Saturday, May 22, 2010

It's Going To Take Much More Than Just Adding Women To The Clerical Mix

Eugene Kennedy has written another provocative essay for the National Catholic Reporter. I post it here because I think it deserves discussion and that doens't happen on the NCR over any week end. Besides, I don't competely agree with his conclusion.

If the church ordained women, there would be no sex abuse crisis
by Eugene Cullen Kennedy - National Catholic Reporter - May 21, 2010

Some years ago I asked in a column, "If the church ordained women would there be fewer abortions?" I suggested that recognizing women as fully equal with men would have obviated centuries of the repression, injustice, and pain inflicted on women and cleared the air of the edgy suspicion and anxiety with which many men, including church leaders, have regarded women throughout the centuries.

In the last century, women sought equal rights for themselves as human beings from the men who had grown up believing that they constituted a second and lesser sex whose main role was, in ways too many to number and too scandalous to name, to take care of them. Had the church ordained women it would have automatically changed history, making them equal in all ways, and striking off the emotional chains that had bound them, voiceless, in time's dungeon. Men would have had to relate to them on the same footing and much of the longing for independence that is symbolized in the abortion struggle would have been lessened.

This is beginning to sound as improbable as "Avatar," but duck away from the cascade of unconvincing arguments dumped on women (e.g., "Women don't look like men so they can't represent Jesus,"} by the usual suspects of the curial all-star theology team. Imagine instead that the church had affirmed their human equality by welcoming women into the priesthood. What would the results be?

Such action would have killed Clerical Culture: Like a noxious species wiped out by a meteor before it could evolve into a monstrosity, Clerical Culture would never have come into being. Women would not have stood for it. To grow, it needed an all-male environment, an agar plate as smooth as a fairway on which women were forbidden to play.

Some women were granted visiting rights to Clerical Culture -- the mothers of priests who were also necessary for its flourishing. These women had enormous influence on little Johnny's going to and remaining in the seminary, and were happy to spoil him on his vacations and later on his days off. They were, we might say, enablers who were glad to have their priest sons hanging around the exclusive clerical club house. They could be boys forever.

Priests' mothers cannot be faulted for accepting the honored place, right next to the statue of the Blessed Mother, where Clerical Culture placed them. Their revered presence -- symbolized by their hands being bound at death with the same linen cloth that bound their sons' hands at ordination -- meant that other women were not welcome, at least not as close range, another prerequisite for a booming Clerical Culture.

In classic Clerical Culture, women were handmaids of the lords, allowed in by the servants' entrance and regularly reminded by men, from the pope on down, that they were inferior by nature and, much like slaves cruelly counted as half persons, they were expected to know their place and meet male demands without making any of their own.

Priests liked to make jokes that you could not have women priests because they couldn't keep the secret of the confessional and Pope John Paul II became so exercised over the issue that he instructed then Cardinal Ratzinger to fashion a prohibition in the form of an infallible declaration. Not surprisingly, led by sensible women, Catholics paid little attention to this.

Would sex abuse have occurred if there were adult women in the priesthood standing up to and confronting the troubled male priests who preyed on the children in their care? Indeed, would Clerical Culture, with its locker room ambience and it odors of cigar smoke, bay rum, and Bushmill's whisky, have survived the clear eyed gaze of women who made clerics put away their toys and grow up?

Clerical Culture was the essential breeding ground of the sex abuse crisis. This crisis was also hidden in the violet trimmed folds of this unique social milieu. It conferred respect, esteem, and the benefit of the doubt on those priests who could not earn it on their own and who carried out furtive erotic raids on the innocent in its maze-like structure. This culture allowed the unhealthy to pass for healthy and lead secret lives whose corrupt form they themselves did not understand.

Women priests would not have allowed this tragic feasting on children to go on for an hour without taking action to end it. Healthy women do not put up with unhealthy men and this crisis would have been averted had the priesthood had enough healthy women in it to make the unhealthy men either grow up or get out. (The problem with this whole argument is it assumes the presence of healthy women. Much more than the ordination of women would have been needed to insure a clerical culture that would attract healthy people. Adding women while leaving the historic theology would only have attracted equally unhealthy women.)

The church would have been wise to adapt the old advertising slogan, "Do you want him to be more of a man? Try being more of a woman." Did the church want to avoid the sex abuse crisis and guarantee the manliness of its priests? It should have tried letting women do the job.


There is an awful lot in this essay I like, especially Kennedy's analysis of the influence of the mother's of priests. I suppose this is a sad statement, but some of the most healthy priests I've had the privilege to meet, only got that way after the death of their parents--especially their mothers. I often wonder if this dynamic isn't why Jesus warned His disciples that if they were to follow Him they had best be prepared for dissension in their families and to ultimately leave them behind. Sometimes the real personal battles aren't fought over deciding between God and Mammon, but deciding between God and family.

