The personal blog of Frank Lesko. Award-winning writer. Non-profit entrepreneur. Activist. Religious professional. Foodie. Musician. All around curious soul and Renaissance man.

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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

It's Time: The Ordination of Women

What the Catechism of the Catholic Church says about the ordination of women to the priesthood:

"Only a baptized man (vir) receives sacred ordination. The Lord Jesus chose men (viri) to form the college of the twelve apostles, and the apostles did the same when they chose collaborators to succeed them in their ministry. The college of bishops, with whom the priests are united in the priesthood, makes the college of the twelve an ever-present and ever-active reality until Christ’s return. The Church recognizes herself to be bound by this choice made by the Lord Himself. For this reason the ordination of women is not possible."

What I find most striking about this is the board assumption that this is based on. The Church is cherry-picking an attribute of Jesus and his 12 and making an all-reaching rule out of it. Jesus was a man and he picked 12 men . . . 12 Jewish men. But why is the qualification of "men" considered so important? By this logic, it seems like all Catholic priests should be Jewish men. By this logic, there should only be 12. Where did the authority come to grow beyond this? 12. Jewish. Men. Probably all married.

Maybe they all had black hair. Maybe they all worked in the skilled trades. Are those traits mandatory for priests today?

In a male-dominated society, it would have been perfectly reasonable for Jesus to have picked 12 men. Representing the 12 tribes of Israel, 12 men were needed to represent the 12 patriarchs. This was a patriarchal society in a very literal sense--not just with patriarchal overtones like we have today. It was legally patriarchal. To represent 12 patriarchs you're gonna need 12 men, it's that simple. It would be like having a movie about the Vietnam war but using black people as actors to play the part of the Viet Cong. Sure, you could be taking some artistic license to show that the Vietnam War was not limited to one time or place, but is rather representative of racism in America or something to that effect (actually this is a rather good idea), but to most movie-goers, it just wouldn't make sense. If you want to portray Vietnamese people in a movie, you're gonna want to have people of at least some kind of Asian ancestry to play the parts in most cases. That is why there are 12 men in the gospels.

Jesus could have overturned the traditions of his society to appoint women to represent these patriarchs, thereby working against the social order--but he just didn't. That doesn't mean Jesus was supporting patriarchy, it just means that was one reform he either never thought of or didn't think necessary given the point he was trying to make. It would be irresponsible to read into this an exclusion of women from apostolic functions. Besides, we know that there were more apostles than just the 12--Paul is a perfect example. So excluding priests today based on characteristics of the 12 is very weak grounds. Heck, for all we know Jesus had women among the 12 and it was the gospel writers who edited the names to make them--shall we say--more male. It wouldn't be the only time that happened in scripture or in a translation.

Historically speaking, it would have been improper to have been a patriarch of one of the tribes of Israel and also a single, celibate male. Yet, the Church does not require marriage for its priests, in fact, it prohibits it (at least for the last 900 years or so). Peter seems to have been married, with scripture references to his mother-in-law. So why isn't marriage required for priests? Why is the maleness mandatory but the marriage optional?

Jesus also picked 12 really confused men. Does that mean that being dense should also be a prerequisite for apostolic succession?

Many pagan sects of the day had women priestesses, but not in the Jewish faith. But there is strong evidence that Jesus had women disciples. Paul certainly traveled with deaconesses and other women who were "co-workers in the vineyard."


While the Church has not supported the ordination of women over the centuries, it must be asked whether this was on theological grounds or whether the Church was reflecting the cultural limitations of a specific time and place--just like Jesus or the gospel writers were doing when 12 men were picked. Many claim the argument from Tradition is more valid than the argument from scripture, but then I have to ask why does the Church use a scriptural argument in the quote above?

I am sympathetic to an argument from Tradition. I don't think the Church should change on a dime. The Church is a long history of a faith community. It has to come from somewhere and go somewhere. Still, the Church needs to be responsive to its own time. And many, many traditions have changed even after hundreds of years of practice--mandatory celibacy is one of them. The authority and prominence of the pope is also a rather "recent" phenomenon in the Church, as well. Speaking the vernacular at mass is another.

