If you are actively discerning a vocation to the Priesthood, Diaconate, Consecrated Life, or Marriage and you are looking for information to help in your discernment, BE SURE TO CHECK the section at the bottom of the right sidebar for the "labels" on all posts. By clicking on one of these labels it will take you to a page with all posts containing that subject. You will also find many links for suggested reading near the bottom of the right sidebar. Best wishes and be assured of my daily prayers for your discernment.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Nature of Priestly Ordination: Theological Background and Some Present Concerns

The Nature of Priestly Ordination: Theological Background and Some Present Concerns
Dr. Lawrence J. Welch, Ph.D

This article was posted on CatholicExchange.com

November 10, 2007

It has been the universal and consistent practice of the Church to ordain only men to the priesthood. This practice is based upon Christ's manner of acting in choosing only men as his apostles. The Church believes that Christ's way of acting was not an arbitrary one and did not proceed from sociological or cultural motives peculiar to his time but was in keeping with the divine plan for the Church. The constant teaching and practice down through the centuries has always maintained that the reservation of the priesthood to men is part of the fundamental structure Christ gave to the priesthood and, in turn, is in accordance with His plan for the Church.

As Pope John Paul II pointed out on a number of occasions, the Holy Scriptures proclaim that Christ's plan for the Church is spousal and marital. This plan was foreshadowed in the Old Testament, as we see in the prophet Isaiah (54:4-8, 10), who portrayed the Covenant between the Chosen People and God as a "marriage" whereby God himself was understood to be a husband steadfast in his love for his wife.

In the Gospel According to Saint John, John the Baptist announces that "he who has the bride is the bridegroom [Jesus]" (John 3:27-29). John the Baptist is not the Messiah, the Christ, but is only "friend of the bridegroom." In the Gospel According to Saint Mark (2:19-20), Jesus attributes the title of "bridegroom" to himself when he explains that his disciples do not fast because "they have the bridegroom with them."

In his Second Letter to the Corinthians, Saint Paul uses the same spousal imagery of the Church and Christ when he admonishes the readers that he feels a "divine jealously" with regard to them, "for I betrothed you to Christ to present you as a pure bride to her one husband" (2 Corinthians 11:2). In the Letter of Saint Paul to the Ephesians (5:21-32), the relationship of Christ and the Church is said to be a great mystery in the likeness between a man's love for a woman and Christ's love for the Church. Christ is the Head and Bridegroom of the Church who "loved the Church and gave himself up for her that he might sanctify her" (5:25). Loved by Christ, the Church is joined to him as a wife is to her husband: "the two shall become one flesh" (Genesis 2:24).

The sacrament of ordination to the priesthood of Jesus Christ participates in Christ's spousal relationship to the Church. When a man is ordained to the priesthood, he is changed and configured to Christ, the Head and Bridegroom of the Church. In his ordination, a man is taken up into a new relationship with the rest of the baptized, Christ's Body and his Bride. The priest is sacramentally empowered to represent Christ in a specific way as Bridegroom of the Church. In other words, when a man is ordained to the priesthood he becomes a sacramental sign of Christ in relation to the Church.

It is helpful to recall what is written in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 875:
"How are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher? And how can men preach unless they are sent?" (Romans 10:14-15). No one — no individual and no community — can proclaim the Gospel to himself: "Faith comes from what is heard" (Romans 10:17). No one can give himself the mandate and the mission to proclaim the Gospel. The one sent by the Lord does not speak and act on his own authority, but by virtue of Christ's authority; not as a member of the community, but speaking to it in the name of Christ. No one can bestow grace on himself; it must be given and offered. This fact presupposes ministers of grace, authorized and empowered by Christ. From him, bishops and priests receive the mission and faculty ("the sacred power") to act in persona Christi Capitis; deacons receive the strength to serve the people of God in the diaconia of liturgy, word and charity, in communion with the bishop and his presbyterate. The ministry in which Christ's emissaries do and give by God's grace what they cannot do and give by their own powers, is called a "sacrament" by the Church's tradition. Indeed, the ministry of the Church is conferred by a special sacrament.

As Pope John Paul II observed, it is the Eucharist above all that expresses the redemptive act of Christ, the Bridegroom, toward the Church, the Bride. This is clear and unambiguous when the sacramental ministry of the Eucharist is performed by an ordained man who acts in the person of Christ. The priest is the living image of Jesus Christ, the spouse of the Church. Understood against this background, we can better see why Christ called only men to be apostles who speak and act in his name for the Church.

There is another perspective that is helpful for understanding the Church's practice of ordaining only men. The sacraments of priesthood and marriage stand together. Marriage is a sacrament because it is a sign of, and a participation in, the spousal covenant of Christ and the Church. If the manhood of Christ is theologically insignificant for the priesthood, then sexual differentiation must be immaterial to the sacrament of marriage as well. It cannot become irrelevant for one without becoming irrelevant for the other.

On the contrary, what the Church teaches and what she proclaims in the sacraments is the truth that sexuality is not only part of God's good creation but that in Christ it holds a meaning more profound than we ever could have imagined. In other words, masculinity and femininity in the human order complete and explain one other. In Christ, we have the one who enters our history and remains as the Bridegroom, as the one who has given himself in the most complete and radical way, laying down his life for his Bride, the Church. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ enables us to participate in his love, in his sincere gift of self, and so enables us to live the full truth of our sexuality as men and women.

For more information regarding the Roman Catholic Church's teaching on priestly ordination, please see the following resources:

Dr. Lawrence J. Welch, Ph.D., professor of systematic theology, Kenrick School of Theology, Kenrick-Glennon Seminary, St. Louis.

This article courtesy of the Archdiocese of Saint Louis.

No comments: