Catholics are used to this imagery. The Church is often described as being the Bride of Christ. We also speak of her as being our Holy Mother Church. She is indeed a Bride who has become a mother - and we are all her children, the fruit of that union she has with Christ. Perhaps because we are so used to this notion, we do not think about it very deeply. But it is all part of the nuptial imagery that goes all through Scripture and explains much to us.

Christ began His public ministry at a wedding. Perhaps many of us think this is not very important. We are intrigued by the story of water turning into wine, but we think it could have been a birthday party or just a local harvest supper. But no - the wedding is a central part of the event. It was a genuine wedding. We don't know the names of the young couple getting married, but they had invited Jesus and Mary, and it was evidently a happy and important occasion with food and drink and plenty of guests. But it was more. The whole story was a great significance. When Mary told Jesus that the wine was running out, He answered, "My time is not yet come." Whenever Christ mentions His "time," He means His passion and death. Already, we can hear the drumbeats of that event in the distance. And Mary told the waiting servants, "Do whatever He tells you." That word "do" also will be heard again, when Christ's time indeed has come. At Cana, they do as He tells them, and water is turned into wine. At the Last Supper, once again there is a commandment to "do," and this commandment also has been obeyed down the centuries, with another transformation - wine into Christ's own blood. The nuptial message from Cana is not an optional extra; it is central to the event. Pope John Paul II echoes this link between Cana and Calvary when he speaks of the "nuptial meaning" in the Eucharist.

We see this male/female imagery going right through our redemption history. It is at the heart of Christ's being born among us as a man. When He founded His Church, it was with the love of a bridegroom for a bride, and when He gave us the Eucharist, it was as a nuptial banquet. This nuptial imagery was completed on Calvary. We are speaking here of holy things at the very heart of our faith. Paul speaks of this as being "a great mystery." It gives a meaning - and a great dignity - to the human reality of male and female. It is in this context that we can see not only the significance of a male priesthood, but also the importance and beauty that the Church attaches to purity, to fidelity in marriage, and to the fruitfulness of married love.

There is an important sense in which the current debate about the ordination of women, even if it is sometimes couched in terms which Catholics find offensive, is going to be useful in the development of our understanding these things. Invariably, in the history of the Church, it is only when a doctrine is seriously challenged that its truth is proclaimed in greater fullness. Only when a heresy arises does it become necessary to proclaim truth to end the heresy.

Thus we will not find the word "Trinity" in the New Testament. Yet Catholics and most Protestants unite in professing that there are three Persons in one God and that God the Son walked this earth and was present among us and told us that God the Holy Spirit would descend upon His Church. It was only when the Arian heresy arose, effectively denying Christ's divinity, that it became necessary to defend and explain the Trinity in authoritative and definitive terms. The Council of Nicæa gave us the Nicene Creed, which we say Sunday by Sunday at Mass, proclaiming Christ's divinity in unmistakable terms: "God from God, light from light, true God from true God."

Catholic women have played a central role in the life of the Church, from Lydia in the Acts of the Apostles, through Margaret of Scotland and Jadwiga of Poland and other great queens and women of influence, to the Englishwomen at the Reformation who arranged secret places for Mass, down to Edith Stein, whose quest for intellectual and spiritual truth led her to convent life and did not spare her Auschwitz. In no sense is there any authentic tradition of "If you're not a priest you simply don't matter," despite fashionable attempts to present this as a standard part of Catholicism.

We can expect that, as the question "Why can't Catholic women be priests?" is further explored, the Church will provide richer testimony to the unchanging truth of a male-only priesthood. There will be no change in this teaching - rather, the more it is discussed and debated, the more its scriptural and theological basis will emerge. The male-only priesthood of Jesus Christ and the bridal nature of the Church are spiritual realities of which our two human sexes, male and female, are profound and deeply important images, made in the flesh. Ours is an incarnate faith, centered on the great fact that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Nothing has been left to chance.