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Biology for Theologians. A Scientific Look at Male-Only Ordination, by Dr Roberta Meehan

Biology for Theologians

A Scientific Look at Male-Only Ordination

by Dr Roberta Meehan

published on www.womenpriests.org with permission of the author

Canon 1024 insists that only males may receive the Sacrament of Order. But, what is "male" and why is "maleness" essential for ordination?

This paper addresses only the biological aspects of these questions.

I. Ecclesial Definition

A. Present Status

The Church has not defined male, but rather, has used the term "male" in a manner implying common knowledge.

It seems appropriate to ask the Church for a definition of "male." However, it also seems that the Church cannot define "male" theologically without first addressing the issue biologically.

B. Scientific / Historical Basis of Canon 1024

1. Church law (Canon 1024) was formulated on a belief in a simple, mutually exclusive male/female dichotomy. This supposition does not take into account the present understanding of male and female.

2. Church law (Canon 1024) was also formulated on the premise of both Aristotle and Aquinas that the male/female dichotomy was hierarchical in nature.

In his Summa Theologica Aquinas states in Question 92, reply to Objection 1: "As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten, for the active force in the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex."

Again, this supposition does not take into account the present understanding of male and female. Although the theological reasoning of Aquinas was impeccable, the scientific premise was false. If any part of a premise is false, the conclusions drawn from that premise are necessarily invalid.

II. Scientific Definition (Overview)

A. Historical Perspective

Sexual dichotomy existed throughout the living world for at least a billion years before the arrival of the sexually dichotomous human. The scientific function of the sexual dichotomy is and has always been the perpetuation of the species, be that species anywhere on the tree of life from protozoan to human.

B. Gender and Sex

Although the terms "gender" and "sex" are interrelated and circular in meaning, they should not be used interchangeably to express sexuality.

1. Sexuality is the conscious, subconscious, and unconscious awareness both of one’s physical being and of one’s reproductive niche.

2. Gender is the social manifestation of sexuality – limited by both physical constraints and cultural mores. Gender cannot be unilaterally defined.

3. Sex is both an internal and an external physical manifestation of sexuality – limited primarily from within by both physiology and genetics.

C. Male / Female

It is from the definition of sex that the present concepts of male and female are derived. It is also from the definition of sex that the concept of a male/female polydimensional continuum is derived.

III. Male / Female – A Polydimensional Continuum

Sexual identity – the physical expression of sex – is a polydimensional continuum, covering the expanse from male to female in at least six different areas: external genitalia, internal gonadal structure, chromosomal identity, genetic expression, nervous system response, and hormonal response.

According to the historical concept of dichotomy, sexual identity is determined by gross observation of the external genitalia. The person is then declared to be male or female. Present scientific knowledge, however, reveals that this gross observation is not sufficient for determining sexual identity.

Numerous cases exist where the external genitalia are apparently male, but the internal gonadal structure is definitely female. Other cases exist where the external genitalia are apparently female but the internal gonadal structure is male. Are these persons male or female? Where do these individuals fit in relation to male only ordination? Since this phenomenon has only come to light in recent years, it is certainly plausible that many apparently male persons with female internal structures have been ordained. It is equally plausible that many apparently female persons with male internal structures have been denied ordination.

On the chromosomal level, it can be said that the presence of the XX chromosomal complement indicates that the person is female, while the presence of the XY chromosomal complement indicates that the person is male. But, this test does not stand up to scientific scrutiny either.

Some chromosomally XX people are internally and externally male. Some chromosomally XY people are internally and externally female. The reason some people are for classical purposes physically male and some people for classical purposes are physically female is the presence of a gene, the SRY gene. SRY stands for Sex determining Region of the Y chromosome, and this is the gene responsible for the development of male characteristics. The SRY gene is usually found on the Y chromosome (the male chromosome). Sometimes the SRY gene attaches to a different chromosome; sometimes it is lost. Should these XX males and XY females be classified as male or female?

In addition to these factors, the genetics of sexual identity includes questions about people with non-standard chromosome numbers, people who are sexual mosaics, people who are overt or covert hermaphrodites. How are these people identified? What should be done with those who have been ordained in the past?

IV. Present Position

Does the physical requirement for ordination come down to one little piece of DNA – the SRY gene?

Which criterion for determining maleness and femaleness should be used? Why should that criterion be used? Why should other criteria be negated?

Why is it that one particular piece of DNA is essential for ordination? If it is essential, are all ordinations of persons who did not have this gene to be invalidated?

V. Call to the Church

Before continuing the present position of the Church regarding male only ordination, the Church must define male. The Church must also justify which criterion it is using to define male.

If the Church does not define male, the Church is ignoring a basic tenet of both logic and argument – the identification of terms used.

If the Church does define "male" but fails to take into account the present understanding of both sex and gender in relation to that definition of "male," the Church will continue to lose credibility. By ignoring scientific research, the Church could easily repeat the problems caused by the Galileo incident.

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