If Female Ordination is the Answer What’s the Question?

The female ordination faction is killing me. I wrote the last article to clarify the one before it but I think I made it worse. I was trying to say that Catholic women are free to make a plan for community reform without asking for ordination. When I said the bit about ‘resistance from the Church’ I was referring to the influence of fatherhood initiatives on family courts in the United States. I don’t know if this is the Knights of Columbus or Roland Warren’s National Fatherhood Initiative, but in any case, it’s a serious matter because custody is being awarded to abusers and this is resulting in the deaths of children. (The Knights of Columbus is a Catholic organization. Warren’s Initiative is not.)

On the other hand, I meant it when I said the Church speaks with a masculine voice. Maybe I’m thinking about this in the wrong way, but I don’t know why women in the Church can’t organize in their own way rather than fight for position in a male hierarchy. It seems to me their happiness might just be a matter of achieving a little distance. But then I’m not a member of the Church so maybe I’m being too theoretical about this.

I’ve offered solutions in the past but I don’t consider them to be as important as the questions that I’m trying to answer. If someone else has better solutions, that’s fine with me. When I suggested some time ago that people should be organized into smaller political units and that they should own property in common I was trying to answer questions about community cohesiveness and reliable representation. I assumed that real solutions would have to start in communities that solve their own problems. So when I discovered in The Joy of the Gospel that the Church has developed a whole theology around the discovery and encouragement of new cultural manifestations I knew right away that the Church depends on lay people, rather than religious leaders, to create culture. I don’t recognize a similar understanding behind female ordination.

I’d appreciate a discussion from Catholics about what they hope to accomplish by this strategy.

Female Ordination as Strategy

I think I’d better explain my position on female ordination. First, I know there are Christian Churches that ordain women. At this time, the most I can say about them is that they seem to represent a fundamental change in thinking. But for the most part, the world’s religions speak with a masculine voice. This might sound strange coming from me since I obviously have sympathy for what Pope Francis is trying to do, but I’ve come to think of churches in general as representing the other gender. At the same time, I realize that nothing is that black and white. I know women who are devoted to their church. Many of them would probably tell me they consider their church to be their own. I assume this is why female ordination makes sense to some women as a strategy. They feel the church belongs to them as much as it does to their pastor. Unfortunately, the problem extends beyond any particular church. For this reason among others, I don’t think female ordination makes sense as a strategy.

Maybe sometime in the distant future our society will decide to give up the social structure that goes along with a male priesthood, but I doubt it. Our culture is hierarchical. Religion reinforces this hierarchical structure and has done so for thousands of years. However, these assumptions are not confined to religious believers.

It’s no coincidence that our communities work the way they do. The general organization was carefully constructed and is supported by foundational myths that imply there is something vaguely suspicious or even wicked about the female gender. I think it’s easy to forget in the context of one’s own church that the world is saturated with these assumptions. In church we deal with the fathers or brothers or husbands, of our friends, so it’s easy to assume that any misogynistic attitudes are specific to a few misguided individuals or to one particular religion. However, I’ve found that there are countless men—complete strangers to me—who are more than willing to remind me of the way things are. Who knows, maybe the Church will surprise me and decide to ordain women after all, but I think it would have to completely change its nature to do so. On the other hand, I’ve come to suspect that women already play a big part in the Church. Conservative Catholic men certainly think they do, judging from recent comments.

The thing that is most important about the female ordination issue in my view is its effect on the conversation. My concern has to do with the presentation of this issue as an ultimatum. There are so many things to talk about that I can’t even figure out what to talk about next, and yet suddenly we have this agenda, which is not even held by all women, and which threatens to turn the conversation into a confrontation.

Here’s my take on the conversation. At this time we’re talking to a specific person—Pope Francis. We don’t know yet what his vision is and so we’re exploring the possibilities—given reality as we know it. Previously I’ve written confrontational things in this blog about Christianity, but now that we are speaking to an actual person that no longer seems appropriate. For one thing, that style has never been my understanding of a conversation. I’m not saying that we have to accept everything that the Church tells us. Personally I’ve had to come to terms with the story about the ACLU’s law suit, but I’m willing to do so, for now, because there is the hope that the Church can address our political and economic problems, and also because I have questions that I can’t get answered if I ban myself from the conversation.

