A Gender Gap in the Church?

Author: Fr. Jay Scott Newman

A Gender Gap in the Church?

By Father Jay Scott Newman

Even a cursory glance at most newspapers and magazines, both Catholic and secular, suggests that there is a wide gulf of misunderstanding and mutual suspicion between men and women in the Church - especially between women and the aging, all-male, celibate hierarchy.

The basic story line runs thus: The all-male priesthood is the last redoubt of absolute patriarchal authority left in the Western world, and those in power -particularly in Rome-will do anything to preserve their positions of prestige and prevent women from breaking this last irrational barrier to their full participation in public life.

The story continues by pointing out that every major Protestant communion now has female clergy and by suggesting that Rome's failure to respond to this simple demand of justice is yet another indication that Catholicism-as all reasonable people know-is and always has been a force of oppression and domination. So runs the standard story, but is it true?

In order to answer this question, it is necessary first to examine the complex movement of feminism. Actually, feminism is not one movement; it is, rather, several different projects which all relate in some way to the role of gender in human life. Feminism is at once a popular cultural movement, an intellectual school of thought, an economic project and a personal creed. And although it is a relatively new phenomenon in human affairs, feminism has had enormous influence- for good and ill-in reshaping human society, especially Western civilization.

Feminism, for example, has led in most Western nations to universal suffrage, rapidly expanding economic and educational opportunities for women, greater participation of women in civic life and all cultural enterprises, stronger legal and moral sanctions against sexual and physical abuse of women, and a general recognition of the human dignity of women and of their right-equal to that of men-to protection under the law from all forms of injustice.

On the other hand, feminism, in some of its forms, has also contributed to the acceptance of no-fault divorce and the consequent destabilization of the family, the promotion of radical individualism which depicts the human person as an imperial, autonomous self free from obligations to all others, and the acceptance of abortion-on-demand -a project which casts the "rights" of women against the rights of children and their fathers.

In short, feminism has brought forth a mix of blessings and curses which on their face are contradictory. Why? There are several reasons which explain these curious contradictions; the one we will examine is this: There are (at least) two feminisms, each with its own cultural, economic, political, philosophical and theological assumptions and conclusions. They are secular feminism and Christian feminism.

Secular feminism, in common with most forms of secular thought, considers the world of human affairs without any reference to God. There is no appeal to God as the origin and end of life, as the author of nature and the source of all law and authority.

Consequently, the human person becomes the only arbiter of good and evil, the sole source of all meaning and purpose. Each person must decide for himself what is "good for me" and becomes authentically himself only when he exercises his radical "right" to self-determination. Thus does the "right to choose" become the only moral absolute, and anyone who dares assert that a particular choice is in itself evil and unacceptable is therefore accused of intellectual fascism and judgmental intolerance of the other's "choice."

To this general secular mentality, radical feminism brings ideas related specifically to gender. One assertion of this type of feminism is that gender is a quality of the person which touches one's identity just as all other "merely" biological qualities do. The color of one's skin, hair and eyes, the size and shape of one's body and limbs, and one's biological sex are-according to this view-qualities which describe the outward appearance of the person but do not in any way constitute his essential identity. And just as we now condemn any discrimination between persons on the basis of race as the injustice of racism, so must we reject any discrimination between persons on the basis of gender as the injustice of sexism.

Another assertion of secular feminism is that all distinctions between men and women are cultural, not natural. That is, all important differences between the sexes are the product of human choice, not something given in nature, and what is made by human choice can be changed by human choice. For example, in Italy most bank tellers are men; in America most bank tellers are women. This shows that the association of jobs with gender (e.g., grammar school teachers, nurses and secretaries are women; soldiers, farmers and auto mechanics are men) is simply the product of culturally relative, man-made choices which can be undone by conscious choice and should be undone if injustice is the result. So, for example, reserving service in the Army to men alone would be unjust to women who choose for themselves to be soldiers, and in the interest of justice, the government must permit women to join the Army and enroll at West Point and in other officer training programs.

So far, so good. But secular feminism then goes one more step: all distinctions between male and female are unjust because men and women are equally human, and the law can be concerned only with human rights; not male human rights and female human rights, not black human rights and white human rights, just plain human rights.

Standing behind this assertion is the assumption that the human person is a mental or spiritual being who possesses a body much as a carpenter possesses a hammer; both the body and the hammer are merely instruments used by the owner. To secular feminism, the body is no more the person than the hammer is the carpenter, and this concept of the human person has radical consequences.

