Why Should the Catholic Church Make an Exception Just for Men?

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For Roman Catholics who are eager for change, laughter helps to keep hope alive. One joke that has made the rounds goes like this: “Have you heard about Vatican III? The bishops are bringing their wives. Have you heard about Vatican IV? The bishops are bringing their husbands.”

 Under a theology that views the female body as profane, impurity by association through marriage is not necessarily a disqualifier. Impurity by nature is.

The desire among many U.S. Roman Catholics for both married priests and women priests reflects a popular intuition that these issues are connected. A commonly held expectation among many is that when change comes, it will be a noncelibate male priesthood that comes first. It would surprise no one if a group of celibate men in authority were to set the relaxing of mandatory celibacy for male priests as a priority over ordaining women to address a current shortage of priests in the U.S. and elsewhere. However, something deeply theological is also going on here that follows the logic of “the lesser of two evils.”

There still exists in high places within some churches a persistently insidious strand of theological anthropology that clings to the notion that the female body is profane. Such a theology is at work in the view held by some clerics and lay people alike that it is best, as a rule, to require priests to be celibate males. The same theology is operative in the view that it is more acceptable to put a man with a wife on the altar than it is to ordain a celibate woman. Under a theology that views the female body as profane, impurity by association through marriage is not necessarily a disqualifier. Impurity by nature is.

It is not only within the Roman Catholic tradition that this theology is in evidence. In my own Episcopal church and in some corners of the Anglican Communion, there are those who still cannot accept the reality of our having women priests, much less a female Presiding Bishop.

A “Vatican III” that critically examines the misogyny hidden in the rule of clerical celibacy will make the wait for “Vatican IV” much shorter. No joke.

Therese DeLisio

Therese DeLisio is the associate dean for academic leadership at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York.

New York Times,  21 NOVEMBER 2014