Beginning to Question: Thoughts on Catholic Priesthood

Image courtesy of artur84 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of artur84 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

“Why can’t women be priests?” my friend asked, sitting across from me at a table in the food court. We were at the mall, a few blocks away from the Catholic school she attended, which I had just recently left. I always assumed she followed Catholicism to a T like so many people I knew. Then again, this friend was very different from most of those people. She had some quirks I hadn’t encountered in anyone before. She considered herself emo, joked about alcohol, and one of her closest friends was genderqueer.

I knew the standard Catholic answer. “It’s because Jesus didn’t make any female priests when he started the priesthood, so the church can’t.” I explained, “They don’t know if He would approve.”

“That’s dumb. Of course there were no female priests back then.” My friend flicked her jet black hair behind her shoulders. “No one would listen to a woman in Jesus’ time. Now though…it doesn’t make sense to not allow women to do it. It’s not like the job requires you to pee standing up.”

I understood her thinking. There really was no reason I could think of for women to be banned from priesthood. The job requires devout religiosity, good people skills and studiousness–all traits plenty of women had. I had never questioned it before, though. This was new to me:  the idea that some aspect of my religion could be examined for validity. With it came the idea that religion had to stand up to the test of reason. It literally hadn’t occurred to me before that day. I was in high school, and had taken Catholicism without question for my entire life. That friend and I are no longer in contact with each other, but I’ll never forget that conversation.

If the idea had come from anyone else, it probably wouldn’t have had as much impact. I had plenty of acquaintances who openly questioned Catholicism, but didn’t practice it, and didn’t seem to have ever practiced it consistently. I didn’t trust them to make intelligent observations about something they hadn’t experienced. But to hear another Catholic who was both a friend a very cool peer criticize religion suddenly made criticizing it seem OK. It opened me up to the idea that I didn’t need to reject reason to be Catholic, and that I didn’t need to accept everything the church taught to keep my faith. I could love Jesus and support the idea of female priests. I could pray for God to reveal the need for this to church leaders.

During my last few years of Catholicism, the priesthood was probably the first thing I began to question. I didn’t just wonder why women were banned from that position. I also wondered why priests were forbidden from marrying (later, when I learned what sex was, I saw the connection and wondered why sex, even in marriage, was off limits to priests). I had met married Protestant ministers, and I had friends whose father was a Ukrainian Catholic priest. (They don’t follow the same rules as Roman Catholics). Those religious leaders in similar roles did just fine with wives. In fact, it could be argued that they do the job better.

Priests are often called upon to advise couples. They meet with them prior to marriage to help them prepare for the wedding ceremony and their future together. Priests will also counsel married couples. It was this second duty that irked me the most, and I began to raise a new question: why should married people accept relationship advice from someone whose job title forbids him from experiencing romantic relationships? Maybe that part of the job description should be changed.

Seriously, who do you go to for dating advice? Your friend who has never dated and has zero interest in dating, or your other friend who’s dated six people and finally settled into a solid, long term relationship? Given that choice, I’m definitely going to the second friend. When I asked my parents how a priest was supposed to give sound dating advice, they said, “Well, maybe he’s had past relationships before becoming a priest. He can also draw from his experience having been raised by a married couple. Priests are very well versed in religion, so they can help with matters of faith.”

I accepted her answer, realizing I wouldn’t get anywhere with this line of questioning. Privately, I wondered, what about non matters of faith? If a couple is arguing frequently because all the household chores have been falling to one person, or because sex sucks due to both people’s inexperience, I sincerely hope the couple chooses to seek council from someone with actual relationship experience. If the situation is bad enough, a professional councilor should be sought out. Not a priest. I’m not saying that all priests attempt to council couples in this way, but I honestly think that counseling married couples shouldn’t be in their job description at all, unless they are allowed to get married themselves. I’ve never been married, so I wouldn’t dare try to council a married couple. Romantic relationships are very delicate, and marriage is challenging. I don’t know what that’s like. Who am I to start insisting that I have all the answers to their problems?

Eventually, this train of thought led me to question other things. It set a new standard for religion in my mind–the same standard I held in other areas of my life. Why do something for no reason? Why make something, even religion, the focal point of your life it it doesn’t make any sense and its rules are arbitrary?

I don’t know if that friend of mine wound up staying Catholic, but I appreciate her honesty. I appreciate all peers who are willing to say what they think. Religion is a very serious thing. Sure, respect it–but don’t be afraid to actually think about it. Respecting something can also mean taking it seriously enough to think critically about it. There’s no shame in that. Additionally, there’s no shame in not knowing what you believe. I’ve been there.

As usual, feel free to comment! All opinions are welcome. Just be respectful and think things through before posting.

Happy thinking!

-Nancy

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13 thoughts on “Beginning to Question: Thoughts on Catholic Priesthood

  1. The duty of the priest is sacramental.

    So during the Mass, the priest stands in for Jesus in the reenactment of the Last Supper.

    I suppose a woman priest would be like Jessica Alba playing King Lear.

    It would just be weird.

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    • That’s an interesting choice for a comparison. Before I address your point, I really appreciate your comment. I’m an English major, and I’m pretty familiar with King Lear, as well as with theater in Shakespeare’s time.

      Last semester, I took a course on Marlowe, a playwright who wrote around Shakespeare’s time, just slightly earlier. The professor had my class skype with some actors from Renaissance theater. One of them was a woman. In Shakespeare’s time, female characters were always played by men. That’s just how it was done. Furthermore, the other actor we skyped with was African American. He explained that one of his favorite things about Renaissance theater is that he can get to play any character because the characters don’t fit the contemporary stereotypes we typically channel minority actors into. He can play literally anyone because there are no roles into which he can be typecast. If he wants to, he can try out for the part of King Lear, despite being black–and he might get it. While that’s pretty tangential to the point you’re making, essentially what I’m saying is that Renaissance theater productions have moved past the conventions of Renaissance theater, like not permitting women to perform even to play female characters. They’ve realized that with the exception of trying to mirror theatrical performances of the times for historical recreation purposes, there’s no reason to ban a woman from playing Goneril or Cordelia. With that being said, I see the point you’re making.

