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While the argument for women’s ordination is often presented as a matter of gender equity, it often rests on an attempt at gender deconstruction. Here’s why. Many who bristle at an exclusively male priesthood are among those who have, at least until rather recently, denied that there are any actual gender differences. What we think of as “masculine” and “feminine,” they have said, are those traits that are defined, cultivated and reinforced as such by society. (Remember that whole debate about what would happen if Johnny was given dolls to play with and Mary was given trucks?) Recent science has come down against this notion, particularly with significant physiological studies on brain structure and the role of male and female hormones on human development.
But even if our culture now largely accepts that men are “from Mars” and women are “from Venus,” the prevailing focus remains on how the genders differ, and not why they differ. The Church, especially with John Paul II’s “theology of the body,” is perhaps the most forward thinking interlocutor in the dialogue on the meaning of gender. The richness of Christian anthropology sees a “nuptial” meaning in God’s creation of humankind as male and female. That is, the life-giving complementarity that is written in our bodies witnesses to our deepest call to communion with one another and union with God. From the Catholic perspective, masculine and feminine cannot be seen as a division of labor, but as the mutual fulfillment of one another in a human “whole” that is much greater than the sum of its parts. Gender complementarity testifies to the divine image we bear.
Dissatisfaction with a masculine priesthood arises from other quarters as well. For many, I think the push for women’s ordination has as much to do with clericalism as it does with sexism. The funny thing, though, is just how much lay people seem to view the Church through a “clericalist” lens. Let me explain. I don’t know about you, but I still encounter a lingering sense -- (mostly among lay people!) -- that if you really want to give yourself to living the fullness of Catholic Christian faith, you ought to be knocking on seminary or monastery doors.
The backlash against that notion, though, has often resulted in a blurring of the lay and clerical states. In the past couple of decades, it has not been uncommon for priests to give a high proportion of their time to activities in the Church which were better suited for laity. At the same time, the roles of lay persons gained an increasingly “clericalized” look and feel. Though perhaps well intentioned, some began to suggest that the solution to our current vocations crisis was to open up the ministerial priesthood to everyone without distinction. While it seems logical on the surface, these types of proposals lose sight of distinct vocation identities, and their complementarity. Basically, we have suffered the same loss of perspective with regard to the complementary nature of the lay and clerical states as we have with respect to our understanding of the purpose and meaning of the distinction between masculine and feminine.
The real vocations crisis we have on our hands is one of identity. We simply don’t know who we are as men and women anymore, and are similarly confused about the distinct roles of clergy and laity. In trying to be all things to all people, some of us have come to the mistaken conclusion that all things are for all people. Holiness is a universal call, but we are each called individually and by name. Being called to the same destiny doesn’t mean that we are called in the same way, or down the same path. Equality does not demand equivalency. If it did, we would lose the diversity we claim to treasure.
Our identity is sealed in baptism. Through the waters of the font and by the power of the Holy Spirit, we all share in the “munera” -- or offices -- of Christ Jesus. All of us function as prophet, priest, and king because all of us share in the divine life of Christ. Taken in a broader sense, all Christians stand “in persona Christi.” The differences arise only in how the person of Jesus Christ is expressed in our lives. The ordained priest is configured to Christ as head and shepherd. But Christ is also teacher, healer, light, bread, truth, bridegroom, and so much more than we can even imagine.
I am saddened by women who have chosen to separate themselves from the Church in order to seek ordination. While they may be sincere, in my view, they are also misguided. Those who truly understand the rivers of baptism, know they don’t need to buy a ticket on a riverboat “ordination” cruise. They already have a share in the priesthood of Christ. We belong to a royal priesthood, a people set apart. That mystical reality is an inexhaustible source of inspiration for Christian life and service.
Sure, there have been instances in our history in which the Church has been challenged by prophetic action. But if we look closely at the illicit and invalid ordinations of women in recent news, it is not difficult to conclude that there are no prophets to be found. A prophet does not remove himself from rightful authority, but submits himself and his message to it with a humility that matches his perseverance. A prophet pays the difficult price that often accompanies the word he has been given to speak.
The challenge we face within the Church, however, isn’t figuring out a way to give everyone access to everything. It is fully accepting all God gives for the sake of the Body as a whole. God designed us to be complements -- not copies -- of one another. The feminine voice cannot be heard in baritone or bass, and the richness of lay experience and perspective cannot be faithfully communicated from behind a Roman collar. Women must guard and express what is uniquely feminine, and choose not to reach for what is masculine. Likewise, lay disciples ought to insist on making their unique contribution to the Church and to the world, and choose not to lay claim to what belongs to the ministerial clergy. We cannot afford to lose the complementarity God designed between genders and vocations. For in these differences we most eloquently express the depth of Christian unity and the call to live as communion.
Jaymie Stuart Wolfe is a wife and mother of eight children, and a disciple of the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales. She is an author, speaker, musician and serves as Faith Formation Coordinator at St. Maria Goretti Parish in Lynnfield.