by Dr Marcella M Althaus-Reid. Faculty of Divinity New College, the University of Edinburgh
reprinted with permission from Catholic Women’s Ordination July/August 2000, Issue 18, pp 2-7.
Let us start by saying that according to Cardinal Ratzinger, the church is a theocracy with little interest in projects related to democracy and the rights of people who are not supported by what we can call ‘the will of God’ as represented by the church. This is to say, that there is no intention of dialogue on many issues such as the ordination of women, which has been always opposed on heavy anthropological grounds. Basically, at the center of all this issue is the question that Jesus was a man who chose men to follow his mission as priests, and that women cannot symbolically represent the masculinity of the messiah. This I am saying here in plain language. In an institution which has the nerve to call itself a ‘she’ (The church is referred to as ‘she’ in all official documents and theology) and calls itself symbolically ‘a mother’ when its main representatives are male, this is plain nonsense. However, this afternoon I would like to take this issue from a a different angle. I would like to ask something general such as What did Jesus look like? What does he look like today? What is this ‘masculinity’ theologically claimed by the church in a context of theocracy? And What do you and I look like? Looking/Knowing. .. These are questions of identity rooted in life’s experiences and culture. These are biographical questions, that is questions related to our lives. Can theology help us to think through these questions related to our identity and Jesus’ identity? It has been said that theology is always autobiographical. That is to say that we always do theology from ourselves, by reflecting on our lives’ experiences (and the experience of our communities) and by trying to understand ourselves while reflecting on God and the history of salvation. The credit of this way of doing theology should be given to the work done by women in theology.
Liberation theology in Latin America, in its pioneer work during the 1970s, took the pattern of the work of women in communities to develop its own story-telling or life experience sharing way of reflection. Women were doing this sort of grounded theology mainly for reasons of their political exclusion; their work with the poor and marginalised was sometimes the only area in which they had access to theological reflection, since for a long time theological education and councils were not open to women’s presence and reflections. During the last 30 years that theology has developed a vision for grounding every reflection about God in the lives and experiences of poor women as individuals and as communities. In that way, the work of Mujeristas or Womanists, has pioneered a style of doing theology from people’s own stories, including a new perspective on Christian Ethics which could come from a critical reflection based on reality, instead of the well known method which first of all establishes general moral principles, and then, asks people to ‘adapt’ to them.
That method is, by the way, the method used by ideologies and its is the method of Cardinal Ratzinger: the theocratic method. In the process of ideological formation, ideas always come first, and people come second. Great universal principles and general statements about the values are established first ( usually under the influence of some political and economic criteria disguised as a spiritual principle). People are then asked to fit their lives into those principles, now presented not as political creations, but as ‘original truths’ or the ‘will of God’, and in any case, the normal state of things. But people’s lives seldom fit these discourses, and then those whose lives do not adapt to these ideological constructions (be they secular or divine principles) are considered ‘abnormal’. Call them deviants or sinners, the sad thing is that when some people cannot adapt their lives or circumstances to the ideas of the controlling elites, they need to pay the price of marginalisation for that.
In Christianity, the concept of salvation has been misused many times to simply mean ‘adaptation’ to these political and sexual ideologies. ‘Conversion’ has meant an acceptance of the ideas generated by systems of authority, that is, conversion from the margins to the so called or perceived ‘normality’. It challenges what we should like to be accepted or the way God is supposed to look. Women’s theology around issues of women’s ordination is deviant theology, because its methods are based on participatory principles, on people first style, and opposed to the norm of theocracy. The ‘abnormality’ of this task is unavoidable, and this is the reason why the Gospels are so subversive at times, because Jesus and his friends were the first to challenge the imposed ‘normality’ of the Pax Romana, for instance. No normal guy would convert to what at the times would end in crucifixion.
