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Why Can’t Women Be Priests by Fr. Ben Bradshaw

I often tell people that I could never be a mother because I am too much of a wimp. This
is not a variant of pious political correctness, nor even a denial of wholesome masculinity, it is
just a fact. Mothers are some of the toughest people I know and, I might add, they are far and
above the most practical people I know, often diagnosing problems and “putting out fires”
hundreds of times a day; only to do the same thing again tomorrow. By their nature, mothers
are other-oriented and give their lives for the well-being of others; namely their children. We
could say the same thing about spiritual maternity as well. I had the splendid privilege of
attending St. Edith Stein’s canonization in Rome in October of 1998 and have since spent a
number of years studying her writings on the nature of femininity and masculinity. Edith Stein
(St. Teresa Benedicta a Cruce), undoubtedly one of the great feminine voices of her time (1891-
1942), argued that men and women are distinct in many ways yet equal in their ontological

This is frequently a puzzling concept for those of us in western culture, primarily because
we tend to equate equality with “sameness,” which is to say that we are equal to the extent that
we can “do” the same things. This is simply not the case. Just because I would make a pretty
pathetic mother does not mean that I am somehow inferior to women, or vice versa. The
secularized phenomenon of equating sexual equality with sameness not infrequently leads to
gender relativism or social androgyny, the cultural fruit of which is not pretty. Arguably one
of the greatest ironies in the ‘equal but different’ understanding of the sexes is that it is so clearly
recognizable that it often goes unrecognized by many. Case in point, anyone who has been
married more than 30 minutes knows that he/she is different than his/her spouse, and this
difference does not render one somehow subordinate or inferior to the other, but rather adds to
the masculine and feminine complementarity of the nuptial bond and attraction.

On May 31, 2004, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) promulgated a
document addressing the nature of sexual complementarity entitled On the Collaboration of Men
and Women in the Church and in the World (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith). In the
document Cardinal Ratzinger warns against false feminisms which either relativize the contrasts
between the sexes or are blatantly antagonistic towards men. While it is certainly true as the
Church has argued, that woman have historically suffered much at the hands of abusive men, this
does not justify a societal venom (odium theologicum) towards men, at times latent and
sometimes evident, nor a relativizing of sexual differentiation.
Along these lines, it is worth recalling that Catholicism teaches that God’s highest
creation was in fact not a man, but rather a woman: the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Catechism of
the Catholic Church refers to the Virgin Mary as God’s “masterwork” (CCC#721). The Mother
of God is the model par excellence of receptivity of Divine love, and as our Mother, her pure
femininity summons us to this same receptivity to the Holy Spirit, which we simply cannot do if
we are filled with ego, pride, and self-reliance. In his Letter to Women (1995) and his Apostolic
Letter Mulieris Dignitatem (1988), Blessed John Paul II underscored the ontological, emotional,
and physical realties of sexual differentiation but similarly the equality which accompanies it.
God has fashioned this sexual differentiation and attraction of man and woman towards each
other, which is therefore to be protected and guarded against lust or carnal utilitarianism.

All of this is pragmatically significant for Catholics in the pews, because on any given
Sunday one can wonder, “Why can’t women become priests?” Some have been Catholic their
whole lives and their best response to this question would perhaps be: “Because the Vatican says
so.” For those of us that have spent our lives in the faith we often don’t think much about it,
however, it is an obvious question for many non-Catholics who visit our parishes or even for
children and young adults. The answer harkens back to Adam and Eve. In Genesis 2:22 we hear
that the Lord God cast a deep sleep on the man and took a rib from his side and created the
woman (also in His image and likeness) and brought her to the man. It is worth asking a critical
question here: “Why would God use part of man to create woman?” Could he not have also used
the earth in creating woman as he did the man? Among other things, this underscores that Adam
and Eve are equal and yet they harmonize with each other magnificently. This is seen in Adam’s
expression of wonder at Eve’s personhood and complementarity: “This one, at last, is bone of
my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called ‘woman,’ for out of ‘her man’ this one
has been taken” (Gn 2:23). Thus, As John Paul II notes in his Theology of the Body, in the
bodily recognition of Eve as a person (not simply a body), Adam recognized in her body a
person like himself, both receptive to his love and willing to give hers to him as well. This
complementarity impacts both the physical and metaphysical sphere of the sexes, as created in
God’s image and likeness and called to love as God loves, namely by self-giving.

When applied to the role of the sacramental priesthood, the priest stands in persona
Christi Capitis, or “in the person of Christ the Head.” The bride of the priest is the Church, just
as the Bride of Christ is the Church (Eph. 5). Just as St. Edith Stein spoke of the efficacy of
spiritual maternity, there is likeness the moral efficacy of spiritual paternity as well, thus for
instance we refer to the Pope as “Holy Father.” In spite of a priest’s particular weakness and
fallibility, as a minister of the Church, Jesus Christ has ontologically (in his very being),
transformed him forever at his ordination, as we hear in Psalm 110:4: “You are a priest forever in
the order of Melchizedek.” This is a mark that is forever tattooed on his soul. Even should a
man leave the active ministry he will always be marked on his soul as a priest. The actual
maleness of a priest is a prerequisite for Holy Orders in the same way that bread and wine are
proper matter to confect the Eucharist at mass. Not only were there never female priests in the
ancient tradition of Hebraic law, from a Catholic perspective, as Pope’s Paul VI, John Paul II,
and Benedict XVI have all noted, this is a completely unchangeable and infallible doctrine, and
thus at no point in the future can it be altered.