For example, if two persons fall in love with each other and want to commit themselves to each other in a relationship recognized by the state as a legal partnership, then it does not matter whether one is male and one is female any more than it matters whether one is red-headed and the other blond or whether one is white and the other black. If the body and its gender are merely superficial qualities of the person and if all distinctions between the sexes are the product of culture and not nature, then homosexual marriage is illegal and considered immoral only because of the injustice of sexism, just as racism, until the recent past, was used unjustly to divide society.

As soon, therefore, as all vestiges of sexism are swept away by cultural changes, then true equality for all persons will be the result, and human society will be vastly improved, including a provision for homosexual marriage. And to secular feminism, no force is a greater enemy of such "progress" than orthodox Christianity, especially the Catholic Church.

Which brings us to the Christian part of Christian feminism. Given the understanding of the human person and the basis of gender distinctions described above, the secular feminist concludes that the only reason women cannot yet be priests is that the Catholic Church is run by sexist misogynists who are dedicated to impeding the legitimate progress of women. Such feminists cannot believe that there are other reasons why women cannot be priests because of their assumptions about human nature, assumptions which are contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

"God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them" (Gn 1:27). Thus does Sacred Scripture reveal that man is created by God in His own image and that this creature is divided by God into two sexes. This divinely given difference, however, is not meant to divide us; Genesis goes on to explain that the distinction between the sexes is the foundation of our complementarily, and that the union of male and female in marriage is the divinely chosen foundation both of personal fulfillment and the propagation of the human race.

From this revelation emerges an anthropology-a doctrine of man- which sees the human person as by nature bodily and therefore "sexed" or "engendered." The distinction of gender is, therefore, not merely superficial -as race, hair color and finger length truly are. Because the human person is a substantial unity of body and soul, it is more the case that the person is a body than that he has a body. The body and its gender are not merely instruments to be used as the person chooses. Rather, the body and its gender disclose something essential about the nature of the individual person, both to himself and to others. I could dye my hair purple, for example, without changing my personal identity, but if I suddenly were a woman rather than a man, I would not be me. I am a body united with a soul, and my body is male. I am, therefore, a man, not a woman, and no choice of mine can undo my maleness.

By God's design, gender is an essential-not superficial-quality of the human person which touches every personal relationship in the most intimate way. And this distinction between male and female is not the product of human choice or cultural change; it is given by God in the nature He created. Now enter the feminist part of Christian feminism.

A legitimate Christian feminism, reflected in Catholic teaching, reminds us that despite our gender difference grounded in nature, men and women are equally human, share equally in God's likeness and image, and are equally the bearers of human rights and duties. Where the true rights of women are denied, injustice truly is present. When women are hated or slighted simply because they are women, misogyny is at work. The human and personal dignity of men and women is equal, and men and women are equally redeemed by Christ.

In sum, before God, men and women are morally equal and before the law they should be equally protected from injustice, but this does not mean that they are the same, that they are interchangeable, that they are undifferentiated. And for this reason, not all distinctions between the sexes are unjust. Christian feminism must identify these proper, just distinctions of our nature and help us appreciate them and their consequences.

The most obvious and the most important distinction of gender is in the procreation of children. Only women can conceive and bear children; only men can provide the seed which makes the conception possible. There are no generic parents or parenting; women are mothers, and men are fathers. Even when, in the absence of the father, the mother must perform functions in the family that are traditionally associated with fatherhood, she remains in her being and in her relations with her children a mother. The reverse is true of fathers. A mother who teaches baseball and a father who stays home to nurture infants are still, respectively, a mother and a father.

In other words, comes before , and to a certain extent "being" what we are determines what we "do" and how we do it. Many human occupations, such as nurse and mechanic, are related to gender by custom rather than by nature, and the function of the job can be performed equally well by male or female. Family relations, however, and all intimate friendships are not simply the arrangement of culture and custom. At their most profound level, familial relationships are grounded in nature, which for man is to say in his gender-differentiated bodily existence. Which brings us to women priests.

Jesus Christ, the eternal Word made Man, reveals that the one true God is a Trinity of Divine Persons: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Indeed, it is not too much to say that the very heart of Christ's teaching is that God is our loving Father. Not our mother; our Father. Moreover, Christ founded a Church on earth to continue proclaiming the Gospel until He returns in glory, and He entrusted the task of teaching, sanctifying and governing that church to 12 Apostles, all hand-picked by Christ and all men (males). These men, in turn, and St. Paul with them transmitted to other men after them the power and duty to teach, sanctify and govern the Church in Christ's name with the aid of the Holy Spirit. Thus, by divine election was the Sacrament of Holy Orders instituted for the welfare of the whole Church.

