I come from a denomination that ordained women early in its history, and I’ve always been around really great ministers, both male and female. In laity, same thing: male and female leaders, some good, some bad, and I never really gave much thought to whether gender mattered in church.
I’ve written before that I fasted and prayed about going to seminary, and God told me to become Catholic instead. The instead part was implicit, but also inherent, because becoming Catholic obviously meant ordination would never be in my future. And maybe I’m ok with that because I never felt a calling to ordination even when I wanted to. Most of the time, the all-male priesthood doesn’t bother me. Other times, it bothers me only in that I think I’m supposed to be bothered by it. It seems sexist, so shouldn’t I be bothered? Am I sexist because I’m ok with the status quo?
Gender is very binary in the Church; I grant that. God is masculine; the Church is feminine. There are religious vocations for both men and women. Both can be leaders and teachers. On the ground level, there is equality (societal inequality notwithstanding). The exception is in the apostolic succession, which is exclusively male. But that goes back to the binary thinking. A priest (or deacon or bishop) serves several roles in persona Christi, that is, as Christ. Christ is male, therefore, the vessel must be as well.
To really get a handle on Catholicism, one has to understand the importance of symbols being more than symbolic. (This should be a whole separate post.) Basically, to administer sacraments, you have to have very specific things, or the ritual isn’t valid. Baptism must include water. Eucharist must include wheat and wine. Consecration of the Eucharist or granting of absolution in Reconciliation must include an ordained male in persona Christi.
Richard Beck posted an interesting article contrasting the patriarchy of evangelical churches and the Catholic Church. While I don’t think celibacy is the issue he’s making it (look at Eastern Rites and Orthodox), I think he makes some good points. The Church doesn’t make sweeping statements that men are better at leadership than women. But some men are called to a particular vocation that is not an option for women.
No discussion on sexism and the Church is complete without mentioning Mary. The fact is Mary is a woman held in very high regard. She’s first among all saints, including Peter. She’s the standard of which all people, women and men, fall short. Christ came into this world through a woman. But Mary isn’t honored just for being Jesus’ mother. She is honored for fiat, her love and devotion to the Lord. She is the new Ark of the Covenant and Mother of God. The Church recognizes her greatness. But because Mary is such an exception, I really don’t like her as an example of women in the Church. I think more suitable role models would be St. Helena, St. Hildegard of Bingen, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Joan of Arc, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, and Dorothy Day (whose cause for canonization is underway).
So am I sexist for accepting a Church that excludes women from its highest legislative ranks and from ordination? Am I sexist for seeing my priests as parts of specifically prescribed tools for administration of my religion’s rituals? Maybe. But I don’t like being told I’m in a disenfranchised group when I don’t feel disenfranchised. My opinions are heard. I have opportunities for leadership. I have choices of vocation, and freedom within those vocations for personal expression.
I believe all people should have options in how they express themselves vocationally, because not all women are called to be silent and not all men are called to be leaders. And I support the ordination of women in religions and denominations that have different understandings of ministerial or priestly roles. But I also support my Church’s all-male priesthood based on her interpretation of apostolic succession and administration of sacraments. My Church is complex and beautiful and feminine and vibrant. If she’s also sexist, well, I still stand with her.