Originally posted November 9, 2016.
I have been wanting to write this piece for a very, very, very long time now. It has been gathering strength like the winds and rains of a storm inside my chest cavity for many months, but I wanted to wait until this specific week, National Vocation Awareness Week, to address an issue that has morphed for me from an annoying hypocrisy to what might end up of being one of the main causes that steers me for the rest of my life, and, increasingly likely, the reason I may finally and officially abandon the faith into which I was baptized. And, if it is perhaps true that the Lord really does *grimaces eternally* have a plan (or a very sick and unsettling sense of humor), this week happens to overlap with the election of a known sexist over a qualified, capable, willing, graceful, strong woman to our nation’s highest office, so the storm inside is now brewing over something within that was swiftly decimated last night when the glass ceiling I dreamed of shattering was firmly protected.
I begin with a question I have been asked a number of times, by non-religious people and atheists, by non-Christians, and by non-Catholics, a question I myself have asked of teachers and clergy: “Why can’t women be priests?”
The answer is simple: Sexism. Sexism is the absolute only answer to that question.
Of all the stances the Church has taken, especially ones with which I do not agree, the ban on female ordination is the one that blackens my vision and crawls down my throat, suffocating, to take root in my heart. I do not agree with the Church in regards to same-sex marriage, abortion, or premarital sex, among many other things, and I own that disagreement (more to come in a later piece on how I feel about my theology and personal faith versus Church teaching), but at the very least I can see from where the purest intentions behind those stances come. And by “purest”, I mean least controlling, judgmental, bigoted, misogynistic intentions, the ones that maybe have to do with some sort of perceived understanding of the Judeo-Christian God, or at least with an innocent but harmful swallowing of what others lording over you have told of this God. But the exclusion of women from the priesthood has no excuse. There is no reason I have ever heard in my life that has not come off as paltry, flimsy, ridiculous, or mean. To exclude women from answering the calls that they most certainly experience based solely on the fact that they are women is sexist, and to defend or concede to it is sexist behavior.
Lest we ever forget, the Catholic Church is very much a literal patriarchy. The head of it is called our Papa, for Christ’s sake. We refer to – admittedly, following in the example of Jesus of Nazareth, who was raised in and aimed to reform Second Temple Judaism – our genderless God as Father. Faith is an abstract concept, a virtue, a feeling that can be transformed into action, but faith is very different from religion. Faith allows me to ideologically understand and accept that a term is just a term, that we cannot even conceive of the nature of God, and so we use human terms that fall short of the impossible perfect description so that our limited minds can conceptualize and visualize, even if that visualization – of God as a man – is theologically incorrect. But faith can only take one so far. The Catholic Church is a religion, and as a religion it says that it understands God best, and God does not want women for the priesthood.
Being a priest is not the same as being a pastor. In the Catholic religion, priesthood is a high calling, a special role. A priest is separate from the layperson, though he serves him or her as a moral guide and intercessor between the lay congregation and God. A priest refrains from sex and marriage, unlike a pastor with a family. A priest not only preaches, but asserts himself as Christ’s representative on earth. He speaks on Christ’s behalf and acts in place of him during sacramental rituals, citing the succession of the apostles – specifically Peter – as his main claim to do so. So because the Church bases all of its authority on that succession, within its very gilded skeleton is the inextricable conceit that priests (and cardinals and bishops) are the upholders of Church doctrine. To say that one does not necessarily adhere to the idea that priests are any more entitled to interpreting the Word of God than anyone else, as I don’t, is all well and good, and is probably felt by many, many modern Catholics, but because of the very structure of the Church, it must be understood that practicing under this belief inherently undermines one’s own technical Catholicism (again, more on all that good stuff in a later piece).
And so, because of the power that priests hold in their churches, and because all priests are men, men are inarguably the most powerful people in the Catholic Church. You can fall back on your ideology that tells you that all are equal in the eyes of God, that in Christ there is no “Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female”, but in reality that is not the case. These men are literally claiming the authority of God on this issue. I can believe that I am equal to every man inside a church, but the one on the pulpit erodes that lofty theological truth before my very eyes.
