"But everyone agrees that the Catholic Church will one day ordain women. Surely it's just this pope who is holding things back? The next one is bound to change the rule!"
The point is made frequently and always with the same confidence. There is a general assumption, at least in Europe and North America, that the Catholic Church's insistence on a male priesthood is an obscure anomaly, which endures only because a Polish pope has, in the 1990s, refused to move with the times.
Yet the times have often favored a female priesthood and never more so than when Christ ordained His first priests, nearly 2,000 years ago. Virtually all the pagan religions of His day had priestesses, and it would have been entirely normal and natural for Him to choose women for this task. He had, moreover, a number of excellent potential candidates, from His own Mother, who accompanied Him at His first miracle and stood with Him as He suffered on the cross, to Mary Magdalene or the women of Bethany. Instead, He chose only men, and He remained immovable on this, continuing right to the end to exhort and train them all, leaving thus a Church which turned out to be safely founded on a rock. From those twelve men a direct line of apostolic succession has given the Catholic Church the bishops and priests it has today.
In the Church's latest statement on this matter, Pope John Paul II, using his full authority as the successor of Peter, states categorically that the Church cannot - not will not, but cannot - ordain women, now or in the future. The Catechism of the Catholic Church sets it out clearly, quoting the decree Inter insigniores:
Only a baptized man (vir) receives sacred ordination. The Lord Jesus chose men (viri) to form the college of the twelve apostles, and the apostles did the same when they chose collaborators to succeed them in their ministry. The college of bishops, with whom the priests are united in the priesthood, makes the college of the twelve an ever-present and ever-active reality until Christ's return. The Church recognizes herself to be bound by this choice made by the Lord Himself. For this reason the ordination of women is not possible.
We need to understand that Christians believe God to be the essence of divine omnipotence. To put it crudely, He doesn't make mistakes. When He became Incarnate as a human being, He did so at a precise and exact moment in human history, which has been planned from all eternity. From the beginning, God had chosen that there would be a Jewish people, among whom His divine Son would be born. Their own priestly traditions would form part of the background and culture which would help them - and others - to see and know Him. Every detail about the Incarnation was known in the mind of God. He was born into the fullness of time.
He didn't say: "Oops, sorry - I made a terrible mistake! I should have been born into the latter half of the twentieth century, so as to have benefited from the We are Church movement in Germany, or the feminist workshop sessions of America, or the Equal Opportunities legislation in Britain." On the contrary, He was and remains omnipotent. He knew exactly what He was doing.
It is worth pointing out that, in choosing His apostles, Christ was not awarding them the priesthood as a reward for good behavior: courage, intelligence, or skill. On the contrary. One - the rock on which the Church was to be founded - denied Him, another doubted His Resurrection, and one even betrayed Him. The priesthood is not a badge of good-conduct (although, like eleven out of the first twelve, millions of Christ's priests down the centuries have led heroic and noble lives). Rather, just as bread and wine are the essential "matter" of the Eucharist, so are men the "matter" of the priesthood.
If we wish to explore fully this question of the Church and the priesthood, we can start with Christ's actions when on earth. But in a sense we must go further back to see the covenant bond that was established right at the beginning, and the male/female imagery and nuptial meaning that goes right through salvation history.
At every Catholic wedding you will hear the beautiful, scriptural, and profound statement that the relationship of a bridegroom and his bride is like that of Christ and His Church. Of course, we are mostly not listening. We are looking at the bridesmaids and reflecting that they look charming in blue, or admiring the graceful way in which the bride has managed her train, and soon we'll be enjoying the cake and the confetti and the champagne.
But the words nevertheless convey a profound truth. Notice the order of things. Christ and His Church came first. They were an idea in the mind of God from the very beginning. And we, as human beings, when we unite together and marry, are an image of the ultimate Bridegroom and Bride.