Three 20-something women trying to figure out what it means to be lay, Catholic, and modern all at once.

April 27, 2010

A Response to Women and the Church

Thanks, Edith, for continuing the discussion on women and the Church. As women who are "lay, Catholic, and modern," if we don't discuss this in depth repeatedly, we should pretty much close up shop!

I am fully in agreement with you, Edith, that the third wave of feminism is still cause for head-scratching, and, in my opinion, is the sticking point in the discussion of the possibility of the female priesthood. In our modern culture which celebrates diversity and difference at every possible moment, it strikes me as really counter-cultural to deny the differences between the sexes, and, moreover, not to celebrate them. Now, I understand the motivation for denying femininity in the third wave -- if gender was what was at the root of discrimination by our male counterparts (and let's not pretend that it has not been in history), then it's easier to discuss it as a socially-conditioned attribute that can be overcome in the pursuit of respectable treatment. Clearly this was not the most liberating (or most logical) way to proceed, but it is at the very least understandable. We know now, thanks to science and to theological anthropology, that the difference in genders is something beautiful, and when one works within one's sex, one experiences real liberation (certainly, though, all of this hinges on an appreciation of the differences by the sexes themselves of their own gender and the opposite gender).

So, that being said, the question remains why it is still inappropriate (and I mean that literally) for women to be Roman Catholic priests. I think the points about Christ's knowledge of what He was doing at the Last Supper, apostolic tradition, and numerous other arguments are all sound, valid, and convincing. However, we must really look to see what else lies at the root of the question. Is there not a misunderstanding of what the priesthood is? The priesthood cannot be likened to a position of a CEO or an editor-in-chief, or even a motivational speaker. Nor can the priesthood be likened to the role of Protestant pastor or a Jewish rabbi. It is not only a mission to inspire the faithful. The Catholic priesthood is one of the most supreme manifestations of total self-donation to the Bride of Christ, the Church. Think of men at their ordination who lay prostrate on the floor. If the Theology of the Body tells us anything about masculine anthropology, it is that the male is the one who donates, who totally gives, to the female. This donation can involve the love of charity, which of course the female is called to do as well. But donation, well, that seems to me to be particularly masculine, while receptivity feminine. When this is transferred to the supernatural, we have the spousal theology of the priest marrying the Church. How beautiful is this difference.

Now, with regard to the feminization of the Church referenced in the Aglialoro's op-ed on Inside Catholic, I find myself in disagreement with most of his assessment. Throughout the history of the Church women have been known to fill up the pews, to outwardly express their religiosity. To suggest that the proportion of women to men in the pews is some sort of fruit of radical feminism or side effect of Vatican II is ridiculous on all counts. If men are not finding themselves in the pews on Sunday (or living out a daily religiosity), it is not because they cannot be "real men" in the Church. The Church (yes, even post-Vatican II), is where natural men become heroic soldiers for Christ.

He writes (admittedly with exaggeration):

Consider a Sunday in the life of a typical American parish. Father Reilly, once his mother's darling, says Mass before a congregation disproportionately representative of widows (both the traditional and the football kind), soccer moms flying solo, and budding young liturgistas. At the elevation of the Host, extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist (80-20 female) and altar servettes gather around the sanctuary to lend him moral support.

The notion that women should not be Eucharist ministers or altar servers really bothers me. I know some people have liturgical preferences for all-male servers, and that doesn't upset me...sometimes it's really nice to have an old-school liturgy. But if our patroness, Mary Magdalene, teaches us anything, it is that women are also called to announce the Risen Lord (in flesh and blood) to all the faithful (see the Resurrection accounts of the Gospels), and to serve Him (see her anointing His feet). To say that the presence of women as Eucharist ministers or servers on the altar is contributing to a misunderstanding of masculine spirituality is like saying that the twelve apostles would have been better served figuring out for themselves that Christ was Risen. We, as men and women, model hope and service to the Lord for one another! Serving the Lord at the center of the sacrifice is no different from standing at the Cross at Calvary (a role women know well).

I also take offense to this:
Shift from the relatively superficial to the sublime and you have "That Man Is You!," a program of Houston-based family ministry Paradisus Dei. Its founder, Steve Bollman, has mapped out an ambitious approach to men's ministry that begins by mining the social and biological sciences in search of a comprehensive vision of gender differences and roles -- of what makes a man a man, and why. In so doing, he has discovered what he thinks is the key to male under-representation in the Church -- in short, the "pastorally sensitive" approach bores them. "Men respond to a challenge," Bollman says. "To offer them a 'soft' program doesn't take into account how men work."

