The Male Priesthood — Follow Up to Comments on Women Speak for Themselves

While I am no theological expert where the priesthood is concerned, as I don’t want the question to stand as an obstacle to further conversation about what I do know well, I will tell you my thoughts. And then consider how this relates to what I do in my work as a lay Catholic woman.

As a young, graduate theology student, I felt strongly that the Church’s teaching on the male priesthood was based upon a flawed anthropology, an anthropology that regarded women as intrinsically unequal to men. Consequently, I was more than sympathetic with the notion of a female priesthood, and was happy to tell anyone in earshot that I would have been a priest, if women were admitted. (How cool is that life, I thought?! Constantly learning theology, figuring out how to assist people with their religious and practical needs…and indeed it is cool….)

My perspective changed over two decades of growing in my own vocations – to marriage and parenthood, and to the Church as an expert in marriage and family. I have worked alongside countless priests and bishops, and alongside countless laywomen and laymen. The best I can offer is this. I accept as part of the deposit of faith the still-mysterious-to-me tradition of the male priesthood. It was begun with Christ’s selection of apostles, and from the earliest days of the Church to the present, has been confirmed again and again. It is one of the body of continually-ratified teachings that an attentive Catholic can only conclude qualifies as true, and truly preserved by the Church as a body over the course of two millennia (FYI: best writing on this subject is from Sister Sara Butler of Mundelein Seminary in Chicago, a marvelous intellectual and former leader of a group of Catholics seeking women’s ordination).

This said, how do I personally grasp this matter as a female Catholic who is often called to “represent” Catholic teachings to the world? As indicated above, I see it first as the kind of “mystery” I may or may not be able/permitted to penetrate in my brief time on earth, with my limited intellect and imagination. To a worldly mind, it would seem that an acknowledgement of women’s true equality would require equal “access” to everything men do, and everywhere men work.  It would seem that a female priesthood would make it so much easier for the Church, pragmatically speaking, to gain a little more traction for its positions on matters concerning female sexuality, marriage and parenting. But then, God is not thinking with a limited, worldly mind. By granting different gifts and vocations to the two sexes, he might be reminding us in large text that there is something quite important about there being two sexes instead of one, with different gifts. That there might be something quite important about the image of the Christ as the bridegroom and the Church as the bride. That complementarity between two, opposite sexes is crucial for understanding how we are to live in the world, and how we ought to love:  with passionate fidelity; with unity as most exemplified by the possibility for the one-flesh union of the man and the woman; open to fruitfulness; and with a permanent disposition toward appreciating the “other,” who is different yet familiar; and all of this, too, in service of learning to love the neighbor, who is nonkin, as we first learned to love the other– first the opposite sex, then the child — within the family.

I actually think it is very hard, not easy, for the Church to persist in an all-male priesthood. I now see it as a sign of its determination to be faithful to its origins and its founder, even when it the whole world would pat it on the back (briefly) for changing its practices. I think it can be hard on the men who are priests and bishops too. After all the “male” original sin is “domination,” yes?   I think the all-male priesthood means that they have to struggle very, very hard  in order to avoid this sin, when (chuckle here please) a man in a close relationship with a woman will much more often be reminded that the woman is perfectly equal and perfectly competent.

Finally on this point, coming into my own vocations – as a wife and mother and as an expert laywoman in the service of the Church – has assisted my making peace with the all-male priesthood. Whereas once I thought of the latter as a power to be grasped, I now understand that all of us, priests, laywomen, and men alike, can only live out our vocation fully and with competence, if we understand ourselves to be first and foremost, in loving service to others. Now, in other words, that I know my own worth in connection with my female gifts, I see the different and beautiful worth of the male priest.  Does that ring a bell?

I do not get upset with those who take issue with me on this. It is difficult to grasp. But just because things are difficult (even mysterious) does not make them false.

Now, with all of this said, let me finish by linking this to the thread of my original remarks. My interests and abilities – and thanks be to God, they are one – concern the law and religion of human sexuality, marriage and the family. When I stopped grasping for my own empowerment via knowledge in these areas, and moved to a model of “service” – service to penetrate confusion, service to assist especially vulnerable women and men, who suffer most when sex is divorced from relationship, service to the Church by assisting her to grapple with the challenges the world lays at her doorstep—then the inclination to doubt that others are given specific vocations to service left me. And I was able to be at peace. 

  1. Mollie Hemingway
    C

    I’m not Catholic, but confessional Lutherans also retain the practice of limiting the Office of Holy Ministry to qualified males — so this is something that I had to wrestle with. My father, who is a pastor, encouraged me to just read up on the tradition and Scriptures related to this — made me write a paper on it for confirmation, in fact.

