By Carly Priest
I grew up in the California Bay Area, just outside of San Francisco. I’m not Catholic— my parents raised my three siblings and I in the United Church of Christ. I learned that through the metaphorical creation of all persons God indicates that any religious tradition preaching love of self and love of other, in conjunction with the ideals of community service, forgiveness, and tolerance, holds equal grace at the table. Therefore, our chosen expression of religious faith stems more from the circumstances of birth than the fortunes of predestined divinity. Our tradition evokes the religious practices of groups across the world in an effort to discredit the global rhetoric that those who don’t follow the teachings, customs, or commandments of a particular faith will find their destiny in Hell. With an acute mindfulness for the role that culture plays in religious interpretation, our religion calls for the reexamination of faith traditions for their continued relevance and justness. Our duty as intelligent, responsible beings must be a “throwing out” of those traditions that oppress, for any such injustice falsifies the all-encompassing commandment to love.
I forgot to mention earlier, but the Reverend I grew up listening to, guided by, and found comfort in is a woman. Imagine my shock when I entered a Catholic high school and found that women cannot preside over Mass in the Catholic Church, let alone when I heard “Church” as a singular term— I had attended “church” my whole life. To say the least, I found the silence that surrounds the issue of such dominant gender hierarchy to be disgruntling.
According to official Papal position (upheld by Pope Francis in 2013), the maleness of Jesus of Nazareth indicates a conscious, intentional selection by God Himself. An intimate though obvious link exists in Jesus as a male human and Jesus as the great spiritual messenger. In further evidence, the Catholic Church points to the maleness of the 12 Apostles. In more than one way, the explanation for male-only leadership reads like the transitive property of true religiosity, the final answer determined in high-stakes salvation. At its core, the message that women require male interpreters to fully understand the will of God finds root in the same inferiority as belief in Eve from Adam’s ribs. It’s a double standard that allows for and encourages selective memory in biblical tradition. In honoring the Disciples, let us not forget the group of women charged with reporting that “He is Risen,” (Matt. 28:6) or the individual God purportedly selected as vessel— you know, the one who raised the King of Kings. Call my spiritual capacity limited by my ovaries and estrogen, but across religious literary works, there are powerful, admirable, and intelligent women.
Based on the College’s demographic, I’d bet that many of our parents still have pictures from their First Communions framed somewhere in the house. While children of both genders participate equally in the ritual, think about the difference in experience. Cisgender boys look at the presiding Father and somewhere, albeit unconsciously, connect the guidance, leadership, and holy spirituality to the body of someone who they (broad picture) look like. This affords boys assurance; they have the potential to rise to and emulate such leadership role. Cisgender girls have no such insurance. When girls, already held to higher standards of modesty and censorship than their male peers, look to church leadership for guidance in masses, schools, and the papal public sphere, they find a boys club at reign. This sends a dangerous message to women and men about spiritual capacity and spiritual worth.
However loving and competent Catholic male leadership may be (I greatly respect and admire several priests on a personal level), any limit to the roles women may play in society creates a second-class citizenship, intended or otherwise. All women, Catholic women included, live in a world where the societal experiences of “male” and “female” are drastically different, yet those women who demand representation face excommunication and community exclusion. Any analysis of the automatic disqualification of over 50% of the Catholic world population from ordination on the basis of gender alone, without regard to education or merit, unearths a digressive practice. Perhaps because I am a woman, I see sexism and misogyny in this practice that so blatantly bars women without hint of a suitable equivalent. Perhaps I see sexism and misogyny, because I know so many wise, religious leaders who are women and therefore wonder how anyone can listen to their qualified, intelligent insights and declare that the tradition of male-only leadership must remain intact, especially when so many other religious groups gracefully jumped the hurdle.
Though the absence of female leadership and a female voice proves problematic in all aspects, it seems especially worrisome in a faith that so adamantly and so publicly opposes central aspects of female healthcare. The fact that there are more female than male Catholics in the world only increases the threat of absent representation. In the Catholic Church, women face not a glass ceiling but a brick wall. To uphold the traditional block from positions of meaningful parish leadership influences the religious training of our young people, and instructs an accepted impenetrability of traditional hierarchy. In the absence of a transparent reason for female exclusion, we are told of the fruitlessness and sin of our challenge to authority. Resistance to female ordination transcends antiquarian beliefs about gender dynamics—it audaciously encourages the asinine narrative of inherent female inferiority to uphold the male-created traditions of old.