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Women Priests in the Catholic Church
As Catholics, we are taught that our faith is descended from Jesus. We are told that more so than Lutherans, Anglicans, Episcopalians, and Protestants of all kinds, we can trace our bloodline back to Peter, the rock and the Pope. We are chosen. We are special. We are the sons of the Son of Man. We find our proof in our history. From Francis on back, we can see the long, straight line back into the times of our Savior, when He gave the apostles the ability to forgive sins and gifted us with our first priests. Our affirmation of our very existence as Catholics is in found in our papal history, male after male after male. We are chosen and special because of the special men we’ve chosen to represent us.
But half of us could never join that line, no matter how hard we tried. Half of us would be heretics if we attempted to become just one link on that chain of connection to Jesus. Half of us are excommunicated for doing what thousands of young men are begged to do every day. We are the women of the Catholic Church. We are your wives, your daughters, your sisters, your mothers, your aunts, your grandmothers who are guilting you into coming to mass in the first place. We are your secretaries and nurses and flight attendants, your bosses and doctors and pilots. We are your schoolgirls in the uniforms with the knee-socks and pleated skirts and polo shirts. We are your scientists and lawyers and professors and dentists and admirals. But no matter what Barbie tells us we can become, we will never, ever be your priests.
Why? Why can’t women become priests in the Catholic Church? There are plenty of answers to that question, many of which will be in seen in a moment. But the tricky question is not why can’t, but why shouldn’t. Why shouldn’t women become priests in the Catholic Church? In my opinion, the latter question has no satisfying answer. To show how this is true, we must take the answers to the former query and scrutinize them as objectively as we can. If we want to get as close as possible to understanding what God intends for the priesthood, we must analyze without biases or social pressure. So—why can’t women become priests in the Catholic Church?
1.) There were no female apostles.
“Jesus chose men as his apostles, and the ‘apostles did the same when they chose collaborators to succeed them their ministry.’” said a National Catholic Reporter online article about papal theologian Fr. Wojciech Giertych, the personal theologian of past pope, Pope Benedict XVI, and his stance on women priests. Fr. Giertych holds the belief of many other Catholic officials, that the fact that none of Jesus’s twelve apostles were women proves He wanted no women priests.
Now, Jesus’s choosing men as apostles had nothing to do with not wanting to upset the social boundaries of the time, as some advocates for female priesthood have argued. However, neither did it have to do with excluding women from priestly ordination, as Fr. Giertych claims. It wasn’t that Jesus didn’t want women to serve Him as priests. In Jesus’s time and place, a woman priest simply couldn’t have had the same power, credibility, and safety preaching as a man could.
"Christ was courageous with respect to the local social customs, He was not afraid to be countercultural," Fr. Giertych said, arguing that if Jesus wanted women priests, He would have chosen women apostles, no matter what the time and place. "He didn't follow the expectations of the powerful, of Pilate, of Herod. He had his own work, his own mission." But this was not about expectations, it was about being practical. A woman priest would need male supervision and male permission to go forth and make disciples of all nations, and would be looked down upon and in danger wherever she went. It wouldn’t have been against God’s will for Jesus to choose women apostles, it would have been simply illogical. For the same reason there were no Samaritan apostles or physically disabled apostles or white apostles. Not because those groups were excluded from priesthood, but because they couldn’t have gotten the job done in that time and place.
As for the apostles not picking women, the same could be applied, as well as the fact that the twelve, unlike Jesus, were faulted men, growing up completely and imperfectly human and conditioned, whether or not they liked it, to the social structures of the their time. So, they may have intentionally excluded women from further priesthood because of socially ingrained beliefs that were just too sacred to break. However, that does not mean that women should be deprived of fulfilling a call to the priesthood in our own time and place.
2.) Jesus was a man, and priests are taking the place of Jesus, so they have to be men, too.
The role of a priest in the church is to serve in the spiritual image of Christ. Like Christ, priests can forgive sins and perform transubstantiation on the Eucharist. This is why priests do not marry or have children. They stay as close to Christ as possible. Fr. Giertych argues that maleness in part of that image that priests must uphold."The son of God became flesh, but became flesh not as sexless humanity but as a male," Giertych said.
But to come as “sexless humanity” would have been a very strange path for Jesus to take. In His time especially, humans were male or female; there was no in between. He could not have been neither, both, or changing. There were two options for the child of God—male or female. It is more of a case of his choosing male, and not deliberately NOT choosing female.
Jesus was a man or the same reason that He chose men to become his apostles. A female Jesus wouldn’t have had the same freedom as a male one. She would have to work twelve times as hard at everything and still be spurned as blasphemous or not worth listening to because of her sex. Jesus traveled, gained powerful followers, and captivated willing crowds with his sermons. A female Jesus would be in danger or even legal trouble traveling without male supervision; no respectable men would ever answer to a woman as “rabbi”, no matter how close to God She seemed; and the society as a whole would not sit and listen openly to Her ideas. A woman would be just as likely to gain such a following in Jesus’s time as a four-year-old would be elected president in ours. The female Jesus would have been married off at twelve and died in childbirth at fourteen. Because of the time and place, male Jesus was the way to go.