Priesthood at Baptism?

We can all be Christians--men and women. You don't have to be male to be Christian. It is along these lines that the logic against womens' ordination falls apart. Even though Jesus was a young man, with a Jewish mixed ancestry, living in 1st century Palestine, speaking Aramaic and possibly Greek, having grown up in a family of skilled trades, does not mean that to be a follower of Christ one needs to manifest any of these traits. The Incarnation happens in a specific person, time and place, but it is not limited to that. In fact, many of the early arguments recorded in scripture prevail along these lines--the Holy Spirit comes to all, regardless of your social class, ethnicity, degree of sinfulness, and yes, even gender. Why is the maleness of Jesus and the 12 so important when it comes to priesthood but not important at all for baptism?

Sex at Mass

One of the primary arguments is that Christ--being male--consecrates himself in the Eucharist and gives himself freely to others. This "giving" is a male act similar to the sex act and representative of male sexuality (apparently some people think that only men can be givers!) Interesting. Anyway, in a similar gesture, the male Catholic priests continue the same tradition to this day. These men--who are standing in for Christ himself--perform a nuptial union with the Church, which is the bride of Christ. Priests must be male to be in union with the Bride of Christ.

Does anyone else see some glaring details right there? If all priests have to be men, since male sexuality is an essential element of the priesthood, then doesn't it follow that everyone in the congregation has to be female? Because in a church that has such issues with homosexuality, I am not sure what to think when as a male I take communion as a part of the congregation--which is the female Bride of Christ.

And if men can be part of the female Bride of Christ, then . . .

. . . it stands to reason that women could represent the Bridegroom just as well as a man.

This idea that Christ is the Bridegroom and the Church is the Bride has be used as a support for a male-only priesthood. But if you take that logic at face value, then all men should be priests and only women would comprise the Church. Throw in the issue of homosexuality or transgendered folks or effeminate males and masculine females and the whole house of cards collapses.

By the way, there are some women who have already been ordained as Roman Catholic priests and bishops. Ahh . . . what they don't teach you in Sunday School.


  1. I'm reading this book by Gene Robinson (the gay Episcopalian biship). Last night, in one of the chapters I read, Robinson discusses the belief that Jesus only gave to the people what they could culturally handle at that particular moment in time. Being not very versed in the Bible, I cant remember what the specific quote is Robinson refers to, but apparently there's something Jesus said about the unending education to come if the person is listening to God. Anyway, that's what Robinson uses as the justification for why women were once not allowed to be priests and why now the Episcopalian church has moved to the times and changed their stance on female priests (with much duress to the church, I might add).

    He also, of course, uses this argument to say that God loves gays and does not find them an abomination, as the Bible suggests... But that's another topic all together.

    It's really interesting because in describing his plight as a very Christian openly gay man, he also describes the plight of women in the church and his belief in their equality. I'm, of course, loving this book.

    Also, I'd like to point out that Mary Magdalen was kind of a disciple of Christ, but her Gospel was left out of the Bible, despite the fact that historically speaking she was kind of supporting the 12 disciples... I think she was the only one employed...

  2. I agree, and here's how I look at that: Scripture is a record of people who had a true divine revelation, but interpreted that revelation through the lens of their own humanity--which is tempered by culture, assumptions, education, bias, etc.

    Scripture is like Jesus--human and divine all at the same time.

    Mary (different Mary) was "at the feet" of Jesus in Luke's gospel, listening and learning. Well, the term "at the feet" is a sign of discipleship.

    There were numerous other instances in the gospels and in Paul's letter where women play a prominent role--more prominent than you would expect given the 1st century Jewish culture that this came out of.

    But like you pointed out: It may not matter. Scripture is important, but given the cultural and human limitations, we need to re-evaluate all the time in light of new understandings.

  3. Ahhh... your Christianity is so refreshing and gives me hope... ;)

  4. Scripture is like Jesus--human and divine all at the same time.

    This is exactly what I believe!