Gender, Priesthood, and the Church

I’m sure we all remember last October, when the Church welcomed traditionalist Anglicans into the Roman Catholic fold. Perhaps you had a reaction similar to mine:  “Yay!  Anglican-use parishes!  Wait…we’re acting as a refuge for ‘Anglicans uncomfortable with their church’s acceptance of female priests and openly gay bishops?'” [1] Do we need more people like that?  We want people to convert, not because they’ve come to terms with say, the authority of the Pope, or, more importantly—for some Anglicans—transubstantiation, but because of problems with the sexual orientation and gender of those performing the sacraments?

There are those who would argue that the disagreement over the gender/orientation of those performing the sacraments is deeply theological, and not to be taken lightly.  I am not convinced, however, that some are changing their faith due to deep theological convictions.  The conservatively minded sometimes employ theology to justify the disgust they feel at GLBTQ folks or their desire to keep the status quo (as do we all, from time to time).

On the other hand, perhaps I am convinced that these Anglicans have no good reason to leave because I, myself am not particularly moved by arguments as to why women can’t be priests.  Both sides toss well-worn premises around with unfortunate predictability:[2]

Anti:  We can’t have female priests, Christ chose 12 men, and only men even though He had female disciples.

Pro:  This doesn’t tell us anything about his feelings about a female priesthood, He was merely adhering to the social norms of the times.

Anti:  Christ was the Son of God, he can do anything.  If He wanted to make women priests, He would have.  He didn’t.  Clearly, He didn’t want women to be priests.

Pro:  He also didn’t choose Asian, Innuit, or African priests, does that mean that he clearly only wanted people from his portion of the world to be priests?   Furthermore, as an observant Jew, Christ kept kosher, surely that means He wanted us to keep kosher?

And so forth, with variations and discussions about social norms, Christ’s desire to ignore/embrace them in the service of His church, the innate fitness of women for the priesthood, etc.  Arguments frequently descend to people finding parts of the New Testament where Christ is doing something not in current Church teaching and asking why if this has been dispensed with, why not the prohibition on women priests?

On the other hand, we have the more allegorical argument that Church is Mother, and the priest, as Alter Christus, marries the Church, serving as Father to his spiritual children.  As someone deeply interested in allegory, I would probably find this image more convincing, were it not for my gender and orientation convictions.  Not only do I have no problem with the image of a woman marrying a woman, but I also have no difficulty with the idea that a woman can act as a father/fatherly/fathering figure.  Aside from the biological fact that only women can bear children, I don’t see gender as a defining characteristic for the roles of mother- and fatherhood.

On the other hand, being a true believer in my Church, I’m not ready to just start ordaining women without official sanction, as these people have.

Women ordaining women

If anything, I worry that they make the case for woman priests look bad, as, while they claim to be working within the Church, they are actually making a new Church hierarchy for themselves.   While sympathetic with their cause, I am not so sympathetic with their means.

This week, as I’m sure many of you know, the Vatican issued its revised internal laws for the discipline of pedophilic priests.  (The text of the document itself is to be found here).  Article five of that document reads as follows:

Art. 5

The more grave delict of the attempted sacred ordination of a woman is  also reserved to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith:

1° With due regard for can. 1378 of the Code of Canon Law, both the one who attempts to confer sacred ordination on a woman, and she who attempts to receive sacred ordination, incurs a latae sententiae excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See.

2° If the one attempting to confer sacred ordination, or the woman who attempts to receive sacred ordination, is a member of the Christian faithful subject to the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, with due regard for can. 1443 of that Code, he or she is to be punished by major excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See.

3° If the guilty party is a cleric he may be punished by dismissal or deposition.

The Times suggests that,

“The decision to link the issues appears to reflect the determination of embattled Vatican leaders to resist any suggestion that pedophilia within the priesthood can be addressed by ending the celibacy requirement or by allowing women to become priests.”

On one hand, I’m not entirely sure the analysis is correct.  The document does contain, not merely the rules for dealing with abuse of minors, but also other kinds of abuses associated with sacraments (see, for example, Article 3, which deals with sacrilegious acts against the Eucharist.)  The inclusion of a discussion about female priests takes place in the context of sacramental abuses, not specifically  in a discussion about pedophilic priests.  On the other hand, there is no mention (that I can find, perhaps your eyes are sharper, dear readers) of what action may be taken against priests who attempt to marry, or those who attempt to ordain an already married man, which would also be an abuse of Holy Orders.[3] Thus, only the ordination of women is put on par (in terms of sinfulness) with desecration of the Blessed Sacrament, and abuse of children.  This feels pointed and unwarranted, and I am deeply disturbed that the Vatican seems bent on providing more fodder for those who would portray it as a hidebound misogynistic club of old men.

