Swimming the Tiber 20: The Sacraments: Holy Orders

About three months ago, I talked about the priesthood of believers. A month after that, I talked about how virginity is a virtue. I’ve also talked a few times about how Catholic priests operate in persona Christi, “in the person of Christ.”

All of this works into my examination of the sacrament of Holy Orders. Ordination is not, in and of itself, particularly controversial; almost all Protestant denominations refer to the process of naming someone a pastor as “ordination,” in no small part because it’s Scriptural (Luke 6:12-13; Acts 6:2-6; 13:2-3; 14:23; 1 Timothy 2:7; 4:14; Titus 1:5-9). Technically, the term refers to the appointment of someone to a particular office or responsibility, and so it also appears elsewhere in Scripture in that context.

Controversy comes from two places primarily. First, many Protestants are offended at the requirement of celibacy for Catholic priests, and second, many groups altogether are offended at the requirement of masculinity. These are not similar objections, for the requirement of celibacy is mutable (it is a discipline, not a doctrine), and the requirement of being male is not.

For the question of celibacy, this really should be a non-issue. Recall that virginity is a virtue, which St. Paul recommended and the Church has always admired throughout history. Second, this discipline is not set in stone. It is the way things are currently done in the Roman rite of the Church, but Eastern Catholics (and Eastern Orthodox priests) are allowed to be married before becoming ordained. Similarly, if you are a Lutheran minister or Anglican priest and are married, and you convert to Catholicism, you may be allowed to become a Catholic priest and remain married. Likewise, widowers are not prevented from becoming priests. Marriage and the priesthood are not mutually exclusive states by essential doctrine, but merely in practice.

Nevertheless, it is the practice at the current time. I think anyone seeking to change that practice would have a difficult go of it–but certainly they would have a much easier time than those opposing my next point.

Being in favor of “women’s ordination” is a fairly popular position these days. I recently watched a sermon on the subject, in fact, which outlined the “major objections” to the practice and then refuted them. Each and every argument the teacher opposed was about putting women in positions of authority, and I agreed with almost everything he said (some of his exegesis was bad, but that happens sometimes). That’s because I have nothing against putting qualified women in positions of authority, but Catholic priesthood is so much more than a position of authority.

For example, if a woman obtains the proper education, I have no objection if they teach in a seminary. I have no objection if they lead a Bible study. I have no objections, likewise, if a woman of appropriate disposition works as an administrator or counselor or in any other position in which pastors find themselves. In short, assuming basic qualifications, I have nothing against women as Protestant ministers, and as much as any man, women participate in the priesthood of believers.

But a woman cannot be the vicar of Christ.

It’s not about qualifications or education or disposition. It’s about nature. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was born as a man. (Recall that priests act in persona Christi. Maleness is essential to this function.) The essential functions of the priesthood – the conveyance of the sacraments being the prime example – are reserved to men in the New Testament (to the Twelve especially, and by them to other men); only men are told by Christ or his apostles to forgive sins (John 20:22-23), to anoint the sick (Matthew 10:5-8; James 5:14-15), to baptize (Matthew 28:16-20), to share the Eucharist (Luke 22:19-20), and to ordain (Acts 1:12-26; note especially St. Peter’s requirement that the replacement be a man in verse 21).

“But,” some will say, “it’s unfair for men to be given this advantage of power over women! We should all be equal!”

Or perhaps you do not use these words, but you have some gut feeling that there is inequality here, because priests have authority which women do not have. Let us take a moment to see the advantage of power given to men in this office.

First, they must attain to a higher standard than the rest of us:

Many [of you], do not become teachers, my brothers, knowing that [we] will receive a larger judgment.

– James 3:1 (my translation)
(see also Ephesians 4:11-16; Titus 1:5-9; 2:7-8; 2 Timothy 2:14-26)

In this, they must especially be humble, not seeking power, but seeking only to serve:

When therefore [he] washed their feet {and} [he] took his clothes and [he] reclined again, [he] said to them, “Do [you] know what [I] have done to you? You call me ‘the teacher’ and ‘the lord,’ and [you] speak beautifully, for [I] am. If, therefore, I have washed your feet as the lord and the teacher, then also you are bound to wash the feet of others; for [I] have given a sign to you in order that, just as I did to you, you may also do. Amen, amen, [I] say to you, a slave is not greater than his lord nor [is] an apostle greater than the [one] having sent him. If [you] know these [things], [you] are blessed if [you] do them. [I] speak not about all of you; I know whom [I] chose; but [it is thus] in order that the writing may be fulfilled, ‘The [one] eating my breadsome manuscripts: bread with me; others: my bread with me lifted up his heel against me.’ From now on [I] say to you before the happening, in order that [you] may believe when [it] happens that I am. Amen, amen, [I] say to you, the [one] receiving whomever [I] send receives me, but the [one] receiving me receives the [one] having sent me.

