Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Catholic Church: Agents of Misogyny?

The whole sex/gender debate is certainly getting more and more convoluted as the “trans” issue is causing ructions between conservatives and feminists alike. The Catholic Church has repeatedly come under fire for what is perceived to be a misogynist attitude. They say that, in the Catholic Church, men can be anything from family man to bishop, cardinal, and Pope. Women, on the other hand, they say, can only be wives and mothers, or consecrated virgins.

It’s a fair problem. In History, the weight of political authority and power that the Church has provided has been from the hierarchy of ordained men, resting ultimately with the Papacy. It is true to say that female leadership within the Church has not been as visible, nor as valued. There are notable exceptions, in St Hilda of Whitby, St Hildegard of Bingen, St Theresa of Avila, St Catharine of Siena, but these are notable precisely because they were female spiritual leaders of some political importance.

In this sense the Catholic Church could be accused of misogyny because it has allowed itself to make the equation that holy orders mean political power and authority. That may be because it has taken into itself a patriarchal culture and enshrined that patriarchy within its traditions. These will be traditions of men, not of God.

The issue of equality is a tricky issue because people get the wrong idea of what equality means. Equality, properly speaking, is a political social quality whereby everyone is under the same law equally, receives the same rights equally, and can perform the same roles in society equally. Anyone who commits murder must expect to be punished with the same sentence proportionate with the crime regardless of any personal characteristics. Anyone is entitled to apply for any job and be judged for suitability based on their merit, not on whether they make up the “right quota”. Equality does not mean that one person is the same as another. It is not an ontological equality. In that sense, men and women are not equal in the same way that black and white are not equal, and that two is not equal to one.

Only a man can be a husband and a father: only a woman can be a wife and a mother. Note how these qualities are relational. A man can only be a husband if there is a woman who is his wife. A woman can only be a mother if she has a child. It is the existence of others by which husbands and wives, fathers and mothers spring into existence. The same is true for the male priesthood: a priest is male because a priest is an Ikon of Christ the High Priest. None of these identities is an agent identity: they do not arise because of doing something, or fulfilling a role.

It is true that the Church should uphold the wife and mother as the pinnacle of femininity, just as it should uphold the husband and father as the pinnacle of masculinity. However, while the priesthood is male, not every man is called to the priesthood. This means that the priesthood cannot be part of the pinnacle of masculinity. Not every woman is called to be a nun: this means that the consecrated life cannot be the pinnacle of femininity. While Bishops do have the fullness of orders and the spiritual authority that comes from such a grave responsibility it does not mean a political authority. To be a spouse, or a parent is open to everyone as a relationship, and only accidents of circumstance affect that, not the vocational mandate of the Divine!

The troublesome fifth chapter of St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians does speak of the nature of relationship between husband and wife which is difficult to communicate in this present age of ending the oppression of women. The wife is to submit herself to her husband as the Church submits itself to Christ. The husband is to love his wife as Christ loves the Church. How is this submission to take place?

This is not a master-slave submission: how can it be? Love is not like that. Such submission must be voluntary and based on devotion and faithfulness. Likewise, in the Church, only the Bishop and Priest have the spiritual authority to preach and lead worship in the Mass – the central expression of the priesthood of Christ. Clearly, in a community of nuns, there are no men to lead the offices, so clearly public prayer need not be restricted to the leadership of men.

Do Readers or Altar Servers have an ontological restriction to masculinity? These seem to be roles within the Church: functions which need to happen. If we regard role as being a defining characteristic, then are we in danger, by extension, of becoming Modalist? There is that dreadful heresy in liberal Protestantism whereby one is baptised in the “name” of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. That is the Modalist heresy as it reduces the hypostases of the Trinity to roles that God plays, rather than consubstantial persons. This is not a valid Baptism and anyone baptised under that formula MUST be baptised properly using the formula that Our Lord commanded.

Many cry out against feminism because of the destructive influence that it has had on the Christian Society. Really, the Christian should not worry about “ism”s at all, but seek to bring the goodness of God into Society respecting everyone as they are, yet not respecting their persons when it comes to the generosity of one’s spirit.

The trouble is that if we say that each sex has a specific role to play in society, then we end up with gender stereotyping and that is dangerous because this can and does infringe on the equality of rights of human beings.
Girls apparently are to wear pink, yet in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it was the boys who wore pink! Girls are supposed to like princesses and dolls; boys are supposed to like tractors, fire engines, and trains. Why can’t a little boy play with dolls? Is it because he is expected to be the breadwinner, and thus spend his time looking for good practical jobs rather than learn to look after children? Wouldn’t playing with dolls actually encourage little boys to grow up with the idea of being a good father to his own children, learning to recognise their immediate needs rather than just relegate them to the responsibility of their mother and only seeing them in the evenings and weekends? How many children would benefit from knowing both their parents for who they are rather than what they do?

