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Count me out!

"I would want to be a priest"

Count me out!

[Response to Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (1994) and statements by Cardinal Ratzinger (1995) that discussion on the ordination of women is closed.]

by Melanie McDonagh, journalist on the Evening Standard in London.

From The Tablet, 26 August 1995, pp. 841 - 843.

Reprinted on the Internet with permission from The Tablet. Address: 1 King Street Cloisters, Clifton Walk, London W6 0QZ UK. Tel: 44-20-8748 8484; fax: 44-20-8748 1550; email: thetablet@the tablet.co.uk.

In a way, one should feel flattered. There is an entire United Nations world conference being devoted to the subject of Women and the Pope has addressed a letter to the sex applauding its merits. No doubt there is much to be said for both these things. The subjects being addressed in Beijing will not just be modishly feminist but will include such matters as the wide disparity between the value placed on the labour of men and women in the Third World. No doubt also the conference will point out the wrongness of female infanticide for the benefit of the host nation, where the practice is prevalent. As for the Pope’s letter, it included a guarded apology for the Church’s part in the subjugation of women: “if objective blame has belonged to not just a few members of the Church, for this I am truly sorry”. In addition, of late, in his Angelus addresses, the Pope has addressed the subject of women repeatedly, in preparation for the conference.

There remains a kind of unease about all this. Perhaps the objection is to the essential premise underlying both the conference and the Pope’s response to it, which is that it is possible to talk about the entire sex in this way.

Of course there are very obvious differences between the sexes. I spend much of my time writing about them. And of course women generalise about men, in a colloquial, dismissive sort of way. But it is simply inconceivable that the UN could be organising a conference about Men. It is impossible to imagine the Pope talking about the genius of Men, thanking them for their special role in the world. The reason is that the position of men is taken for granted, assumed to be the norm. You can generalise about women because, somehow, they depart from the norm. They are more emotional, more intuitive, more nurturing than men, or so the stereotype goes. You cannot address men, or write about them, or hold conferences about them, because you end up talking about the human condition - I mean, just take the way the Pope addressed women: “Thank you, women who are mothers....You become God’s own smile upon the newborn child....Thank you, women who are wives....Thank you, women who are daughters and women who are sisters....Thank you, women who work.” If he were to address his own sex in this way men would not know what to make of it. It does not make sense to thank men who work, because until very lately it was men who did the work. And to talk, as he does, about women’s vocation to motherhood, is to define the sex, in the nicest possible way, as being essentially orientated towards reproduction. Perhaps we are, but men too share the parental function. Nobody, however, tries to define men by virtue of their being fathers, no matter how devoted they are to their children.

As a matter of fact, I enjoy the small courtesies that enliven relations between the sexes: the deference that men, in some circumstances, pay to women is a source of pleasure and an expression of civility. And these customs are based, I suppose, on general social assumptions about the sexes. But I find it worrying that women can put themselves in a ghetto in this way, by indulging the gigantic generalisation on which the Beijing conference is based. And the generalisation is that what unites women is greater than what divides them, in terms of nationality, religion, temperament, profession. One does not assume an instinctive solidarity between men by virtue of their sex.

There are certain issues to do with the status of men that would warrant discussion. One is that they do not live as long as women. If the reverse were the case, longevity would be a feminist issue. Another is that in parts of Western Europe, unemployment is a specifically male problem because they are less willing and able to take on the lower-paid, temporary and part-time positions that women fill. But we are unlikely ever to patronise men by holding UN conferences about them. Until lately, men did not even have their own magazines. There were journals for men as sportsmen, as politicians, as pigeon fanciers, as theologians. But it was women who had magazines simply for their own sex; chiefly to do with cooking, beauty, babies and health. Men, you see, did not define themselves just as men.

It is bad enough to have minority status if, by race, religion or whatever, you are actually in a minority. But to pretend to minority status when you are the tougher, healthier part of the population, the part that reads more, goes to prison less and to church more...that is bizarre. And women’s conferences have precisely that effect.

Melanie McDonagh

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