– John 13:12-20 (my translation, emphasis original)
(see also Matthew 20:25-28)

They will be specially targeted by the devil and evil people:

Offer yourselves also to the whole flock, in which the Spirit, the holy [one], placed you as overseers to shepherd the church of God,some manuscripts: the lord and God which [he] preserved through blood–his own. I know that, after my departure,lit. arrival grievous wolves will go in among you, not sparing the flock, and out of you yourselves [they] will rise up, prattling distorted [things] in order to tear off students after them. Wherefore be fully awake, remembering that for three years, night and day [I] did not cease, with tears, admonishing each one.

– Acts 20:28-31 (my translation, emphasis original)
(see also 1 Peter 5:6-8)

The people will not appreciate them (2 Timothy 4:1-5). They must at all times beware hypocrisy in themselves (Romans 2:21-23) and, should they err, they will be held to account, not only for their own sins, but for the sins of those who follow them:

For amen, [I] say to you: until the sky passes by, and the earth, not one jot or one serif will pass by from the law, until all [things] come to be. Whoever, therefore, releases one of these commands, [even one] of the smallest [ones], and teaches people thus, [he] will be called smallest in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does [these commands] and teaches [them], this [man] will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

– Matthew 5:18-19 (my translation)
(see also Ezekiel 13:8-16; Matthew 7:15-20; Titus 1:10-16; 2 Peter 2; 2 John 1:7-11)

And whoever welcomes one child such as this upon my name welcomes me. But whoever trips one of these little [ones], the [ones] believing in me, [it] is expedient for him that a millstone be hung around his neck and [that he] be drowned in the depth of the sea.idiom; lit. the ocean of the sea or similar Woe to the cosmos because of stumbling blocks; for [it is] a necessity that stumbling blocks come, except woe to the person through whom the stumbling block comes.

– Matthew 18:5-7 (my translation)
(see also Ezekiel 33:7-9; Luke 17:1-2; 1 Timothy 5:17-22)

The priesthood is not a privilege or a boon or power or authority or superiority. It is an act of self-sacrifice, not self-aggrandizement. It is self-giving, not taking. If it is unfair that only men may be priests, then it is unfair toward men. Women, by contrast, are held in high honor in the Catholic Church, for only a woman was deemed worthy to bear the Savior (Luke 1:30-31); only a woman was able to persuade Christ, the Lord, to perform miracles before his time had come (John 2:1-11); throughout the Gospels, Jesus treated women with respect and honor; a woman was praised for her contemplative life (Luke 10:41-42), women saw him laid in the tomb (Matthew 27:61; Mark 15:47; Luke 23:55), and a woman first saw the risen Lord (Matthew 28:8-10; Mark 16:9-10; John 20:11-18).

The priesthood is not restricted to men because women are inferior to it; on the contrary, women are treated as equal to men in the Lord (Galatians 3:28) and honored besides. The restriction, then, established first by Christ and then by his apostles, throughout the whole tradition of the Church, has that cause which I have already detailed: priests act in persona Christi, and by the command of Jesus Christ and his chosen apostles, this office is exclusive to men. God is the head of Christ, Christ the head of the Church and of men, men the head of women and the household (1 Corinthians 11:3; Ephesians 1:22-23; 5:23; Colossians 1:18). This is the order designed by God.

I’ve barely talked about the sacrament of Holy Orders, so I have likely done it a disservice. Like the other sacraments, it bestows grace on those who receive it, giving them the capacity to grow in holiness and be obedient to God. I have never had any dispute with the sacrament as such, so I felt compelled only to address (some of) the controversy about it.

Next week, I will talk about the last of the seven sacraments, after which I will return to a few more general Catholic topics. So look forward to a brief examination of the anointing of the sick/last rites/final unction when Swimming the Tiber returns!

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