In Corde Mariae,


[1] Of course, the NYT may overstate what the Vatican  actually said, but the point is still worth observing.

[2] Clearly, I am simplifying the arguments on both sides.

[3] I refer, of course, to cases in which the men in question are Roman Catholic, not converts from other traditions.

Published in: on July 18, 2010 at 3:25 pm  Comments (5)  
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  1. This is also a subject I have struggled with. You have likely already read it, but C. S. Lewis wrote a brief piece called “Priestesses in the Church?” I am not sure quite how I feel about it, myself, but he does touch on what is possibly the bigger issue of which so many people today appear to be ignorant: that is, as I read somewhere, the idea that God is the great Masculine before which all Creation is made Feminine. If this is indeed the case, there have to be some major implications, not the least of which would be a masculine priesthood to relate to a feminine Church (to which, of course, you have already referred). As I already said, I am not sure how I feel about this and I struggle with it and with its implications.

    Either way, if the Vatican is going to hold up the issue of the ordination of women as a key one in these times, there will need to be some very, very much improved catechesis concerning it. And I am afraid that this catechesis may be skipped over entirely.

  2. Rei,
    I have certainly not read the Lewis in a long time, so thanks for reminding me of it.
    As for catechesis, I believe that the Church needs better catachesis all around, indeed, that part of the reason she struggles and flounders sometimes is due to a lack of catechesis of the faithful in recent years. I would agree with your point, if the Church will insist on constantly affirming a male-only priesthood, or even, for that matter, a celibate one, she must make sure her faithful understand the reasons for these decisions. Otherwise, these can come off as mere misogyny and archaism.

  3. I would have to disagree with your characterizations of the arguments for the male only priesthood. They are a characterization of a position that is much more solid then you give it credit for.

    First off, we have the tradition of men only in terms of the reception of the sacrament. That is something that is strong and cannot be thrown out willy nilly.

    In terms of your two arguments, I don’t think your counterpoints hold any weight.

    In terms of your first retort, you state that Christ is adhering to the social norms of the times. I don’t buy that argument because there is plenty of proof that Christ did the complete opposite. Secondly, you seem to forget that EVERY action of Christ has an obediential character to it: He is completely united to the will of the Father, and everything He does He does in obedience to His Father. Nothing Christ does is unintentional. To state He is adhering to social norms is to say that the Father is only just accepting the way things are socially, when God is King of all Creation.

    Secondly, you equate one’s ethnicity with one’s gender. The Church sees gender as something much more essential to our humanity than our ethnicity. I think that is too simplistic of a retort that would hold no ground in a serious theological discussion. Gender plays an essential role in theology.

    What frightens me about your counterpoints is your Christology as your issue with gender on this subject is in fact leading you down the road to denial of fundamental dogmas on Christology such as the primacy of Christ’s freedom, something which you easily deny in your first retort. That is not the only thing, this leads to many other issues that, in the end, deny the fundamental aspect of Christology known as the hypostatic union. By denying the importance of Christ’s freedom, you deny His sovereignty as a Divine Person, and the perfection of His human actions. Ultimately, you are denying the Christ of revelation, and I cannot agree with you on your retorts for that reason.

  4. I would also point you to:

    Here John Paul II declares the discussion on the issue closed. It is worth a read I think.

  5. Bonaventurian,
    If you’ll note, in my blog post, I said I was vastly simplifying the arguments on both sides. Partially because delving into either (and certainly the first) argument would require a blog post/paper/discussion of their own. Also, the answers to the first argument (which may not have been clear in the post) are not my own, but a synthesis of replies I’ve heard when conducting such discussions. That is the problem with arguing from the tradition of a male priesthood issuing forth from Christ’s call to the apostles: rather than leading to meaningful discussions, in most cases (since many people don’t have the required theology at their fingertips)one sees the discussion go as it did in my post; into various shallow replies (on both sides) which, as you correctly identified, can lead to dangerous waters.

    I’d invite you to post a comment with a nuanced theologically informed argument for a male-only priesthood from the point of view of tradition, in order to give better coverage to the argument.

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