Jesus message was one of conversion to abnormality and social deviance from the Imperial Roman model which did not admit contestation. My point is that by being here gathering to reflect theologically on issues pertaining to the ordination of women in the Roman Catholic Church, we are here to do a biographical and deviant theology. Not a theology of adaptation (to be allowed to be part of the defined normalcy of the church) but to continue with the tradition of doing theology which we inherited from the Gospel: subverting death in order to bring life; disrupting structures of injustice in order to bring human dignity to people’s lives, and being profoundly critical and transformative. Our biographies are here, because this is about grounding our theology in our stories of being human, of being women, and women in the church. This is what is denied and silenced in the church debate: women’s experience. By the mere fact of being women, and women who start to do theology from experience and not from ideas, we are called to produce a deviant theology with a clear call to abnormality, if by normality we mean the current state of patriarchal thinking in the church. And this is precisely the crux of our problem. The issue of women’s ordination in the church brings the definition of the church’s normality into conflict with the abnormality of the Gospel story.
What looks ‘normal’ in the Gospel? What kind of normal man is Jesus? Do men born from virgins every other day declare themselves sons of God. Do gods incarnate as peasants and end their lives killed at the rubbish dumps outside our cities ) our modern equivalents to the Golgotha of the New Testament)?
The whole Gospel is about disruptions of our understanding and perception of the normal, including sexuality. Jesus’ original birth is perhaps in this context, not the most important thing, but the idea of a God incarnated amongst the dispossessed, developing a ministry in dialogue with them and showing the meaning of social and spiritual convictions, may be. And if there was ever a Messiah who did not look as a Messiah, that was Jesus. It was the German theologian Friedrich Schleirmacher who once said that ‘the Christian church is always in the process of becoming.’ This becoming involves a process of changing, endings, new beginnings, and synthesis. Unlike ideologies where fixed, unchangeable ideas come first and people second. Jesus shows us a model of God who is neither fixed nor finished. Jesus is ‘becoming’ God, in dialogue, being nurtured and growing in community at the margins and especially one of women. The paradox is that somehow, while Jesus is still becoming as we understand more about the real meaning of the project of the Kingdom, the church has stopped growing fixated in the cultural and sexual models of a bygone age which obeys a very particular conception of society.
However, the church is people, the church is women, the church is not a dogmatic administrative procedure. The ordination of women in the RC church is a hard issue, and crucial for women, independent of their religious affiliation, because, on the contrary to what has happened in protestant churches where women have been already ordained, the RC church will not be able to remain the same after ordaining women priests. And this is a good thing. The church is not made of a hegemonic identity. The church is Third World indigenous people, like Aymara and Maya women and communities of people in Britain or in Africa. People’s identities are diverse but also historically in transition because traditions are not static. However, if the challenges of other cultures and socio-political contexts outside the European milieu of the church have been difficult, as in the case of the Latin American basic communities or Archbishop Milingo’s healing worships, the ultimate test is sexuality.
My basic point here is that theologies are never sexually neutral. The RCC’s theology is a heavily sexual theology, obsessed with the regulation and control of sexual performances, roles and behavioural patterns of people. Someone has said that theology should not be worried about what people do in their bedrooms, but the RCC’s theology is based upon what people do or don’t in their bedrooms. Women’s ordination threatens this sexual order, because the RCC church is not any more its people but its hierarchy, which is a sexually based patriarchal hierarchy based in a particular androcentric understanding of life according to predetermined identities. That is to say that gender roles are not an extra element but a constitutive one of an understanding of being church. Such is the extent of this, that several popes such as Paul VI and the present pope, have made very clear that it is not the church but God who refuses to ordain women,
From here we have all the arguments against women’s ordination reduced to a few things, Mainly to anthropological and administrative orders. The church opposes women’s ordination following a cosmology divided between public and private spaces, disguised as divine will. The administration of sacraments, for instance is related to the management of the public affairs of the church (such as the mass rituals) but also, and more crucially, to the legal status of the administrator himself. His representativity in legal terms of for instance, a priest being the authorised person to organise areas of normality and abnormality in people’s lives, by confession and administration of sacraments. There are no women priests but in Brazil, there are very few black men as priests ordained. Why? Because the administration almost by definition represents an old order of things; the administrator reflects the order of the master. Women and black people represent the dis-order of things, the margins of patriarchal white, western society. It is a no-win situation, although black males by the fact of their malehood, can of course, be ordained (put back into the order).
