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Why were men considered superior? From 'Did Christ Rule Out Women Priests?' by John Wijngaards

3. Why were men considered superior?

From Did Christ Rule Out Women Priests? by John Wijngaards (McCrimmons 1977, 1986).

“The anti-discrimination Act has given opportunities to men and women. This is quite all right as far as I am concerned. Injustices have been committed in the past and it is a good thing the Government is doing something about it.

On the other hand, I feel that this equality thing is greatly exaggerated. Men and women are different. Practically all great thinkers, artists and political leaders have been men. This cannot be a coincidence. Can't we admit that man has an inborn advantage, that there is something in his make-up that gives him an edge over woman? If there are some innate qualities that make men natural leaders in society, it might explain why Christ preferred men to be his priests. Or is this argument far-fetched?”

The argument is certainly not far-fetched though I would not agree with the conclusion implied in one of the last sentences. Before we can discuss the Gospel and why Christ chose men, we should first clear up this question of man's leadership role in society. Quite a lot of research has been done on this topic and the picture that has emerged is quite clear in its major outlines.26

The factors that have shaped the different roles of men and women in society are partly genetic, partly social. Man and woman are physically different and this predisposes them to different tasks. However, as far as leadership and domination go, these seem to have been determined mostly by the common expectations of society. It is mainly 'social myth,' through which a society lays down its own objectives and norms of behaviour, that has effectively dictated the fate of men and women.

In this chapter I will give a short survey of what various sciences have to say about the factors involved. I believe these data to be valuable as background information to our Scripture study. Readers who want to enter straight into the biblical argument, however, could skip this chapter for the time being and revert to it later. if so desired.

The genetic basis of sexual roles

Some people are so fanatic about equality of rights that they seem anxious to minimise the difference between the sexes at all costs. Unisex in clothes and trans-sexual hairstyles witness to a similar tendency. It is doubtful whether a society with more masculine women and more feminine men will be a happier community to live in. What is more, the attempt seems doomed to failure. Men and women are different, both biologically and psychologically. There are inborn traits which dispose them to different tasks in society. Although such differences should not be exaggerated, they are part and parcel of a person's physical and mental make-up. Underneath the prejudices imposed by culture, about which I will speak later, there is a hard core of constitutional variance.

Man's body is much better adapted to rough physical work. In the way man's physique is built, his central and massive body-ness is formed by the chest. Man has broad shoulders and strong arms. Man has much stronger muscles than woman, as is borne out by international sports achievements. In short, man projects an image of strength. Woman, on the other hand, possesses a body that is structured for motherhood. For her the central body-ness is constituted by the womb. 'A woman is what she is because of her womb' (Virchow). The physique of woman is 'more gracious,' obviously evolved in this way to attract the partner by its beauty and to protect the offspring by its reserves in natural energy. It stands to reason that the physical and psychological implications of motherhood dispose the woman to perform certain roles in society rather than other ones.27

Nor is it just a matter of physique. Men and women start life with a different emotional disposition, as has been proved by psychologists in various tests. Before boys and girls can have been influenced by prejudices of the culture to which they belong, they already show different attitudes to their environment. Generally speaking, boys play more roughly, show more aggression, are more inclined to be obstinate, are more easily given to violence. Girls yield more easily and are more affectionate. These findings have been confirmed by studies in different social milieus and cultures. Already in the first three years of life men seem to be more aggressive, women more nurturative in their approach.28

Confirming evidence comes from the comparative study of the behaviour of monkeys, especially that of the primates which are close to man in the pattern of evolution. Among gorillas and baboons, the males impose their authority by aggression. The leader is always a male who claims precedence over others regarding space, food and females.29 An interesting finding is that an injection of the male sexual hormone into young females in the fetal stage produces typically male, aggressive behaviour in the young monkey.30 This kind of research, also performed on rats, gives reason to infer that sexual hormones have a decisive influence on the behaviour of males and females.31 The different dispositions of men and women to aggressive and nurturative tasks would seem to be related to, if not the result of, different hormone activity in the body. The massive increase of the androgen hormone in boys at puberty (from 10 to 30 times the previous level; unparalleled in girls) can demonstrably be related to the increased aggressiveness of the young adolescent.32

The innate differences can also be proved to some extent by the actual division of labour in society. In practically all primitive societies, aggressive jobs are done by men. It is the men who do the hunting, fishing, metal working, weapon making, boat building and so on. The women usually grind corn, gather fruit and seeds, manufacture and repair clothes, and do the work at home. Although part of this may be culture-determined, the fact that the same division of labour is followed in 224 economically primitive societies from all over the world shows that it must be partly based on the biological make-up of men and women.33 This conclusion was recently confirmed by observations in Israel. Concerted and explicit efforts were made to give the same jobs to men and women in the kibbutz communes. In spite of this, men and women are gradually returning to an acceptance of the traditional division of labour. This is even true for the younger generation who have only experienced the practice of equal opportunities and equal work. It is again the men who work in the productive branches, while women more and more join the service branches: cooking, laundering, teaching and caring for children.34

