One problem for a Catholic, even an ethnic Catholic like me, is that getting a Ph.D. tends to make you think you have the right to argue with the Pope, even if he doesn’t think so. Actually, one has a duty to argue with the Pope, because few laypeople have had enough theological training to even know what the conversation is actually about. When the Pope is wrong, it is a sin of omission not to tell him so.
Recently Benedict XVI gave a public statement in which he said that pedophilia committed by Catholic priests was both a sin and a crime and would be punished. Better late than never. One can see why it has been a logistical problem. Apparently, if it had been dealt with when it happened, the Catholic Church in America would have been even more seriously understaffed.
However, unfortunately, at the same time, Benedict said that advocating the ordination of women as priests was just as serious a sin as committing pedophilia. Even Catholics are wondering what planet Benedict thinks he’s living on. The ordination of women as priests is now routine in many Christian denominations, and many Catholic worshippers believe their church’s ban is wrong. But the Vatican, together with the Catholic wing of the Church of England, believes that since Christ did not appoint any women as apostles, it is wrong for women to assume leadership in the Church. That is a specious argument, and it is hard to believe that Benedict, who is a brilliant theologian, does not know that.
There are many peripheral issues around this topic that are relevant, but, if anything, get in the way. One point that needs to be understood is that “apostle” did not mean “disciple.” The Gospels say that Jesus appointed twelve men as ambassadors (“apostle” comes from “apostellen,” which meant “to send out”), that is, to be missionaries, travelling in pairs around the country, for safety. It was merely one specific task, but one absolutely too dangerous for women in that society. However, there were many more than twelve disciples. Further, the Greek term usually translated as “disciple” was not a churchy word and did not imply any sort of ordination. It was mathetes, the ordinary term for any student, including the students of a Rabbi.
Look at the Gospel of Mark. It says that Jesus sent two students to prepare the Seder meal and later arrived there with the twelve men. So the two students who prepared the meal were NOT from the Twelve, and in that society, it was women who cooked the meal, not men. In addition, women must be present for the Seder ritual to be carried out according to the traditional requirements. Anyone looking at that story with fresh eyes would deduce that the two cooks must have been women.
Still, circumstantial arguments like that are not convincing, and the tactics devised for explaining them away have been stockpiled over the centuries. There is a more convincing story, if it is correctly translated. As I mentioned, before I began my doctoral program in 1974, I taught myself to read Greek. I wanted to be able to tell if the Gospels had been translated correctly and honestly. There are a few places where they have not been; for some of these, it is hard to believe that the mistranslation was not intentional.
On the topic of ordaining women, the crucial story to understand in the one about Mary and Martha, in Luke 10. Jesus has come to have dinner with these friends. While Martha is cooking, Mary is sitting at his feet as he talks. This was the ordinary way for students of a Rabbi to sit. He sat on a stool; they clustered around him, arms around knees, so that he did not have to raise his voice. There is a passage in the Talmud that says, “When a sage visits your home, do not sit beside him on the couch. Sit at his feet and listen as attentively as if you were in the schul.” So that’s how Mary was sitting, as a student among the men students.
Martha comes out and complains to Jesus that Mary is not helping her. Jesus’ reply is usually interpreted as meaning, “Don’t worry about it. It’s okay for her to listen to me tonight instead of cooking and doing dishes.” That sort of translation is not only wrong, but intellectually dishonest. I looked at the Greek text at some time in the early 1980s, and was stunned by what I discovered. The Greek word usually translated as “choice” or “lot” actually means “choice of career,” what we now call “vocation.” Jesus was not saying, “Mary is making a good choice for tonight.” He was saying, “Mary has chosen the better career,” the same career as the men students among whom she was sitting. I told this to the young sisters whom I was teaching at Holy Family College in Fremont, California, in about 1982. Many of them hoped to be ordained, despite what church policy was. Upon hearing this correct translation, some of them cheered, and some of them broke into tears.
The next line puzzled me for a long time. “It shall not be taken away from her.” What an irony, I thought. It has been taken away from her. I guess this is one of those embarrassing places where Jesus was just plain wrong in his predictions. Finally the explanation dawned on me, with another shock. The Greek uses an ordinary imperative construction. Jesus was not making a prediction. He was giving a commandment: “Do not take it away from her.” He was saying, Do not take Mary’s vocation as my student away from her. She is entitled to whatever the men students are entitled to. She has the right to be ordained.
Clearly one belief among Roman Catholics and many other varieties of Christians is that Jesus’ commandments must be obeyed. Why not this one? The meaning in Greek is not ambiguous. It has been misunderstood and ignored by being mistranslated, perhaps not on purpose—I don’t know whether that’s the case—but certainly as inspired by the endemic misogyny of classical and much of medieval civilization. This is the time and the ammunition with which Catholic women, especially the Sisters, can confront the Bishop of Rome over their rights. It will not be easy for him to admit that he and every Pope since a long time ago have been wrong, but that is the objective situation. So admit you were wrong, Father, make amends, and be forgiven.
It is hard to understand how very liberal Jesus was toward women without understanding a great deal about the beliefs and practices of his times. Many of the stories in the Gospels have totally different meanings given such an understanding. But let me throw one more bombshell at you.
Because of the internecine warfare and atrocities between official Christianity and official Judaism over the centuries, there are not many stories about or quotations from Jesus left in the Talmud. But there are a few. Consider this one, in Gittin: “The son and the daughter shall inherit equally.” Again, that’s not a prediction; it’s a commandment. How in the world did it get left out of the Gospels? (Perhaps you detect some sarcasm.) The Reverend Barbara Harris, as Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in America, is proof that the Episcopalians have figured all this out.
As many others have noted, if the Roman Catholic Church had women priests, married priests, and even married women priests, it would not be so short-handed. It does have married priests now; arguments that it can’t have more are bogus. And, of course, having such priests would be far preferable to having supposedly celibate male priests who obviously are not celibate at all. In fact, celibacy was not made requisite for all priests until the tenth century, mainly so that priests’ children could not inherit the local churches. But that’s another story.