We have so many male role models that were catechetically sound and pastorally sensitive. I am thinking of St. Francis de Sales, who converted thousands of Calvinists back to the faith with his gentle preaching, Pope Benedict XVI who delivers beautiful, orthodox messages to His faithful when they are most in need of a shepherd, and of course, Jesus Christ himself, who was patient and gentle with his apostles when they misunderstood Him or were frightened. To suggest, even subtly, that orthodoxy and pastoral sensitivity are mutually exclusive is quite problematic.

All of this is to say that I'm not 100% convinced that the discussions about gender differences are best serving the faithful.


Catherine said...

Interesting post - I agree with most of what is being said here, but just wanted to make one point re: female altar servers, eucharistic ministers, etc. My understanding is that historically these roles were supposed to be filled either by other priests or by deacons; in the absence of these, non-ordained men or boys (preferably those already in some stage of discernment of the priestly vocation) could fill these roles. But they were still seen as extensions of the priestly activity during Mass - "acolyte" is one of the Minor Orders (as is lector, incidentally). Now clearly in most places its been a long time since we thought of altar servers and eucharistic ministers in this way, which is part of the reason why JPII allowed altar girls in the 90s. But I do think that there is a good argument to be made that allowing women and girls to fill these formerly priestly roles has contributed to a further weakening of our understanding of who the priest is and what he is doing during the liturgy. The actions of the altar servers are still in a sense priestly, even though they don't need to be done by a priest for a valid Mass.

On a related note, I think the push for women's ordination, while it *definitely* involves a lack of understanding of femininity, has more to do with a deeper misunderstanding of the nature of the priesthood.

Aaron said...

I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss Aglialoro's account of a feminized Church. He may exaggerate, he may not have chosen the best terms, but he IS onto something. For my part, what is irksome is not seeing women serving at the liturgy or elsewhere in the life of the Church. I get irked when I see a large number of female ministers, whose attitude is not of reverence but almost of protest, being followed about by a handful of uninspiring male ministers who seem to have only a mild sense of what they should be doing. (And, for the record, I can think of a parish where I routinely see this.) That's a very uninspiring vision, where the men are not donating, the women not receiving and the liturgy has become a glorified Kiwanis meeting.

In contrast, my own parish (St. Mary's, College Station, TX) is quite different. There are routinely large numbers of female ministers. (A Sunday mass frequently requires a dozen extraordinary ministers, in addition to the priest and deacon. And that's not counting lectors, cantors, etc. It's packed every weekend.) But the attitude of the women serving is very Magdalene-esque, a reverential reception of the mysteries of Our Lord. Likewise, there is something proper to the bearing of the men who serve: confident, solemn, disciplined.

Yes, many parishes have been feminized and sissified, and men don't want to come for that reason. But the number of women in the pews or at the altar is a red herring; the problem is much deeper and more subtle than that.

Likewise, a second point of clarification: I think you're quite right that men can be sensitive and pastoral, and need to receive such sensitivity as well. But, again, Aglialoro's onto something, even if he might have articulated it better. There is a time for men to be pastoral, quiet, reflective. But I think there's also something particularly masculine about some aspects of the Church's life that have been neglected.

I think of Ambrose telling Emperor Valentinian in the 4th century that Christians are good citizens and do everything the emperor asks politically, but... "in a matter of faith, BISHOPS JUDGE EMPERORS, not emperors bishops." Oh, somebody just got put in his place! Perhaps I speak only for myself, but I think men get particularly excited about that sort of thing, but how often is it preached from the ambo?

Or Shamgar killing 600 Philistines with an OXGOAD?!? (Judges 3:31) Why doesn't that story get told more often?

Or even, I might add, Maximilian Kolbe's self-sacrifice, willfully embracing death (and the hope of the resurrection!) for the sake of another. That's heroism. That's the kind of thing that can trump the NFL on a Sunday.

The problem is not genuine pastoral sensitivity. The problem is "pastoral sensitivity" which is simply emasculated Christianity operating as a front for a dying kind of bland 1970s feminism. Who wants that?

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