May 07, 2004
The opposite sex

So, as advertised, I'm getting around to women's ordination again. Back in part one of this discussion I asked about the pastoral mythos and what it means to be a minister, and received some very interesting answer. Part two will be about the other question, the mythos of gender.

Before I get started, I want to explain why I'm writing about it. The Pontificator recently said he's not convinced by arguments against women's ordination, but then stated:

I guess what I am saying is that my private opinions on the ordination of women ultimately do not matter. There is no way in the world that I can figure everything out by myself. There is no way in the world I can justify all the teachings of the Church to myself. At this point, all I want to do is to listen to what the Church has to say, on the basis of two thousand years of Eucharistic experience and reflection on the Scriptures.

To my mind, though, the whole, "It's the rule, obey it" attitude has two problems. For one thing, it seems to be basically legalistic. Christ was supposed to have brought us out of the letter of the law and into the spirit of the law, so it seems only fair that I should want to comprehend the meaning behind the law. Secondly, excluding one gender from a certain role seems to be inevitably making a statement about the nature of the genders and the relations between them.

Which brings me to the mythos. As I said, I think the pastoral office has a mythos and that's not a bad thing; and the same goes for gender. The question is, what gender mythos are we following here? There's more than one in existence. Many people (especially conservatives) play it as, "You think that men and women are different, or you think they're alike." But there hasn't been only one way of understanding how and why the sexes are different. So here I'm going to review some of the main models of understanding the difference that I see, and how they relate to the ordination question.

Yin and Yang. OK, that's actually a Taoist term. But I think it best describes the idea of male and female as complementary components of a whole. In Taoism, yin and yang were universal principles expressed through all sorts of dualities: male/female, light/dark, earth/sky, passive/active etc. The world itself is the interaction of those two elements in various forms.

Christians don't go that far, of course, but I do hear a lot of them use similar imagery in explaining why putting men and women in different roles doesn't necessarily mean women are inferior. They're just different -- complementary -- and they need each other to make the whole, so we shouldn't pretend they're interchangeable.

That's fine as far as it goes, though I wouldn't want to be too rigid about it. We all contain yin and yang to varying degrees, so I wouldn't want to force a member of either sex to be the pure form. But the larger problem is that the theory doesn't seem borne out by what Christians actually practice.

Theoretically, if this were really about balancing complementary sides, for every male role there would be a female role. But there isn't. As I mentioned before, the monastic tradition does follow a "separate but equal" model for the sexes. But in the pastoral world of the Catholic Church we see a hierarchy of fathers without mothers. And in Protestant world, the nuns, female saints and the Mother of God have all but disappeared, so there really aren't any ecclesial roles that are specifically female. To be a woman is to be part of the undifferentiated mass of followers.

Another reason I doubt this theory is that many Christians seem to see God as being very male. Personally I refer to God as Father and use the male pronoun, but I understand that maleness metaphorically. One point where I do see gender in yin-yang terms is that I don't think you can have a sex without the opposite sex. The very word sex comes from the same root as sect and section, implying a division of a larger entity. So if I grew up on an Amazon island of only women, for instance, I would have no notion of my own gender. By the same token, since God is singular and has no Goddess to make a man out of him, so to speak, I don't see how he can have a gender in any earthly sense.

Yet many Christians do seem to think that God is male in an earthly sense. I refer to a comment from the same Pontifications post:

The thing is the Father does not have a . We call him Father because Jesus told us to and that is how He (the Father) relates to us, as a father. But Jesus when Jesus became incarnate, he didnt come as a two-sexual person with the ability to fulfill both roles of man and woman. Jesus could never have been a mother or wife and he could never be a woman. Even now, after his accension of body into Heaven, Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father with a bat and two balls. If priests are to be Christ to their flock, dont they need to be able to fulfil the role on this earth that Jesus could fulfil, namely that of manand so also of father? That is how God relates to us, as Father and it is as a man that the son is brought into this world and so relates to us as a man for that is what he is. So also our priests must relate to their flocks in the same manner.

