Wednesday, April 11, 2012

on Catholicism and women, growth and tradition

I was recently nudged to read an article by Maureen Dowd, New York Times Op-Ed columnist.  The article, "What Would Jesus Do at the Masters" was about, if I can boil it down to a sentence, the closed doors that women still face, highlighted by three examples: the Masters, sports in Saudi Arabia, and in the Catholic Church.

I'll be honest, until I read the article, I didn't know about the controversy surrounding women and Augusta National (women are forbidden).  And although I knew (kind of) about the way that women are treated in places like Saudi Arabia, I didn't even think about the way that the treatment of women and girls spilled over in to every single aspect of life (like sports, and the upcoming Olympics).

But the role of women in the Catholic Church?  That is something I know a thing or two about (or I think I do at least).

The role of women in the church has always been for the woman to be a "helper", a sidekick, an assistant.   In fact, the very first time that women are mentioned in the Bible, our role is spelled out:  "It is not good that the man should be alone, I will make him a helper fit for him" (Genesis 2:18).  So that means that women were created to... keep men company?  Make sure they don't get too lonely?

The Bible's picture doesn't get a whole lot prettier for us girls.   "Women were left out of the picture or presented as stereotypes, as if all the women in the ancient world had been saints, whores, or invisible" (source).

And it doesn't get better in real life, nor in real life 2012.  To this day, women are second class citizens in the eyes of the Catholic Church.   That sounds dramatic, and it is.  But that doesn't make it any less true.

During the six months that Scott and I were actively taking part in the Catholic marriage preparation process, we had eight required meetings with a male (duh) Catholic Priest.  Five of those were one-on-one (er, two-on-one as we met with him together, as a couple), and we also participated in three day-long group seminar.  During this time, we were assigned hundreds of pages of reading, some of which covered the roles of wives and husbands within successful Catholic unions.  I was personally told that it was "wifely" to "subordinate" myself to Scott - but no worries, it would all work out fine because it would be his job to "worship" me.  Ummm.  Thanks, but no thanks?  Though the bulk of marriage prep was positive and beneficial to us as an engaged couple, there were a number of moments where I looked at Scott in disbelief, thinking that surely I hadn't heard correctly.  It was 2011, right, and not 1941? This wasn't some old fashioned book that they were reading from as a joke, right?  But it wasn't a joke, and that's probably good, because I don't find it very funny.

I've long wondered why women can't become Catholic Priests.  The literal role of Priests is to act in persona Christi Capiti, or in the person of Christ, and I simply can't comprehend why women can't do it.  I'm genuinely curious - can anyone offer an explanation?  It seems to me that in this day and age - especially with the ongoing shortage of Catholic Priests! - that it is at the very least irrational not to allow women to hold that special role.  And even more than that - it's sexist.  (Actually, I don't think the Church could disagree with the notion of it being sexist, since the definition of sexism is discrimination based on sex, and that's the exact rationale).

The standard answer from the Church (and the one I was given by the Priest leading the marriage prep last year ) was that because Jesus' disciples were men, so Priests should also be men.

Up until the second or third centuries, women were able to do "at least priestly functions, if not to ordination".  According to the article, these people were called "heretics" because it "wasn't what Christ willed, and it's against apostolic teaching".  (Source).  Until 1976 the language remained kind of ambivalent.  Women still weren't ordained, but it wasn't until that year that an official declaration came out of the Vatican.  Those early Catholics, they said, "immediately censured this step, judging it a novelty which should on no account be accepted into the Church."

So, to summarize - women have never been allowed to be Catholic Priests... and because they have never been Priests, that makes it a tradition.  And the Church wants to maintain the tradition.

To me, it seems so obvious: this circular logic acts as an un-questionable, un-changeable, self-fulfilling declaration.

But at what cost?

Sometimes the Catholic faith is called the "Catholic Tradition", and that's a pretty fitting term.  The history associated with the Catholic Tradition is important, and a deep part of the Catholic legacy, but I can't help but think that the Church is becoming less and less relevant - or at least less influential - with each passing year.

The number of Catholic Marriages has fallen by 1/3 since 1965.

In 1958, 3 out of 4 Catholics attended weekly Mass.  Today, 1 in 4 do.

Almost half of all Catholic high schools have closed over the past 45 years.

By 2020, there will be only 31,000 Catholic Priests in the US, and half will be over 70.

For Catholics, the numbers are grim, and maybe a little scary.  With a population that is literally dwindling in both size and devotion, I believe the time has come to modernize.  Are 2,000 year old principles enough to stand on if you're standing alone?  There are many ways in which the Church could (should!) re-emerge in today's world, but I recognize that most of them are probably impossibly closed to change (the right of women over their own body and gay rights, to name just two).  Allowing women to become Priests is small in gravity and importance to the Tradition, and huge in both symbolism and modernization.  Perhaps more importantly, it would be a sign to all kinds of Catholics - both the devout and the lapsed - that the Catholic Church is just like us: a fallible, living and breathing organism, focused on growth, expansion, and - yes - tradition.


  1. If "tradition" trumps common sense then women should keep their heads covered, we should stone (to death) gay people (says both in the bible)and women should never be allowed membership at Augusta. Hard to defend on any grounds other than "that's they way we've always done it". Good post.

  2. I agree that Jesus is about inclusion, not exclusion.

    I worry about our church - she's like an elderly lady walking on a side street: muttering truisms quietly, intimidating some, doing good deeds while not looking up at the traffic.

    Oh - I liked the end of Dowd's article where she quotes the Episopalian priest who said this:

    They say women can’t be priests because Jesus only called men to be apostles,” he said. “But the women close to Jesus were the first witnesses of the resurrection. When the men were afraid and hidden, the women went to the tomb and said, ‘Jesus is risen!’ If Easter is the most important part of Christianity, the first to proclaim the message were women. Who could make more effective preachers?”

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I must say a prayer now as I'm totally depressed.


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