Early Church Fathers certainly recognized the pull and influence of families on the future adult believer. The analogies of Catholicism as the spiritual religious equivalent of one's biological family are all over the place, starting with the words of Jesus Himself. Unlike Jesus though, the Church has seldom warned that there is the very real issue of being overly influenced by one's family and by extension one's religious family. Mother, whether it be mom or Mother Church, is not always deserving of one's undying allegiance. Jesus recognized this universal truth. Sometimes in the interests of following His way, it was better to take a hike.

We have such powerful connections with the family that the mere thought of being ostracised by our families can literally be experienced as a fear worse than death itself. One only need look at the incidence of suicide amongst gay teens to see this truth. When teens come to the conclusion it's better to abort themselves than suffer potential rejection, it's a sad statement about the nature of maternal love. And that sad statement is as true for Mother Church as it is for some biological mothers. What's even sadder is it is Mother Church that is giving all the permission Catholic mothers need to set up that dynamic for their gay children---out of love no less.

Jesus said it was perfectly reasonable for children to reject their families for their own spiritual good. He had the exact opposite opinion about parents rejecting their children, as He so beautifully demonstrated in the parable of the prodigal son. What's often lost in that story is that the father accepted his son back on his son's terms, not on some arbitrary standard of re admittance.

It is for reasons such as these that I don't have the same assumptions about the influence of women on clerical culture that Eugene Kennedy does. He may be right, that if the Church had added healthy women from day one, things would now be vastly different. I just don't know where those healthy women were going to come from given the culture in which the Church was born. Yes, the Gospels are full of examples of this kind of healthy woman, but they seem to be the exception, the fruit of Jesus's direct teachings, not the products of their society. Once the men took over His mission, the teachings quickly changed and women were again relegated to, and enculturated in, accepting their less than manly status. It's just plain old human nature to repeat one's enculturation.

It's easier to go with flow than row against it. Jesus knew this and it's why He challenged Peter to walk above the flow. Peter almost did it too. Almost is the operative word. It's also the operative word for how the early Church got many of the things Jesus taught. The results, compounded after two millenia, is what we have now: a very flawed misogynistic church. To add women to this clerical mess without changing a great deal of the underlying theology will not result in much healing, The official church would eventually select it's pool of female candidates on it's own existing terms, and those terms have never been very healthy for women--or some of their children.


  1. I totally agree, that adding women to this mess does not deal with the mess.

    I'm of the opinion that unless one takes the steps to interior freedom to seek God within, leaving the dysfunctional family baggage to climb the mountain to hear God's truth, one would then experience Christ. Rejection from the world for climbing that mountain to the Lord, rejected by one's family members, without doing so one truly misses the learning that Jesus learned by being rejected by men & being one with God. Since gays are rejected in the culture by the current disordered theology, the rejection is taken by some as a calling to the priesthood. This is a mistake. This is not the sort of rejection Jesus experienced. It was the rejection of God that Jesus spoke about to the religious leaders & ultimately was crucified for his total acceptance of God. Jesus rejected the priesthood of His day that was centered on the letter of the law & not the spirit.

    Kennedy's thoughts about women standing up to men in cigar smoked filled rooms with whiskey & rum "who made clerics put away their toys and grow up" is assuming that the women would not have joined the men in smoking cigars and drinking whiskey. Perhaps to avoid scandal the women have been separated from the immature men, yet the men by themselves have become the scandal.

    An analogy to the theory that the simple acceptance of women into the priesthood would have put an end to a lot of bad energy in the Church's system might be the corporate board room that has included women as leaders. The leaders may be male or female, but the corporate decisions do not hinge on the sex of those making the decisions. The character, the vision and integrity and consciousness of the individuals in charge determine the decisions. If the system is flawed, if the people are flawed, it would not matter if it was run by males or females.

    I appreciate Kennedy being loving & accepting of women. I think he is wringing his hands in a sense and trying to put the pieces together for how to resolve the problem of an all-male celibate clerical priesthood which many recognize as unhealthy. As you've pointed out, Colleen, it is the cultural theology, the stagnant elements of "tradition" that are the features that hold both men & women back from truly having an encounter with the rejected ones, the prophets & Jesus Christ.

    I get the sense that the majority of men who are priests had very overbearing mothers with apron strings filled with their own imperfections & misguided self-righteous opinions. The Church was the way if you were gay, I suppose was the "good" intention of their mothers. The culture until only recently has come to realize the issues of sexuality, so a son drawn to be near men might not have truly even understood there was an issue of sexuality to begin with. The culture sure did not aide one to become an adult and stand up on their own two feet without worrying about who would reject them. Bullies are the biggest rejectors. Undoubtedly, we all face some kinds of rejection in our lives. The ultimate rejection we should all be not willing to accept, is rejection by God of us, or in our rejection of the first commandment, to love God above all others, no matter what anyone else says, even our mothers. Are some mothers false idols? I would suspect so.

