“Misbegotten Males”: Why Women Can’t be Priests

I think I’m finally beginning to understand what my problem with the whole ordination of women thing is. (Oh, a heads up – I have a problem with the whole all-male priesthood thing.)

Not that I’ve “solved” it by any means, but I’m starting to understand it more. The key, at least for me, is the distinction between fundamental and theological reasons for doctrine.

Fundamental reasons are used to determine whether something is part of divine revelation or not. It is basic question of “is this true?” and is an appeal to authority of the Word of God. So, what says the Bible? Tradition? And the Church? In regards to the all-male priesthood, Pope Paul VI stated these fundamental reasons clearly when he wrote,

“[The Church] holds that it is not admissible to ordain women to the priesthood, for very fundamental reasons. These reasons include: the example recorded in the Sacred Scriptures of Christ choosing his Apostles only from among men; the constant practice of the Church, which has imitated Christ in choosing only men; and her living teaching authority which has consistently held that the exclusion of women from the priesthood is in accordance with God’s plan for his Church.”

(Paul VI, Response to the Letter of His Grace the Most Reverend Dr. F.D. Coggan, Archbishop of Canterbury, concerning the Ordination of Women to the Priesthood (1975), quoted in John Paul II, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (1994).)

These fundamental reasons for excluding women from priestly ordination are, for a Catholic, pretty unassailable. In fact, if we can disagree with the Bible, Tradition or the Magisterium on this issue, then we have no reason to trust them on anything else and the whole structure of Catholicism comes crashing down. Many attempts to “disprove” the all-male priesthood end up “proving” too much, usually that the priesthood itself is sinful, or Jesus was stupid, or something else equally untenable.

Fra Angelico, Communion of the Apostles, 1452 (Museo di San Marco, Florence)

Fra Angelico, Communion of the Apostles, 1452 (Museo di San Marco, Florence)

It’s when we come to the theological arguments that things start getting tricky.

“Theological arguments follow after the fact; they attempt to show why the fact is meaningful, or “fitting.” They employ analogical reasoning to show that the Lord’s dispensation in this matter clarifies and confirms other doctrines and finds a place within God’s plan of salvation.” (Sara Butler (2011), Embodied Ecclesiology: Church Teaching on the Priesthood, in Erika Bachiochi (ed.), Women, Sex, & the Church. Pauline Books & Media, p. 143.)

The main argument we have for why it fitting to have a male priesthood is what I’m calling the sexual symbolism or sacramental argument.

The Christian priesthood is a sacrament, representing Christ and acting in persona Christi. The priest doesn’t just administer the sacraments, he is a sacrament. And like all sacraments, the priest must have a “natural resemblance” to the thing he signifies, in this case Christ. He is represents Him through the “natural” and easily recognisable sign of masculinity, because “Christ Himself was and remains a man.” (Paul VI, Inter Insigniores, 5) This, the argument goes, is no more discriminatory than the fact that Christ chose to bread to be the “natural sign” of His Body, or water of Baptism. It just is.

More deeply, the male priest represents Christ who is always pictured as the Bridegroom of the Church, just as in the Old Testament the LORD speaks of betrothing myself to His bride, Israel. That’s why Christ has to be a man, and why his priests have to be too. This nuptial imagery resonates throughout the Bible, (cf. Hos 1-3, Eze 16, Eph 5, etc.), right up to the Wedding Supper of the Lamb (Rev 21). Again, Pope Paul VI wrote that,

[U]nless one is to disregard the importance of this [nuptial] symbolism for the economy of Revelation, it must be admitted that, in actions which demand the character of ordination and in which Christ himself, the author of the Covenant, the Bridegroom, the Head of the Church, is represented, exercising his ministry of salvation – which is in the highest degree the case of the Eucharist – his role (this is the original sense of the word ‘persona’) must be taken by a man. (Paul VI, Inter Insigniores, 5)

Ok, so what’s my problem? I can happily say that I find much of that imagery beautiful, and it does make some sense.

But symbolism, by its very nature, is always polysemic and just a bit slippery. And sacraments which involve actual people are also more complicated than something inanimate like bread or water. I’m not merely a sign of something, a cut-out of femininity, to carefully arranged and then deployed to represent some cosmic truth. As a person, I am always more than simply a persona.

But my real beef is that this argument seems quite small to be supporting such an awfully big (and unpopular) doctrine by itself. The reason it seems comparatively weak is that we used to have other “theological” reasons for the all-male priesthood. It’s like we had a table with four legs, only one of which is still standing.

We don’t use them anymore because they are wrong/absurd/mistaken/derogatory/evil. Some were based on (misreading) the Bible, some on assuming 1st Century Greco-Roman and Jewish attitudes were the eternal standard for Christians, some on some really bad philosophy, and some on good old-fashioned prejudice.