Now, this does not mean that God, a genderless spirit, is male, too. Yes, it is true that the Church and largely the world as a whole honors Him as a Father, shows all images of Him as male, and refers to him using he/him pronouns. But this is not a product of theological truth, but of the patriarchy that has led and, more often than not, corrupted religion since before even Jesus’s birth. It is because of this patriarchy that women can’t be priests and that Jesus came as a man, not because of God’s supposed masculinity. Jesus’s being a man says nothing about his Father’s gender or about the opportunities women should have in the Church, and everything about how far misogynistic society can bring the Church from Jesus.
Now, in the alternate assumption that Jesus’s physical representation as a male IS important to the priesthood, all His other physical characteristics would be equally important by the same logic. No priests could be white, or black, or Chinese, or Japanese, or Korean, or Vietnamese. No priests could be extremely tall or extremely short, or in a wheelchair or otherwise physically impaired. No priest could need glasses or have perfectly straight teeth or blonde hair. No priest could be very fat or very skinny, because, just as a female is physically different than the corporal Jesus, these traits would make a man physically different than the corporal Jesus. These are placing more importance on Jesus’s physical being than his spiritual one. It is impractical and unimportant that a priest matches Jesus physically. What is important is that he or she is called to Him spiritually.
3.) Men have better-suited temperaments for the priesthood, whereas women are better outside of it.
As part of his further argument, Fr. Giertych went on to say that “Men are more likely to think of God in terms of philosophical definitions and logical syllogisms, a quality valuable for fulfilling a priest's duty to transmit church teaching.” He says they love the church in a “male way”, shown by concern about “about structures, about the buildings of the church, about the roof of the church which is leaking, about the bishops' conference, about the concordat between the church and the state.”, apparently all very macho things to care about.
Women, on the other hand, can perceive the “proximity of God” and have a better and more personal relationship with him, Giertych said, which would evidently be too lovey-dovey for the priesthood. "Women have a special access to the heart of Jesus," he said, "in a very vivid way of approaching him, of touching him, of praying with him, of pouring ointment on his head, of kissing his feet."
This argument assumes that all men act “like men” and all women act “like women”. But what really is “like a woman” or “like a man”? According to Giertych, it seems, men are practical, they are problem-solvers, they are concerned with physical and political matters like building upkeep and the separation of church and state. They interact with the real world as intellectuals. Women, on the other hand, are contemplative, loving, motherly, touchy-feely, and concerned with feelings more than physical truths. They interact with spiritual world in a largely emotional way.
Nothing is wrong with being intellectual, and nothing is wrong with being emotional. However, it is when these two polar characteristics get assigned genders when they become damaging. It is simply evident from living life in the world that not all men and women act the way that Giertych thinks they should, and to say that they do is damaging to both females and males. Just because the Blessed Virgin Mary was a maternal figure or the woman who poured oil on Jesus’s head was emotional doesn’t mean all women are. Women are told they are not intellectual, but live under the stars that couldn’t have been explored without Katharine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson. Men are told they are not emotional, but breathe the same air expelled from the lungs of Lord Byron as he spoke romantic poetry.
We cannot, as a society, say “women are this, males are that.” This is just as dangerous and offensive as saying that all Asians are good at math and all Jewish people are cheats and all blonde-haired people are stupid. It generalizes and turns a human into a category instead of a person. The fact that many parts of society can’t see past strict ideas of traditional masculinity applying to all males and traditional femininity applying to all females shouldn’t restrict who is allowed to answer their call to the priesthood.
4.) Women have a separate but equal place in the Church.
Some people say that just because women aren’t priests doesn’t mean they aren’t important, and doesn’t mean they are second-class citizens. A woman’s role in the Church, according to Fr. Giertych, is different, but no less important, than a man’s.
"The mission of the woman in the church is to convince the male that power is not most important in the church, not even sacramental power," he said. "What is most important is the encounter with the living God through faith and charity. So women don't need the priesthood, because their mission is so beautiful in the church anyway." He believes that the woman’s job, achieved through her inherent femininity, complements and works hand-in-hand with a man’s.
But no matter how equal or complementary they may be, the fact that we have places in the Church or in the world assigned only by our sex is damaging and unfair. Our place in the Church should be decided by our own personal strengths, characteristics, and abilities, not a label we are assigned by chance and have no opportunity to change. It is damaging to teach that an individual’s mission in the Church is so rigid and unimportant that it can be decided by mere probability rather than meditation and assessment of one’s own thoughts and feelings. Finding one’s part in the body of Jesus is an extremely big deal, and shouldn’t be reduced to a restricting dichotomy. This restricts not only females, but also males who find their personal characteristics more suited to a job seen as “woman’s work.”
