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Misunderstanding of Sexuality and Resistance to Women Priests by Sidney Callahan from 'Women Priests'

Misunderstanding of Sexuality and Resistance to Women Priests

by Sidney Callahan

from Women Priests, Arlene Swidler & Leonard Swidler (eds.), Paulist Press 1977, pp. 291-293.
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions

(Sidney de S. Callahan holds degrees from Bryn Mawr College and Sarah Lawrence College and was at the time a doctoral candidate in psychology at C.U.N.Y. She is the author of many essays and four books, including The Illusion of Eve: Modern Women's Search for Identity and Parenting: Principles and Politics of Parenthood) See also her recent article in Commonweal.

Within the Church we have a disagreement over whether women should be ordained to the priesthood. Both sides are accused of unworthy motives, but it seems clear that both groups are trying to be faithful to the will of Jesus Christ for the Church. We are all straining to hear God’s message, much as scientists attempt to understand and make sense of natural events as signals of reality. As a Christian and a psychologist I believe that God is the ultimate reality and aim of both the theological and scientific quest. The way things are in a natural world which God has created can be of use in discerning what God wants us to do and be. This is especially true when we are arguing about “natural resemblances,” “perceptible signs,” and “symbols imprinted upon the human psychology.”

My case for the ordination of women is simply that I think God wills it as a fitting and appropriate action, faithful to the Lord. Those who would exclude women seem to be unfortunately caught up in a basic misunderstanding of sexuality. Sexual identity and sexual social roles and sexual function have not been kept distinct in their analysis, but more damaging by far has been the elevation and exaggeration of the sexual symbolism of the gospel message. A selective reading of Scripture has been made so that the mystery of salvation has been sexualized, all the while recognizing that God is beyond sexuality and that Jesus is “the firstborn of all humanity.” Indeed Jesus’ example of treating women with a revolutionary equality is given as the basis for encouraging women’s equality in all of society and human culture with the exception of the priesthood. The contradiction and exceptions in the argument are curious. Why is there such a clinging to male gender as so central symbolically that only a male can have a “natural resemblance” to Christ as priest?

The motivation in my opinion is not due to any hardness of hearts but rather to a soft romanticism seeking to protect the importance of mystery, transcendence and symbols with inadequate but very old tactics.(1) In many other religions the arbitrary refusal or irrational demand has often been identified with the holy, when and if Divinity has been apprehended as irrational. In the same way the perception of a principle of dichotomy or absolutely opposite categories is, according to Levi-Strauss and Piaget,(2) a feature of the primitive mind. Day-night, good-evil, earth-sky and, in some cultures, male-female are seen as polar opposites. The need for categorization, clarity and order is so great that many persons and cultures resist the ambiguity of any in-between states.(3) But the evolution of mind and knowledge progresses beyond the surface categorizations of dichotomy, polarity and juxtaposition to deeper structures of unity and complexity.(4) The mystery of life and reality is indeed more awesome and subtle, requiring a more complex scheme than any dichotomy.

Sexuality is an example of a simple polar categorization which is now beside the point. Not only is there obviously a wide diversity of social sex roles possible in varying cultures,(5) but even the psychobiological development of sexual identity is far more complicated than appears on the surface. There exists a relay stage system of sexual development in which first genetic factors, then hormonal influences, then morphological and socio-cognitive factors alternate and mutually influence each other. (6) If one or another influence is delayed, misfires or is affected by an environmental agent a human person is still produced.(7) Sexual differentiation and sexual identity is analogous to an information-processing system in which different signals are given to activate and suppress latent potentials. It seems to be the case that we are all programmed more to a basic species model, and that sexual differentiation can be seen as a fairly minor part of the incredibly complicated growth process, unless a culture chooses to exaggerate differences. Generally the lack of sexual differentiation in the early embryo, infants and small children is again manifest in old age. We begin and end androgynously. The brief period of mating and sexual reproduction is usually the most sexually differentiated period of the life cycle. Even at this period males, as seen in the example of many animal species, are fully capable of nurturance, and always individual within-sex differences are more pronounced than between-sex differences.(8)