    I tend to think that an environment or culture that nurtures & encourages true love for the seeking of God in all things would bear fruit for the entire world. In such a process of preparing people of God for the priesthood all would need not their consciences to be formed by the teachings of men from a dysfunctional culture to replicate the dysfunction back into the culture. A culture of priests who became Christ-centered mentors with true witness of their encounter with God and witnessing the individual's walk with Christ should be the vehicle to promoting a transcendent spirituality and consciousness raising in the world.

  2. Wow, a lot of heavy thoughts here. Something to meditate on for sure.

  3. Even if we accept - for the sake of discussion - the theorem that women should not be priests as Christ did not ordain women - that alone is no valid justification for the way 'the Church' has treated them.

    Without interjecting my opinion - I should note that a lucid case CAN be made for female Deacons, as it seems that one can reasonably prove that they existed in the pre-Constantinian Church. They had a much greater role in the life of the church then. Not just cleaning toilets in the Apostolic Palace!

    I would very much support the idea of female deacons- but not just 'for show' or 'as one of the boys'. As genuine ministers of the Gospel.

    But as Butterfly says - 'adding women to this mess does not deal with the mess'. It is just a quick fix to silence the complainers.

    One only need go to the Episcopal or Methodist churches to see the other end of the extreme which Butterfly is pointing to. And I have as much of an issue addressing a female minister as 'Mother' (as they do..) as I do with addressing a priest as 'Father'. This smooths over the underlying rot, not correcting it.

    ...surely we can come up with forms of address which neither cause 'parent issues' nor imply the servile docility of a serf to his lord & master! Of either gender. How dare they claim to follow the Gospel, yet demand to be addressed as "My Lord' (Monsignor), or 'Your Grace/Your Eminence' et. al.?

    Women would be ok in priest long as they went along with & perpetuated the rot within it (via. the Protestant churches). Most certainly NOT as equals, much less in any correct understanding of the Gospel. Where we are all equal - all brothers & sisters with NO hierarchy or stratification...or casts system!

    What needs to be VERY clearly understood is that Pre-Constantine, there was NO HIERARCHY. Certainly NOT as we know it. A priest or bishop was just like anybody else - no higher. He lived & dressed as the common man - owning nothing except what was absolutely necessary for his survivial. He ate what he was given, etc. Lived with the laity. He was often chosen BY the laity for his office. Decisions were made by mutual consensus.

    ...not by imperial fiat! All had to agree on how to so, say, or approach something.

    All else which Butterfly correctly references is the spawn of Nicea - and the 'spirit' which took over there.

    Anon Y. Mouse

  4. Mouse, nicely said. I am always intrigued how much we argue over history, whether it has been redacted or preserved or properly venerated. It seems like the conservatives call the post Renaissance church the zenith to which we all must aspire, while the liberals look to the pre-Nicene era as unstained.

    I went to a lecture 2-3 years ago from a nun describing her understanding of the church's denial of women's ordination. She was for it before the research. She noted how many times it had been addressed from about 400AD (?) on. She concluded as the pope did, that we weren't empowered to make such a radical change. She also spent the first ten minutes assuring us that the church didn't believe what it previously used to deny women's ordination, and most specifically the view that women were defective males and unable to visage the non defective male Christ.

    That's why I like your approach, starting with a female deaconate we can look back to historically. I think one of our saint/doctors (Aquinas?) said if we did it before, then it's logically okay to do it again. If we can start from there, maybe we can be more democratic, and open, and forgiving. Maybe.

    In the long run, I think the hierarchy is denying a major tenet of Catholicism, specifically the idea of ongoing revelation. We learn and grow. We screw up and atone. The whole group moves, and hope demands that that movement be forward. Instead we get locked into a box, where not only have we received the entire deposit of the faith but, we are assumed to have understood/embodied/implemented it all. As always, as in our history, the Spirit will not be tamed.

    Now, how and when to add women (yesterday is too slow for me) is daunting. How do we get around the fears of those who see movement as evil? How do we get around the evil of retained power by celibate males? I'm glad God is patient, but sometimes I don't get the message. I want it now. My best move seems to be to try and communicate with the fearful.

  5. MJC -

    I think it is very hard to argue logically against female deacons, due to the historic precedant of the early church.

    Assuming that they would do what deacons do at present - where is the issue? They can Baptize, witness Marriages, distribute Communion (in church & to the sick) & teach the faith.

