May 14, 2004
Sed contra

Thanks for the words of support regarding my back. It's somewhat better today, and since I'm stuck at my desk now anyway, I might as well blog.

Since the responses I got to the women's ordination post were all from supporters of the idea (except Neil Dhingra, who seems ambivalent), I had to look elsewhere for opposing arguments. As it happened Veritas linked to a two-year-old post by the Old Oligarch on the very subject.

The Oligarch basically argues from Church tradition. The subject was debated several times in the early Church, and every time it came down against female priests. After the fourth century, he says, the issue died. (I'm getting conflicting accounts of how long deaconesses existed, however -- the OO says till the fourth century, Lynn says the 12th century, Neil Dhingra says they lingered among the Orthodox until the 1950s.)

But why did the early Church do that? They don't seem to have left us much of a record, but that doesn't seem to bother the Oligarch. It's perfectly fine for the Church to make a decision first and come up with the theology later, he says. Since this wasn't a live issue for 1500 years, it's not surprising nobody really came up with a supporting theology. But now that it's live again, what would a supporting theology look like?

The Oligarch points to a series of posts at Summa Contra Mundum, here, here and here. Now, I didn't try to trace the whole discussion that might have gone on two years ago around these posts, so I apologize if I'm repeating stuff that's been said. But here's my take on all this.

Both the Old Oligarch and Karl start by rejecting dualist and postmodernist arguments that the body doesn't really matter, that gender doesn't matter or that Jesus wasn't really the Incarnate God. That's fine as far as it goes, though I certainly know a number of people who agree with all that and still support ordaining women, so I hardly see those as clinchers. As I said in my last post on this subject, simply saying "men and women are different" isn't enough. The question is how.

This is what Karl addresses in his third post. He relies almost entirely on the 20th-century saint Edith Stein, and the results are ... disturbing. Some time ago Andi asked me if Christianity "essentializes" gender, and if there are, for instance, such things as male and female souls. I said no, I don't think so; traditionally, souls were viewed as sexless or vaguely female. Even Tom Kreitzberg, nobody's idea of a theological liberal, wrote, "It's not clear to me that it makes sense to speak of a 'male soul' that is essentially different from a 'female soul,' since I'm not sure how to say that without meaning that men and women are different species."

Karl, however, boldly essentializes like hell:

Are Male and Female Souls Different? Yes they are. It is quite simple. Stein says that only those who are blinded by controversy would deny that women are different from men, and that they are fitted by nature for a particular vocation: “The clear and irrevocable word of Scripture declares what daily experience teaches from the beginning of the world: woman is destined to be wife and mother.” (45) Woman is both spiritually and physically determined for this job.

So what's the difference between a male and female soul? To summarize Karl's summary of Stein, men are conquerers, hard workers, sacrificers, and abstract thinkers. Women "seek the whole person", cherish and nurture life, and seek harmony in relationships over factual correctness.

So how, in this scheme, is the priesthood "male"? Karl offers a theory:

This magisterium or teaching office is not just teaching, but defense, a constant fight against those who challenge and attempt to destroy or distort the faith... The feminine genius for seeking the good of the whole person is wonderful in family life: it prevents people from becoming overly one-sided, or seeking one human good to the detriment of all the others. But this tendency to seek conciliation and balance is only good in situations where conciliation and balance is important. In the defense of the faith what is needed is a fighting spirit and a commitment to one particular human good, the truth. I suggest that God may pick men alone for the priesthood partly because of the need to defend, define, and develop the fine points of the faith.

This is, shall we say, a quite different definition of the priesthood than I got when I asked about it earlier. In fact, one notable irony here is that Peter wrote at the time that one supporter claimed that because Jesus has an "archetypically feminine message", it has a sort of Nixon-goes-to-China credibility coming from a man. But generally speaking, defining a priest as a "soldier for Jesus" over the maternal qualities usually associated with the job seems like quite a change.

Basically, this whole discussion fills me with a massive dread that Christian attempts to justify a male-only priesthood theologically are not only going to lead them in directions that are repugnant to feminists, but that seriously alter traditional Christian thinking on both gender and the priesthood. Say goodbye to that "fluidity" of von Balthasar's -- say hello to men and women as different species!

