Real Feminists Don’t Go to Church

Rosemary Radford Reuther’s recent remark, “The more we become feminists, the more difficult it is for us to go to church,” captures the women’s ordination movement very nicely. At first glance, it suggests the possibility of schism, a schism feared by those who cannot find a way to approve of ordaining women to the Roman Catholic Priesthood. Such schism seems to have been suggested by the conference in Chicago last November, in its title (“Woman Church Speaks”), on the buttons proclaiming “I’m Poped Out,” and in the cry “Woman stories are sacred scripture.” But more significantly, Reuther’s remark contains basic confusions that can be seen on both sides of the controversy, at least as it has been popularized in the media. The voices of theologians such as Fathers Don Keefe, S.J., and Edward Kilmartin, S.J., who argue intelligently about the central theological issues, have not been widely heard.

In the absence of the competent theological voice, both the advocates and the opponents of women’s ordination seem content to cast the issue in terms of social justice, of fairness, and of the rights of those women who “feel” themselves called to ordained priesthood. With a few exceptions (such as Dianne Bergant in her speech to the bishops assembled in Chicago to dialogue with women for two days prior to their annual national meeting last November), women promoting ordination and wider roles generally for women put their movement in terms of a power struggle. In so doing, they betray their origins in the secular feminist movement, seeing themselves as victims of a hierarchy of power, discriminated against because of their sex, deprived of rightful roles in the church by the same sexism which oppresses them in their larger secular society. Hence their concern for strategies to change oppressive structures, their demands for decision-making power, their wondering, in Hans Kung’s words, whether the Pope will “win over women.” Papal moral teaching is referred to as “control,” women’s religious orders are called a “target” of the forthcoming investigation, and the Pope is advised to recognize the radical feminism in Mary’s prayer that God will “put down the mighty (read hierarchy) from their thrones and exalt the lowly (read women).”

Such a view of the church as a political organization — political in the degraded sense of that term, i.e. as an arrangement for the exercise of power — is rooted in the same Enlightenment concept of the human person that has spawned social contract theory and the degraded politics of the secular world. In that view, a person is first and foremost an individual center of rights. Freedom is the ability to do what one wants (or feels called to), and its exercise immediately brings one into conflict with other individual centers of rights who are seeking to exercise their freedom to do as they wish. Political and social life — and ecclesial as well — thus becomes an agreement, tacit or explicit, in which each surrenders some of his individuality and freedom in order to preserve the rest. Conflicts are then resolved through a utilitarian or hedonistic calculus. Individuals must seize power, i.e., the ability to control other individuals, in order to exercise their own freedom and enjoy their own rights. Being under the authority of another is taken as a restriction of one’s own dignity and rights, one’s human fulfillment and freedom.

When the Church is seen as such a locus of conflicts over power (and she who is a community of sinners certainly shows such a face at times), it makes perfect sense to wonder why one should “go to church.” Church attendance is easily equated with a polite assemblage of the powerful and the oppressed, one which seems more and more irksome to those who lack the skills and strategies to free themselves from the powers that be. Thus for feminists who define themselves as individuals struggling to maximize their freedom to do as they wish, it becomes more and more difficult to attend services which seem, by excluding them from the most powerful role in that assembly, to reinforce their oppression rather than relieving it. And of course, we cannot deny that some priests do, indeed, see themselves as top dogs in a hierarchy of power; some do despise women; some do see human interactions as conflicts: some do equate their clerical authority with a role which allows them to control the actions, the minds, and the hearts of others. It is easy to see why a feminist might find it increasingly difficult to go to church when this sinful face is the most visible. She might attend for the same reason that a public official might maintain membership in a racist club — in order to reform it from within by bringing pressure to bear on its power-structure. But she might just as well withdraw, in protest and/or despair.

But the Church has another face. She is also a community of loving intimates, unified by the indwelling Spirit of Jesus. Here she is a unified group of individuals who define themselves not as atomic centers of rights but as communal lovers whose love is life in abundance, life which brings Jesus and His Father to live in them. One who would belong to that community has a different concept of what it is to be a person, different concepts of human dignity and rights, of human fulfillment and freedom. In this view, individual identity as a person comes in, and only in, loving communion with other persons. Freedom is the ability not to do what one wants in some arbitrary sense, but the ability to come into an ever-deepening intimacy with the triune God in and through love for one’s fellow humans. Since love is defined as concern for the beloved’s total welfare, such love enhances and does not threaten the dignity, rights, fulfillment and freedom of every other individual in the world. The Eucharistic assembly, then, is not a gathering of an all at war against all, but a celebration and renewal of the presence of the Risen Christ in the hearts of all. Taking part in that celebration is not so much “going to church” as it is a way of being in the Church, an epitome of the loving and being loved that characterizes all of daily life. All such participants must be feminists, then, in the sense of wishing for women the fullest possible enjoyment of their dignity and rights as women, their freedom to find their utmost fulfillment as feminine persons loving and being loved by every member of the People of God.