    I was just reminiscing this weekend about how strenuously I objected when I was 15 and how now, I am a huge proponent of having a male-only clergy. In addition to the tradition and Scripture, I’ve come to appreciate how it encourages male leadership. You’ll note in those Protestant denominations that have changed their teaching to have female clergy that the entire dynamic of the clergy class has changed. Some might say it’s for the better, of course, but from my perspective, I’m very thankful to have retained this historic Christian practice in our church.

  2. katievs

    I’ve never had any difficulty with the all-male priesthood.  I see it as part of the Church’s wider preservation of the divinely-designed and humanly given complementarity of the sexes.  Only men can be priests; only women can be mothers.  Men serve at the altar; women are the tabernacles.  The whole is served when the excellences of each are played up.

  3. KC Mulville

    Helen, since I asked the question in the other thread, I’m grateful for the answers (yours and Mollie & Katie so far) – very thoughtful.

    I have my own opinions about the male priesthood (I studied for the Jesuit priesthood for eight years), but hearing from you and the women of Ricochet was just too tempting an opportunity to pass up. And please, for the other women of faith, I’d love to hear more; not so much a battle over Catholic theological history, but how the three words [faith-vocation-sex] work together in your life, no matter what faith you have.

    Now, that having been said, I’m also eager to hear more “conversation about what [you] do know well” and were probably looking forward to share in the first place.

    Thank you.

  4. Mel Foil

    I think there was only one original Apostle that died peacefully in his bed–John. The rest were martyrs. That’s not typical today, but it could be again. There are plenty of female martyrs in history too, but somehow that’s harder to accept. Men are born to take the arrows. Women are born to pull the arrows out.

  5. Brian Clendinen

    Although they were rare in the Bible there were woman religious leaders. Junia was called an apostle by Paul, you also had Deborah who was one of the Judges aka the head political leader and one of the Chief religious leader of Israel. Then of course there was Esther who become along with her Uncle became the political leaders of the Jewish people in exile. 

     Therefore, I have never understood why people get hung up on this which includes my brother who includes political positions. Now the population of qualified woman who can be a lead pastor or in general a good leader is a lot smaller than men probably at least a 6th to maybe a 11th the size . So I don’t think it is healthy to have at most more than a quarter of you top leaders woman. I personally think the 10% to 12% mark in our society is about were the lead pastor/laity  position should be and close to 25% among associate pastors (assoicates tend to be more admin heavy jobs). God create men and woman different so there is going to be discrepancy in what sex is a lot better at specific areas.

  6. Goldgeller

    I don’t really know what to say. The post is interesting. I’m not Catholic– but I’m always interested in hearing how women deal with this issue.

    One thing that fascinates me so much about the “women as priests” issue how some women will look at the Church and say “I have to find another denomination” and some will say “I’ve learned to just keep quiet about it” and some will find a deeper understanding of what the Church considers it’s roles and duties to be. It’s really interesting.

  7. liberal jim

    I grew up Catholic, have been married for 45 years and a father for 40.  I consider myself a novice when it comes to love, marriage and parenting, but have concluded there infinitely more to it than I will ever begin to grasp.  When it comes to organizations that refer to themselves as “churches” I think of them as the owners of the bat and ball they are playing with and therefore entitled to make up their rules.  Assuming these organizations are playing the game as God designed it  is a dubious one at best.  

    I find little support for the idea that the Catholic priesthood began with Christ’s selection of the Apostles.  I consider the matters of the  existence of a christian priesthood and who should be a part of it trivial ones.   When I ponder the image of Christ as the Bridegroom and the church as his bride and God’s admonition to me to love my wife as Christ loved the church I find it difficult to understand why organizations busy themselves with such trivial matters.

    Have you ever considered that the idea of female inferiority is just one more manifestation of what God calls sin?

  8. Mollie Hemingway
    C
    liberal jim:

    Have you ever considered that the idea of female inferiority is just one more manifestation of what God calls sin? · 25 minutes ago

    The idea that females are inferior to men is a sin. That’s not a basis for male-only clergy, however. Or, at least, not in my church. It would be like saying men are inferior to women because Jesus had an earthly mother and not an earthly father. That’s not how the Christian church views this.

  9. Tom Lindholtz

    Helen, I rarely read long posts.  I find they rarely have a “content quotient” that befits the time they take.  But yours is exceptional!  It is not only profoundly true but it is well and beautifully crafted.  I’m hooked.  I hope your stay here in Ricochet will be lengthy.

