A Modest Proposal

A Place for Women in the Hierarchy

On 1976 the Vatican issued a formal Declaration on the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood. It expounded three main arguments against the ordination of women. One was respect for the ancient tradition of the nuptial mystery, Christ as the Heavenly Bridegroom, the church as the bride. The second was the idea of the "natural sign"; the religious teaching must be based on signs which are readily (naturally) interpretable by all. For example, the church has used the idea of procreation and the union between male and female as a sign for God's intimate and loving relation to his church. A man is an exemplar of masculinity which enables the priest to represent Christ in the mystery of God made man.

The third, and in my opinion the crucial, point made in the document is that the doctrine of the nuptial mystery sums up the way the church has always seen her own identity, and links this identity with the nuptial mystery in the Bible. The church cherishes the continuity with Israel depicted by the prophets: "for God, the Chosen People is seen as his ardently loved spouse." Israel was feminine and the church is feminine, therefore the priest representing Christ has to be masculine. And therefore by their gender, women are precluded from being ordained.

Supporters of ordaining women dismiss the Vatican's reasoning outright. For them, the document exemplifies exactly the inflexible traditionalism that is at issue. How is the church ever going to come up to date and develop her doctrines in the light of modern times if every mythological detail must be adhered to? It tries to justify a patriarchal theology by reference to a patriarchal book, the Bible, and an obsolete patriarchal society, ancient Judaism.

The controversy is hot with prejudice, so it is best to declare one's own. For one, I absolutely agree that the role of women in the church is inadequate. What the most extreme feminist critics say about the actual standing of women is justified. It is a male-dominated institution, and was so even in the heyday of powerful Mother Abbesses. But I should also make clear that I am not in favor of ordaining women.

Feminists have two viable positions on gender. One is to play it down, reduce its importance, and then to see no reason why gender difference should intervene in the decision about the priesthood. The other is to play up the significance of gender. The latter is my own inclination. Absorbing women into the existing religious institutions is seen by some as putting power behind the women's voice for change. But this is a long shot. As an objective it is unimaginative and guaranteed to generate hostility. The main issue is so grave that it requires a radical approach. We would do better to take the nuptial mystery and run with it, not against it.

If we respect a religious institution, we cannot dismiss out of hand its claim to honor its continuity with its own past. The scholars at the Vatican see an element of betrayal in going back on what has been decided by their deceased predecessors. Any community has a certain way of perceiving its own historic identity. Telling its members to forget their common past and make new myths of present reality is the same as telling them to get lost, die off, and disappear.

Ask the critics what is wrong with the sacred marriage idiom, and they reply, nothing in itself, if it means the union of the soul with God, but everything if it is used to justify an internal principle of organization. Women cannot ever be ordained because of their gender-this is the problem. But gender as a sign may not be as restrictive as our present experience suggests.

First, consider how far gender can stray from its origins as a "natural sign." In politics, gender is widely used as a paradigm of complementary relationship. An ideal pattern of male and female in harmonious conjugal relationship exemplified the relation between spheres of authority in medieval political theory, between church and state, or pope and emperor. In this context, as is the case with many languages, genders' erotic or sexual references are bypassed. To be sure, gender as the model of complementarity is not merely a local Western idea. All over the world complementary institutional roles are given genderized titles, with the gender metaphor often emphasizing partnership and mutual support.

Marshall Sahlins'saccount (Islands of History, 1985) of the sexual metaphor in Hawaiian culture is especially instructive in this regard. The idea of sex runs riotously through Hawaiian politics and official life as well as uninhibitedly through personal relations. Anything that can possibly carry an unabashed sexual allusion does so, and if it is obscure to us, it is not so to Hawaiians. The people think and dream and pursue their ambitions in a libidinous idiom. But the word idiom should not suggest that sexual politics do not concern power, marriages, and property. It is implausible to suggest that Polynesian women are subservient to males, and Hawaiian men say ruefully that the women always win. Anyone who feels that the Bride of Christ is a restrictive model which straitjackets the lowly role of women in the church should read Sahlins's book. Gender is a flexible notion which can be and is used in any of a wide variety of ways, and need not necessarily serve as a natural sign of family control in a patriarchal system.

Still, feminist critics of the church might prefer to make a clean sweep of gender elements. They may even persuade the pope and cardinals that they should bring the church up to date by purging the doctrine of sexual allusion. But there are real losses to consider. For example, in The Pilgrim's Progress, since the gender of the beloved object is not specified, erotic elements which in other mythologies add spice to the soul's journey are missing. Purging eroticism is liable to thin the quality of the myth. It would be ironic for the church, blamed for repressing women and for an overly strict sexual ruling as regards contraception, also to be reproached for clinging to a metaphor of sexual reproduction. I would argue that the sexual metaphor is a good thing to cling to, not something that women should lightly reject. I would further ask whether that very metaphor cannot be used more creatively for organizing the modern church. For organization is the issue.

When the church's use of the gender model is being criticized it is the form of society that is on trial, not a form of words. Many of the burning questions underlying the women-priests controversy are about forms of organization. A specific form of organization goes with each version of the nuptial mystery. In a society in which sex is free and competitive—as it is in much of the Western world—the gendered religious mythology is utterly different from the biblical model which the Vatican understands itself to have inherited.

No one would deny that the Roman church is hierarchical. We may dislike hierarchy, but as a form of organization it is not intrinsically bad. It has problems, but these are not insoluble. That the church sees herself as a hierarchical system is another of the self-perceptions that we should respect, because it runs very deep. If everyone ostensibly engaged in a debate about women priests is actually arguing about forms of society, would it not be better to give up pretense of a burning concern for women to be ordained and to focus directly on the passionate concern for equality?

