Friday, July 16, 2010

Being Catholic and a Woman

Warning: This is a long post. And it has absolutely no resolution at the end of it. Proceed with caution.

So today news is hitting all the major feminist blogs that the Catholic church has classified the ordination or attempted ordination of women as a crime as grave as pedophilia. I'm not sure why it's all hitting today; my brother and I were talking about this weeks ago (just think if I'd written about it then, I could have scooped the other blogs! I say as though I have any intention of being a serious blogger and not just someone who is bored sometimes). Anyway, you can read some reactions here and here if you like. Any woman who tries to get ordained would be excommunicated and any priest or bishop who attempts to ordain her would be laicized (or defrocked... or not-a-priest-anymore'd).

First some background information: the church doesn't ordain women because Christ didn't ordain women and it claims the Vatican can't change the design of the church as Jesus laid it out. It can't baptize people in milk, and it can't give you pasta as communion because this is not how Christ did it, and it can't ordain a woman because Christ could have ordained women as priests or named them as apostles and yet He didn't. He encouraged them to be active in ministry but they were never called upon to spread the word. Likewise, the church says it cannot change the substance of a sacrament - if Jesus used bread for communion, bread must be used in our communion otherwise the sacrament literally did not take place. Thus, it concludes an ordination of women would not even result in an ordination - the transfer of duties would not even take place - no communion rite performed by a woman would actually be the body and blood of Christ, etc. because the ordination is not valid.

This leads to a question of the logic in even punishing people who attempt to ordain women. If the ordination isn't valid and any ceremonies performed by a female priest aren't valid, then what exactly are you punishing? Either the sacrament doesn't take place and then they are doing nothing more than playing pretend or the sacrament is real and valid and is a crime that requires your attention. By their own doctrine, it's impossible to ordain a woman no matter what you do so even having an ordination ceremony accomplishes nothing. It'd be like me saying "I am a priest now! Come to mass in my living room!" (Side note: I actually did this as a child when my brother was sick, and we couldn't go to mass for a while. I even made white bread communion rounds. That communion was not valid. No one in my house got any body and blood that day. I think we were all aware of this. Should my parents have been excommunicated for letting me play mass? A child and a girl child, no less!). My point is if the ordinations aren't valid and masses performed by women aren't valid etc. etc. then you have nothing to punish, right? Wouldn't the real crime be someone giving priestly powers to a woman even though that's not allowed? That's what you're punishing? Except according to you no such transfer of powers is even possible. You can't have it both ways, Vatican.

Now I find myself at a crossroads. How to reconcile my feminist outrage at an organization that says my gender trying to practice religion in one of the deepest ways possible is tantamount to the horrific abuse of children? How to negotiate the fact that ordination of women results in automatic excommunication and defrocking of the priests involved when most priests accused or convicted of child abuse are never defrocked? I don't think there's enough space on the servers of the interwebs to discuss my outrage and disgust over the Vatican's lack of response to the child abuse running rampant within the church. I think we can all agree that this is an issue that needs to be stamped out but quick. So I'm not going to address that. It can't be defended and I wouldn't even attempt to because I don't think they deserve defending.

I'm just going to talk about the reputation of the church's problems with women. I've read a lot of comments on this issue about the seeming hypocrisy of being a Catholic woman. I've read a lot of comments with a, no pun intended, supremely holier-than-thou tone about how they quit Catholicism after 2 years of Catholic school or how they recognized this hypocrisy when they were 8 and got out then. It basically implies they had the smarts, awareness, and moral fortitude to do what all the other blind, ignorant, brainwashed Catholic women didn't. Good for you, commenters! I wish I were as liberated as you! I just can't seem to find the key to these damn handcuffs attaching me to this here crucifix. If only my Episcopalian father had better elucidated the wonders of the free-wheeling, Pope-less Episcopalians and their enlightened attitudes toward women I might have been saved! A religion that values my lady parts!

Except here's the thing. I believe the Catholic church is the church of the Christ. I believe the popes are carrying on the tradition of St. Peter. I value the example and model of how to live set forth by St. Therese of Lisieux, my confirmation saint. I can't magically turn that off just because I'm angry about many, many things the church has done. The Puritans weren't separatists; they believed in improving the church from within. Muslims don't cease to believe in Islam because major players within their religion want to bomb half the earth.

