October 13, 2014

An All-Male Priesthood, Part One: Purpose of this Study and Arguments Against

Once again, I am going to attempt a series on this blog. I have not always been successful in my attempts at completing series (the last one is unfinished, and will probably remain so in saecula saeculorum), but this is a topic which I do not feel I can address in one go. This is both because it is a particularly difficult one for me, and because it needs to be at relatively decent length.

First, it seems necessary to explain why I intend to do such a study, with great clarity. This is a "hot button" issue right now, and as such statements on either side can be viewed as extreme. We see crazy radical feminists on one side, and crazy radical traditionalists on the other, and never the twain shall meet. This division of the issue into liberal and conservative is deeply problematic, and both sides represent a flawed understanding of the Church tradition. In response to a false liberal position, the Church is not something that we make, but something that we join: we can no more change the content of the Church than we can change God to suit our needs, as the Church and her teachings are, have always been, and must always be divinely instituted in order for her to truly be a way of salvation, and in order for her to truly be the Bride of Christ. On the other hand, in response to the false conservative position, the Church is not a corpse preserved through artificial embalming: we do not keep alive dead practices from a past age for their own sake, but rather participate in the lived reality of an eternal community before the throne of God as instantiated in this particular age, eminently suitable to the salvation of humankind here and now. As such, in this study, I am not attempting to re-interpret or re-define the Church's position to make concessions for a modern time. I am similarly not rehashing old arguments for a problem being encountered in a new way, asking for blind obedience. Instead, I am a son of the Church (to quote Pope Francis' excellent expression), seeking to know fully his Mother. I am going to analyze this issue from all sides, bringing up arguments against and then for an all-male priesthood, as Aquinas did in the Summa, in order that I may, hopefully, better understand the position of the Church to which I already profess obedience.

I have to do this precisely because I have always found the traditional answers to this issue problematic and intellectually unsatisfying. Simplistic explanations, such as "We've always done it this way" and "Jesus was a man, and His apostles were male" do not sufficiently answer the modern, egalitarian assumption which both is deeply rooted in my own understanding of the world, and which is also at the root of modern understandings of the dignity of human beings. I have been through the issue several times, in reading Church documents, consulting professors and priests, and ransacking my own knowledge, and have yet to find an answer which I can really feel is firmly grounded in the sort of intellectual certainty that is natural to faith; an intellectual certainty built on the rock of Christ which can weather the storms of Hell. Although this has been an issue I have dealt with for some time, I have nonetheless approached the Church's teaching with obedience, and will continue to do so regardless of the answers I may or may not find - I receive my faith from the Church, not the other way around. However, I hope to truly grow in understanding, and as such will need a certain degree of intellectual honesty and unbiased examination. In this, I hope that consulting some of my friends who have read more in this realm of thinking, and in honestly engaging with arguments I disagree with, will eventually help me to grasp this teaching in a deeper way.

To begin this discussion, it seems best to start with arguments against an all-male priesthood. This is both because I have a near-fanatical devotion to St. Thomas and his intellectual power and methods, but also because it seems like a natural position from which to address the issue. The modern, Western world, in its radical egalitarianism, presents something new to the Church, which requires an honest answer truly apprehending the question. Resistance to an all-male priesthood in today's world is thus, in my understanding, something uniquely modern: we use the modern egalitarian anthropology, where man and woman must be equal, to critique a practice which seems to institutionalize something fundamentally unequal. This is, I think, the root of modern arguments against an all-male priesthood, but is not a full description of such arguments. I will, in the rest of this post, elaborate on some arguments against it that have occurred to me or I have heard in my limited time working with feminist literature, and hope that in the comments I can receive some help in articulating these more fully, or finding others relevant to the case at hand. I will not, however, include arguments which come from an attack on gender essentialism. Because an inquiry into the essential nature of gender would require an amount of work ludicrously beyond the scope of a series on a blog, I will simply assume the Church's opinion that men and women are, in fact, different to some degree. The extent of that difference and its effects on the argument about an all-male priesthood are within the realm of this discussion, but whether or not men and women are actually different is outside of that realm. Finally, keep in mind that the following arguments are NOT my own, but rather are articulations of arguments I have heard elsewhere. I do not hold that the Catholic Church should abolish its all-male priesthood, but am instead attempting to articulate arguments against the Church's position in order to better understand this teaching.

