifice is keeping the command of Jesus to the Apostles at the Last Supper:

And when the hour came, he sat at table, and the apostles with him. And he said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you I shall not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God. And he took a chalice, and when he had given thanks he said, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves; for I tell you that from now on I shall not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” And he took the bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the chalice after supper, saying, “This chalice which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” – Luke 22:14-20

Though that passage was a bit long, if you have never read or heard of it, I’m sure that it will be helpful. Anyways, we see that Jesus tells the Apostles to celebrate this Eucharist (which means thanksgiving, it is the “breaking bread” part of the mass) themselves. These Apostles would become the first bishops of the Church, and they continued just as Jesus said,

“They held steadfastly to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers.” – Acts 2:42

You can also see evidence of the mass in the early Church in Acts 2:46, Acts 20:7, Acts 20:11, 1 Cor 10:16-17, and 1 Cor 11:23-26.

So we see that the priesthood is important, and that mass should be celebrated even every day from these readings. One distinction that I should make is that Jesus gave the authority of the priesthood to the Apostles, who were bishops. Bishops have the fullness of the priesthood of Jesus, while priests don’t. Priests do not normally celebrate the sacrament of confirmation, for example. Priests only have the authority to celebrate mass because their local bishop has given them that authority.

Is the priesthood a political position? Nope, this is religion not politics. Sure, priests and especially bishops have more “power” than the laity, but again, this is because of Jesus’ will. The priesthood is primarily a sacramental/theological position in order to guide the Church, of course. Like all power, the perfect use of it is in service, not selfishness. This is the example that Jesus Himself gave,

“He who is greatest among you shall be your servant; whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” – Matthew 23:11-12

So why are Catholic bishops and priests only men? Jesus picked 12 men to be His Apostles and first priests. Jesus instituted the sacrament of holy orders. Therefore even if the Church wanted to ordain women, the Church only has the authority that Jesus gave Her.

Therefore, our issue is not with the Church but with Jesus. Why wouldn’t He pick a few women? Some people say that Jesus was limited by the social norms of His time. No, He wasn’t: He is God, and God is never limited. He broke plenty of other social norms: Jesus not only talked to non-Jews (gasp!), but he talked to women too (WHAT?!). He freakin started His own religion, for crying out loud. I’m pretty sure He wasn’t limited by the social norms of the time.

Another great case for why Jesus didn’t want women to be priests was that He passed over the single most perfect fully human person ever when He chose His inaugural priest team: the Blessed Virgin Mary. Let’s look at her resume… virgin, not too young or old, immaculately conceived, sinless, oh yea, and the MOTHER OF GOD. If Jesus wanted to ordain a woman, this was the perfect situation. No other human being will ever be more qualified than the Blessed Virgin Mary to be a priest. And He passed on her.

Why are priests celibate? Actually, not all priests are. Many Eastern Catholic priests can be married, and certain protestant priests or ministers that are already married and convert to Catholicism are allowed to be ordained and still be married. But Roman (the distinction is the rite) Catholic priests are celibate because Jesus was celibate. This allows them to focus more on their parish or community.

Maybe the final point to highlight is that priests act in the place of Jesus when exercising their ministry. The fancy Latin phrase for this is In persona Christi, or in the person of Christ. Because of this, it is only fitting that only fulfill this role, since Jesus was a dude too.

In conclusion, the priesthood is not a political position. Yes, priests and especially bishops have authority in their parish or diocese, but it is mainly theological authority. The priesthood was instituted by Jesus in order to celebrate the mass. Jesus chose only men, and so bishops can only ordain men. This also follows the tradition of the Jewish priesthood. Roman Catholic Priests (not all Catholic priests from different rites do this) are celibate because Jesus was celibate and it allows them to give more for their parish or community.

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2 thoughts on “Why Can Only Men Be Catholic Priests?

  1. Greatest rationalizing I’ve heard in a long time. We are all children of God and deserve the same opportunity to spread his word of love and forgiviness whether male or female in the same manner. Men of the cloth have become the same as politicians and twist and bend things to their wishes.

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