On “Popes, Priesthood, and Patriarchy”

There are a lot of good things to say about the Catholic Church’s stance on immigration, its political, intellectual, and cultural diversity, its teachings on social and economic justice, and its respect for the spiritual and intellectual gifts of women – outside the important exception of the priesthood.  I have many Catholic friends whose faith I respect, many of whom have been inspired by their faith to be committed to social justice issues, including feminism, anti-racism, and LGBT rights.

That said, a lot of official Catholic theology on gender and sexuality is taken right out of the Christian patriarchy playbook. I guess depending on who you ask, Catholic and Orthodox church fathers wrote the Christian patriarchy playbook.  Or maybe it was Paul.  Anyway.  Catholic teaching on the priesthood, birth control, homosexuality, and transgenderism are all defended in part by rationales that are, in their essence, not so different from complementarian beliefs about gender and sexuality.

I just came across a defense of the male-only priesthood titled (appropriately enough) “Popes, Priesthood, and Patriarchy” by Father Stephen Wang, a British Catholic priest.  Fr. Wang is responding to an ad campaign urging the Church to ordain women, scheduled to run during the Pope’s upcoming visit to London.  There are a lot of arguments in his piece that don’t quite hold up to logical scrutiny – like his claim that women are in the same position as the vast majority of men who aren’t Catholic priests, either, or his claim that Jesus could have included women among the twelve disciples, the first priests according to Catholic teaching, but chose not to.

But the bottom line of Wang’s argument, and the theology behind the male-only priesthood, is that maleness is a better representation of Christ than femaleness:

This teaching is not at all a judgment on women’s abilities or rights. It says something about the specific role of the priest in Catholic understanding – which is to represent Jesus, to stand in his place . . . . A woman, as much as a man, can reflect the love of Jesus, and help others to know his presence through her faith and witness. But it shouldn’t surprise us if we expect a man to stand ‘in the person of Christ’ as a priest, to represent Jesus in his humanity – a humanity that is not sexually neutral. [Emphasis mine]

No matter how much Fr. Wang claims that this teaching is compatible with belief in “fundamental equality between all human beings,” there’s no way of getting around the fact that he’s saying women are less like Jesus by virtue of our sex and gender than men.  If we’re less able to stand at the altar and represent Jesus than men, then we’re both less than men, and less like God than men.

Fr. Wang defends the male-only priesthood on the grounds that “humanity . . . is not sexually neutral” and that the equality of all human beings “does not mean that our sexual identity as men and women is interchangeable. Gender is not just an accident.”  It’s so interesting to me how defenders of gender essentialism so often use strawman arguments to undermine support for gender equality.  I’ve never heard anyone who believes that gender and sex aren’t binary argue any of these things, least of all that humanity is sexually neutral!

Gender equality doesn’t mean we all fade into a sexless, genderless, sexually neutral, undifferentiated blob of sameness and blandness.  It means the exact opposite, that we finally recognize and appreciate how varied and diverse humans are.  It means finally embracing the reality that biological sex, gender, and sexuality exist on a non-linear spectrum, and that they are every bit as individual as humans are in all other respects.

In fact, it’s gender essentialists who push rigid sameness on people, by insisting that human diversity can be reduced to static, universal concepts of “male” and “female.”  They insist on heteronormativity, the idea that all of us have to fit in only one of two rigid categories: “masculine” males attracted to women, or “feminine” females attracted to men.  It’s gender essentialists who deny all variety or ambiguity in sex, gender, or sexuality.  It’s gender essentialists who assume that one man is interchangeable for another, that a man is innately more suited to represent Jesus just because both have a penis.*

I’m not a Christian anymore, but I still find inspiration and beauty in the Christian belief that we’re all equally created in the image of God.  We’re all equally able to show divine love, mercy, kindness, and justice to each other.  Fighting heteronormativity in the church means fighting the assumption that anyone is more or less created in the image of God – more or less able to represent Christ to others – just because of their sex, gender, or sexuality.  It means recognizing that traditional Christian teaching, not gender equality, imposes sexual neutrality on people by forcing them to conform to monolithic labels.  It tells people that their innate (god-given, if you will) gender and sexual identities are “accidents” – or worse, perversions – if they deviate or vary in the slightest from these labels.  This is reductive and dehumanizing.

