Double Standards and Inadequate Explanations

Originally written on 7/12/06.

I’ve been thinking about women’s ordination recently. I don’t feel especially bothered by the fact that the Catholic Church doesn’t ordain women. It’s never bothered me. Even when Episcopal Father Fred told me during my foray with the Episcopalians that I could be an Episcopal priest if I wanted to, I didn’t feel particularly moved. I’ve never felt the desire to be a priest. I don’t even like singing in the choir. I like singing–just not in the choir, when people expect you to be there.

Of the Issues I’ve had with Catholicism, women’s ordination has not been one. I know it’s a biggie for a lot of Catholic women and women who have left the Church. I’m not sure why it doesn’t bother me. I’m happy for the Episcopalians; I’m glad they just got their female presiding bishop. I’m glad they ordained the gay bishop. I don’t just feel “meh” about those; I’m actually glad!

Why do I have this double standard?

Greg and Jennifer of the Rosary Army podcast have been talking about women’s ordination recently, or more broadly, the authority of the Magisterium. Apparently, Greg said something about women’s ordination in another podcast, and it got him some flak on some message boards. In their Rosary Army discussions about this debacle, Greg and Jennifer talked for a few minutes about ordination and why it’s not oppressive to women. They said, “The priesthood isn’t about power. It’s not about men having power over women. If anything, the priesthood is a sacrifice.”

I find this argument inadequate in defending an all-male priesthood. First, the power thing. Even if the priesthood isn’t “about” power, it certainly comes with power. The priest is the leader of the parish; the bishop is the leader of the diocese; the pope is the leader of the Church. These are all men, and while it can be argued that they are doing God’s work and God is, therefore, really the one in charge… it’s still these men who make the rules. Let’s even remove religious teachings from the equation. Priests decide what times Mass will be held and who gets to serve at the altar and what groups get to meet in the parish hall and which music the choir will sing and who can or cannot get married in the parish and whether baptisms will be once a year or once a week–and countless other leadership things. Maybe the priests collaborate with women on some of these things, but there necessarily must be men in the final decision-making roles. Even if it is the truth that the priesthood is not “about” power–a thesis I can’t argue one way or another–it cannot be argued that the priesthood does not come with power.

Second, the sacrifice thing. Being a priest has its sacrifices, certainly. However, priests want to be priests. Nobody makes them do it. For many priests (the good ones, anyway), it would be a sacrifice if they were not allowed to be priests. The sacrifices that come with being priests are something they want and embrace, something that people who want to be priests want to embrace. It’s not a compelling argument to tell someone, “What you want to have would be a sacrifice for you, and so you are not allowed to have it.”

I don’t know any women who want to be priests and aren’t allowed. Greg and Jennifer said they didn’t understand why a woman would want to be a priest, the implication being that there must be some selfish or power-seeking motive for wanting that. I don’t know if they know any women who want to be priests. In any case, I can’t speak for those women. It would certainly be confusing and difficult, however, if you felt called by God to be a priest–whether you were a man or a woman–and for whatever reason, you weren’t allowed.

Another Catholic Issue that I hear explained in an inadequate way is birth control. The hosts of the Life on Fire podcast, Chris and Tanya, are a young couple who just got married within the last few weeks. The focus of their podcast has been their marriage preparation, and in their last show, they gave the NFP spiel.

They talked about how the Church teaches that sex has a unitive purpose and a procreative purpose, and these must not be separated. Then they talked about how the Pill and other chemical contraceptives are bad, because they increase the woman’s chance for heart disease and cancers (though I believe the cancer-related risks and benefits remain in dispute in scientific communities). That sounds like a good reason to choose not to use those types of contraceptives, but those are not the reasons the Church gives for not using them, and they don’t have to do with the unitive and procreative aspects of sex.

They talked about condoms and how those place a barrier between the spouses. It’s true; there’s a physical barrier between them. Yes, it’s a barrier over the procreative aspect of sex… But Chris and Tanya seemed to imply that the condom put a barrier over the unitive aspect of sex as well, somehow because the condom meant “withholding” fertility from one’s partner. And somehow withholding your fertility means that you aren’t giving yourself fully to your partner, and you’re being selfish.

Then they talked about NFP and how it doesn’t let you fall into any of these traps, and it’s “99.9% effective when practiced properly.”

I have so much trouble with this teaching. How does NFP cause someone to hold their fertility back from their partner any less than condom use does? If it’s truly 99.9% effective, then it’s actually more effective than condom use in preventing pregnancy, and it seems more like using knowledge of your body to outsmart God than just throwing some flimsy piece of rubber into the mix.

But even if condoms were as effective as NFP, I still don’t get the explanation. This was by no means the first time I heard this argument.

What I’m really trying to get at here is that I think people who try to explain Church teaching often shoot themselves in the foot. They try to say, “Oh, no, you’re not supposed to follow these teachings blindly–there are good explanations for these teachings, and I’ll give them to you.” But then the explanations don’t really hold water… and all that’s left is that the Church teaches this, and we’re supposed to follow the teachings of the Church because Jesus instituted the Church, and we’re supposed to do what Jesus tells us. And what that boils down to is… following the Church blindly. Because if you learn everything you can about a teaching and still don’t understand it, they still expect you to follow it. And if you still don’t understand it, you’re still blind.


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