I assume the blank space in the first sentence was some off-color word that got cut out, but anyway. This comment reminds me of another funny thing about the role of priest: he plays the role of father, but that wasn't actually the role Jesus played. Jesus made it clear the father was that other Person in the Trinity; he himself was the bridegroom. Which is a male role, except that the bride is the church, made up of both men and women. So I'm not sure how relevant the "bat and balls" are to that, especially seeing as he never actually used them.

But the larger thing that bugs me about this is that in making God so utterly male, and in making the sort of role that he plays one that only a man can play, it stretches my credulity to the breaking point to turn around and say, "But this doesn't mean women are inferior or anything." There seems to be an awfully strong implication here that men are somehow more in the image of God than women, and that the unitary principle of the universe is not the combination of two sexes, but only one without the other.

So how can male exist without female, anyway? This brings me to my next model:

Man as person, woman as sex. This concept first appears in the second creation story in Genesis 1. When God creates humanity, he creates a man. But when God creates sex -- both in the sense of gender and of sexual reproduction -- he creates woman.

I don't think that image was really the point of the story, which, by its author's account, was meant to explain how man and woman are "one flesh." But it has that underlying assumption, and it's a common one. In English, the traditional conflation of "man" with "person", and the use of the male pronouns as the default for a group or a being of unknown sex, also carry the implication that male is the generic form of human while woman is the exceptional form. The same seems to have been true in ancient Greek, seeing as the epistle writers address whole congregations as "brothers." Also, when God addresses a crowd he refers to men in the second person and women in the third person (e.g. "if you look upon a woman with lust ...").

Feminists have noticed this theme carrying on in modern culture. For instance, if you watch a movie, it will often start out with male characters; when a woman shows up, you know that sex has arrived in the storyline. This has been the longtime feminist complaint with traditional gender roles: men can be many things that have nothing to do with their reproductive systems, but women have been defined by sex and childbearing.

To some extent, this probably stems from biology. Especially in premodern times when women had many children and nursed each one a year or two, reproduction probably did take up a lot more of their consciousness than men's. However, it also seems to come from what the academics call androcentrism. These stories are told from the male point of view, and tellers tend to assume themselves to be the norm. It's rather like how, if you ask a white person in America to describe another white person, they won't specifically mention the person's race; they'll mention the race only if it's different.

I was thinking about this when Neil Dhingra asked this question:

The question about gender resolves into: Can women - more than capable of teaching, baptizing, and spiritual direction - possess this double transparency? At this particular place and time, can a woman symbolize God and the ecclesia without distortion, without her priesthood inevitably being about "something else" besides God and the ecclesia?

I suspect that to many people she can't, because when they see a woman up at the altar they see, first and foremost, a woman. A male priest's gender can somehow disappear in a way that a woman's can't. But must it always be like that? Is there any real reason to see a man as somehow more gender-neutral than a woman?

Finally, I bring up a third model of gender difference:

Man as adult, woman as child. Anyone who reads Victorian novels the way I do certainly knows this one, but the concept goes back farther and was once, in fact, considered scientific. The ancient Greco-Roman theories of anatomy, which survived in Europe all the way through the Renaissance, considered male and female not to be separate-but-equal complements, but more and less developed versions of the same thing. So, the theory went, everybody starts out in the womb with the same basic organs (which is essentially true), but men somehow get more "heat" in their development, so they eventually mature more fully than women do.

I first read about this theory in college, and it does make some intuitive sense: women are smaller and have higher voices and less body hair than men, so they in some respects seem more childlike. But as the author I was reading pointed out, the big thing they had to overlook was women's capacity to bear children. This is an ability that, obviously, women develop that men never have. I suppose the ancients got around this partly through their poor understanding of conception -- they didn't know about ova, so they thought of women mainly as containers, reproductively speaking. But whatever the reason, it clearly codified the notion of woman as being less mature and, therefore, less able to carry responsibilities and make good decisions than man.