Shall we have a listen to why Mr. Bogus Misogynist thinks women can’t be ordained?

“Women aren’t the image of God! How could they represent Christ who is the fullness of the image of God? Why, St Augustine said, “The woman together with the man is the image of God, so that the whole substance is one image. But when she is assigned as a helpmate, which pertains to her alone, she is not the image of God: however, in what pertains to man alone, is the image of God just as fully and completely as he is joined with the woman into one.” (De Trinitate, 12, 7, 10) (Gee, thanks St Augustine!)

“Women are too [insert sin or characteristic here], fickle, emotional, changeable and hysterical; they are so easily cowed and persuaded – except when they are stubborn and shrewish but God persevere us from that kind!”

“Women are just inferior beings, lower down the order sacred chain of being, closer to the animals than we more heavenly-minded men. St Thomas Aquinas says they are “defective and misbegotten”. But don’t be angry at poor Aquinas, he’s just following Aristotle who said “The female is, as it were, a mutilated male” (Book IV, chp 6) and “females are weaker and colder in nature, and we must look upon the female character as being a sort of natural deficiency.” (Book II, chp 3)

“Women are gossips. They could never keep the seal of the confession. And they’re so vain. They’d always be thinking about the vestments.”

“Women are to be silent in churches, and submissive in the home, and to be under the dominion of their masters, I mean, their fathers or husbands or brothers or sons – or any responsible male so how could they be priests? Besides, it’s dangerous for them to be out and about. Or to ask questions. Or to think. Better stick to sewing, silent prayer, and making babies.”

“Women are daughters of Eve, gateways of the devil, vessels of perdition. Man fell because woman sinned and they can never pay for it enough! *violent raging* Tertullian was right! “You are each an Eve… [and] you destroyed so easily God’s image, man.” (On the Apparel of Women, book 1, chap. 1)

Raphael, Adam and Eve (detail), 1511 (Stanza della Segnatura, Vatican)

Raphael, Adam and Eve (detail), 1511 (Stanza della Segnatura, Vatican)

You get the idea.

Ontologically, women couldn’t represent the perfect God-man Jesus Christ, the image of the Eternal Father because they were just “misbegotten males”, and functionally, they were weak, inferior, and less naturally spiritual/rational. If you were Aristotle, you thought all women were good for was making babies, and if you were St Jerome, becoming nuns. But definitely not priests.

(Side note: the idea that women are more naturally spiritual is a common one today and began with the Industrial Revolution at precisely the same time that religion became severed from rationality (particularly science) and instead began to be treated as a private opinion and/or comforting myth. Go figure.)

It was these sorts of arguments that, along with the argument of sexual symbolism, upheld the all-male priesthood. And no one really questioned it, at least not seriously. So (male) clerics and writers through the centuries just keep repeating it all, appealing to Aristotle’s bad biology, Augustine’s dodgy theology, and Aquinas’ shocking synthesis of the two.

Now, we are questioning it.

Because if women are equal in dignity and ability with men, sharing in the same image of God and being conformed to the same image of Christ, then we need some bloody good reasons to keep the priesthood male. And I have to ask, is the “sexual symbolism” argument good enough?

I think it is – or at least, it could be. The real challenge will be if we can successfully extricate it from all the other dodgy arguments which imply women are lesser. Although it confesses the full equality of women, the “sexual symbolism” argument also raises bigger questions like, why is Jesus male? Did he have to be male? Is God only Father or also Mother? And to what extent are we bound by biblical and traditional analogies when we know they are just that – imperfect analogies?

To be honest, it’s hard to believe the all-male priesthood is such a good thing when it supported by such very bad reasons for so long. It hurts that such denigration of women came from men the Church esteems as saints. How can they be so right about the Trinity and so wrong about the image of God? Then’s the fear that when all is said and done, the “sexual symbolism” argument is really just “women are inferior human beings” with more theologically luxurious trimmings. 

So what’s a girl to do?

We can appeal to authority, and in a way that should be enough for Catholics. It is the magisterial teaching of the Church, inspired by Sacred Scripture and informed by Apostolic Tradition, that the ordination of women to the priesthood is impossible. Pope John Paul II wrote that,

“Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.” (John Paul II, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, 1994)

But the Church’s authority is always reasonable, and faith always seeks understanding. And we can – and should – always be seeking deeper, stronger, more robust reasons for the truths we believe. We ask our questions in the Church, with the Church, confident that if, as the Church teaches, only men are to be ministerial priests of the New Covenant, then that truth will stand up pressure.

We will see that it is good and beautiful, and indeed, this truth, like all the truths of God, will make us truly free.

