Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer and speaker who converted to Catholicism after a life of atheism. She’s a contributor to the books The Church and New Media and Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion, and is writing a book based on her personal blog, ConversionDiary.com. She and her husband live in Austin, TX with their five young children, and were featured in the nationally televised reality show Minor Revisions. You can follow her on Twitter at @conversiondiary.
When I got to the part in Catholicism for Dummies about the male priesthood, you’d think I would have recoiled. I had heard something about gender and the Catholic clergy in popular culture, but I didn’t know until I started researching it that the Catholic Church really doesn’t allow women to be priests. As a lifelong atheist and self-proclaimed feminist, it seems like I would have been outraged. Yet when I tried to work up some good righteous indignation, it wouldn’t come. In fact, something about this policy felt really right. Surprised at my own stance, I spent a long time pondering why I felt no urge to denounce this controversial stance as oppressive and unfair. Here’s what I came up with:
Men and women are different
At the time I had recently become a mother, and there’s nothing like pregnancy and childbirth to hit home the fact that men and women are really, really different. Even outside of the Catholic perspective, there’s no denying that whoever created us—whether you call it God or Nature or Allah or whatever—created men and women with complementary yet entirely separate capabilities. Women can carry new human life within their wombs, men can’t. Women can breastfeed, men can’t. Men are generally stronger; the strongest man in the world is always going to be the stronger than the strongest woman in the world. The list of the innate differences between the genders goes on and on. Assuming that the entire human race was not born into an inherently unfair situation, it would seem that our Creator does not believe that you need to be able to do all the same stuff in order to be equal.
What you do isn’t your worth
Along those same lines, I had begun to question this pervasive modern idea that what you do is your value. At social gatherings the first question we ask someone new is, “What do you do?” Schoolchildren are asked, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” One of the results of this idea is that we, as a society, decided that if women are not invited to do every single thing that men are invited to do, the only possible explanation could be that they are valued less—and being barred from doing certain activities means that their options for reaching complete fulfillment as human beings are limited. The more I considered it, the more this worldview struck me as sadly utilitarian. I started to think that it’s possible to believe that men don’t make good lactation consultants, women don’t make good guerrilla warfare combatants, etc. without it being a commentary about the inherent worth of one gender over another.
God became a man
As an outsider looking in on this religion, I didn’t see how anyone could believe that Christianity is true and simultaneously question the fact that God sees the two genders as having distinctly different roles. When God took on human flesh, he did so as a man. He could have come down as a woman, as a brother and sister team, or as a genderless being. But he didn’t. If you want to reject Christianity as untrue, that’s one thing; but if you accept Jesus Christ as God incarnate, it seems like you must also accept that God sees the male gender as having a special role to play in the world.
Jesus chose men to be his apostles
Peter, Andrew, James, James, John, Philip, Thomas, Matthew, Bartholomew, Thaddaeus, Simon and Judas: Those are the names of the 12 people whom Jesus personally called to be his apostles. They’re all men. The fact that God not only came down as a man, but then called only men to be his apostles (despite the fact that he was close to plenty of women), was further confirmation of the obvious fact that God has a special plan for the male gender.
God gave us Mary
So where does that leave women? Does God not see us as having a special role too? Did he forget about us? Honestly, I did have those thoughts when I was first researching Christianity, and it was kind of a bummer. The only branches of Christianity with which I had some passing experience were some of the southern Protestant denominations, and it struck me that this was a male-centric spirituality. Jesus was a man, his apostles were men, all the local preachers were men—where did women fit into the big picture of salvation history? It made me question the entire religion: Would a just God really leave an entire gender out in the cold?
Once I discovered Catholicism, one of the many things that rang true about its teachings was the emphasis on Mary. It made perfect sense that God would give a woman a critical role in his plan, someone who could serve as an example of perfect feminine holiness—and it made sense that his true Church would understand and celebrate this fact.
So when I came across the doctrine about the male priesthood, all of these ideas came together to make the Church’s official defense of its stance ring true. In fact, I might have been skeptical of Catholic doctrines if they hadn’t taught that it is a job for men, and only men, to carry on the role that God began when he himself became a man.