Women, the Priesthood, and Discrimination

A brief discussion was generated by some of my seventh graders yesterday in class, and given the time constraints as well as the respective ages of the students, I felt the need to more coherently address the debate here on my blog. After all, I am a man of letters (a self-indulgent fancy, to be sure, but we all have our little conceits).

I fail to recall the particular comment made, but one of the young ladies responded to it by remarking something to the effect of “and that’s why women have been subjugated and relegated to second-class status throughout history.” Naturally, I immediately seized the opportunity to indicate this young lady was correct and it wouldn’t be until the historical reality of Jesus and the rise of Christianity that people began acknowledging women had the same inherent worth and dignity as men. In turn, and to my surprise (it’s a public school, not Catholic), this stirred the question of women and the priesthood. “It’s discrimination!” my students cried, “Women should be allowed to be priests if they want to!”

To the utter amazement of everyone in the room, I agreed: “That’s right, it is discrimination.” And then the bombshell: “But there’s nothing wrong with discrimination, properly understood; we do it all the time.”

(I already envision my readers tripping over themselves to beat the slavery/Jim Crow/sexism/homophobic stick….)

Indeed. There really is nothing wrong with the proper understanding of discrimination. The Oxford English Dictionary has several definitions for the word, but most converge around the same basic point: to make a distinction between and among things; in other words, differentiation. Now, these distinctions can lead to truly horrible and monstrous ends; however, perversion does not alter something intrinsically benign and appropriate. For example, despite what some states are attempting to undo, do we not discriminate between men and women when it comes to such matters as bathrooms? As I asked my kids, don’t boys only change in the boys’ locker room and girls in the girls’ locker room? What is that if not discrimination?

Men and women are equally endowed with worth and dignity, yes, but men and women are not “equal.” All variables excluded, men are physically stronger and faster than women. All variables excluded, women have more robust immune systems and greater endurance than men. These, and other, natural differences (perhaps compatibilities would be a more fitting expression) make men and women predisposed for distinct roles. I can never be a mother; my girlfriend, whom I very much hope to marry, can never be a father. And this brings us to the Catholic Church and the priesthood.

Although the distinction (discrimination?) between a “disciple” and an “apostle” was above the comprehension of seventh graders, I hope adults would not be so immature. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, a disciple is one who accepts “Jesus’ message to follow him.” Whereas an apostle is “one who is sent as Jesus was sent by the Father, and as he sent his chosen disciples to preach the Gospel to the whole world. He called the Twelve to become his Apostles, chosen witnesses of his Resurrection and the foundation on which the Church is built.” Mary Magdalene was a disciple, not an apostle. Contrary to what a few almost-teenagers sought to argue, this is not man-made invention (by which was meant, literal “man,” not “Man”), but rather historical fact. No women were called by Jesus to apostleship. The rebuttal to this verity is that it reflects the culture of the time. This is not accurate, though. Jesus broke cultural taboos repeatedly during his life. No, Jesus called only men to the priesthood (and by extension, the bishops, which is the actual office of apostolic succession) because men and women each serve different roles and different functions. Consider:

“In answer to the further question of why Jesus did not share the sacrament of Order with women, Inter Insigniores quotes St. Thomas Aquinas, who explained that ‘sacramental signs represent what they signify by natural resemblance.’ The ordained priest is a sacramental sign who acts in persona Christi (‘in the person of Christ’). Anyone who acts for Christ in this way needs to have a ‘natural resemblance’ to him. Christ was a man and thus the priest who acts for him—not just in his ‘name,’ but in his person—needs to be a man.”

Like it or not, Jesus was a man, as were the Twelve, which leads to the manner in which the relationship between Jesus (and the priests and bishops operating in persona Christi) and the Church is understood by Catholics; namely, that the Church is the bride, and Jesus is the bridegroom (and we are called to be the progeny of that union). Women can’t be other than a bride, just as men can’t be other than the bridegroom. Saint Augustine, that titan of Christian/Western intellectual thought, articulated this concept better than anyone:

“But where did He sleep? On the cross. When He slept on the cross, He bore a sign…He fulfilled what had been signified in Adam: When Adam was asleep, a rib was drawn from him, and Eve was created; so also while the Lord slept on the cross, His side was transfixed with a spear, and the sacraments flowed forth, whence the Church was born. The Church, the Lord’s Bride, was created from His side, as Eve was created from the side of Adam. But as she was made from his side no otherwise than while sleeping, so the Church was created from His side no otherwise than while dying.”

Thus, the aforementioned compatibility is demonstrated to reveal the complementary aspect of male and female, not the superiority of male over female. As Irenaeus eloquently espoused in Against Heresies, there would be no Jesus if not for women!

“Inasmuch as He has a preexistence as a saving Being, it was necessary that what might be saved should also be called into existence, in order that the being who saves should not exist in vain. In accordance with this design, Mary the virgin is found obedient, saying, `Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done unto me according to thy word.’ ”

Realize that this wasn’t forced upon Mary – she had to say “yes” of her own free will….

A picture should be emerging at this juncture as to why women flocked to Christianity overwhelmingly. Here, for the first time in human history, was a worldview that said women weren’t simply half-gestated men, as Aristotle posited, or that they were play-things for sexual pleasure. Here was a worldview that chastised men for their historic treatment of women, boldly proclaiming the existence of the very person who saved them was concomitant upon a woman consenting to the will of God. In point of fact, one of the primary reasons the Church swiftly ruled the various Gnostic sects to be heretical was the Gnostic rejection of women and femininity. Unlike these sects, Christianity held, and continues to hold, great reverence for women.

The cause of women for the priesthood is rooted in modern feminism, which itself is rooted in relativism. This is why the logic of modern feminism actually exemplifies women as nothing more than sexual beings for sexual pleasure, be it their own or someone else’s, and this is why it runs so counter to the Catholic view of femininity. The role of priest (and bishop) reflects the relationship between Christ and the Church; thus, John Paul II declared the Church has no authority to ordain women. Christianity acknowledges the authentic nature of male and female, masculinity and femininity. This reveals why women, historically, have always comprised the greater percentage of the Christian population; it is only in Christianity they are not objectified, demeaned, or taken advantage of. To be fair, the Magisterium has not done an exceptional job in recent years of enunciating the specific role of women, yet this is something Pope Francis has set as one of his goals. Still, this rectification, by Francis’ own words, will not include priesthood.

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