Should I stay or should I go?
There are no rights or wrongs easily discernible here. If the message of the Gospel is basically about human dignity and the right to a life made in a meaningful relationship with God and our communities, then it is understandable and even advisable to leave. Suicide cannot be encouraged. For women who want and can stay (considering that sometimes there are no options) the point is to decide in which territory to establish the struggle. In the territory of church normality, we find the issues of church traditions and dogma. They are heavily patriarchal, moreover, they represent a patriarchal system so rigorous that it would be difficult to find something similar in any other institution, or at least uncontested. The church normality is in fact, deeply abnormal and cannot resist criticism. It is only theologians who have criticised the notion of church traditions as value free or neutral: every single reflection coming from social and natural sciences tells us that the traditions are the process of highly selective, invested exercises. Sometimes, these traditions are further changed to fit some present ideology, creating false chronological links. It is like Genesis in the Bible. How many common readers assume that genesis (or In the Beginning’ which is the correct title of the book) was written first, and that the gender and sexual assumptions cited there for men and women come from some primordial authority, instead of a society where well established patriarchal patterns made then imagine a ‘genesis’ which justified their way of dealing with issues.
I am going to highlight now some theological tricks, used in this debate. This is the first theological trick of authoritarian systems: the claim of ancient authority. ‘It was said at the beginning’ or ‘in the beginning’ are easy discourses of power, with no understanding of God outside a divine authority located in special and temporally defined terms. The apostolic letter from the Pope John Paul II on reserving priestly ordination for men alone, starts precisely, with a genesis of authority: ‘Priestly ordination… from the beginning has always been reserved to men alone. Of course the feminist theologians such as Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza and Rosemary Radford Ruether have challenged this assumption on the basis of their historical research into the life and formation of the primitive church. In recent years, even Jewish feminists have challenged our assumptions about the passive role of women in the synagogue during the times of Jesus as founded in mythical ideas rather than factual data. Fiorenza’s thesis has been precisely that the primitive church was a society of equals, which later suffered distortions through the influence of other political agendas and ideologies. Moreover, in the beginning there were no ordinations, as Jesus ‘sent’ men and women alike to spread the Gospel but did not indulge in ritualised ordinations as we know them now. Therefore, in the beginning is an unsustainable argument, not worthy of much discussion.
The establishment of a remote authority in an idealised past is the first trick of hegemonic discourses but not the only one. The others are putting hegemony and agency together (the discourse of power and the people who are the chosen ones to carry it) and the anthropological assumptions of course, underlying this. All this comes together in the Ordinatio Sacerdotalis letter from Pope John Paul II, in the following order:
1 ) The already quoted assertion of the authority given in the beginning.
2) The example of Christ ‘ordaining’ men: first of all Christ did not ordain anybody, as we all know from reading the Gospels. In fact, Christ was an apocalyptic preacher, more concerned with the end of things (institutions of injustice, ritualistic religion) than with accountancy or administrative procedures. Second, and this is a more nuanced analysis, is this use of the term ‘men’ biologically defined? To paraphrase Shakespeare ‘Is it a penis I see before me?’ Do people going to be ordained lift their frocks and show their genitalia first? The use of the term ‘men’ is here a category, a gender role, not a defined sexuality. It is to be understood in relation to the hierarchical conception of life, and of life as a controlling exercise of who is master and who is slave; who serves who; who is first and who is second, all notions that Jesus challenges in the Gospels according to the new order envisaged for the Kingdom. From that perspective, Jesus’ masculinity is ambiguous. From that perspective, Jesus is not a man.
