I've been asked this question a number of times, and every time I try to get out of answering it. The one thing I do say is that it is not simply a tradition (small 't') that women can't be priests, such as priestly celibacy in the Roman Rite, but a part of Sacred Tradition (capital 'T'), that is, a doctrine. The difference between these two very controversial topics is a matter of orthodoxy. To be an orthodox Catholic, you must accept the fact that women cannot be priests without protest. You can, however, remain completely orthodox and judge that mandatory priestly celibacy as wrong; although you must comply with the Church's present ruling in this regard. It is possible, although highly unlikely, that the rules can be changed in the Roman Rite to be like they are in some of the other rites, and accept married men to the priesthood. However, it is, and always will be, impossible for a woman to become a priest in the Catholic Church. Proving this is easy, but explaining why much more difficult. I may need more than five minutes this week.
Before we take a look at why women can't be priests, let's take a look at two of the reasons why female priests should be allowed (I wanted to list three, but I could only think of two):
- Women have the right to the same opportunities as men.
- Some women have the necessary gifts and talents for the priesthood, and they shouldn't go to waste.
Women do have the right to the same opportunities as men, but the priesthood is not an opportunity that anyone has the right to. First of all, it shouldn't be viewed as an opportunity or a right, but as a calling from God. If God calls someone to the priesthood, it is a gift to that person, which can be refused, or accepted. It is only accepted by returning it to God, who can then distribute it to the entire Christian community. This is much like the calling of Mary. No one has the right to the priesthood, just as Mary didn't have the right to be the Mother of God. It is a gift that gifts humanity.
But what if a woman has a calling to the priesthood? It is true that many women have the necessary gifts and talents for the priesthood, but this doesn't mean they are called by God to be priests. The gifts, talents, and even the desire are not enough to be a priest. There are many men in the same situation. They have what appears to others as a call to the priesthood, but God may not have called them to be priests. The first example that comes to my mind is St. Francis of Assisi. He definitely had all of the attributes for the making of a great priest, but it was very clear to him that God had not called him to the priesthood. The priesthood is not the only way to use these gifts and talents, so there's no reason why they should go to waste. Women that have the necessary attributes of a priest are called to ministry, just not the priesthood. The only reason a person should become a priest, is because God calls him to be a priest; and since women can't be priests, God doesn't call them to the priesthood.
There are a number of official Church documents that state this, but none are as strong as John Paul the Great's apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis. The main point of this letter is summed up in this one paragraph:
Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church's divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful.
To back the pope up on this, Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, and the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith stated that the teaching of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis "has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium." Note that the word infallible is used.
This was the easy part. It is very clear the women can't be priests, but it's not so clear as to why.
The first thing we have to recall is that Jesus didn't call any women to be apostles. In His day, He was very radical in His accepting of women into His inner circle. Nothing prevented Him from calling these women to the apostolate, but He didn't.
The Twelve Apostles were also the first twelve priests. The institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper was also the institution of the priesthood. In fact, these two sacraments are so closely intertwined, that it is because of the Eucharist that only men can be priests. It is the biological differences between men and women that prevent women from presiding at the Mass.
In sexual intercourse, men give, and women receive. This biological fact is God's revelation, the first Bible if you will, of His, specifically Christ's, relationship with the Church. In dying on the cross, Christ shed His Blood for the Church, and in the sacrifice of the Mass, this same shedding of blood is renewed. Christ physically gives His Blood, under the appearance of wine, to the Church, and she physically receives It by swallowing and ingesting It.
The very essence of man, and I use the word man inclusively here, is his sexuality. This sexual essence is how God reveals Himself to man. This is why Christ is the Son, and not the Daughter.
A priest is another christ (note the small 'c'). When a priest says the words of consecration, "THIS IS THE CUP OF MY BLOOD," he does so in persona Christi (in the person of Christ). In the person of Christ, the priest gives His Body and Blood to the Church, and she receives It. Note that the word His in the last sentence is intentionally ambiguous. The Body and Blood is Christ's, and it is the priest's, who is in persona Christi at that moment.
This last paragraph must be read very carefully. You must note what letters are capitalised and what letters are lower case, and even at that, it is very confusing. I must make it very clear that a priest is NOT "the Christ," but "a christ." As well, it is the Christ's Body and Blood in the Eucharist, not the priest's body and blood. At the time of consecration, the priest is not himself, but in persona Christi.
To be in persona Christi, a priest must biologically be able to give. A woman can only biologically receive; therefore she cannot be a priest.
This is more than simply symbolic, just as the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist is more than simply symbolic. This is also why marriage is a sacrament. As John Paul the Great said, this is "a matter which pertains to the Church's divine constitution itself."
If we ignore the fact that the ordination of a woman would be invalid, and imagine that a woman were to preside at a Mass, this Mass would no longer be a sacramental marriage, but an immoral act of lesbianism.