Sexual identity is submerged in personal, species and population identity and is ill-suited for bearing the weight of much symbolism in the Church’s life. If nature is being scientifically misunderstood and distorted by specific culture-bound perceptions, then a “natural resemblance” will be seen which is as “perceptible” as the Emperor’s new clothes. In fact the gospel message seems to be giving a very different view, always and everywhere downplaying the importance of gender identity and reproduction in favor of personal affirmations and personal conduct. Jesus is constantly shown requiring personal adherence and disregarding ascribed conditions such as sexual identity, blood relationship, status and class. Jesus is also shown as conceived outside natural sexual conception, transcending sexual mating and reproductive behavior, and finally possessing a mysterious transfigured risen body in a state in which there is no marrying. If male gender was so essential to the economy of salvation, then the savior’s birth, sexual behavior and promised heaven should have been quite different, as it was among the pagan religions. Instead of Divine couples and sexual intercourse we have creation by fiat and the word made flesh. If God is beyond sexuality, and Jesus transcends sexuality and the risen life transcends sexuality as we know it, how can male sexuality in the priesthood be a sacramental sign of the firstborn of the new humanity? It is as symbolically counterproductive and constraining as would be the requirement for animal sacrifices in and only in the temple in Jerusalem.

The question of change and the time sense of the Church is also an issue here. Catholicism has ever tried to conserve the best of the historical past and to be responsive to the Holy Spirit’s promptings and instruction. But in this matter of ordaining women, and in this document in particular, the focus is all on a questionable past model discussed within a static sense of time. There is too little emphasis upon being faithful to Jesus as the risen Christ who makes all things new and awaits us in the future. Since no one knows the day or the hour or the time scheme of salvation, the Church may be in existence for 700 more centuries; should a mere nineteen hundred years’ practice determme the future? In that future it might better be remembered that in the Church’s infancy for thirty seconds it imposed Mosaic practices, for forty minutes it condoned slavery and for its first few hours it excluded women from the priesthood. Women, like the Gentiles and slaves before them seemed different and unsuitable while they were being excluded and barred from full participation.

In actual fact, an all-male priesthood and hierarchy is handicapped by exaggerating the importance of sexual difference and symbolism. Without intimacy with women and fully equal personal working cooperation, sex is seen as a more intimate decisive aspect of personality than it is. Distance creates an overblown romanticism and regression to a primitive dichotomous sexual categorization. In this situation nuptial imagery becomes strangely salient when it is really only one strand in a rich symbolic tapestry including among others word, light, water, rock, vine, way, joy, friend, servant, shepherd. A distorted romantic symbolism might be acceptable by some, but in this case it is actively obscuring the fullness of God’s message. The mystery of life and personal identity does not need the nostalgic remnants of a pagan sexual mystique to sustain wonder. The word become flesh transcends all dichotomies. The infinite graciousness, greatness and variety of God will be perceived more fully and clearly when the priesthood is personal and open to all those whom God saves and chooses for sacramental service.


1. David Burrell, “The Vatican Declaration: Another View,” America, Vol. 136, No 13 (April 2, 1977) p. 289

2. Claude Levi-Strauss, The Savage Mind, tr. by George Weidenfeld (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1966); Jean Piaget, The Language and Thought of the Child, tr. by Marjorie Gabain (New York: The World Publishing Company, 1966).

3. Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: an analysis of concepts of pollution and taboo (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1966, Mary Douglas, Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology (New York: Pantheon Books, 1970

4. Howard Gardner, The Quest for Mind (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1973).

5. Ann Oakley, Sex. Gender & Society (New York: Harper & Row, 1972).

6. R.C. Friedman, R. M. Richart and R. L. Vande-Wiele, Sex Differences in Behavior (New York: Wiley, 1974); B.C. Rosenberg and Brìan Sutton-Smith, Sex and Identity (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1972).

7. John Money and Anke A. Ehrhardt, Man & Woman: Boy & Girl (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1972).

8. Eleanor Emmons Maccoby and Carol Nagy Jacklin, The Psychology of Sex Differences (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1974).

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