More commenters have recited repugnant things priests or other Catholic males have told them about women not understanding the complexities of the priesthood or women not being strong enough to lead the church. They recite these as though they are concrete examples of every Catholic's opinion and should urge others to also leave the church. Those isolated people do not speak for all Catholics everywhere because we are millions of individuals with different viewpoints and opinions. You'd think this would be common sense to a group of women strongly opposed to those who would treat women as a gender as an indiscernible mass whose needs and desires are nearly identical. An article that followed this one on the Vatican was upset that a reporter had said only men want to grill and only women want to spend hours shopping for shoes. 'We're all different,' they clamored! 'I love grilling,' said another! But all Catholic men think women suck. Interesting. I went to an all girls Catholic school that gave me the words and tools to value and vaunt my femininity and laid the groundwork for my feminism before I even would have called it that. My high school made me a feminist. And not as a reaction to Catholicism and its weaknesses, but because my teachers and the nuns that worked there and my classmates made me feel like being a girl was awesome.

So where are we now? The Vatican says I can't do what I want with my own body, that contraception is bad even in the face of an AIDS epidemic in Africa, that women being priests is as bad as priests who molest children, and has been grossly incompetent in dealing with said abuse. But I still believe they're the church of Christ which makes them the church for me. It makes me sad. I think it would make Jesus sad too. Catholic women aren't the only ones in this boat. Religious gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgendered, and transsexuals are here too, internalizing for quite some time what they've been told is a complete contradiction between their identity and their God. And I'm sure no one has an easy answer for how you live that way. I'm not willing to just walk away and then pat myself on the back for being better than those who didn't. But I'm also not willing to accept or defend things I can't stand.

It's a conundrum.


  1. I'll be honest with you: I almost didn't read this because I tend to stay as far away from religious discussions as possible. But, my curiosity got the best of me, and I'm glad it did. This is so well written, and so well thought out. It made me think even though I don't share your religion (though half of my family is Catholic). Great post, Jamie!

  2. Thanks! I debated about it, but sometimes rage needs an outlet and now I have one. Plus, my blog has no theme so I figured I can write what I want :)

    Thank you for taking the time to read it; I really appreciate that!

  3. James! It´s so cool to see you writing about this stuff! You were totally there for me a while back when I was having serious doubts, questions, etc., about Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular. I´m here for you if you want to talk about any of this. I´ve written a lot on my blog in the past few months about my own struggles with the Catholic Church. Maybe you´ll find something of interest in these posts especially:

  4. Yeah,as a Christian again (eek, I cringed when I wrote that sentence, but that´s probably wrong to cringe...Catholic just sounds so much more respectable!), I feel you on this. Mind, I was only Catholic for like two seconds after Zach and I got married and then when we recently started going to church together again, but the pedophile thing was a big reason we stopped going to mass. But I love mass and will go occassionally when I get the chance because a few creeps can´t ruin the magic for me. We´ve been at a Presbyterian church and now nowhere since we are traveling, but I think it´s hard for people to reconcile their faith and the institution. I think you are doing a great job of it. I have to do the same as a non-Catholic Christian...any Christian woman who is socially liberal will face these challenges. I just think that there are mysteries all along the way and that not everything is spelled out, even though some would like to think the Bible is the be all and end all. I think there´s wiggle room. When I look at the world, at creation, at my awesome friends who are gay, straight, female, whatever-I just think that there´s room for all of us. If women feel called to lead, which is a really hard thing to do, then I think those women are genuinely called. But I also think gay people should be able to marry and pot should be legalized. Just my opinion. I loved your post!

  5. I don't know how I went this long without leaving a comment, but one of my biggest theological pet peeves is when people compare the gravity of doctrinal issues to social issues. It's apples and oranges, it's self-righteous, and the biblical basis for it is specious at best.

    My friend Kim gave a lecture on the topic of faith and womanhood a few months back, which I think was great. If you're so inclined, you can give it a listen here:

  6. Ah thanks so much for the comments, everybody!

    Heather and Zach, thanks for taking the time to read even from another hemisphere! I'm gonna read your blog entries asap, Zach.

    And thanks for the link to Kim's speech; I'm going to listen to that and get back to you too :)