If, as Fr. Wang says, young feminist Catholic women exhibit a “feminism that is untroubled by this Catholic understanding of the male priesthood,” I’d say that has more to do with the ability of people who are committed to any belief system, especially a religious faith, to accept some pretty extreme cognitive dissonance.  For a long time I was perfectly capable of both believing women had to submit to their husbands and being committed to feminism in other respects.  And while at the time I had questions about how to reconcile my feminist beliefs with what I was taught were the demands of my faith, I never voiced my concerns that my feminism and my version of Christianity were incompatible.  I found ways to insist that I could be both. I was wrong.


*I wonder whether intersex people whose external appearance is male qualify to “represent Jesus in his humanity” under this theology of priesthood.  There are almost certainly male-bodied intersex people in the priesthood – are they not “really” priests in Wang’s view?

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4 Comments on “On “Popes, Priesthood, and Patriarchy””

  1. Mark says:

    Dear Grace,

    Thank you for posting this very interesting argument about priesthood, and for starting the conversation about it.
    As a historian that has dealt for many years on issues of bodies, gender, and theology in the early church I feel very compelled to argue about this from what I know (little or much, that depends on the perspective) about such history.

    First. For many, many years one particular figure of the Bible has been very polemic (sadly, not always for good reasons), which I believe can help argue against this inherent patriarchy within the church: of course, I am talking about Mary Magdalene.
    It seems, in fact, that there are at least three different Marys in the Bible, according to recent discussions by philologist, theologians, and historians (see, for example, the Women in scripture: a dictionary of named and unnamed women in the Hebrew Bible, th Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical books, and the New Testament). And the references that have traditionally been linked to Mary Magdalene do not always talk about her. It also seems that, in fact, Peter as father of the church was pretty much a political, patriarchal take over, as many modern translators, theologians, and historians insist that Magdalene was, in fact, the chosen disciple (Griffit-Jones’ Beloved disciple: the misunderstood legacy of Mary Magdalene, the woman closest to Jesus. Tucket’s The Gospel of Mary. Boer’s The Mary Magdalene cover-up : the sources behind the myth. Just to mention a few… and of course, the problem with this topic is that the Da Vinci Code has made it a field impossible to work as a serious researcher). The evidence mostly comes from the fact that, in spite of what was previously believed, Magdala does not refer to a place, but rather to an office, a place between the apostles: magdala in Arameic means “magnificent”, and in Hebrew it means tower. The references in the New Testament to a place called Magdala have been proven as translations’ mistakes: is not Magdala, but rather Magadan, as was recorded on the oldest, Greek version. Mary Magdalene, “the apostle to the apostles”, “the most beloved disciple” (see the very recent King, Karen L. “Women In Ancient Christianity: The New Discoveries.” Frontline: The First Christians. Web: 2 Nov 2009). It appear that Mary was, quite possibly, a priestess of an older, polytheistic Jewish tradition, dedicated the mayor female figure of the original, Hebrew triad of gods (see Taylor, Joan E. “The Asherah, the Menorah, and the Sacred Tree”, JSOT 66 (1995) 29-54. Gospel of the Birth of Mary, written 300’s AD, supposedly written by Matthew, and the Protevangelion, written by James, Yeshua’s brother). Mary was in fact the tower, the magnificent (traditional adjectives in the Hebrew and Greek traditions to refer to priests and priestess). So, if what this scholars are arguing for is true, the ancient patriarchal model in fact represented itself by a take over in which the original disciple was cast from the group for sexism. That already would made away with Mr. Wang’s argument entirely. (And with all the traditional opposition to female priesthood… and gender discrimination, and the structure of the church itself, so we probably won’t be able to ever know one way or the other).