In his 1994 Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (May 22, 1994), John Paul II notes:
“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.” He likewise remarks that Jesus Christ himself only chose men to be priests
and thus we cannot change this historical fact. We have to trust that Jesus knew what he was
doing even if we don’t apprehend it completely with the western mind. During his Pontificate,
Pope Paul VI reiterated this teaching several times as well, especially in the letter Inter
Insigniores (October 15, 1976) and his letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Most Reverend
Dr. F.D. Coggan (November 30, 1975).

At his ordination and at every Chrism mass during Holy Week, it is made evident by the
bishop to his priests that they are called to service of the people of God, rather than to be served
by them. Jesus Christ could not have been clearer in this regards: “The son of man did not come
to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mt 20:28). Pope St.
Gregory the Great (d. 604) habitually referred to himself with the title servus servorum Dei, or
the “Servant of the Servants of God.” As Gregory’s title denotes, the Pope is not a monarch or
some kind of clever statesman, nor, as George Weigel has accurately noted, is he the “C.E.O. of
Catholic Church, Inc.” (Legacy, 2004). Rather, the Pope is a servant of humanity, and not
simply Catholics, though he is the spiritual shepherd of 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide.
Though it is one of sacred office, the Catholic priesthood is also fundamentally one of humility
in service; service to death. There is no discrimination or latent misogyny in the presence of an
all-male priesthood within the Catholic Church. Rather, as Jesus Christ himself embodied
authentic humility in being born into abject poverty, entering Jerusalem seated on a donkey,
washing the feet of his own creation at the Last Supper, coming under the unpretentious forms of
bread and wine at mass, and ultimately dying at the hands of man, so too are each of us invited to
serve others and to become a gift in order to be given away. This is especially true for the men
ordained to the holy priesthood of Christ.

Explaining Evil by Fr. Ben Bradshaw

Some years ago, an R.C.I.A. candidate from my parish, who was aghast at the discovery
of how rich Catholic doctrine actually is, informed me: “You never know what you don’t know
until you know that you didn’t know it!” This fresh Catholic’s verve for the faith reveals
something paramount and far-reaching for every Christian as well; namely, there exist realities in
the universe of which we are rarely cognizant on a day-to-day basis, but which exist nonetheless.
For the better part of forty years St. Augustine of Hippo struggled with the metaphysical
question of the problem of evil. The question both tormented and invigorated him, and has since
served as the basis of much of the rhetoric of atheist apologists against “organized religion” and,
in particular. Catholicism. Atheists such as Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins would assert:
“If God exists and he is ‘all-loving’ why would he permit such evil in the world?” The question,
while theologically reductionist in thought, is indeed worthy of an answer. The Second Vatican
Council (1962-1965) went to great lengths to address the arguments of atheism, encouraging
atheists to probe the deeper questions of God, human existence, and spiritual anthropology
(Gaudium et Spes, 19, 20). In the first chapter of the book of Job the audience hears of a dialogue
between God and Satan, wherein God permits Satan to accost the faithful Job in order that a
greater good may be drawn out of the evil permitted (Job 1:6-12). Ultimately, Job is given
substantially more than what he initially lost. With this in mind, the Church has long
differentiated between God as the agent cause of evil, which he is not, and the tolerating of evil
for a greater good, which he can do. Nonetheless, in times of trauma and trial, as our country
witnessed in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, 2012, this answer not infrequently tends to
fall flat in approaching the vexing question as to why God would permit such diabolical activity,
especially when perpetuated on the innocent. As a result, we are often left with two primary
emotions: confusion and anger. Simply put, there are mysteries to life we simply do not know
and cannot adequately explain.

