Must Catholicism Be Patriarchal?

COMMENTARY: Are there abusive husbands, bad fathers, tyrannical priests and overbearing prelates? Of course. But the solution is not to get rid of patriarchy, but to get rid of bad patriarachs.

Patriarchal Cathedral Basilica of St. Mark is cathedral church of Archdiocese of Venice, Italy.
Patriarchal Cathedral Basilica of St. Mark is cathedral church of Archdiocese of Venice, Italy. (photo: Kiev.Victor/Shutterstock)

Someone was joking recently that the reason the Eastern Orthodox cannot have women bishops is because one can’t call a woman “Patriarch.” Behind the wisecrack is some wisdom, and the existence of women ministers in non-Catholic denominations raises the question of just how patriarchal the Christian religion must be. 

Is it necessary to call priests “Father” and refer to the Pope as “Holy Father”? The title “Abbot” comes from the ancient term “Abba-Father,” and “pope” comes from the Greek word pappas — “daddy.” Are these no more than human traditions? Are these just social constructs? Or is the idea of “Father Knows Best” woven inextricably into the Catholic faith?

Modernists would argue that all gender identities are inventions from social circumstances. In other words, what we call a “man” or a “woman” is defined by learned customs and conventional traditions. A little girl is given a doll, a play kitchen and fashion cutouts so she learns to do girly things and identify as a woman. A boy is given guns and soldiers, trucks, cars and footballs so he learns to identify as a man.

If gender is learned from society, the modernist contends, male and female family roles are similarly learned. Back in the day, a young man learned that he should go to work and support his family; the young woman learned that she should stay home, have babies and make sure the pot roast was ready for the man of the house when he walked through the door, hung his hat on the rack and called out, “Honey, I’m home!”

Because these roles are no more than social customs, the gender relativist argues, they can be dispensed with. New roles can be devised and learned, and the oppressive, old roles can be discarded. For those who wish to dispense with traditional gender roles, the Catholic Church is seen as an impossibly archaic and obstinate obstacle.

Gender relativists in the Protestant churches see patriarchy as a cruel, oppressive system — all the worse because it wears a smiling Christian mask. The pressure for women’s ordination is driven just as much by the gender relativists as the feminists who believe they are simply arguing for women’s equality. No matter what their belief system or motivation, they all regard patriarchy as an inherent evil — an archaic system devised by Jewish men with long beards thousands of years ago.

While Judaism is patriarchal, it should be remembered that Jewish culture had a higher regard for women and girls than the surrounding cultures. In Greco-Roman paganism, for example, women were regarded as only slightly better than slaves. They were expected to be faithful in marriage, while men were granted the license to have concubines and use prostitutes and catamites freely for their pleasure. Older men were permitted to take girls as young as 9 or 10 years of age in marriage, and newborn daughters were regularly strangled or exposed to the elements, as they were considered less worthy than sons.

Within patriarchal societies today, the same evils persist. Female infanticide and sex-selective abortion are widespread in Hindu and Chinese cultures, while child brides, arranged marriages, female oppression, sex trafficking and female mutilation continue in patriarchal Islamic communities. 

In contrast, as Rodney Stark points out in his important book, The Rise of Christianity, the early Christian community honored and respected women. Women had leadership roles in the Christian Church. The first Christians condemned abortion, valued their sons and daughters and rescued abandoned babies. The New Testament may have taught wives to be submissive to their husbands, but the same chapter spent far longer telling husbands to love their wives “as Christ loves the Church and gave himself for her.”

Easy divorce of women was condemned, and widows were both honored and cared for. Christianity may have continued the patriarchal outlook of Judaism and paganism, but it transformed those patriarchal assumptions from the inside out.

The Christian father and husband was not the superior, abusive tyrant of pagan society, but the loving husband and father first hinted at in the Old Testament and then fulfilled in the teaching of Jesus. Jesus Christ brought into focus the idea of God as the loving Father — calling God “Abba-Father” and teaching his disciples to say, “Our Father who art in heaven …”

In his Parable of the Prodigal Son, it is arguable that the main character is not the runaway son, but the loving, understanding and wise father. This forgiving and long-suffering father is the patriarch that Jesus commends and commands us to emulate.

Jesus also brought into focus the idea of God as the loving and forgiving husband, and St. Paul consolidated that teaching with the idea that the Church is the “Bride of Christ.” The teachings of Jesus Christ and St. Paul are divinely revealed. They are not social constructs. Therefore, because of the centrality of God as a loving husband and Father, patriarchy cannot be airbrushed out of the Catholic faith.

Are there abusive husbands, bad fathers, tyrannical priests and overbearing prelates? Of course. But the solution is not to get rid of patriarchy, but to get rid of bad patriarachs. Neither does ordaining women to the priesthood rid the world of overbearing and tyrannical priests and prelates.

The example of Katharine Jefferts Schori — the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church of the United States of America — should be a caution. Faced with rebellion in the ranks because of the Episcopal Church’s espousal of radical causes, Schori has muscled in to depose more than 700 priests and 12 bishops. She has instigated lawsuits against rebellious congregations, spent millions of dollars on legal fees and grabbed buildings and assets from local congregations, forcing them out of their historic churches. Mothers, it seems, can be just as aggressive, unforgiving and tyrannical as fathers.

Christianity is intrinsically patriarchal, but the patriarch is to be a papa. The Catholic priest is to be a pastor — a loving guide and faithful shepherd. As the Christian husband is to “love his wife as Christ loved the Church and gave himself for her,” so the Catholic priest/bishop is to be the “servant of the servants of God” — a father who loves his children like the father of the Prodigal Son.

The Catholic patriarch should be forever patient, eternally giving and forgiving, remembering that God the Father loved his children so much that he did not spare his own Son. That self-sacrificial love is at the heart of Catholic patriarchy and should be nurtured and strengthened in the home, the community, the Church and the world.

Father Dwight Longenecker is a priest of the Diocese of Charleston, South Carolina.

He blogs at Standing on My Head.