Only a male priest can signify Christ at the
From INTER INSIGNIORES:
(The hyper-linked comments in italics are by John
24. Having recalled the Churchs norm and the basis
thereof, it seems useful and opportune to illustrate this norm by showing the
profound fittingness that theological reflection discovers between the proper
nature of the sacrament of Order, with its specific reference to the mystery of
Christ, and the fact that only men have been called to receive priestly
ordination. It is not a question here of bringing forward a demonstrative
argument, but of clarifying this teaching by the analogy of faith.
25. The Churchs constant teaching, repeated and
clarified by the Second Vatican Council and again recalled by the 1971 Synod of
Bishops and by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in its
Declaration of 24 June 1973, declares that the bishop or the priest, in the
exercise of his ministry, does not act in his own name, in persona propria:
he represents Christ, who acts through him: the priest truly acts in
the place of Christ, as Saint Cyprian already wrote in the third
century.(l5) It is this ability to represent Christ that Saint Paul considered
as characteristic of his apostolic function (cf. 2 Cor. 5:20; Gal. 4:14). The
supreme expression of this representation is found in the altogether special
form it assumes in the celebration of the Eucharist, which is the source and
centre of the Churchs unity, the sacrificial meal in which the People of
God are associated in the sacrifice of Christ: the priest, who alone has the
power to perform it, then acts not only through the effective power conferred
on him by Christ, but in persona Christi,(16) taking the role of Christ,
to the point of being his very image, when he pronounces the words of
26. The Christian priesthood is therefore of a sacramental
nature: the priest is a sign, the supernatural effectiveness of which comes
from the ordination received, but a sign that must be perceptible (18) and
which the faithful must be able to recognize with ease.
27. The whole sacramental economy is in fact based upon
natural signs, on symbols imprinted upon the human psychology:
Sacramental signs, says Saint Thomas, represent what they
signify by natural resemblance.(l9) The same natural resemblance is required
for persons as for things: when Christs role in the Eucharist is to be
expressed sacramentally, there would not be this natural
resemblance which must exist between Christ and his minister if the role
of Christ were not taken by a man: in such a case it would be difficult to see
in the minister the image of Christ. For Christ himself was and remains a man.
28. Christ is of course the firstborn of all humanity, of
women as well as men: the unity which he re-established after sin is such that
there are no more distinctions between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and
female, but all are one in Christ Jesus (cf. Gal. 3:28). Nevertheless, the
incarnation of the Word took place according to the male sex: this is indeed a
question of fact, and this fact, while not implying an alleged natural
superiority of man over woman, cannot be disassociated from the economy of
salvation: it is, indeed, in harmony with the entirety of Gods plan as
God himself has revealed it, and of which the mystery of the Covenant is the
32. Could one say that, since Christ is now in the heavenly
condition, from now on it is a matter of indifference whether he be represented
by a man or by a woman, since at the resurrection men and women do not
marry (Mt. 22:30)? But this text does not mean that the distinction
between man and woman, insofar as it determines the identity proper to the
person, is suppressed in the glorified state; what holds for us holds also for
Christ. It is indeed evident that in human beings the difference of sex
exercises an important influence, much deeper than, for example, ethnic
differences: the latter do not affect the human person as intimately as the
difference of sex, which is directly ordained both for the communion of persons
and for the generation of human beings. In Biblical Revelation this difference
is the effect of Gods will from the beginning: male and female he
created them (Gen. 1:27).
Note 16. Second Vatican Council Constitution
Sacrosanctum Concilium (CTS Do 386) n. 33 (4 December 1963): . .
.by the priest who presides over the assembly in the person of Christ . .
.; Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium (CTS Do 349) n. 10 (21
November 1964): The ministerial priest, by the sacred power he enjoys,
moulds and rules the priestly people. Acting in the person of Christ, he brings
about the Eucharistic Sacrifice, and offers it to God in the name of all the
people. . .; 28: By the powers of the sacrament of Order, and in
the image of Christ the eternal High Priest...they exercise this sacred
function of Christ above all in the Eucharistic liturgy or synaxis. There,
acting in the person of Christ...; Decree Presbyterorum Ordinis
(CTS Do 357) n. 2 (7 December 1965): . . .priests, by the anointing
of the Holy Spirit, are marked with a special character and are so configured
to Christ the Priest that they can act in the person of Christ the Head;
13:Asministersof sacredrealities, especially in the Sacrifice of the
Mass, priests represent the person of Christ in a special way; cf. 1971
Synod of Bishops, De Sacerdotio Ministeriali 1, 4; Sacred Congregation
for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaratio circu catholicam doctrinam
de Ecclesia, 6 (24 June 1973).
Note 17. Saint Thomas, Summa Theologiae,
III, q. 83, art. l, ad 3: It is to be said that [just as the
celebration of this sacrament is the representative image of Christs
Cross: ibid. ad 2], for the same reason the priest also enacts the image
of Christ, in whose person and by whose power he pronounces the words of
Note 18. For since a sacrament is a sign, there is required in the
things that are done in the sacraments not only the res but the
signification of the res,recalls Saint Thomas, precisely in
order to reject the ordination of women: In IV Sent., dist. 25 q. 2.
art. 1. quaestiuncula la, corp.