In the Old Covenant there were many priests who offered sacrifice for the sins of the people. In the New Covenant there is only one Priest, Jesus Christ. Moreover, He is both the priest Who offers the sacrifice and the Sacrifice Which is offered. In Baptism, all the Christian faithful-male and female alike-become sharers in the priesthood of Christ. This is the royal or common priesthood of the baptized which enables them to offer to the Father the sacrifice of broken and contrite hearts, the sacrifice of holy lives. Because we are baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ, we become adopted sons of the Father and heirs to the Kingdom of God. Without distinction, men and women who follow the way of the Cross become equally capable of imitating Christ in the daily struggle to die to self and live for others; this is the fundamental equality of all Christians and the basis for full membership in the Church-a membership conferred by reception of the three sacraments of initiation: baptism, confirmation and the Holy Eucharist.

But in addition to the common or royal priesthood of baptism, there is another sacramental participation in the priesthood of Christ. This form of Christian priesthood is ordered to the royal priesthood but is essentially different from it; this is the hierarchical or ministerial priesthood which is validly conferred only on baptized males in the presbyterate and the episcopate. Bishops and priests are made sharers in the priesthood of Christ in such a way that they are able to stand in the place of Christ and act in His Person. It is the restriction of this ministerial priesthood to men only which secular feminism finds so offensive and irrational for the reasons touched on above. Let's examine two of them: cultural conditioning and function related to role.

No one disputes that Christ only men to be His apostles. The question is, Why? Was He prevented by local prejudice and custom from sharing apostolic authority with women? Or was His choice of men alone solemn, free, deliberate and normative? It is frequently suggested that because Christ lived in a primitive, misogynist culture, His message would have been ignored if He had chosen women to be His messengers; therefore, He chose only men. But now, continues this argument, since our culture is more advanced and we see that women and men are equal, there is, accordingly, no reason why women cannot take their rightful place among ordained leaders in the Church.

But here is the problem: Christ was not restrained by the cultural defects of His day. Indeed, He regularly violated unreasonable taboos of all kinds to demonstrate both His sovereignty and our need to live in the truth. His friendship with Martha and Mary, His encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well, His healing of the woman with a hemorrhage, His treatment of the woman caught in adultery, and His reliance upon Mary Magdalene to be the first witness of the Resurrection all indicate that Christ's attitudes about women were not the product of His time and place. To suggest that Jesus was not free to choose only the persons He wanted to be His apostles or that He did not truly know who would make the best apostles is hubris of the worst kind. It suggests that the Incarnation would have served humanity better by coming in California in 1996 than in the exact time and place chosen by God, what St. Paul termed the very "fullness of time."

So much for cultural conditioning; now for function related to role. The ministerial priest stands in the place of Christ and acts in His Person for the Church. Christ is both Head of the Church and Bridegroom of the Church; the priest who represents Christ sacramentally must therefore be able to act as the Bridegroom as well as the Head. If you were casting a movie about Richard Nixon, you would cast Anthony Hopkins, not Barbara Streisand, to play the title role. Likewise, in the sacred liturgy, he who stands in Christ's Person must have a natural resemblance to Christ's humanity, which is now and always male.

This is not to say that women are not fully Christian, completely redeemed, or equally able to imitate Christ in the struggle for holiness; of course they are and can. Indeed, women frequently manifest Christ's holiness far more clearly than their brothers in the Church. Nevertheless, the sacramental economy takes human nature and created realities as its starting point. Bread and wine, oil and water: this is the stuff of which sacraments are made. And embodied, engendered human nature is also an essential feature of the sacraments. For this reason and because the Church is the Bride of Christ, a female priest (were such possible) would essentially be in a lesbian relationship with the Church. Some will object that this is taking sacramental symbolism too far; secular feminists will respond, "So what?" But faithful to the scriptural teaching about human nature and the Church's constitution, we must be concerned more about what the priest is than about what he A woman may preach well and run a parish well, but that no more makes her able to be an icon of Christ the Head and Bridegroom of the Church than playing baseball well transforms a mother into a father. And it is no accident that the Catholic faithful call their priests "Father."

Even if we grant all of the above, however, the question still remains: Did Christ intend the choice of only men to be normative and binding for the ministerial priesthood in all times and places? Before answering that question, though, we must first ask a separate question: Who has authority? The answer is simple: only the Bishops in communion with the Bishop of Rome are authentic and authoritative teachers of the Faith. When the Pope and the College of Bishops, or even the Pope alone, teach in a matter of faith or morals, then all Christians are obliged to give religious assent of intellect and will to that teaching. The assistance of the Holy

Spirit is given to prevent the Pope and bishops from teaching error in a matter of faith or morals either when that teaching is extraordinary (as in an ecumenical council or a dogmatic papal proclamation ex cathedra) or when it is universal and ordinary teaching. (cf. , no. 25). This authority to teach was recently exercised by Pope John Paul II precisely to answer the question posed above: Is Christ's choice of only men for the ministerial priesthood binding on all times and places? Yes.

