I’d make a great priest–I really would! I’m knowledgeable, I’m faithful, I’m an excellent listener, and, boy, can I preach.1 I’d touch hearts in the confessional and set parishes on fire.
It’s not that I wouldn’t be a good priest, it’s that I can’t be a priest.
Look at it this way: those little girls I told you about? I spend more time with them than their dad ever has. I flew to Indiana for Megan’s first communion earlier this year; I’d bet money that he doesn’t even know her middle name. He hasn’t seen them in years; I’m there every summer. I may be a much better father to them than he is, but I can’t be their father.
Or how about this: I’d be an incredible giraffe.–bear with me here. I’d be the first singing giraffe ever. I’d be able to read and write and spell prehensile when blogging about my awesome prehensile tongue. But I can’t be a giraffe. It’s not a matter of being good enough–I’m not capable. I don’t have the giraffeness it takes to be a giraffe, the maleness it takes to be a father, or the essence it takes to be a priest.
What we have to get here is that nobody’s saying women aren’t good enough to be priests. Nobody loved women more than Jesus. When he rose from the dead, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene (happy feast day!), and yet he didn’t invite her to the Last Supper. He honored her above all the apostles but he didn’t make her a priest. Not because she wasn’t good enough but because it wasn’t possible.
And quit telling me that the Church hates women. You can’t spend more than 15 minutes around real Catholics without wondering if they don’t maybe worship the Virgin Mary. You can’t feel the way we do about the blessed Mother and hate women. So this has to be a matter not of talent but of capability–not of intelligence and piety and compassion but of something innate to men that women don’t possess.
Intrinsic to this whole question is the idea that men and women are essentially different in more than just chromosomes and their biological expression. That’s what the church is assuming when she says (infallibly, btw) that women can’t be in persona Christi because they aren’t male.2
For a long time, I thought this was stupid. Do priests then have to be Semitic and have beards and wear sandals? Don’t be ridiculous.
But those things are all accidents (remember when we talked about substance and accidents?)–they’re characteristics that don’t define a person. Jesus’ gender, on the other hand, is substance. It’s essential to who he is.
Think about it this way: if John and Mary pull a Freaky Friday and switch bodies, John doesn’t become a woman. His maleness is not a mere function of his body–it’s who he is. We’d say that he was a man trapped in a woman’s body, not that he had become a woman. He may have long hair, pink fingernails, and great legs, but he’s still a man.
We have to keep this in mind when we’re discussing women’s ordination: the Church has never said that women weren’t good enough to be priests but that they weren’t capable. Just like my dad would have made a great mom but he can’t be a mom. He doesn’t have the femaleness required.
So if you’re a Catholic, you accept this because of Scripture (Jesus didn’t ordain women) and Tradition (the Church has never ordained women and has said infallibly that women can’t be ordained). You can argue all you like that Jesus was restricted by his culture, but then you’re a) ignoring the fact that everything he did flew in the face of cultural norms–prostitutes and tax collectors, anyone? and b) denying the divinity of Christ who would certainly have rejected those customs if he though it necessary, for that time or ours.
But why is this true?? I always got that I had to accept this, but it took a near miracle for me to see why God had designed things this way. I had to know what there is about “maleness” that is intrinsic to priesthood. C.S. Lewis (himself an Anglican) explains this brilliantly. If you’re short on time, definitely read him instead of me.
Lewis doesn’t say much, though, about the argument that really makes sense of all this for me. He understands that women can’t represent God to men the way that men can, not because they’re not kind or loving or wise enough but because God is masculine in relationship to his people. God is the initiator, the one who gives to his Bride who receives. (Forget your personal relationships for a minute and just recognize the significance of the act of sex in terms of what it means to be masculine or feminine.) So when priests act in persona Christi, they can only do that by fully imaging Christ the Bridegroom.
When he stretched out his arms on the cross, Jesus consummated his marriage with his Bride the Church. At each Mass, we step outside of time to that one sacrifice. When the priest takes the host in his hands, he speaks the words of Christ once again, “This is my body, which will be given up for you.” This moment in the Mass is the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, and the marital act of Bridegroom and Bride. It is offered by Christ through the person of the priest.
That’s why the gender of the priest is essential. The Mass is a marital act, an act of complete self-giving by Christ to his Church. If a woman were the priest, each Mass would be the image of a homosexual union. Think what you want about gay marriage in America, it’s pretty clear where the Church has to stand on the issue of the morality of homosexual actions (Rom 1:26-27, 1 Tim 1:10, 1 Cor 6:9). And the Church’s central act of worship has to be in line with God’s plan for men and women as much as everything else the Church does.
If priesthood were a matter of talent, I’d make a great priest. If Christianity were entirely reasonable (as Lewis says), it would be appalling to deny holy orders to women. But when we enter the realm of the divine, we have to accept that there may be some truths that counter contemporary human wisdom.
Second wave feminism taught us that equality meant sameness, that if men and women were equal it meant that they were interchangeable. What makes humanity so beautiful, though, is the difference between and complementarity of the sexes. And I think the great downfall of second wave feminism, even from a secular perspective, is that it tries so hard to champion the value of women while telling women they have to be men.
Gloria Steinem didn’t argue in favor of respect for the feminine genius, as did John Paul II; she declared that women, being as good as men, were just like men. So instead of earning the dignity we always deserved while embracing our femininity, we were told to want sex as much as men (and as indiscriminately as boys who are unworthy of the name “men”), to be as unemotional as men (without being bitches), and to work harder than men (since deep down we all know that women aren’t really as smart as men), all while looking hot.
Believe, me, I’m a feminist. You are, too. But I understand that to be a good woman, I don’t have to be a man. I can be as athletic or emotional or nurturing or intelligent as is natural to me without comparing myself to anyone else’s ideal. I can wear spike heels or Converse, work 10 hour days at the office or 16 hour days at home or never work a day in my life. I can be girly or tough or quiet or nerdy or all of the above. I’ve never let my culture define who I am because my self worth doesn’t lie in what I do but in who I am: I am His.
I’ve had people ask me in the past if it’s hard to be a woman in the Catholic Church. My Episcopalian grandmother tells me every time I see her that it’s a shame I can’t be a priest. But, having been blessed to accept this teaching, I’ve found that I love the Church all the more because of it. I would never want to be a member of a church whose doctrine is swayed by the sensibilities of the world. I feel so blessed to take refuge in a bastion of truth that stands firm in the face of onslaughts from every side.
I did feel a little sorry for myself for a while until I began to understand the beauty of being a woman in the Church. Sure, men can be priests, but most aren’t. Every woman, though, can be pursued by divine love in a way that speaks particularly to a woman’s heart. Every woman can picture herself in the arms of Christ in a way that’s meaningless (or disturbing) to most men. No, I can’t say Mass, and nothing will ever change that. But I can read the Song of Songs as a love letter to me. I can hear the voice of my lover crying out to me in the Eucharist, be lost in the romance of his embrace, and live as a princess in his kingdom.
And I wouldn’t trade that for a sham priesthood. Not for anything.