The Biological Equipment of the Sacrament of Holy Orders: Please tell me how it works!

(Author’s note: My questions in this post are not intended to be sarcastic or rhetorical. My questions are a sincere invitation, intended to evoke a serious response.)

I am confused by the relentless stubbornness of the Vatican when it comes to the question of reforming the priesthood to include the other half of humanity – the female half. It is more and more imperative to place a burden on the Vatican to provide a clear and detailed explanation of the reasoning behind the exclusion of women. This is especially important after last week’s comments seemed to revise the Vatican’s attitudes towards gays while reinforcing its restrictive attitudes towards women. On the one hand there seemed to be movement towards reform, while on the other there was a starkly stated refusal of the possibility of reform. For me, this refined my questions about the Church’s attitudes towards women.

We need to get down to brass tacks, as the saying goes. I will start with the most basic category of difference between male and female genders, which is biology. How does the biology of the priest matter in living out the sacrament of Holy Orders? What role does male biology play in the efficacy of the sacrament? How does the priest make use of his male “biological equipment” in living out the sacrament? Is the exclusivity of males as acceptable candidates for the priesthood, if not grounded in biology, grounded in some psychological, hormonal, cultural, social or theological understanding particular to the male? If so, what is that understanding? We need a theology of the priestly body to flesh out the meaning of John Paul II’s theology of the body if that is the argument being used to support the edict that women must be banned from ordination.

This restriction needs to be explained clearly and without equivocation – no fancy language. Just tell the people of God what it is about being a male that makes a human being exclusively acceptable to receive the sacrament of Holy Orders. At least elaborate on which dimension of maleness it is that matters – is it biological, social, cultural or theological? If it is biological, please explain how the male physicality is used in the facilitation of the sacrament. In other words, offer an explanation of how males use their biological parts and their hormonal system in living out their sacramental responsibilities. The same question applies to the other dimensions of maleness – how does the psychology of the male matter? The enculturation? The socialization? If it is theological, we need a better explanation than the one we have been given. I find it unacceptable to say that “God is male” to reinforce the argument of the priest as an icon of Jesus. This is a direct contradiction to the assertion that male and female were both made in the image of God.

I would like the Vatican response to also answer another question. What is the reason that the biology, socialization, or enculturation of the female makes it impossible for a woman to answer the call to ordination? I have recently heard the argument that the refusal to have women on the altar still rests on the argument of “uncleanness” since women cannot control the flow of blood during their menses! Can this be possible in our age?

Does the Vatican overstep the bounds of its own authority in restricting what God can make possible “in the fullness of time?” Does the official teaching of the Church make it impossible for God to communicate a vocation to a woman with regard to Holy Orders? Is it because of biology? This reason, too, requires a much more reasonable explanation than the ones we have been given.

The alternative to saying that it is the biology of the female human body that is, at heart, the reason for exclusion of women from the priesthood is that it is the socialization of women that creates the difference. Is that it? Does the way that women are socialized into adulthood create a barrier to leadership? If so, why is this so and how can it be explained clearly? Is it a political distinction – is it because in many cultures women have less (or no) political power in society? Is that what provides the grounds for exclusion? If the answer to this is affirmative, maybe the Vatican would consider leading the way towards liberating women instead of riding on the coattails of a long-standing bias.

There are some very basic questions that need to be asked. At first these questions may seem crass and simplistic – but they aren’t.

The truth seems to be that the Church bases its current understanding about the possibility of women’s ordination on a number of biases:  the biological attributes of male gender, the social validity of men as leaders, the power men wield in culture and particular theological arguments about the male as the icon chosen by Jesus. Pope Francis’ generous comments about gay priests allude to the fact that there is no need for the priest to be heterosexual. There is a just a requirement for the candidate to have the right biological “parts” to be considered as a candidate for the priesthood.

If biology is indeed the reason for the restriction, much more work must be done on teaching and communicating the reasons for the ban. Perhaps it would be too embarrassing. Pope Francis prayed this week for the “grace of shame.” Here is an opportunity to embrace that grace.


About Kathryn Perry

Kathryn Perry, MDiv, is an alumna of Regis College, Toronto. She is the author of The Courage To Dare: The Spirituality of Catherine Donnelly, Founder of the Sisters of Service (Novalis 2013).
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2 Responses to The Biological Equipment of the Sacrament of Holy Orders: Please tell me how it works!

  1. Janet Montgomery says:

    It does seem unfair.The other religions, or at least nearly all religions allow both genders and it seems to work very well. . Maybe the day will come for Catholics as well.

  2. estherdwumaa says:

    Very poignant and it seems to have taken a long time for people to see that this discrimination does not make sense-but it takes patience for all of us-patience, before we can come to see that what makes a good leader is not- (not to sound crass) what parts they have but their character.

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