      Still, I’ve heard it argued, even by some Catholics, that God doesn’t necessarily have to be male. He’s believed to exist in a non-corporeal form, so he doesn’t necessarily have to have one set of genitals–or any for that matter. The sexes exist as part of reproduction, but God isn’t really recorded as having that, and really, what need would He have for it? We just assign male pronouns to him because that’s what’s easiest to conceptualize. It’s also what people used to do when they wanted to be gender neutral.

      Getting to Jesus, assuming he was real, he would have to be put down into a gender because he is believed to have taken human form. At least while on earth, he would have had genitals. It could be argued that he just so happened to be plopped into a male body. I’m still not convinced that even in the context of Catholicism, the gender of priests has any significance that would greatly affect the religion’s core beliefs if women were allowed to become them. Yes, they stand in for Jesus during Mass, but as I just argued, Jesus doesn’t have to be male. He could have taught, performed miracles, fasted, prayed, been tortured, and died as a woman. Heck, he could have even been a hermaphrodite. The only factor I can think of that might have made his being female less likely would be a sexist society that would completely ignore him if he were female. Society is a lot less sexist now.

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      • Nancy,

        How about Tom Cruise playing Martin Luther King?

        Or Brad Pitt and Matt Damon playing the leads in, “The Tuskegee Airmen?”

        Or Bette Midler playing Oprah?

        Can you imagine the outrage?

        Also the comparison between a man playing the role of Jesus and Renaissance Shakespearean actors all being men is really a comparison of apples and sea weed.

        I believe modern feminism and white guilt have created a formidable bias in your viewpoint.

        Like

      • Perhaps they have. We all have our biases. I’m curious though, what are your thoughts on the gender of God? Jesus is one of the three persons, so he is God, yet also an individual. He may or may not have a definitive gender, but God the father and the holy spirit don’t seem in my opinion to need to be male for the stories that make the religion to hold together cohesively.

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      • Just a question…have you really heard it argued by *Catholics* that god might not be male? Was that just a theory batted around by lay people, or did the clergy discuss it? Because that’s amazingly open-minded for Catholics and I’ve never heard them speak of such radical things around here.

        PS I don’t believe women will ever achieve equality in the catholic church. It’s not feminine bias, it’s misogyny.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I remember someone (a lay person but in a respectable position) who was Catholic–I think it was a CCD teacher–saying that, and making a pretty solid argument for the idea that God does not necessarily have to have a gender. It wasn’t worded “God could be a woman,” but more along the lines of “God’s not human, so he doesn’t have a body and therefore doesn’t have to have a gender.”

        I also remember my mother saying something to that effect. (Though I wonder if she happened to have read something that suggested it and would disagree now).

        I don’t recall any clergy ever saying that in front of me, and I see why that it was suggested by a Catholic at all is so surprising. It does appear to at the very least conflict with the idea of “God the father,” which is certainly a gender-specific name and role. The argument basically says that humans describe God in terms that we know, and we know gender, so humans randomly assigned God a gender even though he doesn’t have to have one. At the time, I thought it made a lot of sense, but I still continued to picture God as male.

        And yes, about the mysogyny…I like to imagine otherwise, but you may be right. It’s everywhere in Christianity, and the rigidity of tradition in the Catholic church helps maintain it in areas where other denominations have at least made some progress.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Ah yes, CCD. While I haven’t thought of CCD in a long time, you mentioning the word brings back a lot of memories. I spent countless hours there. I think I had 8 hours a week of lectures and then I had to do 100 hours of catholic charity work a quarter, all while going to high school and holding down a job. I think currently, CCD requires a lot less of younger people (around here I think they only do 1 hour of lectures per week and no charity work). I like that you at least were able to hear some more progressive catholics talk about interesting ideas…in my time suggesting god might not be a man would have gotten a CCD teacher fired.

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      • You’re exactly right about what CCD is like today. That was my experience. If anything we didn’t do enough. The CCD instruction I had was disappointing to me (at the time) to say the least. It taught very little doctrine, and mostly consisted of fluff material, so students left it knowing hardly any more about their faith than when they entered. It was, as you said, once per week for about an hour. We had a very small service requirement at the end of 8th grade, but that was it for that. I learned all my doctrine at home, then sat bored for an hour a week in first through eight grade.

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      • CCD was the same for me…we learned mostly fluff and maybe a little bit of doctrine for 8 hours…it was absolutely, torturously boring. For us CCD went all the way through my senior year in high school.

        I learned most of my doctrine at home, and the creepier doctrines I learned on my own as an adult doing my own studies.

        The job I mentioned? It was at the local convent! So I was steeped in catholicism everywhere I went. Thank god I had public school to save me.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. My catholic understanding of why priests can’t marry is because their devotion must be to god and god alone…their loyalty cannot be split between family and god. Mark 3:24: If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.

    Liked by 1 person

    • To my knowledge, that is theologically correct. It makes me wonder, though, why that argument isn’t ever applied to lay people. I mean, it could be argued that marriage is a bad thing in general because it splits your loyalty. Certainly lay people are also expected to put God first.

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      • The lay people are supposed to breed like rabbits to keep the catholic population up…chastity for *everyone* wouldn’t work out well for the church.

        Liked by 1 person

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