Feminism and the Catholic Priesthood: What’s the Root of the Matter?
COMMENTARY: Church teaching on the all-male priesthood isn’t a feminist issue. Here’s why.
Although three popes (St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis) have declared women’s ordination to be impossible, this attack on the sacramental priesthood and the fullness of the Catholic faith simply refuses to die. Earlier this year, 11 German priests from the Cologne Archdiocese wrote an open letter urging the Church to open the priesthood to women.
In February the Italian Jesuit journal La Civilta Cattolica questioned whether St. John Paul II’s statement against women’s ordination is a binding statement of the Church’s magisterium.
And just Sunday, a schismatic group “ordained” a woman to the Catholic priesthood in Charlotte, North Carolina. A spokesman for the diocese reminded the faithful of the Church’s teaching on the sacrament of holy orders.
Meanwhile, faithful Catholics are frequently called to defend the Church against charges like: “Why does the Church hate women so much?” And “Why won’t the Church let women be equal?”
Such loaded questions, which come from a highly sophisticated propaganda campaign against the Church, are designed to be unanswerable. They fall into the category of: “Have you stopped beating your wife?”
The entire question is based on a fantasy. The notion that women should be “allowed” to be priests is rooted in a radical misunderstanding of both feminism and the priesthood.
To answer such questions accurately as Catholics, we need to get radical. At their very foundations, feminism and the call to the Catholic priesthood are so diametrically opposed that the male priesthood isn’t even a feminist issue!
The word “radical” comes from the Latin radix, which means “root.” To be “radical,” then, is to return to the roots of things.
If modern feminists truly knew the fundamental values Catholic priests are called to embrace — and how deeply those values clash with their own — they would never covet the sacramental priesthood. On the contrary, they would flee from the office as from fire.
Let’s consider the roots of feminism alongside the roots of the priesthood to see how deeply the two differ.
The Self-Centered Roots of Feminism
Betty Friedan, who launched the modern women’s movement in 1963 with her book The Feminine Mystique, was as far from the Catholic priesthood in her desires and her thinking as a woman can be. Her groundbreaking book grew out of a survey of her Smith College graduating class. Like Friedan, most of these women were married mothers in their 40s who were sending their children off to college. Now feeling trapped at home in the suburbs, they longed for something more to fill the emptiness in their lives.
A close reading of these women’s testimonies suggests many were struggling with spiritual problems. Friedan, who saw the world through an economic lens, offered no spiritual solutions. Instead, she promised her readers that if they’d only get out of the house, seize political power, get a job and earn money, they would be happy and free.
Friedan wasn’t against motherhood; she’d already raised her three children. Rather, it was humble servitude to God and others that she most deeply abhorred. Asked what gave her and other feminists the strength and nerve to launch the 1960s women’s movement, Friedan wrote: “It was, of course, because we were doing it for ourselves. It was not charity for poor others.”
As for religion, Friedan was born Jewish but had renounced God in her teens and later signed the 1973 “Humanist Manifesto II,” which states: “No deity will save us; we must save ourselves.”
The manifesto she signed denies the existence of “the prayer-hearing God, assumed to love and care for persons, to hear and understand their prayers and to be able to do something about them.”
“Self-actualization” (or what psychologist Paul Vitz calls “selfism”) provided the intellectual foundation for Friedan’s feminist philosophy. Of the many influences on The Feminine Mystique, humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow’s self-as-god theories were among the most influential, providing what one biographer called the book’s “intellectual underpinnings.”
In Friedan’s human-centered worldview, the glorified human “self” — not God — was in charge of the universe.
When Friedan helped set up the National Organization for Women (NOW) and became its first president, Catholics who followed in her footsteps may not have known the self-as-god values they were buying into. But, whether they recognized it or not, one pinch of yeast leavens the loaf. These values, which invisibly permeated the entire women’s movement, deeply influenced feminists’ thinking.
