As the Episcopal church confronts the subject of female ordination and Anglicans brace themselves for the coming storm, Catholics are no doubt pondering the implications of their own tradition of a masculine priesthood... and more than a few are scratching their heads in real confusion over the issue.
In our gender-neutral world where simply pointing out differences between the sexes could cost one his (or her) job, our Church struggles to justify the "archaic and patriarchal" practice that confines women to the pews or the bingo hall, denying them full participation in the ecclesial life.
Or at least that's the argument being railed against Rome.
Women, the argument goes, are "second class citizens" in the Church, denied the dignity and the prowess of the priesthood. We're breeders, wives, and directors of religious education- nothing more.
Indeed, by worldly standards, it would seem that we women are being denied something when we are told: you may not. But is that really the case? Perhaps what we're dealing with here is not a poverty of opportunity, but a poverty of understanding.
The priesthood, much like motherhood and fatherhood and all the other "hoods," is so called for its nature. The suffix "hood" gives meaning to the noun which it modifies, indicating "the nature of" or "pertaining to." In the priesthood, then, we see an innate quality that is recognized as such even grammatically.
Denying a woman the priesthood, then, would be equivalent to denying a man motherhood. Denial may be a technically accurate term, but I would argue that it isn't the most precise. After all, nature doesn't deny men a role in human reproduction by withholding a womb. There are gender-specific roles for both sexes, and the beauty is in the complementarity between the two, the contrast. A man is not less complete without a womb... he's more a man for his "lack" of female parts!
Our push for equality has essentially become an effort towards androgyny, and nowhere is this more evident then in the argument for the female priesthood. (Well, perhaps in the gay marriage debate- but that's another post entirely) Women cannot be priests because they cannot be men. The priesthood isn't an exclusive privilege granted to the stronger sex- it's a unique, masculine role of self-gift and servant leadership. A woman is incapable of priestly ministry the same way a man is incapable of childbirth- it isn't in her nature.
This is not about denial or repression or male chauvinism, but rather is a conforming of human law to divine design. A woman can dress in vestments and deliver a stirring homily and minister to the sick and the suffering in her congregation, but she cannot consecrate the Eucharist. Not because she's lacking in any way, but simply because she isn't a man. This particular ministry - entrusted to our brothers in Christ - is a lived expression of masculinity. Masculinity means more than pumping iron and chugging beers. (Technically, there's nothing intrinsically masculine about either activity, not to knock 'em.)
A father is not flawed in his inability to ovulate... he's a man, he wasn't designed to. I know this is a shocking statement to make, but bear with me: women and men are uniquely and perfectly designed to function in communion and cooperation, not competition. We have different roles, different strengths... and there is such beauty there.
What we need to do, as a culture, is reclaim a popular appreciation for the dignity of every "hood" as has been assigned by our Creator. God didn't subject motherhood and femininity to scorn and second-class status: we did.
Think about the implications of demanding masculine roles for feminine persons. We are essentially saying that we aren't good enough the way we are, that to be feminine is in some way less than to be masculine. What a poverty.
Non-personalist feminism has perpetuated this lie, and our culture has embraced it whole-heartedly. To even suggest that a man and a woman are in some way different from one another is a ludicrous statement to make into the postmodern vacuum of assimilation. So there exists a fundamental inability to even entertain the idea of different - but equal - roles for the two sexes.
The answer lies not in the feminization of the priesthood - which, incidentally, is impossible - but in the promulgation of a true feminism: JPII's brand as espoused in his 1995 Letter to Women, and on every page of Theology of the Body. This is God's plan for the fairer sex- a dignity so great that we are christened the "crown of creation."
To be a man means to be capable of and willing to make a gift of self. To pour out - in some cases literally - his life for his bride, be she the Church or his wife. The priest stands in persona Christi and makes a complete gift of himself to those he serves. He initiates and donates, his congregation receives and responds. No role is greater than the other, but there are differences. As a man is designed to initiate, so a woman is designed to receive. This is why we speak of the Church in the feminine, as the bride of Christ. It is written into our very bodies to give as men and to receive as women.
That, my friends, is not oppression. That's intelligent design. And I think it's pretty hot.