Playing Dress-up: The NYT Womanpriests Fashion Spread


I used to advocate for women’s ordination in the Catholic Church—but never because I thought we needed more supermodels on the vestment runway. A curious slideshow featured in yesterday’s New York Times Review section (H/T to Katrina Fernandez) makes me saddened and bemused enough to break off from the pilgrimage posts for a minute.

Entitled Women as Priests, the slideshow by photographer Judith Levitt profiles 10 women—all white, all of a certain age—who profess to be ordained Roman Catholic Womanpriests (or is it Womenpriest?). I say “profess to be” because of course they aren’t ordained Roman Catholic priests, in spite of the collective number of years they claim to have ministered as such. Levitt includes several text cards along with her photographic portraits, and she’s quite clear in stating that the Church does not ordain women, and that women who claim ordination have placed themselves out of communion with the Church. The overall tone, however, is that this is just a bit of silly unfairness that—once the Times’ intelligent readership has seen how lovely these women look in their ministerial robes—will be tossed aside as quickly as last year’s Hermes bag.

The fashion reference is no accident. This should really have run in the Style section. Perhaps it’s the artificiality of the poses, the dramatic lighting, but this looks less like a thoughtful questioning of women’s role in religion than it does like a fashion spread. It’s possible the women provided their own vestments and accessories, but the abundance of floaty rose-hued watered silk scarves doing duty as stoles, the crucifixes larger than most bishops’ pectorals and seemingly chosen from the same catalogs where one can find garden gargoyles and reproductions of the Bayeux tapestries, the ubiquitous and generic leatherbound Holy Bible the women finger (and Lord! is that a crozier cut from plywood with a Dremel?) all smack of costumes and props.

And that’s why this makes me not angry (as Kat’s Facebook commenters are), but sad. The title of the slideshow is apt: Women AS Priests. These are not women who are priests, but women acting as priests, women dressing up as priests as they once dressed up in their mothers’ cocktail dresses or their fathers’ suits. I used to dress up in vestmenty stuff, too, once upon a time. But clothes don’t make the priest.

I want to think these women—several of whom claim to have been raised to the episcopate, all of whom seem to be married and mothers and grandmothers—are sincere in their belief that they have been called to ministry. They look, designer vestments aside, like they’d be good people to talk to, to pray with, to take a turn on a soup line with. That they have excommunicated themselves and those who make up their congregations in an attempt to strike some blow for women’s rights is both an abomination and a deep sadness. That the NYT readership has been led to believe that they are the future of Catholicism is one more OhDearGod moment in the dance of the Church and the MSM.

Photographer Levitt concludes her slideshow with this artist’s statement:

I photographed priests and bishops of the Roman Catholic Women Priests movement to alter my own deep-seated perception of priests as male. I tried to capture their devotion and conviction and pay tribute to their efforts to reform the Church.

To which I say, Your deep-seated perception was telling you something. These women are not reformers; they may be devoted and convinced, but they are also excommunicate and heretical, wannabes in dress-up clothes. Sad, sad, sad.

Levitt goes deeper in the Opinion piece to which the slideshow is an accompaniment:

I grew up as a Catholic, although I don’t practice now. The first time I saw a female Roman Catholic priest on the church altar, dressed in traditional robes, performing the Eucharist and all of the rituals that I grew up with, I was amazed at how deeply it affected me emotionally. It had simply never occurred to me that a woman could preside over the church.

It occurred to many of us, and affected us as profoundly. But even before my reversion, I knew the truth: Christ’s plan for his Church was never intended to be “Add women and stir.” Do I believe women are incapable of exercising baptismal (which is not the same as ordained) priesthood? Hell, no! Do I wish more women and men felt comfortable exercising the full range of their God-given gifts within the Church’s human-made structure? You bet. Do I think the Church still needs reformation (will always need reformation) on this and so many other fronts? Damn straight. Do I wish these women could have made their peace with the Church and worked for that reform from within? With all my heart.

Do I condemn them? No. Because there but for the grace of God go I, in my silk scarf and Mexican silver crucifix.

  • Ted Seeber

    Women who dress up as men (including priests) have always puzzled me. Kind of like the little girls who apparently wanted to, instead of having good Catholic Marriages and families, or even (gasp) the dignity of the habit of a nun, grew up to be a bunch of social workers with bad haircuts. Or the strange idea that somehow, a pair of tight jeans is sexier than a skirt on a woman (not for any normal male, I would think).

    But then again, my autistic face blindness extends to clothing as well quite often- I’m hard pressed to notice if my wife IS dressed, let alone what she is wearing. Clothes mean nothing. ACTIONS count.