Back when I was arguing about the Bible and gender with Telford, I pointed out that Paul could very well have believed in this theory of gender. It was the current thinking of that general time and place. And I feel a family resemblance between that and they way Paul portrays marriage in Ephesians 5, with husband instructed to treat wife a lot like a beloved child, and wife instructed to "be subject in everything." Or in the strange justification for women's subordination in 1 Timothy 2, that Adam was "formed first" (is that some sort of seniority claim?) and that woman was deceived, while man wasn't. I see a lot of problems with that characterization of the Genesis story (how do we know Adam wasn't deceived? Would he have been deceived if the snake talked to him first?), but the idea that woman in her immaturity is more easily swayed by sweet-talking evildoers has carried on through the centuries.

This is the point I was trying (vainly, for the most part) to make to Telford: if you see woman that way, all the talk about love and respect and spiritual inheritance in the world isn't going to make you put her in a position of authority. You may, after all, love your children and expect them to have as much chance of ending up in heaven as you, but you're not going to let your nine-year-old become a pastor.

If this was the original basis for excluding women from the priesthood, however, it seems to me to be the most easily dismissed as a cultural artifact. It's based on an outdated and debunked theory of human development. So much as I respect the traditions formed by the early church, this one is not even really Christian.

There are, I am sure, other schemes of gender difference that you all can think of, but I'm going to stop here. I've probably caused enough trouble already.

Posted by Camassia at May 07, 2004 02:52 PM | TrackBack

I like what you say here. You make your point far better than I could, because most of what I do is just raging against injustice. (Such a man, I am!)

I commonly hear from conservative Christians that the biblically ordained model is for women to be the childbearers and raisers -- they find their spiritual role in bringing up kids as godly children -- while men find their role in lay and clerical leadership, as well as leadership within the home.

This is offensive to me, but it does address your concern as stated above that there are roles for men in Protestantism, but not roles for women. By this thinking, there is a very important, nay vital, spiritual role for women. Their ministry is to raise their children.


Posted by: Kynn Bartlett on May 8, 2004 10:14 AM

When you brought up Neil Dhingra's question again, this memory came to my mind:

It was about 20 years ago, and I was at a summer conference (called an "institute") run by LHRA (Lutheran Human Relations Association). I overheard two pastors, one male and one female, discussion women's ordination.

The male pastor, and older guy, a nice man, but clearly struggling with the concept, said, "I'm still uncomfortable with this. I mean, what if I'm attending worship led by a woman and all I can see is a woman? What if I were to have sexual thought about her?"

The female pastor, also an older person, who had recently been ordained, smiled sweetly at him and cajoled, "Get in line, Bob! What do you think we women have had to deal with all these centuries?!"

Posted by: Dash on May 8, 2004 10:39 AM

Regarding the Genesis passage, in Hebrew there is a differentiation between the creation of the adam "ha adam" and the male and female "ish and ishah." Thus biblical scholar Phyllis Trible argues the adam is not a male, but should be translated as "earth creature" since the word adam comes from the Hebrew word for the ground. So maybe when God created humanity, he created a human being, not a male, and then when he creates male and female human beings, he creates both genders. That's a different way to think about it, it's not the way the passage has traditionally been interpreted throughout the ages, but maybe it helps counter the idea that male is more human than female.

Posted by: Jennifer on May 8, 2004 12:32 PM

Dear Camassia,

Thank you for your post. I was reminded of a very interesting statement that Cardinal McCarrick of Washington made about the Pope and women priests:

Hes never said, I dont want women priests, McCarrick said. Hes said, I cant do it. Hes prayed, studied, and concluded that he cant call women to the priesthood. (Word From Rome, 10.10.03)

This perhaps brings us to what you write - "A male priest's gender can somehow disappear in a way that a woman's can't. But must it always be like that? Is there any real reason to see a man as somehow more gender-neutral than a woman?" The question is, then, how does the Pope ground his perhaps somewhat unwilling "I can't do it"?

I suppose that the most articulate support for his view of the male as, in your words, "somehow more gender-neutral" is found in the thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar on gender and the priesthood. For the sake of discussion, I'll quote a long description of it from an article in the most recent Anglican Theological Review by the Anglican priest Sarah Coakley, who is - as I also would be - critical of it.

