Sunday, May 20, 2012

"Mom, why can't women be priests?"

It's a question I've faced time and time again. I have three daughters. Girls who, I'm happy to say, think before they swallow the party line. Girls who reject the response, "because that's how it's always been," if it doesn't make sense.

And honestly, I've never had a good answer for this question, because I also happen to be a woman who thinks for herself and doesn't swallow the party line of my Catholic faith when the party line is archaic and makes no spiritual sense.

I might end up in a lot of hot water for this moodling, but here goes, anyway. I can't help what I think. It's just what I think, and no one has to agree with what I think. I'm just being honest here, so don't shoot me, for honesty's sake.

Yes, Jesus was a man. But if he had been a woman (and yes, that's a bizarre thought, I admit it), would we only have women priests? I somehow doubt it. Women aren't so territorial. We believe in sharing roles. I suspect Jesus did, too, as much as, or maybe even more than his society allowed. And in our society, I suspect he'd be okay with women answering God's call to the priesthood in the same way as men who have sincerely discerned their vocation do. I can't believe that God would only choose men. God doesn't play favourites, though human history does.

Yes, Jesus' disciples were men. But there were also women who followed him, and women who took leadership roles in the early Christian community. Unfortunately, they get pretty short shrift in scripture, but keep in mind that history is always recorded and laws made by the "winners." As a result, I suspect that a good chunk of the feminine portion of Christian history was eradicated by the people who had all the power in those days, though I have read the unobliterated portions of the Gospel of Mary Magdalene. What I liked about Mary's Gospel was that it empowered men and women equally, rather than placing all emphasis on the succession of Peter. But of course, her version of scripture was too mystical to make it into the Bible. If it had, though, I suspect the priesthood would be a healthier place because it would be inclusive, rather than an exclusive club for men.

Yes, Jesus' disciples were mostly men, but as my youngest daughter pointed out to Father at her confirmation retreat recently, it was the women who stood by Jesus at the cross. Father, to his credit, agreed, and also pointed out that the men who followed Jesus were in hiding while the women were at the tomb meeting the Risen Jesus. Father said that women played an important role in Jesus' life, and that they should also be honoured and respected in the church today. That appeased my girl somewhat... but not enough.

Honestly, for most of my life, I didn't even think about why women weren't priests. The priests in my life have all been good men without exception, several of whom I count as very dear friends. But in the last few years, questions from my daughters and various conversations and encounters with holy women, some with M. Div behind their names, have made me question why it is that the priesthood is only reserved to men. I can't just swallow it now.

The whole argument about priests acting "in persona Christi" -- in the person of Christ -- just doesn't demand maleness in my mind anymore. I have a woman friend who is an Anglican bishop. I know too many Christ-like Catholic women (some of whom are more priestly than some of the priests I've met). And the argument about the Church being the Bride of Christ, and therefore requiring a male counterpart in the priestly role is becoming for me, more and more, a semantic distraction from the real issue: that God made men and women equal, and as equals, we should be able to serve God as equals, even in the priesthood. Wouldn't it make sense that our theologically and sacramentally educated women pastoral assistants could be pastors, too? They often do everything except what's reserved to the priest, and are as educated as a priest... which again begs the question, why should ordination and sacramental ministry just be reserved to Catholic men?

Oh yeah, because Jesus and his disciples were men, and because it's always been that way. Sigh.

Men have been given most of the roles in the church -- from pope on down to deacon -- by default, as men were dominant in the time of Christ. And yes, men are still dominant in many world cultures, but things are changing. Even so, thus far, women are only allowed to be Sisters (nuns), and as such, aren't allowed to preside at eucharist or offer absolution (though a few Sisters have heard my own confessions on more than one occasion). They can't preside at most sacramental celebrations without a special dispensation from a bishop.