    And, by the way, I think your emphasis on obedience first, understanding later is a thoroughly Biblical one that is exceedingly difficult for the modern Western mind to grapple with.  You’ve described and personalized that process in a beautiful way.  Thank you.

  10. Goldgeller
    Mollie Hemingway, Ed.

    liberal jim:

    Have you ever considered that the idea of female inferiority is just one more manifestation of what God calls sin? · 25 minutes ago

    The idea that females are inferior to men is a sin. That’s not a basis for male-only clergy, however. Or, at least, not in my church. It would be like saying men are inferior to women because Jesus had an earthly mother and not an earthly father. That’s not how the Christian church views this. · 33 minutes ago

    True enough. I’m happy you said this. 

    But you know… me personally, I don’t get the big deal about women priests. I think if a woman wants to be a priest, fine. I try not to comment much, because I understand many people feel strongly about the  Roman Catholic and Lutheran Church and I have no interest in diminishing the traditions which attract them to the church and to God. It’s just never been an issue for me. I’m not a crusader about this– it’s not a reason why I wouldn’t become Catholic or anything like that.

  11. Tom Lindholtz
    Brian Clendinen: Although they were rare in the Bible there were woman religious leaders. Junia was called an apostle by Paul, you also had Deborah who was one of the Judges aka the head political leader and one of the Chief religious leader of Israel. Then of course there was Esther who become along with her Uncle became the political leaders of the Jewish people in exile.

    You left out one of the most interesting: Priscilla.  And many think it noteworthy that Paul usually refers to the couple as Priscilla and Aquilla; woman first, rather than the man.  Some think that it is an indication that she was the “guiding light” of a dynamic duo.

  12. Goldgeller
    Tom Lindholtz: And, by the way, I think your emphasis on obedience first, understanding later is a thoroughly Biblical one that is exceedingly difficult for the modern Western mind to grapple with.  You’ve described and personalized that process in a beautiful way.  Thank you. · 4 minutes ago

    This is really something interesting that you’ve said here. I’m definitely thinking about this now. At first it is almost strange “obediance first” you know, you’re supposed to “think” and “be critical” towards everything right? But then I thought more about it and there is a definitely a journey and a discipline involved in being obedient to Scripture. It actually can’t be criticized as unthinking because it’s requires so much thinking and so much self-reflection.

    I think one potential problem of our modern western thinking of being critical and thinking critically is that we tend to overrate ourselves and our knowledge– we tend not to be generally right and we are too often precisely wrong.

  13. Boomerang

    During my formative years in the 70s I embraced “women’s lib” and the popular culture’s liberal mindset.  I began my 20s as a secular liberal, and finished them as a conservative Christian.  It’s a long story. I began then to get to know God, a process like any close relationship that takes years. As we became closer,  I learned over and over again to let go of “my way” because His way makes better sense, is kinder, more constructive and powerful and not fear-based.

    I know Him now as vastly more wise and loving than I am.  Usually I come to comprehend His reasons, through a “long obedience in the same direction,” gathering and assimilating information until His truths sparkle into clarity. There has never been a disagreement between us when I turned out to be right! Sometimes, I can’t understand His stance on an issue.  But I trust Him now, and because we have a track record of friendship and working together, I have learned to follow His way whether or not I “get it.”

    These are the “mysteries” the faithful live with, which you describe so beautifully and well, Helen. 

  14. Benjamin Glaser
    I am a confessional Presbyterian (not of the liberal PC(USA)) minister and this is one an issue that usually bears a lot of heat and not a lot of light. For a little backstory I was at one time studying for the ministry at a liberal PC(USA) seminary and had my mind changed on this ordination issue ironically by hearing a presentation on why it was wrong to ordain homosexuals. It became apparent that similar hermeneutical arguments were being used (historical situation, questionable Pauline authorship, etc…) by both the pro-female ordination and pro-homosexual ordination camps. The former (especially the ‘evangelicals’ in favor of female ordination ) would deny this but it is something that becomes noticeable when you examine the underlying texts. I also have a sister and a mother who are ordained “ministers” in the PC(USA). The specific examples of Deborah, Phoebe, Junia (or Junias, the greek manuscripts are not 100% clear), and Priscilla are not really solid arguments for female ordination. Mere 1:1 instruction is not comparable to the office of Minister/Elder and Deborah herself recognizes the uniqueness of her position and defers to Barak when the time comes for it.  
  15. Brian Clendinen
    Benjamin Glaser: Mere 1:1 instruction is not comparable to the office of Minister/Elder and Deborah herself recognizes the uniqueness of her position and defers to Barak when the time comes for it.   · 1 hour ago

     

    Not to get to much into a debate that has raged in Christian circles for a long time. The reason we use these examples is because these people were leaders/teachers not just in a 1:1 way but over groups of people. We limit our-selves in examples. So using 1:1 context to somehow wash away the biblical examples is a red herring.