But there's another aspect of this I wanted to point out. The Oligarch dismisses arguments that early Christians were just toeing the line of their sexist culture by pointing out all the ways that they were countercultural. That's a good point, since Jesus clearly wasn't be subversive just for the sake of being subversive, but for particular reasons. Still, as Lynn points out nicely in her own post on the subject today, it's not like "culture" is always a monolith. It is pretty monolithic in some places and times, but the Roman Empire didn't appear to be one of them, and neither is modern America.

The Old Oligarch and Karl both clearly think they're being countercultural. The believe the Church is the lone defender of gender difference and embodiment against a culture that thinks gender doesn't matter. And yet, when I look at Stein's arguments, they feel so familiar. Because, in fact, gender difference is quite a hot topic of our age. In fact, I'd be pretty hard pressed to find somebody who doesn't have a theory about it. Books by John Gray and Deborah Tannen sell zillions, and within psychology those differences are intensely studied and debated. In fact, Stein's theory somewhat resembles feminist psychologist Carol Gilligan's, who proposed different means of moral development for men and women. I outlined this in a post last summer, where I noted that Telford and I are in some ways the reverse of our gender norms according to Gilligan.

That fact doesn't undermine Gilligan's theory, because she, like all psychologists, was speaking of averages. Every researcher I know of on the subject acknowledges that there's quite a bit of variation and overlap, so any particular male-female pair might not fit the model. However, that doesn't appear to be the case with Stein's theory. If I have a female soul and Telford has a male soul, how can I be more "male" than he is? Is this some deception by Satan covering our true selves?

See, that's what scares me about essentializing. If you say men are always this and women are always that, than any apparent variation has to be suppressed or "cured" somehow. Which makes a society I really don't want to live in.

But the larger point I'm trying to make is, Stein seems to be trying to explain the ancient decision on women's ordination in terms of a very 20th-century understanding of gender difference. For one thing, she seems to be in some ways falling into the modern assumption that I described to Kynn in the comments to this post, of thinking of not just having babies but the whole process of child-rearing as a female job.

More importantly, as I also said before, the prevailing ancient Greco-Roman theory of gender difference was quite different, thinking of woman as a "less developed" form of man. Which, in fact, could well explain how the Church could have ruled out women's ordination without resolving the genders into different species. The old theory actually makes men and women rather more alike than current versions, since it basically posits only one kind of human, in varying stages of maturity.

In fact, given that the sects supporting female priests were all mystical, charismatic types (Gnostics, Montanists, Eastern churches), I can't help wondering if their opponents in the early Church saw themselves as defending scientific fact against mystical hooey. If that's the case, it doesn't seem to me that it would attack any core Christian truths about the body and the Incarnation and so on to admit that science has changed in the last 1,500 years.

Of course, it's easy for me to say that since I'm not a Catholic. But any Christian tradition has to deal with those early canonical decisions, because that's when all basic Christian dogma was formed. So it does seem to me to be worth examining more closely, before we start developing theories that lock us in our little gendered boxes.

Posted by Camassia at May 14, 2004 12:57 PM | TrackBack

I wouldn't care if tomorrow the Vatican allowed women priests. Be fine with me. But the all-male priesthood does seem to be a comely obsequiousness to Christ's example, since Jesus made twelve men apostles. Sure, that was part of the culture then, but if it be an error, it's at least an error clinging too closely to Christ's example. The reason priests are forbidden to serve in an army (except in the pacific role as chaplain) is also because of Christ's example.

I think the general Catholic sensibility is to aid our religious imagination rather than impede it. We use matter advantageously to help fire that imagination - i.e. holy water, incense, etc. It's hard enough, especially after the pedophile priest scandal, to imagine many priests as "alter Christus" (other Christs)... Karl Keating writes, "The priest who represents him, the alter Christus, represents him best by himself being a man. That oversimplifies things, of course, but nevertheless that is a key reason (by no means the only key reason) why the priesthood is restricted to males. The priest is a "stand in" for Christ. As he re-presents the sacrifice of Calvary, the priest "is" Christ. The Mass is a divine drama, and the male lead needs to be played by a male."

Posted by: TSO on May 17, 2004 08:31 AM
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