However there are other approaches to this conversation that make sense to me. I’m still in the process of working them out and I’m aware that anything I say will need the agreement of a large number of women before they take on any real meaning, but I’ll explain my current direction.

In my opinion, an effective solution to society’s problems would require women to organize independently of the Church—but hopefully with the support of the Church—to address specific issues in the community. I’m not talking about leaving the Church or even taking the Church less seriously, which I’m sure would be offensive even to supporters of female ordination. I’m talking about developing a plan of action in the real world. What we need to be asking ourselves is whether the Church can help us with our goals once we decide what they are. Then the next question would have to do with how we might go about deciding on our goals.

In order for women to create a structure that would allow them to agree on goals, they would have to address the fact that they rarely agree with one another. Generally, women’s first loyalties are to their families, religion, children, political party, their immediate social circle, and perhaps their sports team. This is a priceless tendency when it comes to community building, but I think there is one specific kind of loyalty that has the potential to correct the world’s social ills, and that is loyalty to the maternal family. If you agree with me on this, this is a principle that we can build on. On the other hand, female relationships in the wider community, while they have their good points, represent a more shaky foundation for community building since there is more potential for rivalry and disagreement.

Assuming we’re able to agree on this principle, next we would need to discover the factors that work against strong maternal bonds. Only then, if we find that our attempts to remedy these factors meet resistance from the Church, would we be justified in reconsidering our participation in the conversation.

I’ll list two of these factors: The tendency of family courts to take children from their mothers in the case of divorce; and the policy of turning single girls who become pregnant into pariahs, causing them to lose social support and often their children. Throughout history these policies have been given teeth by the legal system. It was one of the factors that led to the incarceration of so many young women in Ireland’s Magdalene laundries. However, this phenomenon isn’t unique to the Catholic Church. The Poor Laws that were in effect in England during the reign of Queen Victoria led to the phenomenon of ‘baby farming’.

For more than a hundred years, single women in England who became pregnant were systematically deprived of the support of their families. This situation was assured by the fact that a girl’s family members would share in her punishment unless they disowned her. Employment opportunities for single mothers were limited, pay was low, and there was no one to care for a new baby while its mother worked except for this diabolical institution of the baby farm. In this system, single mothers paid other people to house and feed their babies, not realizing that the children would be systematically starved while providing the baby farmer with a tidy sum. It’s damning enough that Victoria and her consort, Albert, the real power behind the throne, failed to address this travesty for so long, but the poor laws actually went into effect before Victoria became queen. It’s been argued that the responsible party was the Methodist, John Wesley. If there is any validity behind my theory of the central importance to society of the maternal bond, we would have to conclude that these kinds of policies destroy the very thing they claim to protect—the community.

That said, we seem to be back where we started, trying to convince our all-powerful leaders to change their policies. Not necessarily. The important thing to begin with would be our ability to interpret policies in terms of the danger they pose to our community, and to be able to agree among ourselves on this interpretation. Any action we take should be done with the purpose of eliminating threats to the good of the community. (There are ways to do this that don’t involve major policy changes, non-violent ways, but we can talk about this later.) Anyway, this implies that we have to be able to define what the good of the community is. I’ve argued here that the maternal bond should take precedence over legalistic or ideological priorities—in other words, over appearances.

If You Want Out of the Conversation You’ll Need a Better Excuse

If the New York Times is correct the Left has already reached a verdict on the conversation. Here I still am trying to sort out what to talk about next, a difficult thing to do when there are so many possibilities, and it’s taken these worthies about two years to decide that this conversation is not worth having! I guess I forgot for a moment that the Left is permanently locked with the Right in The-Most-Banal-Party-contest.