    You need to argue the examples are bad and the reading clearly states they were leaders only in a one on one context. The text and grammar arguments used need to be consistent with the text used when refering to men leaders in the bible.

     There are way more examples if we also included 1:1.

  16. liberal jim
    Mollie Hemingway, Ed.

    liberal jim:

    Have you ever considered that the idea of female inferiority is just one more manifestation of what God calls sin? · 25 minutes ago

    The idea that females are inferior to men is a sin. That’s not a basis for male-only clergy, however. Or, at least, not in my church. It would be like saying men are inferior to women because Jesus had an earthly mother and not an earthly father. That’s not how the Christian church views this. · 2 hours ago

    I don’t think it is and never said it was.   As I said every club gets to make up their on rules, the people who like rules join the club.  The genesis of any given rule in any of the clubs is obscure at best and  generally the rules are trivial. 

  17. Aurelius

    Couple comments: for Catholics, the threefold ordained ministry of bishop, priest, and deacon, are fairly limited in terms of what activities are reserved to them. Basically the sacraments (baptism, confirmation, eucharist, reconciliation, marriage, orders, last rites) and blessings. Even with those, laity may baptize in dire cases and the ministers in marriage are the husband and wife to be (the priest does not get married to them). In terms of teaching and a whole host of other honorable, indispensable activities, it’s pretty much open to anyone. 

    Also, it’s worth thinking about Mary and motherhood. This is one gift that is reserved to women alone, and through its acceptance Mary blessed the whole world. The fact that this gift is often treated as inferior in dignity to that of ordained ministry is a theological mistake. If motherhood is not a genuine ministry, then Marian theology loses much of its internal logic. Those who become mothers, resemble the second Eve in her role in redemption. Those who do not, resemble Mary in her perpetual virginity (assuming that you believe all that).

  18. Keith Rice
    Western Chauvinist:

     What part of freeself-giving and earning your reward in heavendo these women not get? The very last thing the priesthood should be about is grasping for higher social status.

    What an awesome post!

    I know many will resent my position, however, I don’t mean to offend. I expect certain men to be most offended.

    My belief is that men are innately more spiritual than women due to their differing perceptions of truth. I think of this difference as the egg truth and the sperm truth. One is inherently valid in its own neighborhood; the other must transcend its environment, endure harsh adversity, competition, and probable failure to be validated.

    If you recall with the recent (G)goddess movements, women happily accepted the role of (G)goddess for themselves, yet for a man to consider himself (G)god would be outright laughable.

    Furthermore, women are notoriously unsympathetic toward men (except when they are obvious victims) and I personally wouldn’t want a woman, in general to administer my faith.

    Neither did the Buddha. His observation was that if women became nuns, Buddhism would cease to exist within 500 years. He was right.

  19. Ralphie

    Another confessional Lutheran here, and I also have come to see the wisdom of male leadership.  Men are still expected to be more accountable.  It is the natural order. 

    Drifting this into current events, I personally think it has been a mistake to place women in the Secretary of State position.  While many Americans think that women have evolved, there are plenty places in the world that don’t have that worldview.  If Islam does not give a women’s testimony equal weight with a man, how is a woman to be taken seriously?  Didn’t an Asian country call Hillary a silly schoolgirl? I think if you view foreign affairs as game theory, you would not consider a woman for the job. It is a weak hand.

    A lutheran minister once said that the masculine/feminine roles are such: man is masculine to women, women are masculine to children. It is hard for a woman to pull off being in an authoritative position over men successfully. There are very few Thatcher’s in the world.

  20. Keith McMillan

    As a Catholic priest this is obviously an issue I personally had to become comfortable.  I am very comfortable on the tradition and the theology but am uncomfortable at times to express it publicly   I think in the end it is a component of the wider mystery that God invites us all to live out our personal vocation in service.  If it merely a competence issue I would be the first to strike down the ban.  But as a priest I know God does not necessarily choose the best, but uses a priest to help dispense grace at times despite the man.

    I remember reading an article by a former female Lutheran priest who had become a Catholic.  She realized that what she had thought was her role as a priest in the Lutheran Church was supplied in her Catholic parish by women, either religious women or lay women. 

    If one sees the role of priest as primarily within a power dynamic the all-male priesthood becomes unacceptable, but the wider role of service to the community, becoming the least so as top serve others alters the dynamic.  Then it is the specific ways of living out ones faith

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