And women in the church seem to be valued only if they've taken some sort of vow... so where does that leave single laywomen? And men, if they're not priests or the fathers of good Catholic families, seem to be seen as somehow incomplete by those promoting vocations. Something is wrong with this picture, this over-emphasis on vowed vocations. Yes, we need ordained and consecrated people, but it's too easy to get the feeling that they are the only important ones in the Church's thinking, and this hurts those who aren't called to the priesthood, religious life or marriage. The vocation of "single lay person" is too often ignored and is certainly not celebrated or acknowledged by the Church very often. And recent changes in the Roman Missal would indicate that the Church would rather not allow lay people near the altar at all. Heaven knows we can't usurp the priest's privileged role as presider, even if it's just to do the dishes after communion!

There was a time when lay Catholics (meaning not priests or religious) were a rather uneducated bunch of sheep who blindly followed our "shepherds," but those days are long gone. Since the second Vatican Council in the 1960s, lay people have taken a deeper interest in becoming priests, prophets and holy royalty in our own right, and have learned to think for ourselves about Church teachings. The Church encouraged this for the past 50 years, opening its theological schools to lay people, but now it seems to be re-thinking that decision, preferring "sheep" to educated parishioners who think and question and perhaps even challenge the way things have always been.

Unfortunately, the Church's reversals are pushing spiritually educated people to the margins. For better or worse, social change has come among many of the people of God, and as Cesar Chavez says, "Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot uneducate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore."

What I am seeing, more and more, is that dedicated lay Catholics, people who have taken courses in theology and worked as pastoral assistants and taught catechism and run youth groups, people who love Jesus and the people of God, these same people are very aware of the Church's attempt to return to pre-Vatican values. But because they are educated lay people, they value themselves and their faith to the point that they can no longer be humiliated or oppressed by an institution that seems to want them to return to their old ways of being sheep, swallowing what they're told without thinking for themselves. Educated Catholics know that God loves and accepts them whether they toe the party line or not.

So more and more of them are simply walking away. I count at least a dozen in my own devout Catholic extended family. And who can blame them? I'm tempted myself at times, especially when I run into people who insist that the Church is always right no matter what, and that I'm too prideful if I can't agree with the Vatican's point of view on any given topic. I'm sorry, but I have come to believe that God loves me and accepts me no matter what, and I have a hard time imagining that He and She will refuse me entrance to heaven if I happen to disagree with the Church's stance on women's ordination or some other contentious issue that I have thought through carefully.

And my friends who have walked away from the Church, some of whom call themselves "recovering Catholics?" Well, they may not be willing to listen to "the party line" at Mass on a Sunday morning anymore, but most of them continue in a deep relationship with Jesus, which can be seen in the way they interact with their brothers and sisters on a daily basis outside of the Church. Instead of meditating on "holy mysteries" (which I sometimes think is Vatican-speak for "we've made up an implausible explanation, but because we're in charge, you have to believe it or you're endangering your soul's hope of heaven), my friends are simply following Jesus' greatest commandments -- "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and strength, and love your neighbour as you love yourself," but apart from any institution.

I could go on and on, but I already have. So I'll end with last week, when my eldest daughter googled "why can't women be priests?" and came up with the following commentary from a blog somewhere. The line in red angered her beyond speech:
The Church was not given the authority to ordain women and thus can't ordain women.  It's not a matter of won't ordain or cultural traditions. Women are held in such high esteem by God that they have not been chosen to serve Him in a servant's capacity like a priest.... Women were not meant to be the sacrifice...if that were so, God would have had an only begotten daughter... He was not afraid to break cultural norms, that argument is ridiculous.... It is up to us to serve God in the roles He intended. Let it be done unto us as He wills.
It's an anonymous comment, but if I could, I would be tempted to ask its writer the following questions: How do we know that Jesus and God would still insist on a male only priesthood in 2012? And if women are held in such high esteem that they are not chosen to be priests, what does that say about men who are? If Jesus wasn't afraid to break cultural norms, why has the Church ignored women all these years? And who is to say what God intends? Human beings and human institutions? Form an institution, and everything seems to get a lot more complicated than it was orginally intended to be. Including the most recent translation of liturgical prayer, but I've already ranted on that.