"At the heart, first, of Balthasar's explicit rejection of the ordination of women is a key paradox, which simultaneously reveals a capacity for 'fluid' thinking about gender vis-a-vis men, and yet a means of 'fixing' womanhood outside the bounds of priesthood ... On the one hand, men and women are 'equal,' and nowhere is this clearer than in the person of Christ: as Balthasar puts it ..., 'One can say that Christ, inasmuch as he represents the God of the universe in the world, is likewise the origin of both feminine and masculine principles in the church.' Yet this equality does not suppress a 'difference' which is even more fundamental: 'the Catholic Church is perhaps humanity's last bulwark of genuine appreciation of the difference of the sexes,' he writes, and of 'the extreme oppositeness of their functions.' It is actually the 'feminine' which for Balthasar is seen as primary for the church, and pedestalized as the 'comprehensive feminine, the marian,' unsullied and actively 'fruitful,' 'already superior to that of the man'; and yet it is the man, 'consecrated into his office' who alone can represent the 'specifically masculine function - the transmission of a vital force that originates outside itself and leads beyond itself.' As Balthasar puts it is a much quoted remark in another essay: 'What else is his Eucharist but, at a higher level, an endless act of fruitful outpouring of his whole flesh, such as a man can only achieve for a moment with a limited organ of his body?'

"So here we confront the essential gender doublethink at the heart of Balthasar's system: the priest much be physiologically male, though also 'feminine' as transmitter of an ecclesial vital force that is more fundamentally that of the 'perfect feminine Church.' Women, however, are always and only 'feminine,' expressing their 'natural fruitfulness' which is 'already superior to that of the man': 'equal' but 'different,' 'equal' but superior (even), but 'equal' and inherently and physiologically incapable of the priesthood. ...

"This central paradox - all are 'equal,' but men are more equal than women (to adapt a phrase of Orwell) - is reduplicated, secondly, in the Marian fundament that sustains it. For while the 'feminine' here, as Mary, is the sine qua non of the church (as Balthasar puts it, 'The Church begins with the Yes of the Virgin of Nazareth'), this 'feminine' tips over into petrine 'masculinity' where men are concerned: 'What Peter will receive as "infallibility" for his office of governing will be a partial share in the total flawlessness of the feminine, marian church,' he writes. Thus a fluidity from and between 'femininity' and 'masculinity' is the lot of the man, while, in contrast, woman is only and solely the 'feminine' ..."


Posted by: Neil Dhingra on May 8, 2004 05:11 PM

Kynn: Thanks. That's an interesting point you make at the end, but I wonder how 'biblical' it really is to see child-rearing as being the special charism of women. As I said, certainly pregnancy, birth and nursing took up a lot of women's lives in those days. But after the first few years of life, I think child-raising only became a 'female thing' in the modern era when men work outside the home. I don't know about ancient Hebrew society specifically, but in other premodern societies fathers usually have quite a large role in child-raising, especially of sons, whom they teach the family trade and generally how to be men. Conservatives often lament this loss of the father role, in fact, so it's sort of ironic for the 'conservative' position to delegate the whole job to women. (It's also interesting to think of what the Hebrews meant by calling God 'Father,' and how that might be different from what it means today, but that's another subject.)

Neil: I've read your excerpt a few times and I'm not sure I completely understand it. But it sounds like von Balthasar is looking at it the opposite way to what I said: since the church is the Bride, everyone is by default female, but if you're biologically male then you're female plus male, and therefore capable of doing special things. Is that a fair reading?

Posted by: Camassia on May 9, 2004 09:57 PM

Where were all those big strong men at the foot of the Cross as Jesus made his sacrifice?

When justice calls for change, those who are advantaged always fall back first on culture and tradition: "We've always done it that way."

Adultery began as a property crime, and continues today as such in societies with patriarchial passage of title and property. Slavery as a widely-recognized taboo is less than 200 years old, but continues in many places as it has for millenia.

The slaveowner and the Pope each says "I can't do it, " when in fact, it's not "can't," but "won't."

When the very possibility of encountering a female priest is precluded, as in the church of Rome, ignorance is an ally. "Of course women priests would be bad for the church -- that's why we don't have any."