I assume the female ordination thing is just an excuse. After all, it’s not as if the Left has any intention of inviting women into its own priesthood. The sad truth is that the leading lights of both parties stopped thinking a long time ago. Worse, they apparently assume the rest of us have stopped thinking too. Maybe the Left is afraid that If they were to actually engage in dialogue everyone would find out they haven’t anything to say.

The excuse of female ordination is doubly ridiculous in my view because it ignores the real kicker in the conversation with the Church—the secretive policy of Catholic hospitals regarding their pregnant patients. In my opinion this will eventually have to be dealt with but it hasn’t changed my mind about the importance of the Christian viewpoint to the conversation.

While I’m on the subject of politics it seems that the Right would also like to end the conversation. If certain people have their way there will be war with Russia. There is no excuse for Americans to be contemplating such a thing. For that matter, there was no excuse for the Cold War. It was concocted from the recommendations of George Kennan by a hysterical press and the ‘thinkers’ of RAND Corporation, whose enormous brains worked their magic at the behest of the Air Force. Unfortunately Kennan tried but never succeeded in living down his famous ‘X Article’ in which he said ominous things about the Soviet Union. However, when he talked about containment he thought he was recommending the political containment of a political threat, not some ‘doctrine’ of perpetual military containment. More importantly, he thought containment should apply to the Americans as well.

Kennan expressed concern about the ascendance in the United States of an ‘idealistic and pretentious lack of genuine foreign policy’ that focused on the American Dream—in other words, on appearances—and he thought the U.S. must put its own house in order first.

Kennan argued that the Soviets were part of an historical tradition of the Third Rome, which although it is a rival religion, is still Byzantine. On the other hand, he could already see similar totalitarian tendencies at work in the United States. The Americans had taken up a form of existence that does not recognize limits, a result of unconditional acceptance of the logic of the marketplace, and this had led to the loss of a sense of what should not be done.

So instead of a political containment lasting for 10-15 years the doctrine was transformed into an ‘indestructible myth’:

“There emerged one of those great forbidding apparitions to the credence in which mass opinion is so easily swayed: a monster devoid of all humanity and of all rational motive, at once the embodiment and the caricature of evil, devoid of internal conflicts and problems of its own, intent only on bringing senseless destruction to the lives and hopes of others.”

The symptoms of our decay go beyond politics. They include ‘overpopulation, urbanization, hyper-intensity of communication, and destruction of the environment’. However, for Kennan the nuclear arms race was the clearest indication of spiritual decline. It was a ‘spiritual and philosophical derangement of the last order’, a madness, a death wish, a lack of faith, ‘wrong in the good old-fashioned meaning of the word.((Rossbach, Stefan, GNOSTIC WARS: The Cold War in the Context of a History of Western Spirituality, Edinburgh University Press, 1999))

I can only imagine what he would say about America’s current dealings with the Russians. We need a change of direction. We need to talk.

Kate Kelly and the Church

One reason I’m having such a hard time talking about Kate Kelly’s Ordain Women movement is that she’s apparently forgotten who the Mormons are.

Isn’t this the same church that ranks women lower in authority than their own sons?

Isn’t this the church that regularly asks women to give the ‘It’s-okay-that-my-husband-is-the-boss’ speech?   The speaker starts out by confessing that she once objected to her husband’s authority over her, but now after a long personal struggle, she’s fine with it. I’ve seen this done several times in two different wards.

Isn’t this the church in which the bishopric of a ward can bar its women from speaking or praying in public?

Isn’t this the church where men can ask the bishop to make their wives stop using birth control?

Isn’t this the church where Relief Society lessons warn women that anger and depression are personal failings that will be passed on to their daughters?

Kelly’s petition to church leadership implies that the church’s meaning and essence would continue if women were ordained, but it seems to me the subservience of women in the church is its meaning and essence.   Her petition also assumes that people who benefit from such a system would consent to change it.  This is a type of denial about the nature of the system.

But I suppose denial is inevitable if you believe this system is the result of revelation from God. Unfortunately, Mormonism’s social structure is based on the ideas of Plato.   Maybe Kelly can get the general authorities to channel Plato, but I think he’s caused enough trouble already.