Woman-centred societies

The disposition towards aggressive tasks obviously made man rather than woman a likely candidate for leadership in society. The step from aggression to dominance, however, is neither necessary nor was it universally followed. In many ancient, fruit-gathering societies it was woman, not man, who was considered the centre of the family and of tribal life. And although male dominance became the rule afterwards, some societies have preserved a matriarchal organisation to our own days.

For ancient man, the female, not the male, was the symbol of life and fertility. In the pre-agricultural phase, people did not know the biological function of the male seed. Fertility was attributed to Mother Earth, from which life was seen to spring forth in so many different forms. Undoubtedly from this fundamental experience originated the belief in the Mother Goddess. As far as we know, she is the oldest divinity worshipped by the human race. Belief in her is documented in the mythologies of Oceania, Africa, North and South America, the ancient Middle East and Asia.35 It is supported by the paleontological finding of many female figurines, probably amulets representing the magna mater or fertility goddess. Some of these little statues can be dated as originating in 60,000 BC.36

Among 565 societies whose social organisation was carefully studied, 20% were found to be matrilineal. In these, family membership is transmitted through the woman, not through the man. Name, heritage and descent are carried by the wife, not by the husband. Among them, 84 societies were found to be matrilocal, which means that after marriage the young couple resides with the parents of the bride, not with those of the bridegroom. Anthropologists link this social organisation to an economic situation in which the main property and source of income was the field from which women gather fruits. The centre of gravity for subsistence is fertility. It is the woman who is experienced as the social spindle round which life and daily work revolve.37

Domination by man

Most traditional societies that we know today show a bias towards male dominance. The supremacy of man over woman in our traditional societies is usually ascribed to economic factors. Circumstances required a more forceful form of leadership. Favoured by the genetic factors of strength and aggression, man assumed the leadership role in cattle husbandry, heavy agriculture and urbanisation. The focus on masculine power asserted itself also in religious thinking.

From about 10,000 BC many human societies settled down to agricultural life in small townships. We can hardly exaggerate the far-reaching consequences of this changeover. Instead of depending on what could be gathered freely or obtained by hunting, a community was forced to struggle for its existence by continuous and hard work. Man subjected animals to his use: to carry his loads and plough his lands. Man devised tools with which he could cut materials and build lasting homes. Man fashioned weapons to meet the violence of robbers and enemies. The survival of the town ships that arose depended on the strength of the workman and the valour of the soldier. It was natural that masculine power should assert itself in these new forms of society.38

Among the 565 primitive societies which were specially studied (mentioned above), 375 were found to be patrilocal, i.e., after marriage the family resided with the parents of the bridegroom. Also, membership in the families, with names and property rights, are transmitted through men in 4 out of every 5 societies. In all major societies known in the world at present, social organisation revolves round the man, not the woman.39

The new organisation of society brought with it a new vision of the world and a new understanding of God. From riveting attention on the earth and the power of birth, man began to see the world as a large city created by a Supreme Power. All the creation myths of the ancient religions that are known to us speak of a strong male god who created the world by bringing order in the chaos. Such male gods were considered to reign supreme. They were thought to rule from heaven, to display their power as warriors and supreme craftsmen. Marduk of Mesopotamia and Wodan of the Germanic tribes had the same traits. Fertility, too, was understood in a new light. It was no longer the female animal, but the male animal carrying the seed, that was considered the symbol of fertility. The bull, not the cow, came to be worshipped as the giver of life in the Middle East.40

The difference also manifested itself in a new attitude towards sex. Polygynism became accepted in most societies. Analysis of customs in 200 societies showed that man had appropriated many privileges regarding sex and marriage. Women, on the other hand, were subjected to severe sexual restrictions.41 Sociologists can relate this unequal treatment of man and woman to the rise of autocratic agrarian societies.42

Social myths

When certain values have been accepted by a society, they tend to be strengthened in the course of time by the development of a 'myth' through which these values are justified. In India, for instance, many people are convinced that the so-called castes embody higher or lower forms of human nature. The division of society into priests, warriors, merchants, farmers and outcasts is strengthened by a similar division of functions among the gods. Belief in the possibility of rebirth into higher or lower forms of life according to merit; ancient tales of superior races; superstitious preference for certain bodily traits, such as a light skin; all these confirm the acceptance of inequality. Untouchability, restricting marriage to within the caste, the observance of dietary rules peculiar to each caste and other religious customs, all form a web of convictions and practices that maintains the distinction between the different castes. The sum total of such beliefs, traditions and convictions constitutes the 'social myth' that makes the caste system possible.43

The acceptance of male dominance as a corner-stone of social organisation was reinforced by a variety of forms of the same social myth.

