When Women Become Priests: The Catholic Women's Ordination Debate
By Kelley A. Raab
Columbia University Press, 320 pp.

After valiantly slogging through Kelley Raab's book on what it will be like when women become priests, I felt a surge of sympathy for the (male) Episcopal priest whom Raab described trying to wrest the chalice from the hands a female colleague. He scratched the back of her hand and, in his exasperation, hissed, "Go to hell."

She had it coming if she was even half as obtuse as Raab, who describes the Eucharist, the central ritual of the Catholic faith, not in terms of Christ's sacrifice upon the cross but as "a celebration of women's relationships with their bodies and with one another."

Before getting to the ideas in the book, I must warn that it's a hellish read. Raab, an assistant professor of religious studies, relies heavily on the gibberish-riddled oeuvres of celebrity feminist theorists Julia Kristeva and Luce Irigaray. Kristeva is known for a theory of "poetic language" that is supposedly derived from mathmatics, but intellectual hoax exposer Alan Sokal chides that she got Godel's second theorem-a cornerstone of her theory-precisely backwards. Meanwhile, Irigaray argues that E=MC2 is a sexually biased formula.

In addition to feminist theory, Raab based her conclusions on interviews with fifteen Episcopal priests and three laywomen, who were interviewed in 1988-1989 and re-interviewed in 1998-hardly a huge sampling. One of Raab's discoveries: Female priests have added a dash of eroticism to the Anglican Eucharist. Far from regarding this as a distraction, Raab writes approvingly of a male Episcopalian who became sexually aroused by the sight of a woman on the altar. "Do some men feel aroused because they have never considered the idea of the priest as a sexual being? Or is their arousal rooted in seeing a woman in a historically taboo setting?" Raab asks. Whatever the reason, Raab predicts that the ordination of women in the Catholic Church will "open a Pandora's box of repressed sexual desire."

Interestingly, Raab believes that the advent of women priests in the Episcopal Church, which began ordaining them in the 1970s, already has helped make that Church more open to a wider variety of sexual styles. "It is significant that the subject of ordaining gay men and lesbians was never openly discussed [in the Episcopal Church] until the ordination of women was authorized," Raab writes. She adds that women entering the Episcopal priesthood are "increasingly female, predominantly middle-aged, and openly homosexual."

One of the more bizarre anecdotes in the book concerned the Episcopal priest who found herself celebrating communion at that special time of the month. "I felt ill all during the worship," she told Kathleen Greider. "When I was saying the words of institution, I felt like I was going through the motions, but as I lifted the chalice I was startled by my own thought: Am I unclean? Then I spoke the words:' This is my body poured out for you and for many, for the forgiveness of sins.' No, I thought, I am not unclean. I, too, know that blood is the essence of life." Is it hopelessly retrograde of me to believe that the Mass should focus on Christ's blood rather than women's birthing and blood?

A sentimental-dare I say girlish-sensibility appears to have developed in the Episcopal clergy. For all the empowerment predicated on having women celebrate at the altar, female priests seem to have brought a homey, Betty Crocker dimension to the once stately Anglican worship. One woman spoke of a new "model" of the priest as a "hostess" who is "concerned about setting a good-looking table." Raab adds, "I believe that as more and more women become Episcopal priests, there will be fewer 'gory crucifixes' adorning church walls. Women do not tend to evoke images of violence." Coming soon: Martha Stewart shows you how to beat your swords into ploughshares-and then apply the gilt.

Raab believes that the Vatican's refusal to ordain women is based not on rational thought, but on an unconscious fear of female priests. According to Raab, the all-male priesthood rests on "gender reversal"-that is, that male priests perform intrinsically female "nurturing" functions. When women try to reclaim their proper role, male priests are fearful of losing their power-they will be exposed as men in liturgical drag and look ridiculous. An Episcopal priest, who is quoted saying that he dresses like his mother-he's talking about vestments-and says he has a nurturing job, admits that because of this he feels threatened by female priests.

There is nothing wrong in talking of God as a nurturing or motherly deity-the Medieval mystic Juliana of Norwich famously did so-but the historical Christ was a man. This does not mean, as Raab implies, "internalized images" of a male Christ lead to the oppression of women.

But it does mean that in talking as Raab does of a "female Christ," we confuse the truth that Christ was incarnate as a particular man, fully human and fully divine, at a particular juncture of history. Although Raab does seem to accept that the historical Jesus was, indeed, a man, her feminist Christology is extremely confusing.

Raab believes that having a priesthood limited to men somehow means that salvation, too, is limited to men and that only with the emergence of women priests will there be "equal access to salvation."

Men and men have always been equal in the eyes of the Church and God. The Church maintains her ban against the ordination of women because of tradition, and because Christ, who elevated the position of women in society, did not ordain women. Christianity honors both sexes, but it upholds the idea that they are different.

Some of Raab's prose is beyond parody--her discussion of "vagina men" is a gem!--but embedded in this book is a serious warning: Women priests would usher in a post-Christian theology. Their presence would overturn Christ's decision to ordain only men, and, if the women were anything like the ones Raab serves up, they might be inclined to rid churches of those "gory crucifixes" that are at the very heart of Christian belief and replace it with an our bodies/our selves form of worship.

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