I know it will take a lot of adjustment for the people of God in the Catholic church if the priesthood is opened equally to all believers. But I also deeply believe the Church would be a much healthier place if it wasn't running on so much testosterone. The Church has always managed to cope with growing pains of various kinds. Of course, it may take a few lifetimes for things to change... unless the Holy Spirit jumps in, as She and He did with Vatican II.

All I can say to my angry and speechless daughter is, "I know, my girl, I know. Let's pray that the institutional Church soon educates itself and others about how to respect women as equals rather than inventing all sorts of semantically silly reasons that they're not fit to serve. Let's pray that the hierarchy gives thinking people of God some credit, and soon. If clerical gender roles were switched, and only women could serve God in the priestly role, you can bet men would be clamouring for justice the way women are now. But in the meantime, let's keep our eyes on Jesus and try not to let frustrations like this get in the way of our relationship with him."

Of course, this is only my opinion. God bless us all. Come, Holy Spirit!

(Click here for "Mom, why can't women be priests?" Part II.)


  1. All arguments against the ordination of women are garbage and there are too many to comment on in this little space. You're right... keep your eyes on Jesus, live as Wisdom instructs and all shall be well. Love one another and let the rest be. Amen.

  2. There are no theological arguments for refusing ordination to women. I was so impressed by the blog you wrote, that I showed it to our priest. He smiled and said that there was nothing in his vocation that a woman could not do with the same love and fervour. And then he preached on your daughters at the morning Mass the next day.
    I thought you might like to know.

    1. Thanks. Wise priests are everywhere, but they're silenced by Obedience... another thing that makes this all the more painful.

  3. I'd like to see a copy of that homily - I'm sure it would be very interesting reading!

  4. Thanks Maria, This was very inspiring and well thought out. You have a stunning way with words. Keep these to publish one day.

  5. Thanks. It's already published here, at least.

  6. This is so good- sums up exactly how I have been feeling as well. I'd like to know where you read the writings of Mary Magdalene, and I'd also like to read your rant on the liturgical changes that have happened in our Church...where would I find these? Thanks Maria.

    1. The Gospel of Mary Magdalen can be found in Cynthia Bourgeault's The Meaning of Mary Magdalen: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity. As for my ranting, send me an email (under my profile on the side) and I'll email it to you. It's not posted in my moodlings.

  7. Beautiful reflection. Thanks for sharing. I'm praying for, and about, this too. Not sure about being an obedient servant of the Church but always try to discern God's will. In this case, I know the choice of who the Church will allow to serve as officially ordained ministers and how and in what manner they will be appointed to do so is up to the Church, that God has allowed us to make this choice. It concerns me, for everyone's souls that it seems on the face of it the all-male hierarchy appears to be willfully blind, or maybe deluding itself in thinking that it speaks specifically for God in these matters and can only do so as it has done before (whatever that means when we are talking about a culturally/linguistically specific ritual whose many forms have to adjust to account for localities anyway..)

    When the pope said the Church is not authorized to ordain women, because Jesus did not say they could. I am not sure if that is some kind of joke or not, because I don't think Jesus ever said they could or should pass on their authority this way to begin with. We've always been figuring out as they go along and should probably own that. For a start. Then address the manner we're doing it in and how selection of bishops and priests now includes non-Jewish males from around the world, and people whose first language is not Latin or Greek or Hebrew or Aramaic. The whole thing is rather silly to me, and only serious and probably worth discussing inasmuch as why certain choices, and why the Church is saying they don't have the authority to ordain people of the female gender if the Church is open to receiving women as priests and bishops now. That is the part that concerns me, if misogyny or pride is involved. That was like 20 cents. God bless.

    1. Thanks for your reflections, too. The more people I talk with, the more these very ideas are emphasized over and over...


Take a minute and tell me what you think...