    • George Marchand

      it’s not real and such a time waste to attempt to change the will of God.

    • George Marchand

      the haircuts ARE bad

      • Michael

        @ Marchand. Sounds more mean-spirited than Christian.

      • Ted Seeber

        Yeah, just like most LCWR Nuns. I wonder what bad haircuts have to do with the feminist view of holiness.

        • joannemcportland

          Yeah, I have to agree with Michael that the potshots at bad hairdos are excessive. And these aren’t all bad. :)

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  • Manny

    There is such a cultural divide. I’m saddened too.

  • dreh

    There has been a lot of posting about female deacons….Just wondering how this is working for priest??
    Holy Orders of the Church. Bishop, Priest, Deacon.
    Men cant have babies and women cant be……Well hope you get where i am going with this….Who do we think we are that we will tell THE CHURCH whom will be ordained…….

  • J. H. M. Ortiz

    Since the women-priests in the article manifested neither any shrewishness nor erotic looseness of any sort, the epithet “bitch” to which some of those critical of their actions may thoughtlessly resort, is quite inappropriate. Further, “bitch” in either of its senses — sexually loose, or shrewish — denotes properly a vice of an adult; whereas here, it seems to me, we’re confronted with a certain behavioral childishness, such as the perhaps-neglected verse of 1 Cor 14.20 warns against: “Brethren, don’t become children in your thoughts, but in malice be childlike, yet in your thoughts be becoming mature.” (“Adelphoi, mē paidia ginesthe tais phresin, alla tē kakia nēpiazete, tais de phresin teleioi ginesthe.”)

    • joannemcportland

      I don’t think anyone here has used that term, and I agree it’s unwarranted.

  • Romulus

    Such odd portraits, in which the sex of the sitters may be the least un-Catholic thing about them. Painfully contrived and self-indulgent, with outlandish adornment, props, and poses that shriek “I am not Catholic”. No Catholic priest dons liturgical vestments (even incorrectly as done here) to settle into an armchair with the Bible. That the photographer should thus compose her shots and the sitters allow themselves to be so portrayed, evinces a radical unfamiliarity and disconnect from the authentic. No Catholic beholding these images will recognize a fellow member of the Household.

  • Peter

    Jesus chose only men as his disciples. Therefore the Church has no authority to ordain women as priests. That of course is official Church teaching.

    Jesus also selected only Jewish men as his disciples. Where then does the Church derive the authority to ordain non-Jewish males as priests?

    • joannemcportland

      There’s more to the Church’s tradition and teaching on the priesthood than “They were Jewish guys,” and I’m pretty sure you know that. In any case, I’m not here to argue the teaching; I was commenting on the oddness of the portraits and the misinformation in the article.

      • Peter

        Actually, when it comes to the question of the gender of priests, there really isn’t much else of substance underlying Church teaching.

        The portraits are very contrived. Whether the same can be said for the calling these women hear is quite another matter. It’s very easy to poke fun at them and thereby dismiss them out of hand as imposters. That dodges the tough question though.

        • joannemcportland

          There’s quite a bit more to it, but once again that’s not what this is about. Please note that I did not poke fun at the calling they believe they have, but at the ridiculous fashion spread, which does not serve their dignity in any way.

    • Manny

      That’s a ridiculous analogy Peter. Male priests were part of Judaism even before Christianity. So when Jesus picked male disciples he was working within an already established tradition. So it was not a random decision. Obviously when Christians broke from Judaism, they could no longer pick Jews as priests. That’s absurd.

      • Peter

        You just proved my point Manny. Jesus selected men because it was consistent with 1st century societal traditions, and Jews because Jesus was a Jew with Jewish disciples. Are we not in the 21st century now?

        • joannemcportland

          You folks can take this argument elsewhere, because it’s going to be circular. Cultural reasons are never the determining factor in theology, only one factor in its expression. And anytime somebody tries to say what Jesus would or wouldn’t do these days, I know we’re getting off track. Might as well admit, If I were Jesus, this is what I’D do. But we’re not.

        • Manny

          No all that does is push the issue back to why jews originally picked males in the first place. And obviously males were identified by God from Abraham on, and then especially through Aaron, as the gender who had responsibility for religious ritual. That’s a universal declaration by God, not a specific cultural meme.

          Sorry for responding Joaana, but I think my answer is not consistent with the endless loop you were talking about.

  • joannemcportland

    Closing comments on this post now. It’s just bringing out the snark in us all. My bad. If you made a comment and it does not appear, it’s because I’m saving you from the near occasion of being nasty.