ALL Holy Orders originate in the 12 Apostles ordained by Christ at the Last Supper when He said: ‘do this in memory of me’. None of the twelve Apostles were women. It is clear that the Blessed Virgin exceeded and exceeds in every way all each and every member of the human race other than her Son, including the Apostles, and yet she was not given the office of priest. Our Lord had no time whatsoever for the unjust prejudices and taboos of his age and culture. His behaviour towards women, gentiles, Samaritans, foreigners and sinners was a cause of shock and scandal both to His opponents and His disciples. The Lord Jesus was not averse to sending women as his messengers to the very men He had ordained as his Apostles. Quite apart from these considerations, to accuse the Lord of cultural conditioning is to repudiate Him, for it is to deny His Divinity, His hypostatic oneness with the Divine Word. The actions of the Lord are thus normative; they are a law for His Church. “The precepts of the Lord are right, they gladden the heart. The command of the Lord is clear, it gives light to the eyes. The fear of the Lord is holy, abiding for ever. The decrees of the Lord are truth and all of them just.” (Psalm 19:9 – 10) Let us then examine the fittingness of Our Lord’s actions that we might find light and truth therein.

In this respect St Paul, chosen by the Lord in an extraordinary manner as His Apostle to the Gentiles, both follows Him in his government of the churches and helps us to see the reason behind Jesus’ decision. This reason lies in the great mystery that Jesus revealed to Paul on the road to Damascus when He said ‘Saul, why persecuteth thou me?’ – the mystery of the Mystical Body of Christ.

St Paul commands Timothy ‘I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet woman will be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.’ (1Tim 2:12-13) These are very hard words for this age to accept. And yet, if we are Catholics we must accept that ‘All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching’ (2 Tim 3:16), for this is what the Church teaches. We must take the Word of God as the rule of our lives and not make the prejudices and assumptions of our age a barrier to the Word of God. It cannot be maintained that Christ’s Apostle any more than Christ himself is the creature of his own age. Nor would the evidence support this claim, for St Paul holds to the equality of man and women, Jew and Gentile: ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.” (Galatians 3:28 -29). Let us then, if we are to understand this great mystery, have recourse to the teaching of the Church which St Paul tells Timothy is ‘the pillar and foundation of the truth’ (1Tim 3:15).

The Catholic Church, basing itself on Genesis 1:27, teaches the absolute intellectual equality of man and women. It also teaches the aboriginal intrinsic and essential character of the distinction between the sexes. The purpose of this distinction is generation and the establishment thereby of the family. The intrinsic ordering of human nature to the family renders man an essentially social being in a way that a pure and incorporeal intelligence (an angel) is not. This intrinsic social character, which is the distinctively human aspect of man’s intellectual nature, also contributes to the truth of the statement that man is made ‘in the image of God’. That this ‘Imago Dei’ is an ‘Imago Trinitatis’ is indicated by the use of the first person plural by God in Genesis 1:26, ‘let Us make man in Our own image’. Because man is ordered by his nature to the family, the family, just as much as the individual, precedes the State; though the family by its expansion and needs also generates the state to regulate the greater society to which it gives rise. Thus the individual, the family and the state are natural institutions with absolute rights over and immunities from each other.

“The family, no less than the State, is, as We have said, a true society, governed by an authority peculiar to itself, that is to say, by the authority of the father. Provided, therefore, the limits which are prescribed by the very purposes for which it exists be not transgressed, the family has at least equal rights with the State in the choice and pursuit of the things needful to its preservation and its just liberty. We say, ‘at least equal rights’; for, inasmuch as the domestic household is antecedent, as well in idea as in fact, to the gathering of men into a community, the family must necessarily have rights and duties which are prior to those of the community, and founded more immediately in nature.”

Unlike the individual, the existence of the family and the state is one not of substance but of order. This order requires a regulating principle: the father and the sovereign. The authority exercised by the father and the sovereign is written into the nature of generation and of community. The community cannot exist unless its many members are ordered to a single end; but this in no way subverts the equality of the intelligent persons who compose the society, just as the origin of the second and third persons in the first person of the Trinity does not in any way subvert the equality of the persons of the Trinity that the human communities of family and state exist to imitate.

