Monday, May 05, 2008

Can You Just Imagine The "Chicks With Collars" Fetish?

By the end of mass most weeks I'm upset at something or other. The parish we go to is incredibly stuffy and conservative in their worship style and politics, the parishioners are unfriendly and usually don't participate, and the music is terrible. Even worse that usual for a Catholic church. Really bad stuff.

But you can say one thing for our local church... it usually prompts me to think.

This week the pastor's homily focused on women in the priesthood. I have to commend him for taking on such a daunting topic. Most priests seem to avoid anything controversial, and routinely talk about much more benign issues. I do very much appreciate this quality to our current priest: he takes on the big issues, and he doesn't dumb things down. He actually uses his homilies for teaching, as well as for preaching. My problem just seems to come with regard to what he's teaching.

Being an especially conservative priest, he talked about the apologetics approach to explaining the Catholic position that women can't be priests. This is an issue I've spent quite a bit of time thinking about (primarily in college), and at various times I've come down on different sides. For a while, I thought women should be priests (women and men are equal, there's a shortage of priests, etc.). Then I thought maybe the church was right, that women shouldn't be ordained (Christ only picked men for apostles, value of tradition, etc.). Finally, after much research, writing, internal debate, reflection and prayer, I finally came to understand the crucial fact of this debate: there is no good theological reason for either supporting or denying women's ordination.

There are certainly some reasons to be given in support of both sides, but none of them are solid theological reasons. None of the reasons actually reveal God's will on the issue.

And that's what made tonight's homily so maddening: instead of discussing the issue without an agenda, the priest approached it from the standpoint that the arguments against women's ordination are the stronger arguments, and then he attempted to address some of the criticism of those arguments.

There are two primary reasons given against women's ordination. The first, and stupidest, is the idea that the church "is the bride of Christ" and Christ is the "bridegroom." Since the priest is "standing in" for Jesus he has to be male, because otherwise the analogy to marriage doesn't work. Pretty stupid, given that there are all sorts of similar analogies, including perhaps the most obvious one, that the church is the body of Christ, which would of course imply that the church is male and... well, you see the point. The whole bride/groom analogy is a pretty stupid idea. And since it's an analogy, it isn't really a reason in itself anyway. The priest didn't really address any of the criticism of this argument. I don't really wonder why.

The second reason given against women's ordination, and this is a [just] slightly more compelling one, is that Jesus himself selected only men to carry on his church. He appointed twelve male apostles, even though he hung out with a lot of women too, and this clearly indicates God's choice to have only men in the priesthood.

Of course, this is a pretty silly argument as well. The first inclination is to dismiss this because there are all sorts of other reasonable explanations for why Jesus would have only chosen men. There was the fact that women wouldn't have been as effective preachers in their day or age, or that they would have had a harder time traveling around like the apostles needed to, or whatever other justification you want to give. It was these counter-arguments that the priest attempted to address, and I must say that he did so rather effectively.

But that's not important. Because the composition of the twelve was not a statement on the future demographics of the priesthood. There is simply nothing in Jesus' ministry or teaching that would indicate that he intended to set precedent by selecting only men. Just like there's nothing to indicate that he intended to set precedent by selecting only Jews. Or only people between whatever ages the apostles were. Or any of the other various categories you could fit all of the 12 into.

The very argument, "Jesus selected only men, therefore the priesthood should be only men" is misleading. There needs to be another clause for the logic to work. The argument should read: "Jesus selected only men, the demographics of Jesus' selection were intended and instructive, therefore the priesthood should be only men."

Because the argument is presented without that necessary clause, there's no way to attack the conclusion without directing your attention to the first premise (Jesus selected only men), and trying to explain that away. That's how the argument has been addressed in the past, and those attempts usually fall pretty flat. Meaning that it seems like the argument against women's ordination stands.

But when we add the missing clause, things change. Suddenly we can see that the logic isn't so flawless, and that there's a tremendous assumption being made when the argument is presented. And when we look at some of the other natural conclusions that the premise implies, we can see that the assumption falls apart.

Which pretty much leaves us with no good theological reason that women shouldn't be priests.

I'm just still waiting to hear a really good theological reason why the should be. Until that happens, I'll keep reserving judgment.

I'm coming up only to hold you under
I'm coming up only to show you wrong


joel. said...

I didn't realize your position had shifted a bit. Good to hear — and excellent write-up.

Matthew B. Novak said...

That's been my position since at least senior year of college. You're probably remembering back around sophmore year when I was more vocally supportive of the church's view. Of course, I'd expect you to remember that, because it's hard to be especially vocal about the fact that you're non-commital.

Andy said...
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Matthew B. Novak said...

Andy -

First, I don't know that there's any reason to assume that "in his infinite wisdom he had a purpose for every act". That's a HUGE assumption.

Second, and maybe more essentially, even if that assumption proves true it doesn't mean that every aspect of every act had a purpose. Did Jesus have a purpose in choosing the 12? Yes. They were the ones he wanted for his ministry. The fact that they were all men, just like the fact that they were all Jewish, is just tangental to his act and it's purpose. We don't say only Jews can be priests after all, so we're clearly dismissing that as tangental to Christ's action. Those elements were irrelevant to Christ's purpose.

empeterson said...

there are actually good theological reasons for women to be ordained priests, and there are, as you put it, no good reasons not to ordain them. However, I'm not going to go into any of the reasons here, but we should have a conversation about it at some point. I am curious to see what you find a "good" reason and what you see as "not a good reason". My reasons are theological/social at the same time, which is in fact appropriate when doing theology. Combining theology with other disciplines is necessary and important, so a "good" theological reason may in fact include other sources. But like I said, we should talk.

Andy said...
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Lady Black Bird said...

I don't think that we should assume that we know Christ's wisdom entailed only keeping men as priests. I mean, we didn't keep the number 12 and apply that to every aspect of the church (i.e. there are more than 12 priests, etc). The problem with God's will and word, though infallible, is that humans are fallible, and they pick and choose, pick and choose how they want to interpret things and they don't realize that they let their own prejudices interfere with how they are interpreting things. We are not perfect. Jesus was. That is what I think. He didn't say that women shouldn't be priests, so I don't know how we have come to reason that they shouldn't. I would love to talk to Emily about this more, since she certainly knows a lot more about it than we do it seems.
But Matthew, I think you bring up some excellent points, mainly that we use the example of the apostles and hone in on the fact that they were male, but ignore other characteristics such as their age range, race, etc.
And I could also argue that Jesus may have wanted women to become priests, but did not choose any to be his apostles because the world at that time could not handle that. Jesus may have known that no one would listen to those women or maybe that they would have been in great danger (i.e. killed as soon as they tried to teach anything). Maybe that's why Jesus chose to have all-male apostles, so does that mean that we should always keep it that way? Maybe he meant for women to be included as time progressed.
Who really knows for sure? I just think that women should be able to be priests because the Bible says we are equal and I can't really see Jesus saying to a woman "no, you can't be a priest." But hey, maybe that's my own prejudice coming into play.

intelligent and well-written post Matthew. thank you.