On May 22, 1994, Pope John Paul II promulgated an apostolic letter entitled . In his letter, John Paul II quotes from a 1975 letter of Pope Paul VI addressed to the Archbishop of Canterbury in which Pope Paul wrote: The Church "holds that it is inadmissible to ordain women to the priesthood for very fundamental reasons. These reasons include: the example recorded in the Sacred Scriptures of Christ choosing His Apostles only from among men; the constant practice of the Church, which has imitated Christ in choosing only men; and her living teaching authority which has consistently held that the exclusion of women from the priesthood is in accordance with God's plan for His Church."

Pope John Paul continues by recalling the 1977 Declaration on the Question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood, , and his own 1988 Apostolic Letter , on the dignity of women. Then, after acknowledging that some theologians mistakenly believed that this matter was still open to debate, John Paul concludes with these remarkable words: "In order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church's divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32), I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgement is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful."

Lest any doubt remain on this matter, on Oct. 28, 1995, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published a clarification at the direction of the Pope which declares that the restriction of the ministerial priesthood to men belongs to the deposit of faith: "This teaching requires definitive assent, since, founded on the written Word of God and from the beginning constantly preserved and applied in the Tradition of the Church, it has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium." Rome has spoken; the case is closed.

But is it? All Catholics of good will accept this matter as definitively decided, and yet controversy continues. At first glance, the controversy seems to be evidence of a gender gap, a gulf of misunderstanding between men and women. On closer inspection, however, one sees that the great divide is not a gender gap; it's a doctrine gap. The difficulty is not between men and women; still less is it between women and the hierarchy. The problem is that there are not a few people in the Church, both men and women, who have been seduced by the errors of secular feminism and who therefore reject the authentic teaching of the Catholic Faith. These same dissidents then describe their disagreement with the Church as a gender gap and ascribe it to bad faith, crass ignorance and misogyny on the part of the hierarchy, especially Pope John Paul II. Their diagnosis, however, is based on confusing secular feminist assumptions with the truth about human nature, a truth supported and defended by authentic Christian feminism and Christian anthropology.

Unfortunately for the Church, many of these gender dissidents are in positions of ecclesiastical power. Scarcely a diocese, seminary, religious community or parish has escaped the machinations and protests of those who are sincerely, though wrongly, convinced that the Church is on the losing side of this cultural conflict. They seek to change the Church's teaching, indeed her very constitution, and much damage has been inflicted. The constant skirmishes over the use of feminist language (described as "inclusive") are an ubiquitous, if silly, example of the consequences of this doctrine gap.

The doctrine gap, though not a true gender gap, does appear to be something of a generation gap. Many senior and middle-aged clergy and religious profess to be shocked and frightened by the "insensitivity" of most of the younger clergy to these questions. What the seniors take to be signs of misogyny or other forms of masculine insecurity, however, is usually simply a difference in belief as outlined above. The secular feminists generally attempt to turn every dispute into a personality problem (He's rigid.) congenial to the therapeutic mentality, rather than face the possibility that an objective, reasonable difference exists and that they might be wrong. These disputes are commonplace in every setting where the two generations meet in the Church seminaries, religious houses and parishes. And in the crossfire, many lives have been badly damaged and countless vocations destroyed. Who can doubt that the spread of the Gospel is impeded by this sad spectacle?

How can this doctrine gap be bridged? How can all of Christ's faithful live in peace and mutual respect? In his letter to all the conferences of bishops explaining the doctrinal force of , Cardinal Ratzinger pointed the way: "The singular originality of the Church and of the priestly ministry within the Church requires a precise clarity of criteria. Concretely, one must never lose sight of the fact that the Church does not find the source of her faith and her constitutive structure in the principles of the social order of any historical period.

While attentive to the world in which she lives and for whose salvation she labors, the Church is conscious of being the bearer of a higher fidelity to which she is bound.

It is a question of a radical faithfulness to the Word of God which she has received from Christ, Who established her to last until the end of the ages. This Word of God, in proclaiming the essential value and eternal destiny of every person, reveals the ultimate foundation of the dignity of every human being, of every woman and of every man."


Father Newman is pastor of two rural parishes in the Diocese of Charleston, S.C, where he also serves as a college chaplain and an of an official on the diocesan tribunal. He holds a Licentiate in canon law from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.

This article was taken from the May/June 1996 issue of "The Catholic Answer". To subscribe please write: "The Catholic Answer", Our Sunday Visitor Publishing, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, In 46750.

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