    In this format, while they could not formally impart absolution of sins, they could certainly Annoint the Sick & Dying. After all, these are prayers & actions PRAYING for this soul. Helping to prepare the soul for death.

    Obviously they could also counsel & give spiritual direction. Did not many generations of Abbesses & Mother Superiors do this in convents over centuries?

    Personally, I endorse the view that Jesus did not ordain women to the 'ministerial priesthood'. Thus in this mold, a woman could not say mass or impart Absolution.

    But...that, of itself, should not be a big deal. As long as BOTH mean & women maintain a healthy perspective on this. And men do not let power go to their heads!

    As to Confession - the Church has grossly misused this. In the pre-Nicea church, General Absolution WAS imparted to all at the beginning of a mass. As all Absolution is, by its very nature, Conditional - it 'sticks' only if the person is sincere. So.....why do they not do this?


    Yes, there was (and should be) private 'Confession'. For those who desire it, for ongoing counsel & spiritual direction. It is a good thing!

    But when you FORCE that on ppl, by taking away General Absolution....and then lock up the churches so there is NO chance to go to Confession....

    ...the Church Administrators are serving Satan.

    Jesus reminded the Apostles several times about the principle of 'Binding & Loosing'. If you are merciful to others....'Loosing" their sins, then the same 'Loosing' will be applied to your sins when you are Judged.

    As they have made a regular practice of "Binding' men's sins (especially now, as 'Father is too busy for that').....they will have a very large Invoice.

    Anon Y. Mouse

  6. Mouse, I don't believe there is any reason for women to not be priest. I do not know what you base your information on. As a matter of fact, I believe there are many women who are priest in a very real sense, they just are not in the institutional Church.

  7. And that's where the argument lies. Can we go forward toward equal understanding of the sexes and their equality as reflections of God? Or is forward somehow away from the origin? Can we trust ourselves to know which way is forward and which is back, as evidenced by many people happy to be shutting the open windows of Vatican II?

    I think there are no right answers. A few quotes from the Gospels have really touched me in the last few years. When Jesus was healing the blind man despite the objections of the leaders, he said "If you were born blind you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains." I used to try to think of myself as a disciple, but lately I see myself in the Pharisees. How often we say we see, and box God into neat packages that we can handle. And handle them we must, to try and come to terms with an unknowable that demands to be known. But when I know what God says, I'm wrong and in sin. When you meet the Buddha on the road, you must kill him.

    So what does Jesus tell us to do? "Be not afraid" to start. Love God and love each other. Forgive again and again. Take up your yoke. I think He speaks in simple terms because that's all we can handle. I don't want to put down theologic searching, because it helps me tremendously. But the final analysis has to include our stupidity, our faith, our need to simply journey together and share stories.

    Butterfly, there's no history to put women into the priesthood, just the deaconate. A friend of mine told me almost thirty years ago that she would love to lead as a priest rather than the role she had (rather high up in an archdiocese, reporting directly to the Archbishop). I wondered how it would be, if she were robed and on the altar leading my prayer. It took me all of twenty seconds to see how much like Jesus she was, how she wished to serve, how we would be nourished in her prayers. She's passed away, and I still pray with her sometimes. I think Jesus will be proud when we make this leap of faith, trusting that the Spirit guides us and displacing fear with hope. I'd do it yesterday.

  8. I don't believe anyone is "put into the priesthood" but is called to the priesthood. What I am saying is there is no reason to exclude women from the priesthood, except that it is by failure to believe women can be transformed by the Holy Spirit.

  9. Butterfly, "called" is much better phrased than "put into". But I'm not sure our hierarchy is "transformed", either. The indelible marks of baptism and ordination don't seem to correspond to any palpable changes in behavior or results. I keep getting drawn to the simple solutions. Why can't a woman personify the Savior in this sacrifice? No good reason at all. Why shouldn't a woman lead? Same answer. Why is celibacy demanded for ordination? Same answer. I feel for those who fear development in faith, but again my job appears to be to encounter and love the ones I come in contact with. I remain amazed and chagrined by God's patience with me and us.

  10. mjc, great comment. I am not sure most of the priests are transformed either. They are more like administrators than they are servants of the Lord.

    I believe God is very patient & kind with us and that each generation has the opportunity to meet God within their very soul and within their neighbor. Religion fails to do this when it becomes a worldly power and with goals to dominate people and dictate consciousness.

    I am growing so weary of the men who are in charge in the world, and that includes the Church and all the religions. I am tired of the immaturity, sexism, gay-bashing, etc., and lack of grace and their pompous attitudes. That knowingness forces me to ask God to help the men mature with grace and humility and it forces me to pray for the same within myself.

    I cannot pray for others to change, or demand others change while I do not pray for myself to change, demand that of myself, with God's help. God is pleased with this attitude.