In present times, many people question or even attack the Catholic understanding of God’s will to create human beings in His image as male and female who are equal and different. Secular rhetoric and speech on many issues related to human sexuality wants to suggest that there either are no differences among human beings or that there should be no differences between anyone, while at the same time appealing to a “subjective” approach to identity that claims each one decides for themself “who” they are, whether male or female (or something else….). For the Church the differences between male and female are not a point of contention when rightly understood, even as the teaching on holy orders says only males can be admitted to this sacrament. So why does the Church only ordain men? Shouldn’t the Church in our modern times admit women too?
While recent synods in Rome may appear to have reopened the question on women and ordination, in 1994 St. John Paul II issued a short apostolic letter entitled Ordinatio sacerdotalis “On Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone,” wherein he definitively states that only men can receive holy orders. The letter declares that the Church has no authority to change this doctrine based upon Jesus’ own choice of men. At the same time, it acknowledges that Jesus could have chosen the Virgin Mary were he looking to choose the most worthy persons, and that His choice was made while also upholding the dignity of women and rejecting cultural customs of his time that were often quite hostile to women. The Church only ordaining men is from the divine mandate of Jesus’ own choosing of only men as apostles, and in a matter of words: we humans have no authority to change it.
While this “we do this because Jesus said so” explanation fails in the opinion of many, St. John Paul II also offered significant teaching on the broader question of “who” we are as male and female in the “Theology of the Body.” Of particular note in this context of holy orders is the identification of Jesus as “bridegroom” who “offers himself” (as a priest and as victim for our sins) for His “bride,” which is the Church. (Remember: ordination is more than passing on “duties;” it confers a “way of life in Jesus Christ”). Jesus’ offering of his life is an act of betrothal, giving himself so that the Church might be one with Him, bringing about “holy communion.” Accordingly, in holy orders it is only possible that one who is like Jesus as a bridegroom can make present this offering for and on behalf of the bride – and thus males who by their very nature are those capable of being/becoming bridegrooms are able to make present His one-time offering in a sacramental way.
Clearly women are very capable and often fruitful in offering themselves on behalf of the Church. However, as those who in their very nature are called to be “brides,” the nature and dignity of a woman’s offering is different from men in that women give new life through receiving from the bridegroom and thus cooperating with what is offered to them unto being fruitful. The Virgin Mary perfectly exemplifies this dynamic in her motherhood, accepting what is offered to her and thus being fruitful on the behalf of many. The similar dynamic of loving Jesus unto becoming His “bride” is a grace and gift that exclusively belongs to women – exemplified in the vocation of women religious.
In conclusion, that only men are capable of receiving holy orders is in keeping of Jesus’ own choice for only men – and He could have chosen anyone.
For further reading: In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1577 directly speaks of men only being the recipient, with paragraphs 1578-1580 saying more about who receives the sacrament.