Re: This question, which argues that the phrase ‘separate but equal’ applied to the sexes in regard to the priesthood is just as bad as it was when applied with regard to racial segregation. Chris and I both had responses, so I’m posting mine here separately.
Slavery in the Bible:
Slavery was a tradition in most cultures, but unlike American slavery, it was not based on racism but war and economics. Still not defensible, of course, because it reduced people to commodities, but it is important to note that the base hatred of another skin color was not what fueled slavery for most of world history.
The Catholic argument is simply that men and women are different, and that those differences mean something. Skin color is not an ontologically significant difference among people; sex is. Of course, that is precisely what so many modern people protest… Christians, however, are called to believe in the Genesis creation story: “Male and female, He created them.” Male and female together make up humanity which is made in God’s image.
Is it just about gender roles?
No. The male priesthood is not legitimately argued for from an “only men are suited for careers” premise or some such nonsense. Instead, it’s about the kinds of actions that stem rom whether one is a woman or a man. Let me put it this way:
Mothers and fathers are different kinds of parent. Both essential, both wonderful, but these ways of parenting are inherent and expressed in different ways. Well, the priesthood is spiritual fatherhood. Women cannot be priests because women cannot be fathers. Priestly actions are fatherly actions. The priest acts in and for the person of Christ, the Son, and speaks in the name of the Eternal Father. Just as carrying a child inside for nine months and producing milk are inherently maternal actions, the actions the priest performs and the words he speaks in the person of God and on behalf of God in the Mass are inherently paternal.
If we think of the priesthood as just another job made of external actions that bear no inherent relation to the actor, we’ve made a grave mistake. Yes, priests spend much of their time preaching, educating, and taking care of people—actions that women can and do perform, whether as laity or religious—but the essence and heart of a priest’s work is what he does as Christ, in persona Christi, in the Mass, becoming an instrument through which the power of God transubstantiates mere bread and wine into the very Body and Blood of Christ.
The reason male and female were needed to both be humanity to complete the image of God is because God, sexless, contains the perfections of both male and female. But God has revealed himself specifically as Father.
(Certainly there is much beautiful feminine imagery of God in the Bible—in the Old Testament there are numerous places where the original Hebrew suggests God’s “birth pangs” and “giving birth” to His children—but that imagery is supplemental to the direct revelation of God as the Father, Abba, and God the Bridegroom who seeks his bride, Israel.)
This revelation of divine Fatherhood is not inconsequential—nor is it without significance that Jesus was incarnated as a man. There is something about the Father-Son relationship, revelation tells us, that is central to the identity of God, to salvation, and to our relationship with God.
When priests perform the sacraments—especially the Eucharist, but any of the seven sacraments—he becomes a living embodiment of that Father-Creator identity, that Father-Son relationship, and the male, human-divine, Jesus Christ. Just as certain forms of matter—wheat, grape wine, oil, pure water—are necessary and appropriate for the sacraments, just so a male Son was the necessary matter for the great sacrament, the Incarnation, and inasmuch as priests take on that role themselves when the sacrament of their ordination confers that ontological change in their souls, so too their male humanity is necessary for them to be proper and fit matter to act and teach in persona Christi.
And just for the record, I used to despise the male-only priesthood. It was one of the Catholic doctrines it took me the longest to come around to. So believe me when I say, as a woman and a Feminist, that I understand your frustration, Anon. But the great and beautiful scandal of Christianity is precisely this scandal of particularity, of Incarnation, of limitation and choice. By the same logic that an infinite God could become a finite man, by the same logic that only wheat bread and grape wine are appropriate and necessary matter for the greatest miracle the world has ever known, by the same logic that a mother and father are what they are, unique, different, and equal, by virtue of their being, not simply the external duties they perform—just so is the male priesthood necessary and unchangeable.