    Second. As I had commented in a previous post, the catholic church is very deceiving: it presents itself as an institution that allows for a great diversity within its congregation, as thus as willing to consider the voice of people to some extent. It is true that many catholics, both men and women, do participate of very different backgrounds, ideologies, and political affiliations (including feminism, socialism, liberation theology, etc), but, at the end, the church has a very strict, specific, and terrible set of teachings. At the end, those who partake with the catholic church abide to those principles, regardless of their particular set of political, social, or cultural beliefs. As you pointed out, people grow in a dual condition: they defend, for example, feminism while at the same time defend the core, basic structures of the church. That is what makes the catholic church such a terrible institution: inadvertently, discretely, silently, and “by the back door” gets some of the most terrible views about humankind and the world in everybody minds and hearts, and at the end abiding by it creates a complex relationship of accomplice and revolutionary: you want to change the church from within, but stay even if change never comes or comes in ways different than the necessary ones. This is basically what Mr. Wang’s argument is revealing: sure, we don’t allow husbands to hit their wives anymore; we even condemn it! And yet we teach women that they cannot represent Jesus, and they must be submissive to their husbands (divorce is not accepted by the church, not even if your husband hits you, in which case you can only restore to what is called the “separations of bodies”, which basically mean you don’t have to cohabit with your violent husband, but remind married and thus must remind celibate for the rest of your life, because your body belongs to the same husband that abused you).

    Finally. We must remember that what we call the church these days (whether roman, anglican, ortodox, mormon, etc) is an institution that is the result of political conciliation and decisions–in this particular case, Paul romanizing the teachings of Jesus and the apostles to make them empathetic to the roman, wealthy elite of “white” sexist, misogynistic, classist, xenophobic men, so focused on their penis (and Jesus’) as most men today.
    If we follow the Gnostic and apocryphal evangel, god is a female, and first created a woman, from which Adam was born.

    • Grace says:

      Mark, thanks for all of these excellent points, and especially the information on biblical translation/interpretation. It’s really fascinating. The little reading I’ve done definitely concurs with what you’ve said – that traditionalist claims about what the bible says on women and gender are just not backed up by the bible itself, or the other sources we have to put the bible in context.

      At the end abiding by it creates a complex relationship of accomplice and revolutionary: you want to change the church from within, but stay even if change never comes or comes in ways different than the necessary ones.

      Yes. I respect my Catholic friends who fight for LGBT rights, but I don’t see any evidence that the Church will change any time soon on the issue of homosexuality – and it’s not just that their stance is that it’s evil and unnatural, it’s also that they’ve been so vehemently against the use of condoms to prevent AIDS for almost 30 years now, with no signs of backing down from that. On the one hand the church was willing to take care of gay people dying of AIDS, but refused to support measures that would prevent them from getting AIDS in the first place. That’s an objectively evil stance, in my opinion, but like you say, it’s obscured by the language of social justice that’s so common in the Church and by the fact that the Church does in some respects do things to address social justice issues.

  2. Toranse says:

    And by turning us into cookie cutter molds, they imply that God – who was creative enough to create different species of everything, to make everything so unique – was only able to make two kinds of humans who must function only within the set behaviors of their specific gender. Why would the “pinnacle of God’s creation” be so limited in comparison to everything else He created? They lessen their own God.

    (I’m coping and pasting this paragraph from a comment I left on another blog): God created me to be a unique individual. My gender is only part of that unique individual – I’m not defined by it any more than I’m defined singularly by any other aspect of myself. All things – my gender, environment, family, friends, brain chemistry, soul, decisions, and circumstances – come together to create who I am. And who am I to destroy that person based on someone else’s arbitrary standards of gender?

    I could never reconcile the idea that God gave us unique gifts and talents that He wants us to use (an idea I was told all the time) at the same time that I had to be restricted by my gender. It seemed like a backwards way of approaching God – as though first we look at our restrictions, and then decide what it is we are. If God is so great, grand, and bigger than life, shouldn’t the door be open to all possibilities and all the things He could have created for us to be and do?

    (As you can tell, I still am a Christian, albeit a very confused one who isn’t sure what exactly to believe in terms of ideology and doctrine)

    • Grace says:

      And by turning us into cookie cutter molds, they imply that God – who was creative enough to create different species of everything, to make everything so unique – was only able to make two kinds of humans who must function only within the set behaviors of their specific gender. Why would the “pinnacle of God’s creation” be so limited in comparison to everything else He created? They lessen their own God.

      Great point.


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