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Just Where is She Standing?

September 12, 2006

Sr. Joan Chittister, the author of the “From Where I Stand” columns at National Catholic Reporter, published an article last Thursday on the plight of women in patriarchal religion. To illustrate her case, she points to Katie Couric’s rise in journalism and its stark contrast to the inevitable second-class citizenship of Japan’s Princess Kiko. Princess Kiko, despite her royal ties, will never be empress in a country where the emperor traditionally holds a position that the gods reserve only for males. But on the other hand, Couric rises to the top of American journalism with the aid of laws that prevent such sexual discrimination.

So what in the world does the contrasting of these two women (or ‘girls’ as Chittister calls them) teach the contemporary Catholic woman? Though Chittister does not explicitly reveal the signified object of her signs and metaphors, she is clearly pointing to a perceived problem in the Catholic Church and the ‘exclusion’ of women from the priesthood, which bequeaths the notion that God does not express His divinity through ‘girls’. And, of course, the situation in the United States that outlaws such ‘sexism’ has shown us that a woman can hold a position that was once only held by males, and that this woman can be as effective, if not more so, than her male anchoring counterpart. Extending this analogy, what Couric represents for Chittister is that which a Catholic woman could be (‘hard-working, talented, competent and effective’) in a Church that removes all barriers to the full equality of, and ministerial opportunity for, women. Consider her own words, which I will put in red:

The basic problem seems to be that being a Katie Couric simply means that you must be a hard-working, talented, competent and effective woman in a country that has legislated against sex discrimination.

Getting to be ruler of Japan, a once divine position, on the other hand, means you have to have some established relation to God. And God, we are led to believe, does not express divinity in girls. There’s just something about girls that seems to lack what it takes to be divine.

What’s a Catholic woman to do? Whom shall she blame?

It’s not God’s fault, of course. It’s not anybody’s fault really. Things just are what they are. It’s just that it can’t be done because girls are not as good as boys for some reason that no one can discover. Or if they have discovered it, they don’t want to say it because when you say it out loud it sounds so silly. I mean, the answer is that girls are not as good as boys because they’re girls. See what I mean? Silly.

Here is where Chittister is stretching credulity. She introduces a notion of ‘inferiority’ where ever there is no divine expression. Let’s examine this line of reasoning. Let’s imagine that God chooses to reveal himself only through men and never through women. Does this mean that men possess some better quality than women or that God is indicating that there is some extra good in men that is not found in women? Now imagine that God reveals Himself through…I don’t know…say, a burning bush or a piece of bread? Are humans suddenly ‘not as good’ as bushes and bread? But my point here is not relevant within the bigger scope of this topic. Consider these words of Chittister:

Jesus became “man” we are now supposed to say — despite the fact that for centuries we said, “And the Word became “flesh” — as in human. Now, we mean what we mean. The Word became man. Male. No argument about that one. They tell us that they mean “woman,” too, when they say “man,” of course. Except not always.

Who exactly are ‘they’? The idea Chittister expresses here, that to say ‘Jesus became man’ excludes or ignores women in some cases, sounds more idiosyncratic than like an honest evaluation of popular Catholic or even Catholic hierarchical consciousness, the latter of which is no doubt Chittister’s ‘they’. Has Chittister considered the fact that the predicate ‘man’ is a reference to the ‘man’ of Genesis 1:27, which declares (and does not merely adumbrate) that ‘man’ refers to ‘male and female’ together? And is Chittister not aware that the Latin word used (no doubt the favorite language of ‘they’) for ‘man’ is homo (human being) and not vir (man)? Perhaps Chittister should stop imitating Katie Couric in saying ‘they say’ when what she really means is ‘I think’.

Once all the tests are in and there’s not one piece of data to prove that women are less fully human than men, it’s a straight shot to just about anything: scientist, president, corporation executive, heiress, policewoman, doctor, lawyer, whatever. It boggles the imagination what might happen, what has happened.

Maybe they can even be priests! Or bishops (gasp)?!?! So here Chittister has shifted back to the Japan/U.S. narrative (no one ever said a column has to be seamless!). Japan, which is the model for the Catholic Church, is backwards and archaic in its structures of authority, while the U.S. is the model for a Church that responds to the times ([science and technology]/[equality of the sexes and women clerics]).

In the middle of the Rhine River, on the St. Lawrence Seaway, on a boat on a river in Pittsburgh, women who feel called by God to serve the people of God are being ordained beyond legitimate diocesan boundaries. Why? Because they have no other choice. There’s nothing they can do about it. They have no authority to open the theological discussion of whether or not Jesus became “man” — meaning male — or Jesus became “flesh” — meaning human — and the implications of that answer for the life and structures of the church itself.

They have no right to change what God has made immutable.

So that’s that. It’s not their fault.

But it’s still sexist.

Was priesthood really the only option for these women to ‘serve the people of God’? Is service to the people so univocal and monolithic that no one but clerics are doing real service for the Church?

Was Jesus not male? Was he an androgen? It seems that Chittister’s assertion that ‘they’ exclude women from the priesthood because ‘they’ say Jesus was male would also mean that ‘they’ must also say that women are excluded from salvation altogether since it was achieved by a ‘male’. Of course, this is nonsense, as is Chittister’s entire portrayal of what ‘they’ (I still don’t know who ‘they’ are) say.

I’d be curious to know where ‘they’ have taught that women cannot be priests simply because Jesus was male. Last I checked, the only time gender was mentioned with regard to an all-male priesthood in John Paul II’s Ordinatio Sacerdotalis is where the former Pontiff cites the example of Jesus selecting males, not being male. The problem with Chittister is that she convolutes the issue, attempting to juxtapose and merge themes (exclusion and inferiority) in order to appeal to her reading constituents, thereby doing them a true disservice. But what Chittister must face is the fact that it is much easier to knock down a political strawman than it is to refute a theological scrimshaw.

From where I stand, the answer is clear. It’s not only what sexism says about women that’s wrong. It’s what sexism says about God that is the problem. Sexism says that femaleness is the only thing in creation before which God is powerless. It says that the God who parted the Red Sea, drew water from a rock and raised the dead to life goes impotent before a woman. It says that the only substance on earth that God cannot or will not work through is a female. Poor God.

Lucky for us, we don’t have an emperor.

Yes, but unfortunately we do have a Pope, which completes Chittister’s Japan/Catholicism analogy.

Her earlier remarks seem to absolve both humanity and God from the blame for women’s exclusion and inferiority. Apparently there is a third entity at work here that has a life of its own: sexism. But from what does this so-called sexism stem? I understand Chittister’s attempt at irony, but her point is clear: if women are not permitted to represent God in the fullness of all ecclesial ministry, then sexism is the rule of the Church and women are taken to be inferior to men. But has Chittister not only asserted that sexism seems to be the rule of the Church without demonstrating her case?

And where do find exclusion and inferiority as synomous? If they are not synomous, does exclusion imply inferiority? And if so, must we not admit that men are inferior to woman since men are excluded from certain charisms and ministries that are peculiar to women? So if women are inferior to men, and men are inferior to women, does that make us all even?

Perhaps these are the wrong questions being asked. Is ‘exclusion’ even the appropriate term? Are women actually ‘excluded’ from the priesthood and the Church hierarchy? Perhaps, we ought to reorient the discussion toward understanding the meaning and function of gender. After all, how can we toss around terms like ‘male’ and ‘female’ in an effort not simply to bridge the ‘gender gap’, but to fill it in completely if we do not first understand what the origin of the distinctions between male and female are in the first place? And, I regret to say to Chittister, this is not something that mere ‘tests’ can clarify for us.

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