Defenders of the Catholic doctrine, and the Orthodox sense, that the Church has no authority to ordain women to the priesthood often point to Mary as evidence of her divine Son's will in this matter. They note, correctly, that Mary is revered in Sacred Tradition as the greatest and most powerful of mere creatures, "higher than the Cherubim, more glorious than the Seraphim," yet did not receive any formal office in the Church even as the all-male (and often rather disappointing) Apostles did. I have heard it said here and there that such a fact signifies something very important: in the divine economy, women are not to be ordained because none "need" to be, whereas some men do. I think that's true in a sense, but I have not yet seen it explained as cogently as it should be. This is my initial attempt to work toward such an explanation. The collaboration and research of others would be most welcome.
The appeal to Mary makes the valid point that sanctity and its summit, theosis, which are after all the point of being Christian, have nothing intrinsically to do with ordination. There have been many holy lay people, especially women, and many not-quite-holy clergy, who are all male. So if one can attain the summit of the Christian life without being ordained, why do some women (and men) consider ordination so important for themselves? Well, they believe they are "called" to it, so that the Church's recognizing said call seems to them a simple requirement of justice. Thus, advocates of women's ordination often dismiss the appeal to Mary as ill-disguised, ideological special pleading that offers put-upon women a mere sop as an insult to their just and legitimate aspiration to ordination. Yet what first led me, in the 1970s, to smell something fishy in that argument was the undeniable feminization of the Church.
Throughout her history, women have usually been the majority of adults in church and done the bulk of the actual work of the Church. Indeed, every parish priest knows how little—at least of a visible nature—he could accomplish without them. Nowadays, that is more true than ever, in the Catholic Church and particularly in those ecclesial communities that "ordain" women to the ministry—so much so that, if we did have women's ordination in the two communions that can plausibly claim historical and confessional continuity with the Church of the Apostles, I suspect the demographics would not take terribly long to yield a "priesthood" composed disproportionately of middle-aged and elderly women. (Among Catholic priests there would also be, I am convinced, a disproportionate number of gay and/or effeminate men, as there seems to be even now. But that issue is for another time.) Presided over exclusively by men nonetheless, the Church already has a hard time attracting laymen to church in numbers matching their proportion of the nominally Christian population. I don't even want to think about would happen if the Church were presided over by females in the same proportion in which females now populate congregations.
But such considerations only explain a suspicion. They do not prove that there would be anything intrinsically wrong with women's ordination even if what I and others suspect became reality. What would be cogent—even if not probative, inasmuch as arguments premised on articles of faith cannot compel intellectual assent any more than the articles themselves can—would be to show how WO advocates fundamentally misconceive the nature of the Church, of women, and of the priesthood. That's what I'd like to suggest. And it is on just such points that the example of Mary is supremely relevant.
The main theological point about Mariology is simple enough but seems to be curiously unmarked in most discussions: the Marian doctrines point up how Mary is always and pre-eminently what every disciple is called to be. We are all called to be God-bearers into and for the world; we are all called to be perpetually virginal, in the sense that we are destined for an eternal union with our divine Bridegroom that involves not sexual intercourse but something infinitely greater; in virtue of being reborn in baptism, we are all immaculately conceived for new and eternal life in the Spirit; in the general resurrection, all those who have accepted Christ in their hearts will be assumed body and soul into the eternal life he enjoys with the Father and the Holy Spirit. In all those ways, Mary is the figura, the type, of the Church and can only be understood in relation to the Church.
With that in mind, we can now deploy Hans Urs von Balthasar's seminal distinction between "the Marian charism" and "the Petrine charism" in the Church. The Marian charism is that of every Christian: loving submission and witness to God, in and through Jesus Christ, through which each of us made in the image of God, male and female, become by adoption what he is by nature. As such, the Marian charism is the more fundamental of the two. It constitutes that priesthood of all believers by which they make of themselves and their lives a "spiritual sacrifice" and thus share in the priesthood of the One High Priest, Jesus Christ. The "sacerdotal" or "ministerial" priesthood, which is a manifestation of the hierarchy's Petrine charism of teaching, sanctifying, and governing authority, exists solely to serve and facilitate the Marian charism of all believers. This becomes clearer on the analogy of faith.
