In 1976, the Church explained her teaching on reserving the ministerial priesthood for men, citing the Church’s constant teaching, the attitude of Christ and the Apostles, and the permanent value of this practice. Pope St. John Paul II in 1994 reaffirmed definitively that this teaching would not change, followed by Pope Francis more recently.
Inter Insigniores tells us that the fact that the incarnation of the Word took place according to the male sex “cannot be disassociated from the economy of salvation: it is indeed in harmony with the entirety of God’s plan as God himself has revealed it, and of which the mystery of the Covenant is the nucleus. For the salvation offered by God to men and women, the union with him to which they are called – in short, the Covenant – took on, from the Old Testament Prophets onwards, the privileged form of a nuptial mystery: for God the Chosen People is seen as his ardently loved spouse.” The priest is a sacramental sign of Christ, the Divine Bridegroom. “There are profound and unchangeable natural symbols, that things can be signs…In other words, God writes history (and nature) as man writes words” (Peter Kreeft, “Sexual Symbolism”).
The reservation of the ministerial priesthood to men does not demean women, instead it affirms that they have their own role in the economy of salvation which is equally necessary. “The analogy of the Bridegroom and the Bride speaks of the love with which every human being – man and woman – is loved by God in Christ. But in the context of the biblical analogy and the text’s interior logic, it is precisely the woman – the bride – who manifests this truth to everyone. This “prophetic” character of women in their femininity finds its highest expression in the Virgin Mother of God” (Mulieris Dignitatem, Pope St. John Paul II).
“It was Mother Teresa who said that there was only one person on earth who could truly have said, “This is my body; this is my blood”: the Holy Virgin, and she was not chosen to be an apostle and consequently a priest” (Women and the Priesthood, Alice von Hildebrand). We can see the great wisdom of this when we look at the glorious role of Mary in God’s plan. Her role is complementary and necessary to the role of her Son. “Every woman who wants to fulfill her destiny must look to Mary as ideal” (Edith Stein (St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross), Spirituality of the Christian Woman).
Cloistered nuns imitate Mary in a special way: “In a still more significant and radical way, the mystery of the exclusive union of the Church as Bride with the Lord is expressed in the vocation of cloistered nuns, precisely because their life is entirely dedicated to God, loved above all else…In this light, nuns relive and perpetuate in the Church the presence and the work of Mary. Welcoming the Word in faith and adoring silence, they put themselves at the service of the mystery of the Incarnation, and united to Christ Jesus in his offering of himself to the Father, they become co-workers in the mystery of Redemption. Just as in the Upper Room, Mary in her heart, with her prayerful presence, watched over the origins of the Church, so too now the Church’s journey is entrusted to the loving heart and praying hands of cloistered nuns” (Verbi Sponsa 4).
“It is woman’s role to receive the word rather than to carry it to the far ends of the earth, even though she can be summoned successfully to the latter vocation. It is her place to become thoroughly and intimately acquainted with the word and to render it fruitful, in a very clear, vivid and feminine way. For, in fact, once she has attained full maturity, woman intuits more keenly the needs of others and the assistance which they hope for. Hence, she expresses more clearly the fidelity(40) of the Church toward her Spouse, and at the same time is endowed with a more acute sense of the fruitfulness of the contemplative life” (Venite Seorsum, IV).
It is necessary for not only cloistered nuns but all women to understand authentic femininity and value it, because so many of the errors of our culture could be counteracted by the “feminine genius”, as Pope St. John Paul II , St. Teresa Benedicta of the cross (Edith Stein), and many others have said.
For more on this topic, read any of the documents linked here, Edith Stein’s (St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross) Essays on Women, or for the story of one modern woman’s experience, My Sisters the Saints.
“In order to understand the greatness of a woman’s mission, we must open our minds and hearts to the message of the supernatural. It is the key that will reveal to us the greatness of femininity.” (Alice von Hildebrand, The Privilege of Being a Woman).