Note 19 Saint Thomas In IV Sent., dist.
25, q. 20 quaestiuncula 1a ad 4um
For the full text, see: INTER INSIGNIORES.
Commentary by the Sacred
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the Declaration Inter
85. The declaration therefore suggests that it is by
analysing the nature of order and its character that we will find the
explanation of the exclusive call of men to the priesthood and episcopate. This
analysis can be outlined in three propositions: (1) in administering the
sacraments that demand the character of ordination the priest does not act in
his own name (in persona propria), but in the person of Christ (in
persona Christi); (2) this formula, as understood by tradition, implies
that the priest is a sign in the sense in which this term is understood in
sacramental theology; (3) it is precisely because the priest is a sign of
Christ the saviour that he must be a man and not a woman.
86. That the priest performs the eucharist and reconciles
sinners in the name and place of Christ is affirmed repeatedly by the
magisterium and constantly taught by fathers and theologians. It would not
appear to serve any useful purpose to give a multitude of quotations to show
this. It is the totality of the priestly ministry that St Paul says is
exercised in the place of Christ: We are acting as ambassadors on behalf
of Christ, God, as it were, appealing through us-in fact this text from 2
Corinthians has in mind the ministry of reconciliation (5: l 8-20)-you
have received me as an angel of God, even as Christ Jesus (Gal. 4:14).
87. Similarly St Cyprian echoes St Paul: The priest
truly acts in the place of Christ.(44) But theological reflection and the
Churchs life have been led to distinguish the more or less close links
between the various acts in the exercise of the ministry and the character of
ordination and to specify which require this character for validity.
88. Saying in the name and place of Christ is
not however enough to express completely the nature of the bond between the
minister and Christ as understood by tradition. The formula in persona
Christi in fact suggests a meaning that brings it close to the Greek
expression mimema Christou.(45) The word persona means a part
played in the ancient theatre, a part identified by a particular mask. The
priest takes the part of Christ, lending him his voice and gestures.
89. St Thomas expresses this concept exactly: The priest
enacts the image of Christ, in whose person and by whose power he pronounces
the words of consecration.(46) The priest is thus truly a sign in
the sacramental sense of the word. It would be a very elementary view of the
sacraments if the notion of sign were kept only for material elements.
Each sacrament fulfils the notion in a different way. The text of
St Bonaventure already mentioned affirms this very clearly: the person
ordained is a sign of Christ the mediator.(47)
91. Although St Thomas gave as the reason for excluding
women the much discussed one of the state of subjection (status
subjectionis), he nevertheless took as his starting point the principle
that sacramental signs represent what they signify by a natural
resemblance,(48) in other words the need for that natural
resemblance between Christ and the person who is his sign. And, still on
the same point, St Thomas recalls: Since a sacrament is a sign, what is
done in the sacrament requires not only the reality but also a sign of the
92. It would not accord with natural
resemblance, with that obvious meaningfulness, if the
memorial of the supper were to be carried out by a woman; for it is not just
the recitation involving the gestures and words of Christ, but an action, and
the sign is efficacious because Christ is present in the minister who
consecrates the eucharist, as is taught by the Second Vatican Council,
following the encyclical Mediator Dei.(50)
93. It is understandable that those favouring the
ordination of women have made various attempts to deny the value of this
reasoning. It has obviously been impossible and even unnecessary for the
declaration to consider in detail all the difficulties that could be raised in
this regard. Some of them however are of interest in that they occasion a
deeper theological understanding of traditional principles.
94. Let us look at the objection sometimes raised that it
is ordination-the character-not maleness, that makes the priest Christs
representative. Obviously it is the character, received by ordination, that
enables the priest to consecrate the eucharist and reconcile penitents. But the
character is spiritual and invisible (res et sacramentum). On the level
of the sign (sacramentum tantum) the priest must both have received the
laying on the hands and take the part of Christ. It is here that St Thomas and
St Bonaventure require that the sign should have natural meaningfulness.
Note 44. Epist. 63, 14: ed. Hartel, CSEL t. 3, p.713:
sacerdos vice Christi vere fungitur.
Note 45. St Theodore the Studite, Adversus Iconomachos
cap. 4; PG 99, 593; Epist.
Note 46. Summa Theol., 111 q. 83, a. I, ad 3-um
Note 47. Above, note 32: persona quae ordinatur
significat Christum mediatorem.
Note 48. In IV Sent., Dist. 25, q. 2, a. 2, qa 1, ad
4-um: signa sacramentalia ex naturali similitudine repraesentent.
Note 49. Ibid. in corp. quaestiunculae: Quia cum
sacramentum sit signum, in eis -quae in sacramento aguntur requiritur non solum
res, sed significatio rei.
Note 50. II Vatican Council, Constitution
Sacrosanctum Concilium on the Liturgy no. 7 (CTS Do 386); Pius XII,
Encyclical Mediator Dei. 20 November 1947.
For the full text, see: Official Commentary on INTER INSIGNIORES.