“Women on the Verge” is the title of Margaret Talbot’s long article in the June 28 print edition of the New Yorker on the plight of Catholic women who feel called to the priesthood. Talbot is a scrupulous and fair-minded journalist, and the article makes clear that women who hope to be ordained in the Catholic Church are not on the verge of a hospitable reception by the Vatican. Far from it. Instead, the most fervent of these women have found a home in ad-hoc denominations after being excommunicated because of their illicit ordinations.
Talbot does a decent job of explaining the Church’s teaching that for historical, symbolic, and theological reasons women cannot be ordained. One reason, that Jesus chose only men as Apostles, doesn’t convince many people. After all, Jesus also chose only Jews as his Apostles, but that hardly prevented the ordination of Gentiles. Another reason put forth by the Vatican is that when the priest consecrates the bread and wine, he is acting in persona Christi, and therefore the celebrant must be a man. On a literal level, this makes sense, but it also suggests a somewhat crude understanding of how symbols work, one that threatens to turn ritual actions into a kind of pantomime or playacting if not understood in the broader context of the Church’s thoroughly gendered language and symbols. Finally, there is the “nuptial mystery,” an extension of the Hebrew Scriptures’ understanding of Israel as God’s beloved spouse. In a similar fashion, Catholic teaching has long understood the Church to be feminine, the Bride of Christ. Consequently, the priest, who acts in the person of Christ, must be male. In her reporting, Talbot turns up only one lay Catholic who defends the prohibition against ordaining women, and she is a writer for the conservative Catholic magazine Crisis. Suffice it to say, her views fit every stereotype concerning the subservient relationship of women to men, and especially to priests.
The sincerity of the women Talbot talks to is humbling, but there is nevertheless something jarring about their conviction that the Church exists to “meet [their] needs” and will “fall into irrelevance” if it does not. There seems to be little appreciation for how the Church exists to shape our needs, and even to challenge them, in light of Christ’s teachings and presence. Among the women profiled in the article there is a lot of talk about community, but the underlying logic of the case they put forward for ordination is egalitarian and individualistic. One advocate dismisses recent Church reforms expanding the role of women as “crumbs from the patriarchal system that will not satisfy the hunger, the God-given hunger, for equality and dignity.” Yet the Church’s structure and ethos is communal and hierarchical, not just patriarchal. When it comes to equality and dignity, the Catholic emphasis is on where the individual stands within a hierarchically organized society that operates with varied levels of authority, responsibility, and subordination. Individual well-being and dignity are not found in self-determination but rooted in membership within the community, found together with others, not alone.