He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Fair Questions: Why did I change my position on the ordination of women?

I promised a young friend of mine that I would explain why I no longer make the case that women should be ordained as priests under the same circumstances in which men are ordained in the ancient Christian churches (Eastern Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, and Catholic).

It is understandable to question why I would change my mind on the issue when I had so clearly arrived at the rational and enlightened position, specifically that women were equally qualified for the ordained priesthood and should be allowed equal access to the decision-making power which accompanied that ministry.

So why did I change my mind?  Did I suddenly abandon my egalitarian ideals and give myself up to the rampant misogyny of a culture that treats women as objects?  No.  I'm still quite egalitarian and opposed to objectification in its many hideous forms.  Did I have a bad breakup and start believing that all women are malicious?  No.  Quite the opposite, actually.  I've come to realize how incredibly good and admirable women are, and part of that is because of my experience of relationships with women.

As is my habit, I re-examined my views and over the course of several years realized that my previous thought process had some serious problems.  The first step was that in examining my analytical approach, I found that I was being inconsistent and incoherent in the way I was choosing and applying it.  The second step was to use a coherent and consistent analytical approach to work my way to a conclusion on the question again.  The third step was deepening my understanding of what it is to be human and the differences between men and women.

What standard of evidence do we use?

In the course of arguing in favor of the ordination of women to the priesthood, one of my assumptions was that where there is inequality along gender lines, a positive case should be made to substantiate the decision to allow inequality.  This is actually a pretty good approach to use within an egalitarian political framework, but Christianity isn't a political framework, so why was I using a political analysis rather than a neutral or Christian analysis?  (See the next section below for more detail on that question.)

Realizing that I needed a more neutral standard that could be applied to a wider variety of situations, I changed the standard of evidence such that a positive case was required for anyone at all to be ordained to the priesthood, whether male or female.

When reviewing the evidence, it was fairly clear that the positive case for men being allowed to be priests within Christianity was strong based on the Twelve Apostles selected by Christ being male, the fact that their chosen successors were male, and that the successors of their successors were male for approximately 2,000 years (despite there being at many points highly educated, holy, and humble women who would seem to have possessed the personal qualities desirable in a public minister).

It was also fairly clear that the positive case for women being allowed to be priests within Christianity was not nearly as robust.  There is a mention of a woman in what seems to be some sort of leadership role in the Epistles, and there is a history of deaconesses in the early Church who performed limited liturgical functions.  Of course, the insistence in the Epistles that a woman should not be given authority to teach seems to cut against the idea that they would be allowed in the priesthood, but perhaps it was simply a culturally-specific prohibition rather than a universal one.  After all, women were unlikely to be given the education necessary to teach in the culture of the day.

Though the positive case for allowing men to be ordained and the positive case for allowing women to be ordained are clearly different in strength, none of this is particularly definitive.  The answer seems to hinge more on another question...

What does it mean to be a priest?

Any good analysis of a problem should start with precise definitions, and this is an area in which I failed pretty spectacularly.  My understanding of a priest's role was not completely simplistic, but the way I defined it for the purpose of answering the question at hand was primarily as "the person with the power in the parish" or "the leader of the Christian community" (with the understanding that leadership was about having power).

I have since come to a much more accurate understanding of the ancient Christian view of priesthood, and in particular of Christian leadership.  In the Christian moral framework established by Christ, the leader is the one who is first to wash the feet of others as He did at the Last Supper.  The leader in the Christian worldview is the servant of all, the one who is called to serve humbly, to humble themselves by placing themselves below others and giving all they have to benefit others.  Or as it is occasionally referenced, "the first shall be last..."

The political understanding of hierarchy is inverted in the Christian worldview; the leader does not stand above the rest of the Church which is responsible for the leader, but rather the leader kneels below the rest of the Church supporting them because the leader is responsible for acting to restore their well-being.  For example, this is why the Roman Catholic Pope is called the Servant of the Servants of God.

In light of this correct definition of Christian leadership, it becomes clear that my previous definition of priesthood as Christian leadership was importing a definition of leadership from the political realm as I was familiar with it and substituting the political understanding of leadership for the Christian one.