Martin King told us that skin color has nothing to do with the character contained inside the skin. We have come to believe it, many of us, and have displaced that old racist culture in many areas.

In fact, corporations have gotten on the bandwagon, having discovered that diversity is good for business. Those black heads and latino heads and, yes, female heads have new ideas that old white men never had.

Half of the body of Christ does not possess that magical "organ" discussed earlier. The church of Rome, somewhat paradoxically, precludes its priests from using their magic organs for the purpose that theoretically makes them magic.

My head hurts.

Posted by: GG on May 10, 2004 03:19 AM

Dear Camassia,

I think that is what he is saying. Here is, slightly amended, the key paragraph:

"So here we confront the essential gender doublethink at the heart of Balthasar's system: the priest must be physiologically male, though also 'feminine' as transmitter of an ecclesial vital force that is more fundamentally that of the 'perfect feminine Church.' Women, however, are always and only 'feminine,' expressing their 'natural fruitfulness' which is 'already superior to that of the man': 'equal' but 'different,' 'equal' but superior (even), but 'equal' and inherently and physiologically incapable of the priesthood. ..."

I contributed it, partly because of Balthasar's prominence, but also because of the intriguing quality of what Rev Coakley calls his "gender doublethink." Balthasar recognizes a necessary "fluidity" between the genders, but also declares a "fixity" of women within an idealized femininity. Many will protest against Balthasar's somewhat Romantic negotiation of these boundaries as "doublethink," including myself; the question is whether the boundaries still need to be negotiated. I think that we are all, including even the Pope, conscious of the need to acknowledge a certain "fluidity" between the genders because of the sad and painful history to which Kynn and GG appeal. But I suspect that many people also feel that an unrestrained "fluidity" without "fixity," even though it may appeal to Maximus the Confessor and other sources, would destroy a perceived fundamental "difference" between the genders and detract from certain inevitably gendered Biblical and patristic metaphors that seem to depend on this very "difference" - for instance, the idea of the Incarnation, two natures meeting without confusion or separation, as a marriage.

Thank you. Still thinking all of this through - I don't mean to convey certainty. This is, believe me, the furthest thing from a polemic.


Posted by: Neil Dhingra on May 10, 2004 09:46 AM


Posted by: lulu on September 23, 2004 06:34 AM

Great, great posts. Bookmarked forever. Thank you.

You write that "A male priest's gender can somehow disappear in a way that a woman's can't. But must it always be like that?" I've observed that in the world of work, now that we are used to seeing women engaged in something other than reproduction, home maintenance and nurturing, women's gender DOES often disappear, or at least go into the background. I've been in a publishing meeting where there was only one man, and a karate class where I was the only woman, and in both cases, it dawned on me (and I believe on others) only rather late in the game that this was the case. Why could this not also become the case in religion? In less conservative denominations where women are priests/ministers/rabbis, might it not already by the case?

Also you write: "The ancient Greco-Roman theories of anatomy, which survived in Europe all the way through the Renaissance, considered male and female not to be separate-but-equal complements, but more and less developed versions of the same thing." There was a book about the development of ideas of sex -- unfortunately I can't remember the name of the book or the author right now (Thomas somebody . . . MAKING SEX?). It said that at one point the female organs were believed to be pretty much outside-in male organs. And this turns out to be true. Women have the same structures, they're just inside. Like the corpus cavernosum -- forgive me for being clinical, but it's what expands the vagina to be approximately the same size as the penis.


Posted by: amba on October 3, 2004 12:36 PM

One more thought: Men are gender-neutral TO MEN. It's just the androcentric point of view again.

I think we have to assume that Spirit is above and beyond and prior to gender. And that the male monopolization of religion grew out of a) women's confinement to reproduction and b) male asceticism, the belief that sex is the greatest enemy of spirit and that women, to a heterosexual male, embody sex. Man blames woman for his own instinctive response to her.

Posted by: amba on October 3, 2004 12:43 PM


What I like about that anatomical inversion is the equality of it. And the elegant economy of means. Does this make you believe in intelligent design, or what?

I think it may have been Thomas Laqueur, MAKING SEX.

Posted by: amba on October 4, 2004 09:57 AM
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