We are told that men and women are in fact equally created and loved, but that we are inherently called to different roles within the Church body, that we naturally have different gifts. Fuck that. You know who said that? A man. That’s the whole point. Men said all these things. And they will continue to say all these things. Women did not and do not oppress and suppress themselves, obviously. Sure, there are women (some of whom I know well) who very much fall in line with the Church’s ruling and agree wholeheartedly that men alone should be ordained, but there was never, ever, ever a council on which women sat and added their voices to the ultimate decision. Never. And do not be mistaken: there were women leaders of churches. They existed before the priesthood was established and organized as the hierarchy we have today, and so I hesitate to call them priests in this context, but they ran churches. They preached. THEY WERE CALLED DEACONS (special shout-out to the abhorrent theology teacher in my high school who said that when a woman in the New Testament is referred to as a deacon, which means ‘servant’, she was just that, while male deacons were actually the ones tasked with running things: I’ll never forgive that insult, especially when I was the only person in class who even knew about the female deacons). Those women existed, whether their names were written down or not; I cite 1 Corinthians 14:34 – “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says” – and paraphrase my graduate thesis advisor: if they had to strike it down, that most likely means it was happening.
Uncomfortably recently, the beloved and – a bit sadly – most progressive of our modern popes, Francis, told a journalist that the ban on women priests would likely always remain. His argument was that Pope John Paul II closed that door in a 1994 apostolic letter, and that JPII’s word was clear and (mystifyingly) final. This was the best argument a Jesuit-trained scientist could offer. Just… we already said no, and no take-backs. The same institution that canonized Joan of Arc after she was burned as a heretic by Inquisitors, and decided that maybe they would admit that they were wrong about Galileo centuries after making him stand trial for his astronomical findings, has decided, based on the words of one pope, that this simple matter of allowing women full equality and power is a closed chapter. They can change the words of the Mass, but not who presides over it.
This is nothing. This is not a real answer. There is no stately matter that can be put to rest with finality, especially in terms of progress and a world that is different than it was two thousand years ago. This answer has no basis in Scripture, for those who view that as the ultimate authority of the will of God (I do not). The apostle-dependent Church perhaps could rely more on the vile words of Paul in 1 Corinthians (I’m sure it does, depending on which church you attend), but instead I frequently hear that because Jesus had twelve male disciples, that is proof enough that God only wants men to be priests.
Oh, the ways in which I loathe the “twelve apostles” argument.
The same nauseating teacher I mentioned earlier once tackled the woman priest question by referencing something Mother Teresa apparently said, which rang to the ear-splitting tune of, if God wanted women to be priests, he would have made his own mother one.
The sheer audacity of this statement makes me grind my teeth.
First of all, just because saintly, female Mother Teresa said this thing does not make it a good argument. Second of all, to get technical in an extremely easy way, Jesus did not make anyone a priest. Jesus was a rabbi, and rabbis had disciples. He was also a human being, so, you know, he probably had close friends… maybe even twelve of them. Jesus was a Jew, and the Jews already had priests. The priestly line was believed to have dated back to Aaron, the brother of Moses, and thus it was its own sect in society. Jesus was a reformer of his own religion, not the founder of a new one. The role of the priest as the Church developed it does not stem from Jesus, or if so, it does in a way that interprets and reenacts his own actions more so than it reflects his relationships. Third of all, as I have said in a previous piece, Jesus had female disciples. Lots of them. It’s kind of what made him stand out. The fact that the Gospels that were written decades after Jesus had died makes note of twelve special men does not make me believe that women are somehow unfit for or unworthy of the priesthood. And fourth of all… really? His mother? Catholics love to make much out of the relationship between Jesus and Mary, but if you go back and actually read the Gospels, their interactions are unsettling and leave a lot up to potentially dark interpretation. There’s no real indication there that he even particularly liked her, let alone would have considered her an important part of his inner circle and new world order. So Mother Teresa may have gotten it backwards – if Jesus had wanted his mother to be part of his mission, wouldn’t he have let her in?
This entire “answer” is a speculative anecdote. It is not good enough for me. A woman was the first witness to the Resurrection. Those male disciples were worth jack shit when the moment of tribulation actually arrived; they fled, and the women stayed and pried their weeping eyes opened and watched him die. They buried them. The male disciples argued over who would sit next to Jesus in heaven, while a woman humbled herself before him, washed his feet with her tears, and dried them with her hair.
