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The Psychological Roots of Male Resistance to Women Priests, from 'Movement', 1980, Student Christian Movement

The Psychological Roots of Male Resistance to Women Priests

from Movement, 1980, Student Christian Movement, Wick Court, Wick, near Bristol, England. BS15 5RD.

'Just as men can't have babies, so women can't be priests. It's as simple as that.'

These, or similar, words have been spoken aloud at many public gatherings at which the admission of women to the ranks of the ordained clergy has been under discussion. Such statements are usually made by men, who are generally also priests. They invariably provoke applause, laughs or groans according to the predispositions of those in the audience. They also tend to exasperate some supporters of women priests who consider that these kinds of utteranees are emotive, illogical and irrelevant to the issue under consideration.

Those who dismiss the biological difference between men and women as irrelevant to the issue of women in the priesthood to understand its importance as a powerful argument against the ordination of women. But the strength of the argument is not in its rational appeal to observable differences between men and women,but to its subtle appeal to the antagonism which men feel towards women, and women towards men, because of their different biological functions in the reproduction of the human species.

The deepest psychological roots of men's opposition to the idea of women as priests is rooted in this fundamental jealousy which many men show about women's ability to give birth to children. Therc is a very good reason for this sentiment, too. Women have a ready made role in motherhood. They do not need to 'do' anything in order to feel assured of their importance to society. They just have to 'be' someone, for they perpetuate themselves simply by being the mothers of the next generation. Men, on the other hand, have no such obvious part to play in creation. They have to impress themselves on history in other more external ways. From their earliest years men know that they will always have to work outside their homes, that they will have to thrust themselves forward if they are to succeed, that they will have to prove their manhood through coitus, that they will have to bury their seed in a woman's hody if they are to see its fruits in new life.

Until quite recently most men were imprisoned in their social roles. Their 'being' was subordinate in importance to the social functions and status which they could acquire through their work outside the home, and they, therefore, had good reason to feel jealous of women's self-authenticating, self fulfilling role which needed no external validation to assure women of the value of her 'being'.

Most men have been unaware of their fundamental jealousy towards women. Some men have expressed that jealousy in particular ways towards individual women, but in patriarchal societies men have institutionalised their jealousy through their insistence on perpetuating themselves through the transmission of their surnames to their offspring and through patrilineal descent of titles and property. In male chauvinist societies it has become customary for married women to call themselves 'Mrs John Smith', for example. They take their social class and status from their husband's position in society, and in the tax systems of patriarchal societies married women simply do not exist as separate persons, Men and women who want to escape from this institutionalised jealousy have a hard time when they try to go against the system which enslaves them.


Until recently men who wanted to 'be' someone rather than to 'do' things in order to feel valuable to society and the human race could escape the slavery of being men in male chauvinist societies by becoming priests. Priesthood is essentially a contradiction to the male way of life. It is a 'female' role. The priest gives 'birth' to Christ in the symbolic action of the Mass. He acquires a self-authenticating, self-fulfilling role. It is a role which men have been able to feel comfortable with because they could act as women while remaining men, The fact that women were prohibited from becoming priests protected men in that role from losing the virile image which has been important to many of them.

Some priests who are closely identified with their role and think of ordination in terms of priestly 'character' rather than function, are undoubtedly afraid of women becoming priests because women might usurp their character and role, be more successful as priests and bring a natural ability to their work which men have to acquire more painfully, even though they have not had tpo compete with women until recently. They do not say all this, of: course, because they do not know why they feel that women should not be priests, They simply and instinctively feel the threat to their being, status and even employment, so they try to keep women 'in their place' for as long as possible.

Rational argument cannot be used to combat this assumption that biology determines function, nor should it be taken lightly. It affects priests more than laymen, and homosexuals more than heterosexuals. The only way to help men who feel that women cannot be priests because men cannot have babies is to help them to see that the role stereo types which confine both men and women to sexually defined roles outside their biological functions are unnecessary prisons for both and contrary to God's will for those who have been created 'in the image of God'. When men realise that Jesus was not afraid of his androgynous nature and that they can be contemplative, intuitive and introverted without losing their virility, and when women realise that they can be active, rational and outgoing without losing their womanliness then the fear of each other disappears and the barriers between them can come down.


The other big fear that men have about women priests is rooted in the fear that most men have of the power which women can exert over men.

Men are caught in a love/hate power struggle with their mothers from the day of their birth. At first the mother dominates the lives of her children. Later she has to let them go. The girls know that they will grow up to inherit their mother's biological power over the affections and lives of men, but many men feel threatened by their potential need of women for sexual pleasure.

As men grow to maturity they must learn to separate themselves from their mothers. They usually do this by becoming independent and by developing sexual lives of secrecy, particularly from the person who once knew every intimate detail of their anatomy and physiological function. They may respond to their dependency needs by rejecting their mothers, and symbolically escaping from their influence through insisting on dominating other women, keeping them under control and treating them as sex -objects upon whom to vent their lust or hate feelings. In this way both heterosexual and homosexual men can preserve their sense of autonomy and maintain the fiction that women are of no consequence in their lives apart from ministering to men's needs and bearing children.

Not all men feel this way towards women, of course, and many of them learn both to acknowledge their own needs of being mothered and loved and to welcome women as employees, colleagues or employers. It does appear to be true, however, that insecure men fear the advent of women to positions of authority more than secure men who have already accomplished their independence from their mothers successfully, and are, therefore, able to develop new relationships based upon partnership rather than immature relationships, remembered from childhood days.


Women priests are closely identified in their role with spiritual motherhood and with the maternal aspects of God. In one of her discussions when she was visiting England in April 1978 Canon Mary Michael Simpson commented that once men got over their hang-ups' about telling their mothers their sexual sins they found it very helpful to go to women priests for confession. She herself heard many confessions from men and particularly from priests.

Since she is a skilled psychotherapist as well as a priest it is easy to see her ability to fit into such a role in an unthreatening way. Less skilled women might well deter many laymen from accepting their ministry as priests because of the difficulty men have in separating themselves from the tyranny of love for their natural mothers.

These two psychological attitudes are not the only roots of men's psychological resistance to women priests, but they are probably the most important. Certainly they are less well documented and understood than the widespread fear that men have of women's sexuality and power. Whenever pregnant women priests are referred to, for instance, an uneasy laughter is likely to erupt as if there is something vaguely indecent about the linking of pregnancy with priesthood. This laughter is predominantly though not exclusively male.

The psychological roots of men's resistance to women priests are different from those of women in some respects and similar in others. Priests often embody in a particular and symbolic way the combined fears of many other men and women to situations which are unfamiliar and potentially threatening to an established tradition which has become so institutionalised that it has been accepted for many generations without question. This may be one of the reasons why the greatest opposition to women priests comes from clergy, especially those who are insecure and unsure of their own sexual orientation.

These priests, and the men who share their attitudes, become the oppressors of women and themselves because they cannot free themselves from their slavery to fear and prejudice until they confront them in the persons of women priests, ordinands and lay colleagues.

One of the most urgent tasks in the Christian Church today is that of freeing men and women from misconceptions, prejudices and fears about sexuality and its purpose in God's creation. This task cannot be undertaken until men and women can undertake it together as the children and friends of God. The time and opportunity are here. One may hope that the vision and courage to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit is not lacking.

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