First, an all-male priesthood serves as an embodiment of an ancient, hierarchical understanding of mankind which is simply not feasible in the modern, democratic age. It is a continuation of the patriarchal worldview dominant in pre-modern humanity, where men are understood as being fundamentally superior to women, both in terms of rationality and physical strength, and thus rule as part of God's ordering of society. As a result, this system creates several problems: it perpetuates the systematic degradation and subjugation of women; it systematically asserts that women are not as dignified as men, and participate in the Church's salvation only in a secondary and less meaningful way; it reinforces a worldview which is permissive of such abuses as rape, domestic violence, and the forced seclusion of women from public life; and it mars our image of God by casting Him as a Male, restricting Him to human categories and pretending to justify sinful and destructive oppression in the divine being Himself.

Second, this is so because an all-male priesthood, as de facto exclusive of women, necessarily arrogates a privileged position to men. The priesthood is a position of power within the Church, as it serves as the arbitrator of the dispensation of grace, and also as the highest court of authority in doctrine. By putting only men in this position, it not only grants them an assumed natural superiority, but allows them to manifest that supposed superiority in institutionalized practices and systems, depriving women of any real agency in their own spirituality. The all-male priesthood tells women that they cannot truly participate in holiness the same way men can; that they are not capable of leadership within the Church; and that any spiritual discoveries, experiences, or problems which they encounter are fundamentally inferior to or not as worthwhile as ones that a male would have. This institutionalized situation puts women in a position of oppression and dehumanization, preventing them from truly participating in the freedom of the "sons of God" which St. Paul talks about.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, an all-male priesthood violates a truly Catholic anthropology. If we are to view God's creation of man and woman as truly holy and wise, as we must surely hold all Divine actions, then we must assume that man and woman are equally human: otherwise, human dignity, salvation, and the Divine image would not be equally applicable to them, and thus Christ's death could not truly have been for "all nations." To say that only men can truly partake in Catholic life is to say that Catholicism, and thus salvation and God's love for mankind, is essentially male. The Divine Economy would be reduced to God's salvation only of men, leaving the scraps to all the "dogs," or "bitches" as the case may be. This would place definite and arbitrary limits on God's love, salvation, and foresight, relegating part of humanity to a lesser state of being, a lesser final end, and a lesser participation in Divine life. Either God created all humanity equal before His eyes, all in need of salvation and His love, or He created some (men) to be more worthy and more suited to salvation than others. An all-male priesthood thus expresses a privileged position in the order of grace, nature, and salvation toward men, causing God's acts of love to become sexist favoritism.

This concludes my discussion of arguments against the all-male priesthood, and as a result I can speak in my own voice again. It is painfully apparent that it is impossible to give these arguments the space they deserve in a single blog post. The pain, difficulties, and struggles which many women, and also many men, have faced because of this teaching deserves the utmost sympathy and honesty, and I am deeply troubled that I am unable to give such attention to a problem so much in need of being fully heard and appreciated. This is an issue where both sides need to be heard, for love needs to reach to the depths of the most painful places of human existence to truly redeem us completely. My presentation of arguments against an all-male priesthood is necessarily inadequate, and it needs to be fortified in order to allow for truly edifying discussion further along in this series. As a result, I ask that people feel free to express any further problems with this teaching, or pain they have experienced as a result of it, in the comments (the comment box leaves open an option for anonymity, if some of you would find that helpful). This necessitates charity, above all - it is meaningless and counter-productive to attack or defame interlocutors in a genuine discussion. I thank in advance any of my readers who contribute to my search for the truth, and further hope that any discussion that arises is truly helpful to all engaged.



Post a Comment

<< Home