So no, I will not just swallow a pithy line about Mary. Not when someone without a uterus tells me what I can or cannot do with my body, without even a modicum of empathy or compassion or medical expertise. Not when I have never heard a woman at a lectern speak with authority on what is referred to as the word of the Lord. Not when we are told to be like Mary, whose most laudable virtue in the eyes of the Church was that she was obedient, even to her own detriment, and who we have crowned Queen of Heaven but who is a more impressive and independent figure in the Quran than she is in the Bible, where the author of Matthew never even assigns her dialogue.
And let me also clarify that none of this is meant to disparage nuns and sisters. A lot of those women are unsung fucking heroes. They are the ones who are actually taking care of the sick, the helpless, and the vulnerable, and they almost never get any credit for it, which is ultimately only okay because they aren’t doing it for credit. American nuns have gotten a finger-wagging from the Vatican for spending too much time attending to the needs of the world and not enough promoting anti-abortion and anti-gay agendas. Those women get up every day and do the Lord’s work, and they still have to ultimately be obedient to a bishop. Bless the women who are doing good in spite of their hierarchical lowness, for hopefully the last shall be first and the first shall be last, if there’s any justice.
But to those who say women who feel called to the priesthood should become nuns, I want to make it clear: those are two different vocations. Vocations don’t just drop from the sky and fall into a certain slot based on the gender of the person receiving the call. Priests, as I have said, are entrusted with special responsibilities. Priests get to preach. Priests get to perform transubstantiation. Priests get to preside over weddings and funerals, and baptize in ceremonial and non-emergency situations. Priests get to wear the way cooler dresses. So the work of nuns and sisters is certainly important, and the call to that life is beautiful and seems to be heeded rarely these days, but it is not the same work as that done by a priest. It just isn’t. And the number of nuns – including Doctor of the Church Thérèse of Lisieux – who probably wanted to actually be a priest is all the more heart-wrenching in a world where women have had to fight to gain the right to do almost every single job we hold, in a world where the Church laments over the lack of priests.
I have sat through Masses where I was instructed to pray for an increase in vocations to holy orders, and the priesthood specifically, and I have refused. Not because I don’t pity the poor priests who are stretched so thin among various parishes and whose work suffers from their increasing and uninspiring responsibilities, but because it is absurd to plead so desperately in front of a congregation full of people who cannot even be considered for the job. There is a drought, and they refuse to draw from the well. I have heard older priests make arguments for lifting the requirement of celibacy (which was not enforced until the Middle Ages, when they were trying to staunch the issue of nepotism within the hierarchy) and I have felt for these men who have lived without sex and companionship and whose only close relatives may be elderly. But that lift benefits them quite directly. We would absolutely have more priests then. But some of those same priests did not even acknowledge ordaining women in their bemoaning homilies. And I had to sit there and listen, but no more. Not ever again.
I have been ignored in theology classes and at retreats because me being good at theology couldn’t help the priest shortage. I also attended an Episcopal service and started to cry when they mentioned their bishop and her name was Catherine. I met an amazing priest at that parish who interrupted me ten minutes into one of our first conversations to tell me I should be in seminary. I earned my master’s degree in theology and thought about my vitriolic high school principal who never let girls altar serve and always took the boys he picked for his Masses out to lunch. I sat in the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine and listened to a gay bishop speak frankly with married women priests, both gay and straight, about sex, while seated on the altar, under a crucifix. I plan to attend a Catholic Mass presided over by a woman priest because – and here’s the best fucking part – there are Roman Catholic women priests. They completely and beautifully exist. They do not give a shit that the Vatican won’t recognize their ordinations. Anonymous and amazing bishops ordain them with all the sacramental rites, and they do the jobs they were called to do. They are better than me, whose commitment to Catholicism wavers, who might leave the Church even as I promise myself that even from the outside I will never give up their cause. They fight for eventual change, but in the meantime, they get to work. They take on the world with the open arms of a man stretched out on a cross. And they don’t need to have the same genitalia as him in order to share his light.