In November of 2010, I attended a conference on Exorcism and the reality of the

diabolic, sponsored by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore, MD. The
forum was well attended by bishops and Diocesan exorcists from around the world. While the
conference was critiqued by some dissenting theologians such as Fr. Richard McBrien as
“embarrassingly dumb,” for most clergy who work in active ministry with those suffering from
spiritual ills it was a much needed breath of fresh air (“Theologian Mocks Upcoming USCCB
Conference on Exorcism.” Women of Grace. July 15, 2010. Susan Brinkmann). During one of
the coffee breaks I spoke at length with an exorcist from a northern Archdiocese. He informed
me that he had served in this position, largely anonymously, for almost thirty years and during
the course of his ministry one thing had become abundantly clear to him. “Satan always prefers
subtlety,” he said, “Rarely however, he will arise from beneath the surface of the water and we
see his head in a more direct way.” The point this priest was making is that the elusive influences
of evil are often rationalized and progressively embraced by a culture, whereas outwardly
diabolical ones are frequently appalling and rejected by man. Both, however, remain equally
dangerous and call to mind the words of St. Peter: “Be sober and vigilant. Your opponent the
devil is prowling around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1Pt 5:8). Thus,
whether spiritual poison is swallowed in gulps or slowly ingested in the coffee of complacency it
remains nonetheless, lethal. Martin Luther King Jr. often referred to this cultural phenomenon as
taking the “tranquilizing drug of gradualism” (I Have a Dream. August 28, 1963).
There does exist a spiritual reality around us to which we are rarely aware of as human
beings, and some of these entities include the demonic. While the Church encourages Catholics
to avoid a fantastic fixation on Satanic entities, it likewise forbids the denial of them. Among the
nine choirs of angels (Col. 1:16), Tradition holds that in a one-time and irreversible decision
roughly one third of the angels, created by God also in his image and likeness with intellect and
free will though without a body (CCC #391-395), chose to reject his love out of pride and
thereafter followed Satan. These “apostate angels,” as Pope Benedict XVI refers to them,
influence our fallen nature by appealing to our deprived, though not “depraved” (as
Protestantism asserts), nature in an effort to lead us into evil (#405). This tendency towards sin is
often referred to simply as concupiscence. Demonic influence is observed in a number of ways:
temptation, infestation, oppression, obsession, and bodily possession. However, as Catholics we
should recall that not all sin can be attributed simply to demonic coercion in a “devil made me do
it” mentality. In John’s Gospel we clearly see demonic influence and free will acceptance of it
within the person of Judas Iscariot. We hear the ominous words as Judas initiated the betrayal of
Christ: “After he took the morsel, Satan entered him” (Jn 13:27). Satan was thus a spiritual entity
outside of Judas which thereafter entered into him by Judas’ own willing of evil. The Iscariot
was clearly not an innocent in this scenario, as he freely chose to conform his will with that of
evil, and which he regularly weakened by stealing from the apostles and Jesus (Jn 12:6). While
evil cannot force us to yield to its influence, it can assert itself in both direct attacks on man, as
history clearly shows, and more subtle attacks as well, such as the rationalizing of institutional
killing of the unborn and elderly; often under done under premise of “freedom,” “mercy,”
“choice,” and “reproductive health.”

When I was ordained I had printed on my ordination card a passage from the prologue of
John’s Gospel that I have found especially poignant in reminding me to never lose hope: “The
light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn 1:5). Most parents who
have lost a child understand acutely the reality of anger (perhaps at God) and the need for hope.
Why would God have permitted the face of evil to manifest itself on a Friday morning in this
elementary school in Connecticut? I have absolutely no idea, nor would I arrogantly claim to
understand such a reality; regardless of whether people expect such answers from their clergy or
not. What we do know however, is that evil does not have the last word, as the Gospels inform
us. Also, while such evil may appear to have won the battle in Connecticut, in reality it has lost
the war by the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is the message of the great
Exsultet sung every Holy Saturday during Holy Week: “The power of this holy night dispels all
evil, washes guilt away, restores lost innocence, brings mourners joy; it casts out hatred, brings
us peace, and humbles earthly pride.” This gives us hope. Spe salvi.

It is said that the greatest asset for an attacking army in battle is not the element of
surprise but rather the denial of the opposing General to realize that he is actually in battle to
begin with. It is by this logic that French poet Charles P. Baudelaire (d. 1867) famously posed
the easily forgotten dictum that the greatest deception of Satan is to make us believe that he does
not exist, which for a Catholic is a flagrant denial of revealed doctrine and the Gospels
themselves (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. On Christian Faith and Demonology.
1975. CCC #391). If culture in the West is to adequately combat the reality of evil, manifest
gruesomely in both its subtle and outwardly aggressive species, we must first awaken to a reality
that up until now we have largely refused to admit; namely, we are at war. Ironically, many of
our Evangelical brothers and sisters seem to grasp this truth more so than some lay Catholics and
clergy. In Ephesians 6, St. Paul could not be clearer on this point: “For our struggle is not with
flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present
darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens.

Therefore, put on the armor of God, that you may be able to resist on the evil day and,
having done everything, to hold your ground. So stand fast with your loins girded in truth,
clothed with righteousness as a breastplate, and your feet shod in readiness for the gospel of
peace” (Eph 6:12-15). Paul here is not simply using a battle metaphor in order to underscore a
point, he is urgent in his message to the Church in Ephesus that a Christian, or at least an
authentic one, lives his/her life perpetually with the discomfort and urgency of spiritual warfare.
Similarly, the Catholic girds himself in the “armor” of the sacraments that Paul speaks of. In
addressing the reality of the demonic, we are called then to be prudent without being paranoid
and confident without being naive. Such prudence cannot be actualized if we refuse to
acknowledge the reality of the battle we fight each day. To refuse to do so is to assume the
position of a spiritual ostrich whose head is nestled safely in the sand, all the while failing to
realize his death is eminent.