I notice that shoes marked as being for girls are completely impractical when trying to help a little toddler to take her first steps outside. This tells me that there are expectations on little girls to look feminine from the start. Why should a girl look feminine? So they can attract a nice man who will take care of them while they are at home doing the dishes? Or should a girl look feminine so as to rejoice in God’s creation of her as a woman? If so, then cannot a woman rejoice by wearing something practical and comfortable rather than conform to a gender stereotype which is largely artificial in its conception?

The Bible is very clear about men dressing up as women and vice versa. Yet, the issue is deeper than that. Deuteronomy xxii.5 says “The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman's garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the LORD thy God.” It is important to God that the man and the woman He created are seen to be distinct. A man should not pretend to be a woman, and vice versa. My confrere Fr Anthony Chadwick has a fine head of long hair, but this doesn’t make him attempt to be feminine. If a man is trying to live as a woman, or vice versa, God is telling us clearly that something is wrong. Again this pertains to the actual being a man or a woman. A woman may be the only sex to give birth, but a man is the only sex to provide the seed that will generate the baby. Yet a virgin man remains a man nonetheless, a virgin woman a woman nonetheless. The act does not define them.

It is the duty of the Church to bring the blessing of God to all human beings without discrimination. It is the duty of the Church to call all human beings to repentance and reconciliation with the Divine Master without discrimination. The Church stands the same in every age, the whims of society change. Indeed, the majority of gender stereotypes are products of the age. The housewife was unheard of until the nineteenth century when it became a sign of one’s affluence that the “little woman” could stay at home while the “man of the house” spent his days working hard to earn a decent crust. These days are now gone, and refreshingly so! The Catholic Church should not be trying to drag people back to the culture of the 1950s but rather seek to bring people to the unchanging nature of the Catholic Faith. Sometimes, I wonder just what we’re trying to continue! If we are trying to continue a particular form of social acceptability, then the Lord will criticise us as He sits and eats with the Tax Collectors and Prostitutes. I notice that some Continuing Anglicans are very good at telling ECUSA that it should not be changing with the whims of modern society, when they themselves are holding to a version of society that isn’t much older!

History shows that the minor orders in the Church were restricted to men, but they were not ordained in the same manner. They received katastasis – an appointment or admission to the order – not cheirotonia– the laying on of hands. This works well in a seminary, or in a monastic order where there is no engagement with the secular life. At the Church on the Coal-face, the Parish level, it would certainly be good for Readers and Altar Servers to be men who are striving to work out their vocation in the ordained ministry. But Parishes are not filled with such men.

Is it right that a Priest saying Mass in front of a congregation of women should serve himself if there are no male servers available? Are women utterly forbidden from the sanctuary, save only to arrange the flowers outside Mass?

If Readers and Altar Servers are to be restricted to the male sex, then it needs to be shown clearly that these are not roles but ikons, just as the Bishop and Priest are Ikons of Christ the High Priest, and the Deacon an Ikon of Christ the servant of His disciples. If they cannot be shown to be such, then perhaps the argument for such a restriction is more due to a point of human law, rather than Divine Mandate. Personally, I have grave doubts that Readers and Altar Servers are ikons – their very titles point to specific roles, rather than an indelible character.

If the Catholic Church is to escape the constant charge of misogyny, then it must address the issues that prohibit both sexes from fulfilling roles, the issues that prevent both sexes from finding the peculiar joy with which God has created them, and the issues that come from looking back to a “Golden society” which no longer exists The CofE has female Readers, but it also has female ministers acting in the place where priests once stood. The Roman Church has female Altar Servers, but it also has female Eucharistic Ministers which does go against the spirit of Canon 18 of the Council of Nicaea, and also violates the spirit of the priesthood as the distributor of the Sacrament. 

Therefore, to admit female Readers and Altar Servers, may indeed be “the thin end of the wedge” but, if we are truly intelligent to the Catholic Faith, there may be ways of making this a possibility without the rest of the camel coming into the tent. It is certainly worth considering carefully, and we do owe it to the good of both sexes and the integrity of the Church’s mission to the whole human race to do so.

1 comment:

Fr Anthony said...

Many thanks for the comment on my hair. A few days ago, my sister asked me why, whether it was a symbol of revolt. I responded that it was just me being me. It is true that I find the slavish following of fashions abhorrent and I would identify with past ages, something like 200 years ago, better than our ultra-rational and mechanical era. Things go round and come round. Long hair means different things to the men who wear it. See There are many fine reflections there from men of many different cultural references, but none pretending to be a woman.