I’ve said it before. I am a Catholic woman who once believed, passionately and thoroughly, that women were called to ordination in the Catholic Church. And now I don’t. On the feast of the Magdalene, that Apostle to the Apostles and patroness of uppity women, some thoughts.
First, though, a caveat. My changed position is not really about thinking. When people ask me why I no longer have issues with a male priesthood, I could say, like a certain president, that my thinking on the subject has evolved—or revolved, with my reversion. But it’s less about articulated arguments of logic than it is about a simple resting in knowledge of rightness, a received truth.
That’s been difficult to convey, because the logical arguments for the ordination of women—the ones that moved my earlier passion and activism—are often difficult to refute. Yes, throughout Scripture and history, God calls women as well as men to holiness and leadership. Yes, a Church that welcomed both women and men to ordination would speak the Good News more credibly to a good half of the world. Yes, women are capable of ministering in ways that complement and extend the ministry of men.
And the thinking—the logical and theological evidence presented—in favor of an all-male priesthood has never really spoken to me in a convincing way. Big- and little-t tradition. The symbolism of the Church as Bride. And (although this is not and never has been the true mind of the Church) the underlying assumption that Men Are Better than Evil Unclean Daughters of Eve. When I am asked how any Catholic woman today can defend the exclusion of women from ordination, I cannot with any personal credibility draw on these arguments.
So I fall back on obedience. A steep, long fall, to be sure, but the only landing place I know.
“Even When We Do Not Understand Why”
Lately, as the topic of women’s ordination continues to pop up as a possible synod issue in spite of (or because of) Roma est locuta closing of the question, I got some wonderful support for my non-articulation from my articulate and wicked smart Patheos blog neighbor Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry. In a post responding to the Anglican decision to accept women as bishops, PEG identified for me why it was never about thinking, but about resting in mystery. I cannot tell you how his thoughts untied a knot in my soul.
Right now, I want to focus on one tiny subset of the whole tapestry, which is the fact that Jesus only appointed males to the apostleship. This argument is frequently used (including by me) in support for the male only priesthood and apostleship.
Former First Things editor Damon Linker has called it “extremely weak.” One person on Twitter surmised that the appointment of men to the apostleship could just be a coincidence (?!?!).
And on the surface, it can seem kind of silly: Jesus did lots of things, we can’t always know for sure what he meant by them, and so on and so forth. And how is “We’ve always done it this way” a decisive argument?
Here’s the thing: if you view it as, in and of itself, significant what Jesus did and signified, you are implicitly taking for granted one of the core claims of Christianity (if not the one on which all other claims depend), which is that it is a revealed religion.
According to Christianity, Christianity was revealed to men by God (in the Incarnation of his son Jesus Christ). According to Christianity, therefore, what is true, and what is in accordance to God’s will, is not, or not fundamentally, something which Christians figure out by abstract logical reasoning, but instead something that has been handed on down by God. . . .
This means that if Jesus Christ, who is God and the Word of God (Jn 1:1), taught something, whether in word or deed, certainly in the cases where the Church has always understood this teaching as being a teaching, as is clearly the case for the male priesthood, we have to understand it as binding even if we do not understand why. (And certainly the Bible is clear about the duty of following God even when we do not understand.) To reason otherwise is, in a subtle but real sense, to reduce Christianity to a man-made thing; to say “If we do not understand why it might be true, it cannot be true” is to implicitly deny that Christianity is or can be a revealed religion, coming down to us from a transcendent God who, by definition, knows better than we do.
“To Reduce Christianity to a Man-Made Thing”
The actions of women who claim to be Catholic priests also continue to make (usually wildly inaccurate) headlines, as with this piece from Indianapolis last week. There is way too much wrong with both the coverage and the women’s understanding of Catholic priesthood to bother fisking line for line, but on top of the inaccuracies, such news just makes me profoundly sad. Playing priest is something we all did as children, but priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church is about more—and less—than holy cosplay. These women are making up their own church, one as far from Catholic tradition and Tradition, as far from the sacraments that give us life, as far from the deposit of faith in Christ Jesus as it is possible to be, and they think this is a good thing.
From holding banners outside walls of the Vatican to sending priests across the world spreading their mission of peace and justice, the ARCWP is taking leaps toward equality and diminishing sexism in the Church. Those involved have taken great risks for their beliefs and faced dire consequences, but show no signs of slowing.
“You know what they say, excommunication is the path to canonization,” laughed Sevre-Duszynska, noting her belief that each person has a calling, and the women priests are doing what they believe to be their mission in life.
This is, in a play on PEG’s words, to reduce Catholicism to a (wo)man-made thing. And it is supremely illogical in the worst way: to claim leadership in a tradition whose every Tradition one rejects. That cannot be, in any way, a mission of peace and justice, or a road to sainthood.
So I pray for them, because they have lost sight of the Lord they claim to follow.
The Magdalene’s Priesthood
On this day I look to Mary of Magdala for an understanding of my priesthood, the priesthood of women which is not women priests. Other than his mother, Mary, what better woman could Jesus have selected for the apostolic priesthood? But he didn’t. For reasons I don’t understand, but accept—as Mary of Nazareth gave her fiat to the Angel’s impossible vocation, as Mary of Magdala accepted the Risen Christ’s mission not to cling to him, but to go and proclaim the Good News as only she could do it.
There’s a word for that acceptance—obedience. Along with similar terms (docility, receptivity, humility) obedience has gotten a bad rap among many women. It seems to signify weakness, subjugation, oppression, less-than-ness. And indeed in a broken world those readings can be right. But Jesus unbreaks the world, and our priesthood—ordained or baptismal, female or male—is to go and do likewise. Radical obedience (believing, living what has been revealed, even when we don’t understand it) is at the heart of all priesthood, because it is at the heart of Jesus’ own priesthood, the unbreaking of Eden.
An ancient tradition, illustrated by Giotto’s murals in the lower basilica at Assisi, tells of the Magdalene’s life after the Ascension. She lives as a monk—but not a priest—in a cave in the South of France, clothed only in her hair, in an exuberant return to the innocence of Paradise. She loses herself entirely in the contemplation of her Lord, sustained only by daily Communion administered by angels.
That is my priesthood now, living in the cave of the Magdalene, sustained by the Eucharist, drawing all eyes to the Lord and his merciful kindness. Praying Yes, even when I don’t know why.
Image: Giotto, The Hermit Zosimus Shares His Cloak with the Magadalene, Fresco, Lower Basilica of St Francis, Assisi Source