In Genesis, God commands man to do two things – to fill the earth and to subdue it. As John Paul II has observed, the task of filling the earth, of generation itself, is an essentially bodily activity in that it is (as we have observed) only because man is a bodily creature that he reproduces; while the subduing of the Earth is an essentially reasonable task, for it is precisely the subjection of sub-rational material things to the reason of man. Nevertheless, human generation exists so that man might be a more perfect image of the Trinity and thus procreation in its full sense, including the raising and education of children and the preparation of the proper context for this task, must be permeated throughout with intelligence and reason. Likewise, man is only able to subdue the earth because he is bodily and able to act upon other bodies. It is clear both from natural reason and from scripture that the task of filling the earth is appropriated to the woman and the task of subduing it to the man. The woman is equipped by nature to carry her child for nine months and feed it for at least a year. In the absence of human intervention no very long period would intervene before most women would once more be carrying a child. The physical role of man in the transmission of life is, by contrast, incidental. Man is potentially considerably stronger than woman and equipped to labour to provide for the subsistence of his wife and children and to fight in their defence. In Genesis 3:16-19 it is clear that man and women are punished in accordance with their natural roles, each of which becomes a burden to them. The woman finds pain in childbirth; the man discovers that the soil yields him thistles and brambles.

St Paul teaches us in Ephesians 5:20 – 33 that the institution of marriage is a symbol of the union of Christ and the Church. We can see from Genesis why this is so. Woman is a symbol of the bodily perfected by reason, and man of reason (logos) enfleshed. St Paul reinforces this conclusion by comparing the union of man and woman to that of head and body. It is not in their humanity as such, in which they are both essentially intellectual-corporeal beings and absolutely equal, that this analogy exists; but in their gender, which is distinct from their humanity while inseparable from it. Ultimately gender exists to order man towards a community of persons by which the Imago Trinitatis of his intellectual powers (memory, understanding and will) goes out of itself and is perfected in spousal, parental and filial love and ultimately in the love of charity. But in doing this, gender also reveals the second great mystery of salvation, that mystery by which the mystery of the Trinity was itself revealed: the Incarnation, the unity of Creator and Creature in Christ and between Christ and the Church. Gender is like the sign of the cross written into human nature. So St Paul says ‘I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.’ (1Cor 11:3). Like marriage, ordination is a sacrament. In ordination a baptised Christian is made ready to stand in the person of Christ and mystically commemorate the moment when Christ on behalf of the Church laid down his life on the cross. He died for her and he fed her upon the altar, and at the table, of the cross as the perfect spouse of an immaculate bride. In their community Man and Wife form a family whose members, as baptised rational animals, form an image of the Divine Trinity whose equality they imitate; this image calls for a mutual submission. But they also form an image of the Incarnation, and in this the wife as image of the Church submits to the husband as image of Christ. So St Paul says in Ephesians,

“Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Saviour. As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendour, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the Church” (Ephesians 5:22 – 32)

In each Sacrament Christ takes something which is a natural symbol of the reality He intends to make supernaturally present and he makes this ‘matter’ the instrument of that presence in his hands: oil for strengthening and healing, water for cleansing, bread and wine for food. When we say the matter of every sacrament is a ‘natural symbol’ we mean that its symbolism is not something imposed upon it by human will but something proper to it and grounded in its essence. God made Man and Woman to symbolise Christ and the Church: Christ who feeds and gives up His life for his bride in the holy Eucharist, the Church which bears and nourishes for Him countless spiritual children. Just as oil, because it is a natural symbol of strengthening, carries the same symbolism through the sacraments of confirmation and anointing, so gender determines that maleness symbolises Christ the Head and Bridegroom both for the married and the ordained.

In the images of the Bridegroom and the Mystical Body, of the grain of wheat that falls to the ground and dies that it might rise again to feed the multitude, we approach the heart of the teaching of Christ and of His person. Just as to dispense with His choice and example in the ordination of priests is to betray His person and deny His divinity, so too it is to distort His teaching and to falsify the sacramental economy which He instituted and by which He remains with us until the end of time.