Two weeks ago the subject of women’s ordination to the priesthood was briefly in the news again. Father Wojciech Giertych, a Dominican and theologian of the papal household to Pope Benedict XVI, gave an interview in which he discussed the theological objections to ordaining women to the priesthood. The interview was summarized in print and in a short video by Catholic News Service.
His argument for the most part does not break new ground, reiterating instead the basic arguments advanced in Inter Insigniores and affirmed by Pope John Paul II in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis: Christ himself only ordained men and so the Church cannot do otherwise. Moreover, that Christ was incarnate as a male means that maleness is intrinsic to the role of the priest as an image of Christ.
I was familiar with these arguments, and it is not the purpose of this post to rehash them or the arguments against them. Rather, in reading about the interview with Fr. Giertych, I was struck by the other, secondary arguments he advanced in favor of this position. They do not represent the core of the argument; rather, in fairness to Fr. Giertych, I think they represent an attempt by him to provide some additional explanations that he finds, if not compelling, then reasonable and suggestive.
These arguments were summarized by CNS as follows:
Men are more likely to think of God in terms of philosophical definitions and logical syllogisms, he said, a quality valuable for fulfilling a priest’s duty to transmit church teaching.
Although the social and administrative aspects of church life are hardly off-limits to women, Father Giertych said priests love the church in a characteristically “male way” when they show concern “about structures, about the buildings of the church, about the roof of the church which is leaking, about the bishops’ conference, about the concordat between the church and the state.”
I find these arguments problematic on several grounds. First, while I believe that there are differences between men and women that transcend the physical, I think that arguments that men are more abstract and logical and women are more emotional and intuitive are hopelessly naive and the product of social categories. It is redolent of the 19th century argument that women should not receive higher education because it would cause their uteruses to atrophy. Far too many women have demonstrated their abilities as systematic theologians (not to mention as engineers, physicists, and mathematicians) to give this argument much credence. Some women think of God in more personal and mystical ways; so do many men (St. John of the Cross springs immediately to mind). That both men and women have demonstrated both approaches suggests that these differences are more reflective of personal preference and cultural norms than they are of ontology.
In his second argument, Fr. Giertych seems to suggest that women do not (and perhaps cannot) think about the Church in the “right” way. This fails in two ways: as before, I find it absurd to suggest that concern for the physical or institutional structures of the Church reflects “maleness” in any way. One only need look at St. Catherine of Siena and her hectoring of the Avignon popes to find a counter example, or to the tireless and often unheralded service of generations of women cleaning and maintaining parish churches, rectories and convents. Furthermore, I find these categories in and of themselves to be misguided, since they suggest that the most important concerns of a priest are with structures, and not with the message of the gospels. I for one do not want as my pastor someone whose only strengths lie in these areas. I do not think they are useless, but a pastor who lacks them can overcome this weakness by relying on laity with these skills. There are other, more disastrous things for a priest to lack: empathy, charity, passion for Christ’s flock–things that might be described as “womanly virtrues.”Fr. Giertych then goes on to argue that
“The mission of the woman in the church is to convince the male that power is not most important in the church, not even sacramental power,” he said. “What is most important is the encounter with the living God through faith and charity.”
“So women don’t need the priesthood,” he said, “because their mission is so beautiful in the church anyway.”
In reading this argument I was immediately reminded of a hoary old Native American joke: “When the white man came to America, we had the land and he had the Bible. The white man said, ‘Let us pray,’ and we bowed our heads and closed our eyes. When we looked up, the white man had the land and we had the Bible.”
If I understand Fr. Giertych, a male clergy (one which is to show special solicitude for “buildings of the Church,” “the bishops’ conferences” and “the concordat between Church and State”) is tasked with building and maintaining structures of power, one which defines those voices which are legitimate and those which are not. At the same time, however, this same clergy is supposed to listen to women’s voices and realize, as St. Thomas Aquinas put it, that all their works are straw. Women, on the other hand, should accept their lack of power since (to paraphrase the Gospel of St. John), they have been given the better part. The connection with the land and the Bible is unmistakable.
Equally germane is Harlan Ellison’s trenchant short story Silence in Gehenna. The hero, Joe Bob Hickey, is a revolutionary in a near future dystopian America which has become a corporate/fascist state. In the midst of a terror attack, he is kidnapped by aliens, who place him in a golden cage in the midst of their city. Below him, he can see these giant aliens being drawn through the streets in chariots by slaves of another species whom they beat mercilessly. Joe Bob, true to his revolutionary self, begins preaching revolution to the slaves. The slaves ignore him, but whenever a master comes within earshot, he begins to beat himself instead of his slaves. As he rolls away, however, he resumes beating his slaves.
In the same way, Fr. Giertych is not calling for an end to power, authority or domination—something which seems central to the Gospel message. Rather, he seems to want to maintain the status quo, while granting women the right to periodically make him and other priests feel guilty.
In the end, Fr. Giertych’s secondary arguments seem to be grounded in both a misunderstanding of the differences in unity that flow from “male and female He created them” and “in Christ Jesus there is neither male nor female.” He relies too much on outdated and incorrect notions of male and female, and on a clericalist understanding of the priesthood that seems more concerned with hierarchy and authority than with self-abegnation and service.
And here, I think, is the nub of the problem: if the Church indeed finds itself without the authority to ordain women to the priesthood, then it is imperative that it acknowledge that the priesthood as it exists today is inscribed into a social and historical context which invests it with power and privilege at the expense of women, making it both a source of alienation and an object of desire.