One Sunday back around 1990 or so, I attended the Eucharist at an Episcopal convent. The nuns typically invited everyone present to stay afterward for biscuits and conversation. On this particular day the conversation revolved around a local woman who had brought her small son to the Eucharist. The celebrant (one of the nuns who was also an Episcopal priest) knew the woman and the child well enough to know that he had never been baptised. When it came time to distribute the hosts and the chalice, she was faced with a liturgical dilemma: the woman came forward to receive the Body and Blood of Christ, and the young boy came right along with her (he was old enough to walk, but still pretty young: maybe 5 or 6 years old), mimicking his mom and holding out his hand to receive the Sacrament.
“What could I do?” mused the nun/priest afterward. “If I refused to give him the Sacrament, then one of his earliest memories in church would be that of being denied. So of course I gave it to him.” When pressed about the question of his not being baptized, she acknowledged that offering him the Sacrament was against the rules, but felt that he would be more likely to eventually desire baptism and participation in the life of the church if his earliest memories were more positive.
Last night in class, I was talking about differences in male and female forms of moral development — following the work of Carol Gilligan, whose landmark book In a Different Voice explores the question of how men and women follow different paths of ethical reasoning. Gilligan pointed out that “male” morality tends to be organized around rights and responsibilities, while “female” morality tends to be organized around relationship and community (I’m putting “male” and “female” in quotation marks because I believe these gendered perspectives aren’t entirely 100% locked in to biological sex — sometimes women might exhibit “male” moral reasoning, and vice versa). I thought about the female Episcopal priest and the unbaptized communicant and realized it was a classic way to illustrate this point.
If that same little boy had attended a Catholic mass, he probably would not have received the host. After all, Catholics deny communion not only to the unbaptized, but to small children who have not been educated about the Sacrament. A male priest is more likely to think in terms of the rules (rights and responsibilities) and be comfortable saying “if he wants communion, he needs to be baptized first and go through the training” while the female priest based her ethical decision on the relational consideration of providing the little tyke with the hospitality of Christ and a sense of communal security, that he was welcome and allowed to fit in at the church. It’s important to note that the woman priest is not just blowing off the rules: I’m pretty sure if the kid and his mother kept showing up Sunday after Sunday, she would have explained to the mother that the child would need to be baptized as part of his participation in the church. In her ethical reasoning, it’s not relationship versus rules, but rather relationship and rules — with relationship taking the higher priority.
In Roman Catholicism today, the official line about ordaining women is that the church can’t do it because the church doesn’t have the power to do so. Here is masculine moral reasoning through and through. The church must obey the rules, period; and since the rules come from God, only if God himself were to come down and change the rules could there be a change in church practice. The reason why I (and many other Catholics of conscience) support the ordination of women is because I believe the church’s reasoning here is specious. It uses masculine moral reasoning to say that only males can be priests, “because those are the rules.” This flies in the face of Paul’s bold declaration that “In Christ there is neither male nor female” (Galatians 3:28). But it also flies in the face of the relational consideration of honoring and valuing women who clearly exhibit the gifts of priestly ministry — including a rich dimension of moral insight that has largely escaped the notice of men who have been so wrapped up in following the letter of the law.
What seems to me to be really at issue here is fear of the feminine. If the church embraced women as priests, how would this impact so many other aspects of the church’s doctrine and practice? After all, it’s the same follow-the-rules mindset which denies priestly ministry to women that also denies the Blessed Sacrament to small children or to Protestants or to those who are “conscious of grave sin” (let alone the unbaptized). Catholics have a joke about how Peter stands at the pearly gates of heaven, sternly keeping all the sinners and non-Christians out — while Mary keeps watch over the back door of paradise, where she lets all the riff raff in! It’s a classic joke with a kernel of truth: once the Catholic church proves its devotion to Mary by ordaining women, the balance of power between law and grace really will tip in the favor of grace. And maybe that’s what all the traditionalists who are opposed to women’s ordination really fear.
I think even a cursory reading of the Gospels will reveal how Christ built much of his ministry around joyously deconstructing such follow-the-rules thinking when he healed or gathered food on the sabbath, much to the apoplectic annoyance of the respectable religious leaders of his day. As much as I love the Catholic tradition, at the end of the day my conscience demands that I be more faithful to Christ’s inclusivity than to the Vatican’s exclusivity. It is my confident hope that the Catholic church will become much more faithful to the fullness of Christ’s message of lavish love, once women are exercising priestly ministry. I hope you will join me in praying that this may come to pass, and soon.