Now, let’s suppose for a moment that Jesus did want the Church to be split into a separate-but-equal division of women’s duties and men’s. This, indeed, is how it functions today. The Church argues that despite its male-only priesthood, women do still perform as equals.
But is the way the Church is split up now really all that equal? Yes, women can take roles as nuns and become Brides of Christ. But there is no important duty they are allowed that priests are not. While nuns do serve Christ every day, they are still very clearly second to their male counterparts, and they are not allowed the sacrament of Holy Orders as priests are. This is not equality. It is not right that even as the Blessed Virgin Mary is venerated and praised as the Queen of Heaven, women like her are not allowed important positions in the Church here on Earth.
Denying women the priesthood because it is not their “place” is, once again, the product of the patriarchy, not of God. It shouldn’t be up to men to decide where women have the right to be. We no longer live in a society where women have to be treated as second-class citizens. Women have proven themselves to be every bit as capable as men are, in the eyes of humans and of God. So, in this day and age, a person’s “mission” for Christ should be determined by who they are as a person, not as a gender.
5.) No one has a “right” to the priesthood. One must be called, and women are not called.
A few women have begun practicing as priests in the Catholic Church. However, all of these women were immediately excommunicated. The ladies ordained in the Roman Catholic Womenpriests movement are seen as heretics who “mistakenly believe” themselves to be priests and celebrate “fake” Masses. “The feminist group, which is not in union with the Bishop of Rome, sees the priesthood as a “right” to which women are entitled.” said an online National Catholic Register article.
Such is echoed in The Catechism, the rules of the Catholic Church, itself. “No one has a right to receive the sacrament of Holy Orders. Indeed no one claims this office for himself; he is called to it by God.69 Anyone who thinks he recognizes the signs of God’s call to the ordained ministry must humbly submit his desire to the authority of the Church, who has the responsibility and right to call someone to receive orders. Like every grace this sacrament can be received only as an unmerited gift.”
It is argued that women cannot be priests because they have no right to say that they deserve the priesthood. They have no right to choose, by their own free will, to become priests. This is true. To become a priest, one needs to be called. This matter is between God and one person, not between humans. A person has no right to declare herself a priest without the will of God.
However, if this is a matter of God and God alone, shouldn’t it be God who determines whose call is legitimate, and not man? If women have no right to demand priesthood, then men have no right to decide that a woman cannot be called. The Catechism itself says that the priesthood is a gift given by God and not by people. It goes against this very belief, then, to say that a woman who believes herself called to the priesthood is wrong or even heretical.
Man decides that a woman cannot be called, man decides that a woman who believes herself called is mistaken, man decides that this woman is a heretic, and man excommunicates her. None of this has anything to do with God whatsoever. It violates the belief that priesthood is a gift to stop a woman from taking such a gift when God offers it to her. Restricting the recipients of the gift of priesthood to a single sex is going against God’s wish to call whomever he chooses.
6.) The Catechism says so.
The same National Catholic Register article offers a straightforward explanation from the Catechism.1577 “Only a baptized man (vir) validly receives sacred ordination.”
The Catechism blatantly states that only men may become priests. However, we can’t take this for fact. The Catechism, like the Bible, is a book written by men who are influenced by the social structures of their time and by their own beliefs. The rule that only men could become priests was written by a bunch of men priests. Of course THEY agree with this restriction. But that says very little about what women priests would mean for society at large and for God.
This goes back to patriarchy, a system that extends far before the times of Jesus and continues long after. The Church is religious, and the patriarchy is secular. However, we can never really have a true separation of church and state, since religions are run by humans and, for much of history, have been run by the time and place’s most socially powerful humans. Religion and society have become so muddled together that at many places, it is seen largely that to violate the society is to violate the religion.
God’s will is not based on the patriarchy. The patriarchy has been forced upon the public’s perception of God’s will. Though they are not in agreement with one another or even related, society has come to view the patriarchy as being a vital part of the Church. We cannot trust the subjective and biased views of men who are products of their society. As Christians, we must separate the Church from our social structures and view it objectively for ourselves. Instead of listening blindly to men priests who think men priests are the way to go, we must find and follow God instead.
In conclusion, it is time that we separate the Church from the patriarchal beliefs that have controlled it for so long. We no longer need to live in a world where women have fewer opportunities, where all people of the same gender are assumed to be alike, and where our sex determines our place in society. We cannot go on as Catholics telling our daughters and sisters and nieces that they can be anything they set their mind to, anything but a priest. This author firmly believes that to keep the priesthood patriarchal is the will of man, but to include women is the will of God.