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