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?


Sunday round up (late night version)

Some of this week’s religion and gender news, short and sweet this time!

Sign a petition asking CA Gov. Schwarzenegger to end the shackling of pregnant inmates. (CA residents only)

Presbyterian (PCUSA) clergy and elders can sign the Minneapolis Declaration of Conscience, a petition supporting marriage equality in the church.

Catholics for Equality, an LGBT rights Catholic group, just launched.  Some non-Catholic LGBT activists are skeptical.

An ad campaign urging the Catholic Church to ordain women will run during the Pope’s visit to London next month. (ht TheSliverParty).

A columnist at the Catholic Exchange “advises” a trans woman: “It is better to die than to offend God.” What happened to sanctity of life? (ht knitmeapony)

The National Organization for Marriage’s Rhode Island Director compares gay parents to dead parents.  Very Classy.  Also super Christ-like.

Like the debate over gender roles, the debate over gay marriage has parallels to the 19th-century debat e in the States over slavery. (ht KidCharlemgn/Outside of Eden).

Ecclesia de Lange, a South African Methodist Minister, has been suspended for performing a same sex marriage.

This series of articles by Juliet Jacques on her gender reassignment journey is very worth reading.

GLAAD has their weekly LGBT religion news roundup here.

Sunday roundup

Some of this week’s religion, gender, and sexuality news, starting with some international news:

Sakineh Mohammadi-Ashtiani, an Iranian woman sentenced to be executed for allegedly committing adultery, has “confessed” to being an accomplice in her late husband’s death.  The likely coerced confession has led Human Rights Watch to sound the alarm that Iran may be planning to execute her shortly.  An interview with Ashtiani’s former lawyer, now seeking asylum in Norway, is here.  A petition to free Ashtiani can be found here. (Via Elizabeth Esther.)

Mexico’s Supreme Court has upheld Mexico City laws allowing gay marriages and adoptions by gay and lesbian couples.  Gay marriages and adoptions are legal only in Mexico City, but must be recognized throughout the country.  Mexico mayor Marcelo Ebrard has filed a lawsuit claiming defamation against Guadalajara Cardinal Juan Sandoval refused to retract accusations that Mexican Supreme court took bribes to make these rulings.  Sandoval is also under fire for using the Spanish equivalent of “fa**ot” in decrying the Court’s decision to uphold the adoption law.  Meanwhile, an archdiocesan spokesman claims the mayor has caused harm to Mexico City than the drug cartels and has compared him to Francisco Franco and Augusto Pinochet in being a “fascist . . . [with] an undeniable desire to persecute the church.”  Unsurprisingly, he is also being sued for defamation by the mayor.  Good heavens.  Stay classy, Mexican Catholic officials!

Closer to home, 10 year old Will Phillips is putting marriage equality opponents on notice.  This kid must scare the pants off the NOM crowd.

Laura at The Redheaded Skeptic has a great four-post series on how Focus on the Family ruins families, starting with a post on Dobson’s book The Strong Willed Child.

Vyckie at No Longer Quivering on how women get lured into and stuck in the patriarchy trap: Husbands love your wives: the peanut butter in the patriarchy trap.

Excellent post by Rita Nakashima Brock on marriage in the Bible that carefully picks apart marriage equality opponents’ claims that the Bible unanimously supports their definition of “traditional marriage”:

The Bible presents multiple views of marriage, and most actual marriages it depicts are terrible by modern standards. “Traditional marriages” in ancient biblical times were arranged as transfers of the ownership of daughters. The tenth commandment lists wives among properties like houses and slaves: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor” (Exodus 20:17, also found in Deuteronomy 5:21). Marriages occurred via deception, kidnapping, adulterous seductions, theft, rape, and murder, and were often in multiples so that the pater familias could amass land, flocks, and progeny and cement political alliances. Abraham, David, and Solomon had marriages that would be illegal today. The book of Hosea likens the mercy of God to a husband who has the right to beat or kill his adulterous wife, but spares her — for this, she was supposed to be grateful. When women seek marriages, such as Naomi arranged for Ruth, it was to avoid an even worse fate such as destitution.

GLAAD also has a great weekly LGBT religion news roundup.

Sunday news roundup

Some religion, gender, and sexuality news from the past week:

Freedom for Christian Women Coalition calls on Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood to apologize for harmful teachings of female submission.

Argentina legalizes gay marriage despite opposition from Catholic leadership.

A federal judge upheld Eastern Michigan University’s decision to expel a Christian student in their counseling program who refused to work with gay patients.

In a similar case, a Christian student at Augusta State University’s school of counseling has alleged that she was threatened with expulsion because of her religious views on homosexuality, and is filing suit against the school. Jennifer Keeton claims she was ordered to take sensitivity training or face expulsion after she stated in class that homosexuality is an immoral lifestyle choice.  More on these two cases in a future post!

Phillis Schafly claims President Obama is “subsidizing” illegitimate babies to increase his voter base. Great commentary from Robin Marty at RH Reality Check: “Remember, these are the people who fight against birth control, and say that there should be no access to abortion. Oddly enough, it doesn’t look like they want people to have babies, either.”

Encouraging news:  New poll from Public Religion Research Institute finds slight majority of Californians support marriage equality. Latino Catholics were the most supportive out of religious groups of gay marriage (57%), followed by white mainline Protestants and white Catholics (54% and 51%)  Latino Protestants were much less likely than Latino Catholics to approve of marriage equality (22%).

Anne Rice Quits Christians, Still Dates Jesus. More at Huffington Post: “In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control . . . In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen.”

I think we’ll see a lot more Christians making this choice in the future (and many already have).  I have a lot of respect for progressives who work for change within the institution of the church, and I think their work is tremendously important.  But for some people remaining in the church feels tantamount to endorsing oppressive doctrines and discrimination, and working for change outside the church seems a more coherent option.