“If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:32)

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10 responses to ““Misbegotten Males”: Why Women Can’t be Priests

  1. It is an interesting debate, and I enjoyed your thoughts on the subject. So frustrating to read some of the comments on women… well, Adam, you are the one who stood there and let the treasure that God entrusted to you to be led astray by a snake! What kind of a man does that? I mean seriously, snakes talking to women in gardens, and Adam just stands there like there is nothing unusual going on? Geesh… man is supposed to risk his LIFE for woman, not just stand there and do nothing. A real man would have fought the snake to the ground and died if he had to under the sting to save her…

    But anyways…. 🙂

    I agree with the Church’s position though for many reasons. Plus, I just cannot see women being priests. There is something inherent in men that makes one feel that protectiveness that a woman sort of lacks. When a little child needs nurturing, it goes to its mother. When it is scared and needs protected, it wants its father. I suppose in the spiritual life I just have a hard time imagining feeling that innate sense from a woman.

    But it boggles my mind sometimes too, and there are times when I have just thought ah, to be a priest! But I would make a lousy one anyways 🙂

    Interesting post.

    • Thanks for commenting! I agree, Adam was pathetic – and blaming it all on Eve! Not good enough at all. Though, I guess the point of the Genesis narrative is that both Adam and Eve sinned, much as I’d like to just blame Adam! 😉

      I’m not I agree with you about the protectiveness thing though. There doesn’t seem to be much a difference between protecting and nurturing, they’re kind of the same thing. But I know what you mean that it would feel weird to have female priests. I don’t think that’s a valid argument either way, though. It’s more of a reflection, at least for me, that I’ve never known a female priest or even “minister” in the official, ordained sense.

      The whole thing is very confusing, but hopefully it will ultimately lead to greater clarity! 🙂

      Thanks again for commenting! If you want to add any reasons why you agree with the Church’s position, I’d be very glad to hear. 🙂

  2. Yes, it is definitely not a valid defense… definitely just personal opinion. I suppose it just goes back to the idea that we are in a spiritual journey. For centuries, the priest did not face the people, and part of that was perhaps to express this notion that we are on a journey to God, and the priest is the leader of the flock, sort of like Moses leading the people.

    I suppose if I was to be on a great, perilous journey across rough terrain, I would rather have a guy leading… you know, to defend against crazy marauders and such. As much as I love us girls, I would definitely not want one of us fighting back against six foot tall psycho giants – although I suppose I could make room for Angelina Jolie to kick a little behind. 🙂 And I would not mind wielding a sword either… the fighter in me…

    But seriously, I think that is what I was trying to express. That generally (not always, but generally), men have been the protectors and defenders. If one equates the spiritual journey to a physical journey, then that is the sense that I am talking about. I look upon the priest as the leader in such a journey, and so it just makes more sense to me for the individual to be a man.

    The one problem that I do have though is that the value of the feminine does become lost. I think so many people forget that what one protects is what is generally the most valuable – for example, a precious diamond is surrounded by protective forces – but it is the diamond that is the treasure, not the forces. Yet the forces are needed all the same – my mind goes around this topic endlessly to be honest, which is why your post caught me. 🙂 Until the feminine is truly valued and understood, nothing in society will ever be set right – no matter how many great male leaders we have. The woman is still the life blood, the heart of it all, and the one whose decisions ultimately have the greatest sway over a civilization.

    Sorry for the ramble – I know that is all just personal opinion and not any substantial reasons, but just some thoughts. 🙂

    • Thanks for your lovely reply! 🙂 I get what you mean by needing a good leader in a spiritual journey thru the toughest terrain there is. That kind of makes sense, at the same time, it is still a spiritual battle we are facing and I’m wary of saying men are better at fighting those. But that brings me back to my original problem with the symbolic arguments. They can be convincing but how does symbolic maleness and femaleness fit in with the lived experience of men and women everywhere? The whole thing is so fraught!

      Which is why I like your point about truly valuing the feminine, first in the Church and then in the world. I think when that happens, we will be able to see much more clearly this whole issue precisely because it wouldn’t be so politically loaded. I freely acknowledge that part of my problem with the all-male priesthood and the sacramental arguments used to support it is that it does feel like it threatens woman as fully equal and in the image of God. Historically, I have a good reason to believe that even if it isn’t actually true at all. Gah! 🙂

      Thanks again for your thoughtful comments. Much appreciated!

      • You are welcome – thanks for reading my ramble. 🙂

        i agree, the whole thing is fraught. I think as a woman who went through a lot of objectification at different periods in my life, it can be frustrating to not hear about the dignity of women as well.

        I understand the dignity of the priest (yet no one can ever fully understand that on this earth, not even a priest), but sometimes I just want to hear a sermon on the dignity of women too. I believe that the roles are different, but I think it is dangerous to not teach women their dignity and worth too.