The Church is one body with her Lord, with her as Bride and him as Bridegroom in a mystical marriage. Mary represents us all as, collectively, Bride; the bishops, priests, and deacons, bearers of the Petrine charism, collectively represent Christ as Bridegroom. Both poles are essential for the unity, efficacy, and fertility of the Church. But they do not merely represent: they help to bring about what they represent. Thus the hierarchical constitution of the Church is itself, like consecrated celibacy, sacramental even though not numbered among the official sacraments. As with everything sacramental, what the sexes are by nature, and as understood in mutual complementarity, is what makes them "fit" to be used by divine grace as sacramental signs. Thus the female is more apt by nature to represent how humanity in general is related to God and how Christians in particular are related to their Lord; the male is more apt by nature to represent how God relates to humanity in general and how Christ in particular is related to the Church. That is the only possible significance I can find in God's choice to become incarnate as a male. Everything God does is mysterious, but nothing God does is accidental or arbitrary. We cannot say that things had to be so; but it makes perfect sense that they are thus and not otherwise.
Now the Church, as Vatican II pointed out in Lumen Gentium, is the universal "sacrament" of "salvation" and "unity." Her purpose is to bring Christ into the world for its salvation and unity. As Mother of God, the pre-eminent "God-bearer", Mary is thus the pre-eminent member of the Church, indeed is the Mother of the Church, which is her Son's Mystical Body. In this she does what women in general are to do for the Church and the world. They, like she, are called to be the "heart" of the Church and the world by their loving, unreserved reception of the divine gift of Himself. Thus women precisely qua female signify how every disciple, man as well as woman, is called to relate to God. Men, on the other hand, are called to signify the divine self-giving itself, and thus signify qua male God's relation to the Church and the world. By bearing Christ into the world, women do that too, as all are called to do. To the extent we participate in the divine life by grace, we all do so merely as persons baptized into Christ in whom, and in that sense, "there is neither male nor female" (Galatians 3:28). But as Tradition has taught us from the beginning, our sexuality, our mutually oriented identities as male and female, each retain their special significance in the economy of salvation. Each represents what all are called to, but each does so in polar tension with the other.
It is precisely by emulating God's self-immolation in Christ that husbands as well as priests are called to exercise the Petrine charism of headship in the Church for the world. Within the Church, the chief sacramental means by which priests do so is offering the Eucharistic sacrifice which participates, across time, in the once-for-all self-immolation of Christ and yields for us, in the transubstantiated bread and wine, Christ himself as the food that transforms us into Him. By such means, some men are elevated by grace to a dignity that faithful women, like Mary, enjoy merely as God-bearers. Men, it seems, have to be given some specific and formal role in the oikonoumia so as to signify God as they are meant to; women just have to be, and thus to love, as they are naturally inclined to. Both sexes are used by God; but the male seems to require being given something objective and external to do, like the sacerdotal priesthood and the formal sacraments that only it can confect; whereas for the female, as for Mary, just being what she is seems to suffice. We have no record of anything specific Mary did after her Son's Ascension. No, she was just the holiest member of the young Church; all instinctively revered and looked to her. Sort of like my recently deceased Aunt Rachel in that domestic church known as her extended family.
The reservation of the ministerial priesthood to men, then, seems to be one of God's ways of elevating men to spiritual equality with women. This is anticipated in traditional Judaism, where women, unlike men, are not required to perform religious acts at set times. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has pointed out, women are as much the recipients of the divine promise and love as men, but partly for that reason, nothing is allowed to interfere with their ability to make home and family, the heart of society with many associated demands, their top priority. That holds for all women, even those women who are more successful at work and career than their husbands or male relatives. By their maternity, be it spiritual only or also physical, women by nature bear the divine within themselves in a more fundamental way then men. They are where God is, as it were, as distinct from just what God uses—though of course he uses women too.
When I was a boy, I always thought it unfair of God that women got to have babies while men didn't, and that men had to die in combat while women didn't. (The latter of course, thanks to the spiritual blindness of our culture, is no longer the case.) What Aunt Rachel told me in reply has always stayed with me: "Michael, God spares men the pain of childbirth because they wouldn't be able to take it, and he lets them be priests because if he didn't give them something specific and important-looking to do, they would become intolerable." Indeed. And the example of Mary explains why the same does not hold for women.