On “Popes, Priesthood, and Patriarchy”Posted: August 31, 2010
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?