Even if personally I cannot say- being honest to myself- that Jesus was an antipatriarchal messiah, I may agree that he was a patriarchal God in transition. In Jesus, God is also evolving, acquiring consciousness in the way that human beings do: through this process of dialogue, challenge and suffering. Jesus is still becoming, still growing strong but this is a dialogical process of God, much depending on us, women as on God.
3) The other point cited in the Pope’s letter is the ‘living authority (of the church) which has consistently held that the exclusion of women from the priesthood is in accordance with God’s plan for his church’. ‘Living authority’ is a curious way of putting some flesh on a dogmatic and administrative exercise of power. Living authority is like saying that the master’s discourse has not changed in more than XX centuries, but is still alive, virile, and strong enough to impose his will. It is a virility discourse concerned with the reproduction of authority down the centuries.
4) Finally, the point of theological anthropology: In simple words, this relates to the ancient conception of the role of men and women in societies divided according to specific functions, in highly stratified social environments. Obviously, different cultures organised society and gender roles in different ways, but this discourse assumes some understandings of humanity as superior to others. Moreover, Pope Paul Vl dismissed women’s issues concerning ordination by saying that Jesus somehow acted outside the realms of culture and sociological patterns of his time, reduced Jesus to the category of a demi- god, with one foot on the Olympus and a passing nod attitude to human beings. The Gospels do not sustain this version more suited to Gnostic denial of Jesus’ full humanity. Because humans do not live outside cultural and social patterns, and that is the precious thing with Jesus: born in a country under foreign occupation, raised up in the Egyptian exile of his parents, he grew to see the suffering of people living under the Imperial power of Rome and their caesar-god. The arguments about removing Jesus outside socio-economic structures want to give him some sort of divine neutrality. Jesus outside the order of society means that if women, for instance, are not the chattels they used to be (as least in certain societies) and claim their rights and God’s vocation in the church, that has nothing to do with the church which is an immutable order outside the secular realms of changes and transformation. Of course, history proves the contrary, but as Hans Kung has said, the problem is not so much of orderings but of infallibility. Infallibility is the end of dialogue.
The point is that nothing much can be achieved by women arguing and discussing on biblical grounds or doctrinal re-interpretations alone because this is to try to use the patriarch toolbox to dismantle the patriarch’s house, using the famous phrase from Audré Lorde. It is the whole theocratic structure and oligarchic conception of a church based on an old cosmovision of the world dividing people according to race, gender roles and sexualities which is passé, and has little historical possibility to survive. It is not leaving the church which is the issue, but working for an entirely different project of being church in which women and men will share their priestly vocation that we should be striving for.
A church involved at the margins of society a church in dialogue and involved in democratic models, will be a church in which we will look like Christ. Because in the present model of being church, I don’t look like Christ and neither do you, if by Christ we understand a masculinisation project which by the way, does not even represent the realities of real men in this world, outside medieval stereotypes based on the feudal orders of lords and servants. Models which allocate women reproductive roles and divide them (in the words of Pope, Paul VI) into martyrs’, virgins and mothers. But we do look like Christ if our lives and Christ’s own life can relate and talk to each other, if Christ is about justice and human dignity, antihierarchical, antisexist, antiracist and anticlassist. Genitalia apart, Jesus’ sexuality and gender roles show that nothing is inherited but that society makes men and women (and messiahs too).
But if we define the church as living community in dialogue with Jesus, we keep growing together in a deeper understanding of theology, sexuality and the church’s mission and yes, we look like Jesus, and curiously women, on whose oppression depends all Patriarchal institutions including the church, may look more as Jesus than the pope himself and the whole male priesthood together. It is our actions and ministering in community, our commitment to justice and peace, which ultimately demonstrates who looks like Jesus and who doesn’t.