Such a feminism, however, does not automatically imply the ordination of women to the priesthood, for that role is not a function which anyone with managerial and teaching skills can exercise regardless of sexual identity. The priest as celebrant of the Eucharist is a symbol, a sacramental symbol, of the marital love that Christ the Bridegroom has for His Bride, the Church. And the efficacy of a sacrament depends directly on the accuracy of its symbolism. It is of course absurd to say that a man can symbolize Jesus in a way that a woman cannot simply because he has the anatomy of a male mammal. The symbolizing of Jesus is an imagining of His marital love for the Church, not His anatomical maleness. But anatomy cannot be overlooked, either — not unless we are to dichotomize body and soul in such a way that sexuality is made irrelevant to one’s identity as a person. Women can certainly be many things that they have not traditionally been allowed to be — firemen, soldiers, and truck drivers. But they cannot be husbands or bridegrooms. Spouses may reverse roles, with the wife earning the family income and the husband caring for house and children. But when they do, they do not reverse marital roles, the wife becoming the husband and vice versa. And the reason they do not, of course, is that sexuality is essential to marital identities. A man is not automatically a husband just by being male. He must be a loving male, giving up his life for his conjugal friend. But a woman, no matter how loving, cannot be a husband at all. Even so, in symbolizing and effecting the marital love of Christ for the Church in the Eucharist, a celebrant is not automatically a priest just by being an ordained male. He must be a loving ordained male, giving up his life for his ecclesial friends. But a woman, no matter how loving, cannot be a priest at all, for the same reason that she cannot be a bridegroom or a husband.

The denial of ordination to women, then, need not grow out of a contempt for women’s inferior personhood, nor a leveling of sexual differences that makes them irrelevant to roles in church and society, nor a hunger for power. It can rest on a recognition that sexual differences are important to our identities as persons, and a concern for the accuracy, and thus the efficacy, of the priesthood as a sacramental symbol. But this concern is not always evident in the face that the Church presents to everyday people in everyday life. Hence the remaining confusions in the controversy over women’s ordination are quite understandable, and one can only beg the theologians and other teachers to come forth more clearly. There seems to be, for example, a too easily drawn equation between priesthood and ministry, between these and the perquisites of clerical status (what Father Guido Sarducci calls “bringing out the best veal in all the Italian restaurants”). The growing practice of putting women in charge of parishes, in which they perform all pastoral roles except absolving sins and leading the Eucharistic celebration, is a clear indication that there are many pastoral roles and ministerial functions that can be, and ought to be, opened to women on a much wider scale, not just where the shortage of priests creates an emergency. Such a liberalization would not only relieve the frustrations of women who have talents and desire for teaching, counseling, healing, managing, and praying. It would undoubtedly enrich the life of the Church to have those talents put to loving use. But the opening of such ministerial roles to women need not imply their ordination to the priesthood, where the accurate symbolism of Jesus’ marital love for the Church is essential to the liturgy. Similarly, there seems to be no essential connection between ordination and participation in the decision-making processes in the overall organizational life of the Church. Since these are not sacramental, the qualification for taking part in them would seem to be available in people of both sexes, and women should have equal access to those structures with men. Even a community of intimates needs organizational structures, authoritative roles, varying degrees of ecclesial status. These need not — indeed, may not — be political in the degraded sense, as distributions of power by which some people control others. They are, rather, structures by which love is guided and facilitated by those with expertise in such guidance. But there is no reason to deny that women can have such expertise as well as men. In fact, if we are to value sexual differences as precious components of our identities as persons, then we will want women in as many decision-making positions as possible — but not because the making of decisions is a sexless activity which men and women can perform in the same way. Rather, decisions about the carrying out of love are made differently by men and by women, and we need both modes in order that the organizational structure of the Church be completed.

But again, priesthood is not primarily, or even essentially, a decision-making role in a political structure, even when we recognize politics in the correct sense of the term as arrangements by which people live together in mutual love. There is no need, then, to say that once women are allowed to read at Mass, to administer parishes, to head school boards, that “Anything goes” — including ordained priesthood — anymore than it was right to say, when Friday abstinence was revoked, “Everything’s gone.” What we need now in the controversy over women’s ordination is both less discrimination and more. We need less of the pejorative kind of discrimination, which excludes women from ministerial and other roles which their feminine talents for love call them to fulfill. And at the same time, we need more discrimination of the kind we refer to as, for example, a discriminating taste in wine: the ability to recognize, and appreciate, differences where they are important. That discrimination will focus on the symbolic nature of ordained priests as representatives of the masculine love which Christ the Bridegroom epitomizes when He becomes one flesh with His Bride in the Eucharist. With the first kind of discrimination removed, and the second enhanced, real feminists will not go to church. Those who are feminists in the secular, individualistic mode will not go to church. There will be no reason why they should. And those who are feminists in the sense of wishing to promote the full participation of women in the intimacy of the Church with her Bridegroom will not go to church, either. They will be in and of the Church, the Bride of Christ.


Mary Rousseau taught philosophy at Marquette University and was a member of our Editorial Board. She passed away in 2012.

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