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.