My conclusion based on the incorrect definition of leadership was that women were simply being denied access to decision-making power by not being ordained at equal rates relative to men.  When I corrected my definition to make it coherent with Christianity, I had a much more difficult question with which to wrestle as a man:

Is it true that only men are called to humble themselves in a special way as distinct from the way in which women are called to humility?  If so, then is this because women are inherently greater than (at least some) men and deserve our service as men?  Is this because some men are defective in a way that women are not?  And whether we answer either of those questions, why is some authority and a certain faculty granted to those who act as Christian leaders in the priestly capacity (perhaps in spite of their defects)?

Are men inferior to women?

This is a question that as a man I really want to answer firmly with a resounding, " No!"   Sacred Scripture makes it fairly clear (both in the Gospels when men are called to serve all with humility at the Last Supper and in the Epistles when Paul discusses the duty of men to behave in a radically self-giving way toward their wives) that men need to humble themselves and serve women, loving them as Christ loved the church, which is to say living in love for them unto death, ultimately dying for them.  Women are called to obedience, humility, and self-giving as well, but why the extra self-giving for men?  Why do men need to go the extra mile?

I am reluctant to conclude that Christianity proposes that men are inferior to women because we men are called to humble ourselves in a special way to serve women.  So why was I so willing to believe that Christianity proposes that women are inferior to men because (I assumed) that women are called to humble themselves in a special way to serve men?

That was mostly because I was assuming that some fallacious straw man arguments were correct, and I will cover my failures in that area later.

Why do men need to humble themselves more than women?

The inclination of men is to not believe that we are defective, to refuse to concede that we are weaker than women in any way.  Our self-concept is often that of the strong and confident warrior who will never break down.  But the scientific evidence strongly suggests that in some critical ways, we are indeed weaker.  It's fairly well-known that women live longer on average than men, for example.  It is less well-known (to scientists, at least) that there are certain significant differences in how men and women evaluate risk.  For those of us who are not scientists, this point may be more obvious.  For women, it's probably also obvious how laughably stupid men become in the presence of women they find attractive.

None of this is to deny that women have many difficulties and frailties as well; all of us human beings have a large share of cognitive, perceptual, and medical issues.  It's also clear that men on average have distinctive weaknesses, weaknesses which may complement the weaknesses of women and are quite different from them.  One of those on-average weaknesses turns out be a lack of humility.  We are less willing on average to accept our weaknesses, especially in light of the strengths of others.

It turns out that we men are indeed often in need of additional work in learning humility, and so the Christian call to men to humble ourselves more deeply than women makes a great deal of sense.

That being the case...

Why does the call to humility come along with authority?

It can be tempting to answer this question by pointing to Jesus, who humbled Himself more profoundly than anyone else while being the ultimate authority and exercising that authority, albeit as one presiding in love.

Or we could go back even further to Adam, the first man, who was a giant idiot in the presence of the first woman.  It was fairly clear that Eve was created to be his companion and serve him, and some have made the argument that women are inferior on this basis.  Interestingly, these arguments are made quite commonly by people who don't believe the Bible is authoritative along with the usual misogynistic suspects who are attempting to use the Bible to justify their mistreatment of women.

At one time, I also believed that the standard Christian view was that women are inferior based on Eve's actions in the Garden of Eden.  It turns out that I was wrong, and in an embarrassingly obvious way.  Had I bothered to take a quick look at the Vatican website, I would have found out that the Catholic Church calls the sinful events of the Fall "Adam's sin" and Paul attributes the responsibility for the Fall to Adam.

So why would the Church call it Adam's sin while admitting that both Adam and Eve committed a personal sin?  For a very simple reason: he was in charge, which in the Christian view is another way of saying that he had a serious obligation to serve her and was responsible for her care.  Instead of using that responsibility to prevent her from committing a grave sin, he joined her in it and brought the consequences upon them both.  So is the man being picked on unfairly here?  Shouldn't the Church take the view that Adam and Eve were equally at fault?

To understand why the person who has the responsibility to serve others and care for their well-being  should also have a corresponding measure of authority, we do not need to go back to Jesus or Adam.  Consider a public school classroom in which a teacher is there to serve the educational needs of the students and care for their well-being.  How well could the teacher care for the well-being of the students without the authority to set boundaries on their behaviors that might cause harm to themselves or other students?  Who is blamed when the teacher fails to protect the students from harming themselves?  Yes, the student may get some of the blame, but it is the teacher who will get most of the blame because they are the responsible party.