Like the myth supporting caste, the myth of male superiority enshrines much that needs to be discarded. It springs from an outdated view of reality. It perpetuates prejudice. It proposes values no longer acceptable in a metropolitan society.

As soon as children are old enough to learn, society begins to mould their minds into its own pattern of thought. Parents impose their ideas through what they say and do. This also affects the attitude towards man or woman in society. Masculinity and femininity are two of the earliest categories assimilated by a child.44 A study based on 110 present-day societies shows that from the fourth year of age children are pressurised into their future adult role in society. In most societies (85%), achievement and self-reliance are virtues almost exclusively held out to boys. Girls are educated towards nurturance (82%) and responsibility (61%). The values thus inculcated by society become part of the myth by which man and woman judge their own characteristics and task in society.45

The values of a social myth can usually be recognised by the way they are expressed through language. The English language, for instance, employs the same term 'man' to denote the male person and a human being as such. By this, the male person is made the norm for human nature. Woman's nature is seen as something special, as different. It is measured against the norm of humanity found in the male. This same myth which identifies 'male' with 'being human' is also found in Sanskrit, Hebrew, Latin, Greek, French and many other languages. What some Western philosophers (Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas) have stated explicitly, 'Woman is an incomplete man'46, is somehow the unspoken but fundamental conviction in many cultures. Although in fact woman is biologically the preserver of life and a more complete expression of human nature, she remains considered as the second sex, the other' (Simone de Beauvoir).

In England social myth has linked masculinity and femininity to various professions. Mathematicians, physicists and engineers are considered to exercise a 'manly' profession. They are supposed to be rough, hard, valuable, intelligent and dependable. Men novelists, poets and artists, are rated as 'feminine', with the connotation of being sexy, soft, imaginative, warm and exciting. This social rating of different professions may be one principal reason why some professions are avoided by women. Only one out of every five physicists, one of every 300 chemists, one of every 500 electrical engineers is a woman. It is not the physical work or actual ability that determines the choice, but the social conviction. Although many boys and girls have personal talents that lie in an opposite direction, they are themselves psychologically convinced they won't fit into this or that pattern because it does not agree with the social myth.47

Social myth and religion

Recent research on sexual behaviour in Italy disclosed unbelievable prejudices among men. In some cities 50 per cent of adult men commit adultery or have dealings with prostitutes. While excusing this as a weakness, 75 per cent of the same men will strongly condemn sexual relations of women before marriage and adultery indulged in by women. This self-contradictory attitude can be explained from a confused social myth. In popular conviction there are two kinds of women: sexless women (who should be respected) and depraved women (who may be sexually loved). An average husband in this group expects his wife to have no interest in sex (to be 'chaste' as Our Lady) and seeks sexual fulfilment with other women (whom he considers depraved like Eve). It is a mental confusion which is unhappily reinforced by misread scriptural texts and misdirected popular devotions. For women the situation gives rise to severe psychological tensions. She cannot feel herself a true woman without having a guilt complex at the same time.48

It is now generally agreed that Christian theology of sex, chastity, celibacy and marriage was tainted by different cultural myths in the course of the centuries. For many writers in the patristic period anything exclusively belonging to the body, and therefore irrational in stoic terms, was evil. Gregory the Great maintained that intercourse always contained an element of sin and that this element of sin consisted in the pleasure experienced.49 Thomas Aquinas and the Scholastics based much of their theology on a cultural myth that explained marriage in terms of agriculture. The male seed was supposed to carry the complete future human being. Onanism amounted almost to abortion. In procreation, woman's contribution was considered to lie in providing a kind of human 'farm land' in which the male seed could be planted.50

As was stated at the end of the previous chapter, the crucial question in the debate on women priests is whether Christ's decision to choose his apostles only from among men was made in deference to the social myth of his time or not. If the social mentality of people in Christ's time made it practically impossible for him to appoint women as religious leaders in his Church, his choice would not rule out the ministry of women in changed times. If, however, Christ's decision was independent of such conditions, as the Vatican document maintains, and if we have then to conclude that he restricted the ministry to men on theological grounds, then his restrictive choice was meant to be a norm for all time. A dispassionate study of Scripture, which attempts to keep clear from the prejudiced explanations of former ages, should help us to decide the issue.

Go to Chapter 4?

© Copyright 1986 by J.N.M.Wijngaards
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