Friday, February 15, 2013

How not to decide on female priests

Here's another item on the Catholic Church, one which hopefully illustrates larger issues within modern society.

A website called the National Catholic Reporter has run an editorial in support of Roy Bourgeois, an advocate of female priests:
Barring women from ordination to the priesthood is an injustice that cannot be allowed to stand.

 ...Bourgeois brings this issue to the real heart of the matter. He has said that no one can say who God can and cannot call to the priesthood, and to say that anatomy is somehow a barrier to God's ability to call one of God's own children forward places absurd limits on God's power. The majority of the faithful believe this.
A secular liberal would have argued, in support of female priests, that individual desire is sovereign, that sex distinctions shouldn't matter, and that it is the will of men rather than a natural or God ordained order which is authoritative in deciding things.

The Catholic Reporter doesn't follow exactly the same path, but it's not too far from it. We are told that we should support female priests because "the majority of the faithful believe this" (making the will of men authoritative) and that distinctions between men and women involve nothing more than "anatomy" - that it's merely a case of different body parts.

The idea of a natural order is also brushed aside, on the basis that God operates outside such an order.

Finally, although the Catholic Reporter doesn't openly make the pitch that individual desire is sovereign, it does argue that it is up to the woman herself to decide and that it is unjust if her decision is impeded.

One major flaw in the approach taken by the Catholic Reporter is that it is obvious that distinctions between men and women are more than anatomical. If you are a Catholic, you will believe that God made these distinctions for a purpose, so that they have at least some bearing on our roles and relationships in life.

And if you do seek to dissolve such distinctions, then much else follows. Concepts of fatherhood must then collapse, as will those of motherhood. The marital relationship changes to be something other than a connection between the distinctly masculine and feminine. Deep changes to personal identity must also follow, as it would become irrational for individuals to identify in a serious way as man or woman.

There is also a lack of consideration in the approach taken by liberals and by the Catholic Reporter to the good of the larger social fabric. All that is held to matter is what an individual seeks to do or become. But individual life can't be atomised in this way. We draw part of our identity from institutions, communities, cultures and traditions and we develop attachments and recognise the inherent good in the natural forms of community we belong to, such as families, ethnies, nations and churches.

Therefore the Catholic Reporter should have considered much more seriously what effect an innovation like female priests might have on the good of the Church itself as an institution.

As it happens there are already churches which have gone down the path of a female priesthood. The Reporter might have considered how these churches, such as the Episcopalians in the U.S., have fared. Are attendances rising or falling? Is there an improved or a worsened stability within these churches? Has orthodoxy on significant matters been maintained?

The problem is that the principles on which liberalism is based don't recognise the good of the larger entities to which individuals belong - what matters instead is individual desire considered alone. So liberals don't take very seriously the kind of questions I asked above. What that sometimes leads to are beliefs that seem "suicidal" or self-annihilating to traditionalists.

Finally, there is a major problem in arguing for a female priesthood on anything like liberal lines, such as the idea of the will of men being authoritative or an unimpeded individual desire to be or to do as we choose being the ordering principle of society.

The problem is that this then undermines the authority of the priesthood, whether male or female. If it is the will of men as expressed in public feeling that has authority, then it is the case that priests ought to listen to and follow what the public thinks rather than the other way round. (A letter writer in today's Herald Sun wrote: "It's time to appoint a young, vibrant Pope ...They need to take their blinkers off and listen to the people on moral issues.")

Similarly if it is unjust that my desire to be or to do what I have a mind to do is impeded, then is it not an injustice if priests use their moral authority to restrict my moral choices?

So arguing for a female priesthood on anything like liberal lines is self-defeating, as it undermines the authority of the priesthood itself.


  1. Mark, have you thought about throwing yourself in with Lefebvre's lot?

  2. Mark, the "National Catholic Reporter" was an influential print publication in the U.S. long before it even had a website. That said, I entirely agree with your critique and will share it on Facebook.

  3. "Deep changes to personal identity must also follow, as it would become irrational for individuals to identify in a serious way as man or woman."