Notre Dame-educated theologian Elizabeth Farians, who died in 2013, was the first chairwoman of NOW’s task force on women and religion and the first woman admitted into the Catholic Theological Society. But as she grew more immersed in Friedan’s form of feminism, she became increasingly opposed to the magisterial teachings of the Church.
In 1970, upon overhearing a man in a restaurant saying grace and giving thanks to “our heavenly Father,” Farians yelled across the room, “God is not our father!” According to feminist theologian Mary Daly, who witnessed the outburst, “the ensuing silence was stunning.”
Farians eventually left the Catholic Church. She became an animal-rights activist and, as late as 2008, taught a course at Xavier University on “Theology and Animals.”
Daly, author of the infamous book Beyond God the Father, revealed the self-centeredness at the core of 1960s feminist thinking when she stated: “I was not afflicted with piety or missionary zeal. ... The simple fact is that the more I studied and explored, the more I was in touch with mySelf and going to church became odious.”
In 1966, when asked to teach Christology at Boston College, she recalled: “The fact was that, for years, I had found the christian [sic] fixation on the ‘divinity of Christ’ and on the figure of Jesus disturbing and profoundly repulsive.” Like many feminist theologians, Daly openly despised Christ and his Church. Yet she taught theology at Boston College, a Jesuit school, from 1967 to 1999 — for more than 30 years. If some young Catholics lost their faith while attending Boston College, Daly may have been responsible. But I digress.
The point is modern feminism — at its roots — was born from a natural desire for visible worldly power, privilege and prestige. The supernatural, invisible, silent and often seemingly powerless power of God was not even on these angry feminists’ radar.
The Christ-Centered Roots of the Priesthood
To say the Catholic priesthood is rooted not in female “self-fulfillment” but in a loving passion to imitate Christ may sound obvious to faithful Catholics. Yet agitators for women’s ordination don’t seem to recognize this simple reality. They endlessly search the Scriptures and ancient history, seeking Bible passages and false cultural assumptions in a vain attempt to prove that Christ didn’t really mean to choose only men to be priests.
No mere human, of course, can fully know the mind of God. We can only pay close attention to what Jesus said and what he actually did. He didn’t leave us a book. He didn’t leave us tablets of stone. He didn’t leave us a cultural history lesson.
He left us 12 men (one of whom had to be replaced) to be his apostles and to spread the Gospel.
Feminists with radical 1960s mindsets may resent the fact that Christ left us only 12 flawed men. His authority and actions may not meet with these women’s personal approval. But the Creator of everyone and everything is free to do whatever he wills, and giving us 12 men is what he willed to do. This is why the Church has repeatedly declared (through St. John Paul II and others) that she has “no authority” to ordain women priests — because the Church’s authority comes from Christ (who is both man and God), not from men who are merely human.
So what happened to those men Christ gave us to be his apostles? Did they lead elegant, comfortable lives of power, prestige and privilege? Hardly.
In fact, every one of them (except John) was martyred. They were scourged, crucified upside down, beheaded, boiled in oil, clubbed to death, stabbed to death, hacked to death and skinned alive. Christ, the humble, crucified servant of all, said, “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” And he meant it.
Do feminists who long to be Catholic priests really know what they’re asking for? The priesthood is a calling from our crucified Lord, who chooses certain men to die to worldly power, privilege and prestige and to be crucified with him. The priest is not the CEO of the Church. Far from being a position of power, the priesthood is a call to humble servitude — precisely what modern feminism rejects with a vengeance.
In his sixth-century Book of Pastoral Rule, St. Gregory the Great might have been speaking to feminists today when he cautioned Christians against the “sin of dissention” and the “wickedness of discord.” Noting that the “priesthood is no guarantee that somehow you will be more pleasing to God,” St. Gregory urged priests to view leadership not as a privilege, but as a burden, lest “he who is unqualified might rashly venture into spiritual guidance, and through his own lust for rank lead others to perdition.”
Sue Ellen Browder is the author of Subverted: How I Helped the Sexual Revolution Hijack the Women’s Movement. She writes from Ukiah, California.