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The Catholic Women's Ordination Debate

When Women Become Priests

The Catholic Women's Ordination Debate

by Kelley A Raab,
Published by Columbia University Press, 2000.
A review by Doreen Wyatt

Click here to read Chapter 5, “Christ as a Woman”
Copyright C 2000 Columbia University Press. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

The title of this book immediately attracted me: When Women Become Priests – no if, buts or maybes, but When – so I was a little disappointed initially to discover that what Raab was primarily examining was what has happened and is happening in the Episcopalian Church with the advent of women priests and bishops. However, she goes on to apply this experience and understanding to what would happen in the Catholic Church at some point in the future.

Dr Raab is an assistant professor of Religious Studies and her book is a deep read, drawing as it does on psychological constructs such as Freudian concepts of the unconscious, object relations theories and French feminist psychoanalytical thinking; it will also be uncomfortable for those who do not wish to engage with issues of humanity such as menstrual blood and sexuality in relation to sacrament and priesthood. However, Raab does present us with a detailed reflection on precisely what differences might be expected, both at the conscious and sub-conscious level, when we experience a woman presiding at the altar during a celebration of the Eucharist. Unfortunately she restricts her exploration almost entirely to that Liturgy and what it would mean for priest and parishioners alike. Had she not limited her argument to issues surrounding a women’s presidency at the Eucharist, many of her object relations theories might be further developed very effectively with regard to women’s particular aptitude to priesthood and Church leadership as a whole. I would like to have read of the wider implications of the ministry of a women priest, other than simply in relation to the Eucharist, but perhaps that is for another book………

Much of her research is supported by interviews with fifteen priests and three laywomen in the Episcopal Church, which has ‘officially’ ordained women since 1977; the significance of the use of the word ‘officially’ becomes clear at the end of the book. She uses an Episcopalian church study because, in the West, the Episcopalian church is considered to be closest to Roman Catholicism in its theology, liturgy and church structures. Of these fifteen priests, four were male. She initially interviewed them in 1988-89 and then interviewed them again in 1998 and asked them about things such as their own reactions to women at the altar, the reaction of parishioners with regard to women celebrants, what differences there might be between a Eucharist celebrated by male or female priests and what changes women clergy might be bringing to the Episcopal Church. This appears to be a small sample given that there were about 3,000 ordained women priests in the United States at the time of publishing.

Having said that, When Women Become Priests is an in-depth study of the subject uniting, as it says on the back cover, ‘feminist criticism, psychoanalysis, and Catholic theology’ in which Raab ‘explores the symbolic implications of women at the altar, providing rich insight into issues of gender, symbolism, and power’. The substance of her argument is presented in five chapters which examine what she considers to be the main ideas pertinent to the debate about women’s ordination - Gender Reversal, Maternal Envy, Sacrifice, Christ as a Woman and Gender, Sex and God – ideas which provide a framework within which she can interpret her data on Episcopalian women priests.

Gender Reversal examines the Vatican’s reasoning behind its prohibition of women in Holy Orders. It is the name she attributes to ‘a pervasive type of male dominance of women’ which occurs in the context of the Catholic Eucharist when the traditional (and low value) female roles are appropriated by men (where the same role takes on a high value) and are subsequently barred to women. The Vatican’s ‘natural resemblance’ argument against women priests picks out one particular feature of Jesus, his maleness, to the exclusion of others – his Jewishness, blood group etc. The (female) feeding and nurturing aspect of the Eucharist is denied to women precisely because of their female gender, yet these same activities are sacred when performed by men in the context of the Eucharist.

Raab argues that gender reversal is deeply rooted in a fear of the archaic mother figure and this maternal theme is further explored in the chapter on Maternal Envy. Here she demonstrates that the Freudian, Oedipal phase of childhood, based largely on the relationship of the child with its father supports the belief that the male is normative and the female inferior. Object relations theory, such as that demonstrated particularly by Chodorow, is focussed on social interaction between the mother and infant, rather than on biological drives. Women, as the first carers of their children, will view their boys as ‘other’ rather than as similar to themselves and their very mothering thus perpetuates traditional gender roles. Gender identity becomes more of an issue for men than for women and there is an underlying fear that, if women can become priests, then the male priest’s gender identity is threatened.

For me, the most problematic chapter was that on Sacrifice, and not because of the common notion of sacrifice being closely related to blood-shed, male violence and female victimisation. It will, no doubt, be argued by the conservative wing of the Church that she dwells too much on menstrual blood, rather than the male Christ’s blood shed on the cross. Raab does deal comprehensively with the notion of sacrifice both as expiation and of communion, pointing out that in recent Catholic theology offering is the preferred understanding – communion being most closely associated with offering and expiation with the cultic notion of service. However, no mention is made of the Latin roots of the word ‘sacrifice’ as meaning ‘to make holy’ neither is there any reference to an understanding of the Eucharist as thanksgiving.

She explores the ‘female Christ’ image to great effect and demonstrates how powerful symbols can be in informing and shaping our understanding. The Vatican is determined that ‘woman’ and ‘man’ are simply biologically determined categories and that, simply because of their gender, women will never be able to represent Christ in the Eucharist. Men and women, they say, are equal but different – but the most prevalent female symbols put before us are of Mary and Eve, thus dividing femaleness into either purity or whoredom. A female Christ symbol would pose a threat to these dichotomies; if God is female as well as male then symbols of the incarnational reality of God should reflect this.

Until this point, Raab has discussed the differences that women might bring to the altar primarily in terms of their mothering, feeding, nurturing and relational roles. But this is to limit their modelling of God to strictly maternal roles and the parental image is not always a positive image. In Gender, Sex and God she explores the model of woman priest as the erotic body as well as the maternal body. A male at the altar, particularly in feminine robes, can give the impression of asexuality whereas this is not the case when a woman presides – perhaps partly because there is no gender reversal in evidence. A woman at the altar would raise the issue of Christ as a sexual being – an uncomfortable thought for many Catholics – and yet, as one male Episcopalian priest noted, ‘If sexuality is not part of the human nature which Christ has taken with him into heaven, then it calls into question whether sexuality is redeemed’.

In her final and summarising chapter, Raab reflects on the diminishing numbers of priests in the Roman Catholic Church and both reviews and evaluates the process by which women became priests in the Episcopalian church. She explores the changes that women priests have brought about and presents a number of the many benefits that their presence and ministry would bring. She sees three ways that women are gaining greater symbolic power within the church, ways which should, eventually, lead to their being accepted and officially ordained: firstly, as women pastors in ‘priestless’ parishes; secondly, through the actions of courageous male priests who risk their careers by giving women high-profile leadership roles within the church and, finally, through their celebrating the Eucharist ‘unofficially’, i.e. without consecration by a priest. In the Episcopalian Church, she reflects, ‘through celebrating the Eucharist they [the women] convinced others that women’s ordination was just and also beneficial to the church. In time, Catholic women will do so as well’.

Dr Raab presents a detailed study on the effects that women priests would have on the Catholic Church. The book will delight some and enrage others; I pray that it won’t be too long before we may be in a position to discover for ourselves how accurate her conclusions are.

Click here to read Chapter 5, “Christ as a Woman”
Copyright C 2000 Columbia University Press. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.



There is no more 'man' or 'woman' in Christ. Gal 3,28


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