    Funny thing is, whilst feminists indeed claim that sex distinctions are purely biological (and societal programming), they nevertheless seem to base their entire identity on their gender. Perhaps this is why feminist journos seem to so often write stories about the female genitalia - it's the entire basis of their identity and their self-worth.

  4. My studies of Unitarian and Universalist history in the U.S. through a UU seminary included sections on female ministers over the past couple of hundred years. I found it interesting that while the politically correct nature of the course of study was meant to show that women were at least as good as men in the position, there was actually an emphasis on how their ministries were different.

    So far seminary has deepened my faith and caused me to develop a serious dislike of Unitarians. I think I'm in trouble.

  5. ThingY,

    No, but there's a traditional rite mass about an hour away from where I live. When my daughter loses her daytime sleep I intend to ferry us across perhaps once a month.


    Thanks for the information. There used to be a Catholic newspaper here too, though I haven't seen it around for a while. Thanks too for sharing the post.


    That's a really interesting insight.

    If I understand correctly, your point is that feminists do in fact assume that our sex is a merely biological or anatomical fact, rather than an expression of an essence.

    Nonetheless feminists do invest heavily in their identity as women as opposed to a male identity.

    Therefore, the anatomical differences take on a significance that they wouldn't have for traditionalists; which would explain why a play like The Vagina Monologues would appeal so much to feminist sensibilities.

  6. The only response necessary is that photo of the fat Canadian priests reading from the Vagina Monologues.

  7. Feh is referring to this.

    But the clincher would have to be this - which is not a spoof but a video produced by an organisation promoting women priests.

  8. I think NCR's main error is its misunderstanding of how God acts through creatures. Firstly, it is no limitation to God's power that He confects the Blessed Sacrament only through male ministers.

    Recall that God is the primary cause of every being and event, but he usually acts via intermediaries. When God acts without secondary causes, we say a miracle has happened. The distinguishing then, is whether or not God acts through a creature's natural powers. God can cause fire to heat a pot of water--this is Him acting through the fire's own nature (which He also created) and so is an ordinary instance of the primary cause (God) acting through a secondary cause (fire). God could also cause the pot of water on the fire to cool; this would be a miracle, whereby God circumvents the fire's nature and asserts His own causal power directly. What God cannot do--because it is logically incoherent--is cause the fire to cool the pot of water. This is no limitation of God's power; it is only a limitation of the nature of fire.

    In the sacraments, God acts through signs. That is, a symbol bears a certain meaning, and God makes than meaning true. Although they are events in the supernatural order, they bear this crucial resemblance to ordinary secondary causes--that God acts through the nature of a creature, rather than circumventing it. God can certainly bestow grace absent visible signs, but this would not be a sacrament. Similarly, if a woman pretending to be a priest pretends to consecrate bread and wine, God can certainly still perform the miracle of transubstantiation, but in this case He would be circumventing the inappropriate symbolism and acting directly. He has given us no assurance that He will do this, and it is wicked presumption to demand He disregard the sacramental structures of His Church to accommodate our fetish for autonomy.

    Why would priestesses wreck the sacramental symbolism? Here Mark's writings reveal the key. Masculinity and femininity are not only a matter of anatomy; they are distinct and complementary spiritual essences. The role of mother and father are likewise distinct. Both naturally carry with them a distinct symbolic weight. Both are images of God's relationship to the world, but of different aspects of it. Thus, it is for a reason that the first person of the Trinity is called "the Father" rather than "the Mother". The role of father carries the appropriate symbolism of transcendence. There is a reason we call priests "father"; it is meant to be understood as a paternal role, rather than just a job that anybody with the right skills can do. Saying it's unfair that women can't be priests is the same as saying it's unfair that they can't be fathers. What makes fatherhood more than "a job" is the way it refers to and validates its holder's masculine essence. It's not just what you do; it's what you are. The priesthood is supposed to be the same thing. Above all, he is a symbol, and his masculinity is part of the symbolism.

  9. Bonald, that's very good - and clearly explained. Thank you.