When St. Thomas Aquinas argued that the female sex is an impediment to receiving the Sacrament of Holy Orders, i.e., becoming a priest or deacon, he cited the First Letter of Paul to Timothy, wherein the inspired author wrote that, in the gatherings of the faithful, women should learn in silence and with all submissiveness, never teaching or having authority over men. Aquinas added, “Since it is not possible in the female sex to signify eminence of degree, for a woman is in the state of subjection, it follows that she cannot receive the sacrament of Order.” By and large, you won’t today hear apologists for the all-male priesthood follow Aquinas’s lead when trying to explain Catholic doctrine to a hostile audience. To our ears, his reasoning rings of sexism, sounding exactly like the sort of arguments historically (and still today) used to defend the mistreatment and degradation of women. Nowadays the church’s most common refrain is that it hasn’t the authority to ordain women because Jesus Christ didn’t give it that authority: it’s not the limits of women, but the limits of the ordained men that prevent women serving as priests. This line of reasoning works to maintain the exclusiveness of its priesthood while evading the charge of sexism.
No surprise, critics of the all-male priesthood disagree. President Jimmy Carter, for one. He’s on tour for a new book, A Call To Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power, about the abuse of women around the world. Women today suffer inequality, enslavement, murder, legalized rape, torture, and other atrocities enabled by religious beliefs, practices, and structures of power. In interviews, Carter has included the Roman Catholic teaching on the priesthood among the causes of abuse and mistreatment, saying that it influences people to think of women as inferior to men–the kind of thinking that precipitates abuse.
The National Catholic Register has an article quoting prominent Catholic laywomen responding to President Carter, but their criticism of his statements doesn’t really address the key issue he’s raised. They accuse Carter of misunderstanding Catholicism and God: God didn’t make women inferior and the church doesn’t teach that they are inferior. Maybe Carter doesn’t understand the doctrine of the all-male priesthood, but whether he’s exactly right about the doctrine isn’t the question. The issue is whether he’s right or wrong about the real world consequences of the doctrine and the institution. He could be wrong about the teaching but be right about its influence on thought and behavior. Proving that the priesthood as such is free of sexism doesn’t prove that it in effect contributes nothing to sexism.
And the charge of sexism isn’t going to go away. If the door is closed to women priests, as Pope Francis and pontiffs before him have said, then the all-male priesthood is going to receive more condemnation as society becomes more respectful of women’s equality. Accusing critics of being ignorant of Catholicism won’t do the job. Nor will framing the priesthood as an institution of service instead of power, as Ashley McGuire does. “As Pope Francis continues to remind us,” she says, “it is service to others that is the primary aim of Catholics, not authority or power.” Yeah, okay. So what? Service requires power. An organized ministry such as the priesthood necessitates a complex power structure. Women, being women, are excluded from exercising the power to serve the church in important and consequential ways: administering certain sacraments, celebrating the Mass, preaching from the pulpit, leading a diocese, and defining doctrine, for example. Is such a power structure of no consequence because its aim is service? Would excluding women from running for public office be defensible by saying that public office is really about public service and not authority or power? Obviously not.
If President Carter is correct that the institution of the all-male priesthood contributes to sexism and the abuse of women, then it behooves the church, if not to change its doctrine on the priesthood, at least to acknowledge this unintended effect and work diligently to counter it.