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.