        When women are not taught to understand their worth and value, it throws civilization apart because they will make decisions throughout life that come from a place of devaluing their personal integrity. If all women tomorrow started to dress modestly and demand that men respect them, if they upheld the moral code so to speak, society would change overnight. Women have a great power for inspiration simply because of their position as the heart (i.e. the treasure) – and therefore it is part of the mans job to make them happy (every good man knows that a happy woman makes for a happy life) – and men instinctively recognize this for the most part. Women’s choices set the stage for those of men – when Eve fell, so did Adam. When Mary said yes, the savior was born. In the book of Revelations, it is a woman who crushes the serpent…

        I think that it takes a lot of humility to be a woman to be honest – at least, to strive be a good one. The role of the heart is more vulnerable, more emotional, more tender, more nurturing, more subtle, more hidden… more easily devalued and torn apart, at least in this world. I think St. Therese was right when she said that she thought women would have great glory in heaven, for on earth they were given so little.

        Like unveiling a treasure – finally women will be seen for what they are 🙂

        Sorry for another ramble – love this topic though!

  3. I like this side of you, a lot. And Reclaiming added a lot as well. I can see what you are both saying here, and in truth, like a good Lutheran, I’ll sit on the fence. I see it a good bit like was said though, it is the man’s role to protect the treasure, which I can easily as a woman (or the church). I have dealt with female clergy (we abolished the ordained priesthood long ago, of course) both Episcopalian and Lutheran. They’re good in my experience. But it is different and sort of jarring at first. Honestly, I don’t have a reasoned position on this, I see merits on both sides. 🙂

    • Thanks NEO! :That fence must be quite uncomfortable – but you do get the best view! 🙂 I also see merits on both sides and if the Catholic Church suddenly decided to ordain women, I’d be freaking out! (And not in good way…) I think it’s hard to have a reasoned opinion on this in general, and even harder to have a reasoned discussion. There’s so much history and emotion involved – at least on my part! 🙂

      • That’s a lot of it. We all have a lot of the “We’ve always done it like that” gene in us, and it matters, even if we think the new way is correct, it’s hard to let go of the old and traditional. 🙂 but sometimes you have to, and it hurts 🙂

  4. The Catholic Church evolves in the sense that a baby is the same person as a man, but they look different. The same parts are all there – but they have matured. This is why men like Saint Jerome and other church fathers, in earnestly trying to discern God’s will within the scientific and cultural context of their time; had views which coloured their thinking about the sexes.
    The Biblical fact is, that Jesus (who is GOD) never chose women to be priests, and the Catholic church in all humility (yes, I said HUMILITY) adheres to this example of Christ. (Important because it was PRIDE that led to Satan’s fall)
    Jesus was counter -cultural, and there are many instances of this in scripture; so if he had wanted to choose women – if that was the plan of God the Father (which he adhered to unto the cross) it would have been so.
    By modern reasoning, the Blessed VIrgin Mary would have been the most suited to the priesthood. She Knew Jesus and his “word” inside out; her husband had died, and she had no other children to care for. If Christ had chosen women to be priests she would be the ideal.
    But he didn’t did he?
    That is the order chosen by God; Father, SON and Holy Spirit, all equal. Mary – the human God gifted to us as a motherly bridge that shows us that God is approachable despite his AWEsomness. She didn’t dictate to Jesus what the plan of God the Father should be….or gripe about why she wasn’t to be a priest – yet she was holier than all the Apostles.(probably because she accepted God’s divine order.)
    Lets get some perspective; What ever we are in life it is HOLINESS and SANCTITY we are to aim for, not whether we become priests. (female of male)
    At the wedding feast of Cana, Mary exhorts the servants ” Do whatever he tells you…” True, Jesus did not say per se, that there couldn’t be female priests; but as God almighty himself, he never chose women as priests…. I think I would rahter be his servant than his “advisor”…

    • Good points, if you do not mind me commenting.

      I once saw an article that someone gave me, and it was titled “What would Mary do?”

      It was in response to the crisis in the Church, and I think it was talking about female priests, etc. (but not sure).

      I remember my reply came forth automatically, “she would pray!”

      Mary was always praying and advising the apostles, and they came to her for advice too. I think a lot of people do not understand that a very holy woman, in her ability to be more sensitive and emotional, can relate more easily to peoples problems and has a great power to help. I could be wrong, but I imagine that Mary was a great channel of strength, encouragement, wisdom, fortitude, etc. to the early church, in a way that is unique to a woman as women just understand things deeper, can remember longer, and can provide much through prayer.

      I had a priest back this up too – I read a book one time where he said that any priest who advises convents of men and women can tell you that the men are generally happy to do the minimum and can be hard to get them to go above and beyond as a rule – but the women will go all out and way beyond if asked with hardly any prodding.

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