And who would argue that the authority of the teacher implies that the students are lesser in value because they lack authority?  If anything, most of us would value the children more highly than the teacher and put the children's well-being first.  This is precisely how Christian authority is intended to work as demonstrated by Christ; the person in authority acts for the good of those in their care and puts them first.  Those who seem to be last in the eyes of the world are first in the eyes of Christ.

What authority does a priest have?

As a young man I had a very wrong impression about the authority of a priest, both in its proper scope and its practical limits; I thought it looked pretty grand.  The Catholic Encyclopedia has an excellent article on the priesthood that helped correct some of my misconceptions.  Reading Canon Law helped me to understand the situation better as well.  It turns that the amount of obedience expected of a priest is far greater than the authority granted.

A priest must, according to Vatican II, not change the liturgy on his own authority.  Instead, he is required to obey the liturgical norms set out by the Church.  The priest must obey his bishop, his immediate superiors in any religious order of which he is a part, and the Pope.  The priest must also obey by instructing people from the teaching of the Church rather than from pure personal opinion.  He must administer sacraments to those who need them and must obey Church law by denying the sacraments to people when required by the law.  The actual scope of authority of a priest turns out to be quite narrow.

Anyone wanting to be a priest is signing up for a whole lot of obedience and not much power, which is not to say that there are not men who have tried to enter the priesthood for ignoble purposes.  Like any other vocation, it looks a lot more glamorous than it is when you're looking at it from far away and don't understand the daily work.  And there are certainly priests, Bishops, Cardinals, and Popes who have seemed more interested in using their authority for personal gain than living out Christ's call to radical service to others.

As in the case of Adam, their responsibility comes with a corresponding increase in blame when they fail to live out Christ's example, as it should.  The consequences for their failure to serve others so as to help them reach salvation fall upon them harshly, according to St. John Chrysostom and others.  The blame does not fall upon those who are led astray by those in authority, but on the shepherd who neglects his sheep.  This is a risk that is taken by the Christian leader, that in taking on greater authority, they also take on a greater risk of condemning themselves by their actions which do not model Christ's care for His flock.

And while many people believe the myth that priests rule with absolutely unquestioned authority, their authority does not imply that they should never be questioned or corrected, according to St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine.
“It must be observed, however, that if the faith were endangered, a subject ought to rebuke his prelate even publicly.”
St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica II, II, q. 33, a. 4

“Augustine says in his Rule: ‘Show mercy not only to yourselves, but also to him who, being in the higher position among you, is therefore in greater danger.’ But fraternal correction is a work of mercy. Therefore even prelates ought to be corrected.”
St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica II, II, q. 33, a. 4, Sed Contra.
Given that they are subject to correction by those in their charge , I'm not so sure that people should be looking forward to being a priest for authority's sake.  As with any other vocation, it makes the most sense to do it because you love it and are called to it.

So what's the reason for my change of mind?

As with most of my changes of position, there was no silver bullet argument that brought down my previous argumentative edifice.  But when many of my premises were revealed to be incorrect and my analytical approach ill-fitting, that made it impossible to go back to the same starting point.  And unsurprisingly, choosing the premises and analytical approach more carefully to mitigate my confirmation bias forced me to confront the fact that my views were incoherent with Christian thought and could not be sustained without rejecting fundamental aspects of Christian teaching.

In order to persist in my views, I would have needed to reject Christ's understanding of leadership and accept a purely or mostly political understanding of leadership to put in its place.  And how would I reject Christ's understanding of leadership (or accept the idea that Christ did not actually choose men for those roles) without rejecting Sacred Scripture as authoritative?  And if I reject Sacred Scripture as authoritative, how do I have any evidence of what Christ would propose as a model or leadership?  Would I not be forced to believe that he existed as a historical person, but remain agnostic on the question of his views in the absence of evidence I could accept as persuasive?

I could choose to persist in my belief that women should be ordained priests or face the fact that my views were an implicit rejection of Christianity, abandoning my difficult faith in favor of a much easier uncertainty.  I could not do both.  And so I took a position that I knew would probably cause me to be labeled a misogynist by some feminists and a purveyor of misandry by some men's rights activists.

Not a comfortable position, but my experience has been that being coherent is seldom comfortable because it requires us to look at the evidence and then reason our way to a conclusion.  As human beings, we are much more comfortable assuming our conclusions are true and finding a way to shift the evidence to support our conclusions, which is exactly what I was doing before.

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