For example, when I read Rosemary Reuther’s theology, I forget that the argument is about women; it is more obviously about promoting an egalitarian organizational principle. But I myself have a deep fear of vaunted egalitarianism. It means, when I have heard it, a ruleless system, which means one in which the loudest voice has the main say, and woe to the weakest. In mixed company, the woman is generally the weakest. Does Christianity really imply egalitarianism? Or might the protections and sense of community afforded by hierarchy also reflect a genuine Christian vision?

There are plenty of nonhierarchical Christian churches with very impressive records, but the Catholic church is inherently hierarchical. There may still be room for a church that worships God in a hierarchical way. In any event, you can tell a hierarchical institution to become egalitarian till you are blue in the face, and nothing will happen. No one would know where to start. But tell it to reform the hierarchy and something might actually be done. If the women protesting against Rome's treatment of women are to succeed in bringing a new regime to birth, I think they have a better chance if they can work with hierarchical principles rather than trying to abolish them. It is possible that women can achieve everything that they need, and far more than they have imagined they need, without negating the nuptial mystery, indeed, even invoking it to justify an equal share of authority for women.

An impoverished idea of hierarchy is part of our Western contemporary world view. We tend to think of it as operating solely in the up-down dimension. The simple up-down model tends to be rigid, resistant to change, and brittle. More typically, however, a hierarchy has a cognitive bias toward working in ordered pairs, the members of the pair unequal, one weak, the other strong, but the inequality changing at different levels or in different contexts. The institution that is hierarchically ordered in this way is strengthened by a criss­cross of complementary statuses.

Africa provides the model I have in mind, particularly the women of Africa. I want to call attention to those cultures which have instituted queen mothers to balance the role of the king and his male councilors. In Cameroon, in Nigeria, in Dahomey, and Benin, hereditary male-dominated hierarchical systems have their internal checks and balances worked out on the principle of gender. Countervailing powers are male and female, in religion and in the secular sphere. This gender principle is quite compatible with the Vatican's principle of natural signs. Women exemplify fertility, sexuality, life, love, and beauty, and their gender is given an institutional form that counterbalances male authority and power.

Wherever there is a male principle of control in these African kingdoms, it is counterbalanced by a female principle. Every king has a mother; even if his mother is dead, he has to have an official mother; she has a court of dignitaries and a tribunal at which appropriate cases are tried. Formally the system resembles the separate religious courts which in Europe used to try cases that were not allowed to be tried in the civil courts. Such a system provides a reserve of authority to prevent excessive violence or abuse of power. The political units at each lower level of the hierarchy repeat the pattern. At district level there is a leader of women, who are organized to support each other, and the same at the village level, a female leader and an effective organization. Under this system women are in the habit of mobilizing to the defense of other women, and insisting on their dignity and rights. When they are mobilized at the highest level they are rep­ resenting the interests of the whole community, whether it is at the village level, protesting at a road being built, or at the state level, protesting against poll tax, or at a national or humanitarian level. Something of this kind is what we need much more than we need ordination of women to the priesthood.

At present in the Catholic church there is no organization of women. Women organize themselves at low levels in lots of ways. But there is no high-level commission of women that could balance, still less outface, the cardinals. The Vatican document's reiterated assertions that women are highly valued and honored are, to women's ears, implausible. If women are the other half of humanity, they should not be left out of the church's official structure. There should be a commission for women, entrusted with specific areas of responsibility; anything that is proposed in those areas should be passed first by the Women's Commission on Doctrine. If they approve, there is no problem; if they do not approve what is being proposed, they should have a power of veto.

Just think what this would mean for the present organization of the church. First, think of the anxious care with which such a commission would be recruited. Presumably it would be constituted with a balance of celibate women in religious orders and married women with children. Presumably the ages would have to be balanced, too. Think also of the qualifications for membership, particularly education in theology, philosophy, and church history, and perhaps signs of an irreproachable life. Administrative experience might be made to count, too. The males in the church, relieved of the danger of being replaced by female priests, might well have to worry whether they were being outflanked by powerful, more highly educated females. Think what a shot in the arm this would be for European and American Catholic women, to be able to collaborate with the women of Africa and Polynesia and the Far East, who are politically so experienced and socially so articulate and effective.

How would the women's powers be circumscribed? What areas of faith and morals would be allocated to their specific care? This would be the most central issue of all. The obvious topics on which women could be expected to advise the Holy See would surely be women's concerns, connected with life, that is with procreation and dying. It would be appropriate if advice to the magisterium from the Women's Commission were specifically focused on contraception, abortion, biogenetics, and euthanasia. But it would be a pity to restrict the range of topics referred to the commission.

The main merit of this suggestion is that it is not an attack on a form of words, but an institutional change. It does not subvert hierarchical principles, but introduces a countervailing power to strengthen the hierarchy. It does not break the link with the Bible, since it is a new way of appreciating and en­ acting the feminine principle in the church. It does not undermine the notion of gender as a natural sign, but suggests how it could be more potently celebrated. A Catholic Commission of Women would reinforce the place of the nuptial mystery in Christian theology. It would not deny but allow a stronger focus on the theme of the church as the Bride of Christ. Our theological reflection, which has traditionally found a mysterious mirror of God's identity in human sexuality, would be deepened, not diverted.

Mary Douglas, an anthropologist, is the author of Natural Symbols (1970) and, most recently, In the Wilderness (1993), among many other works. This essay has been adapted from "The Gender of the
Beloved," and is reprinted with the permission of the Heythrop Journal. The original essay was written in honor of the Reverend Robert Murray, S.J.

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