The old saying “Roma locuta est, causa finita est“
apparently doesn’t hold as much water as it did once upon a time. Although Rome has clearly said that women will never be admitted to the priesthood, discussion about the desirability of ordaining women continues. A case in point is a featured article in Commonweal on April 11, 2008.
Often the discussion is theological, pros and cons being tossed about as to whether, Jesus having been a male, all priests must therefore be male. I’m not a theologian, so I have some difficulty following those arguments.
More often still the discussion has to do with equity: Is it fair or reasonable to keep women out of the priesthood? Well, it all depends what you mean by “reasonable.” What counts as reasonable varies from age to age. We happen to be living in the modern (or postmodern) world, and what seems unreasonable to typical 21st-century people like ourselves used to seem reasonable to ancients and medieval, and will perhaps again seem reasonable to our remote descendents. And there appears to be no way we can say that our current concept of reasonableness is superior to ancient or medieval or futuristic concepts.
If X is counted as reasonable because it appeals to that species of common sense that happens to flourish in societies which — like those of the United States and Western Europe — are modernized and wealthy, then of course a male-only priesthood is unreasonable. But so, then, is Christianity in general. From the point of view of modernistic common sense, the Trinity is unreasonable (how can something be both three and one?), the Incarnation is unreasonable (how can a person be both God and man?), the Virgin Birth is unreasonable (virgins don’t have babies), the Resurrection is unreasonable (dead men don’t return to life), and so on. Christianity is a religion permeated with paradoxes. If we Catholics swallow the camel of “unreasonable” Christianity, why should we strain at the gnat of a male-only priesthood?
Speaking for myself, not a theologian but a sociologist, I have two sociological objections to the introduction of priestly ordination for women. The first has to do with tradition. Catholicism is a strongly traditionalistic religion. Its legitimacy in the eyes of its believers depends heavily upon loyalty to tradition. Break with tradition, and you cause many believers to doubt that the Church is what it claims to be: the true Church of Christ. Of course advocates of female ordination can make a distinction between essential and non-essential traditions, and argue that a male-only priesthood is a non-essential tradition — in contrast, say, to the primacy of the Roman bishop.
Leaving aside the question of what criterion will be used to distinguish between essential and non-essential traditions, we may remind those advocates that even the discontinuity of traditions that are clearly non-essential can produce earthquakes among Catholics. Think of the dropping of the Latin Mass, think of the priest turning around to face the congregation, think of other abandonments of non-essential tradition in the wake of Vatican II. Can anybody who lived through the earthquake produced by those minor changes (and we are still feeling the after-shocks of that great earthquake) doubt that the introduction of a bi-gendered priesthood would produce a further and even larger earthquake?
And then there is my second objection. Catholicism is a strongly “feminine” religion, by which I mean this: Certain virtues are more “feminine,” while others are more “masculine.” That is to say, certain virtues (chastity, for instance, or patient long-suffering) are more typically found among women than among men. Other virtues (patriotism, courage in battle, etc.) are more typically found among men. I don’t profess to know whether this distribution of virtue by sex/gender is the result of nature or the result of culture. All I know is this: that it’s a historical fact. The world has always held that it is more shameful for a man to be cowardly than unchaste, and more shameful for a woman to be unchaste than cowardly.
The world has always held this, but not Catholicism. Catholicism, on the contrary, has held that everybody — men as well as women — must exhibit the “feminine” virtues. Men too must be chaste; men too must be patient in long-suffering; men too must be compassionate and kind to those in need; men too must be loving and affectionate (and not just proud) parents. Of course Catholic men on average have not lived up to these standards of virtue as well as Catholic women. In general, it seems, it’s easier for women than for men to be virtuous Christians.
But to all this an advocate of women’s ordination might reply: “If Catholicism, as you contend, is a feminine religion, isn’t it all the more appropriate that the Catholic Church should have female priests? If women have more of an aptitude than men for Christian sanctity, doesn’t that mean that they are called more than men to the priesthood?” I don’t know whether they are more “called” or not, but their aptitude for Christian sanctity is precisely the reason, as I see it, that they should be kept out of the priesthood. For if women were to be ordained, they would soon — within 50 years, I’d guess — become overwhelmingly predominant in the priesthood. Female priests would outnumber male priests by ten or 20 to one, if not more. Catholicism would be perceived, and correctly so, not just as a “feminine” religion but as a female religion. Males would pretty much abandon it.
For many centuries now the Catholic religion has kept males within the fold by virtue of having a male-only priesthood. Males are always tempted to live according to the purely “masculine” side of their nature (sexual license, love of combat, love of power, etc.). Let Catholicism shift to a female-dominated priesthood, and this temptation will be more and more succumbed to. This is not to mention that Catholicism will be forced to abandon its claim to be a universal religion, for how can a single-sex religion be universal?