Almost Holy: Confessions of a Bad Catholic
Down by the River
Those of you who follow Catholic news might have heard about a ceremony last week in Pittsburgh. It took place in a boat, on a river… with tangerine trees and marmalade skies.
Forgive the Beatles’ allusion, but the intended purpose of the exercise was about as trippy as Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds: twelve women claimed that the Pittsburgh event marked their “ordination” as priests and deacons.
Sorry to be a killjoy, but not so fast.
The Survey Says
Of course, a sensitive topic like this takes a bit of explanation. If you look at the polls, you’ll hear that 70% of Catholics questioned would support a change of the Church’s teachings to allow the ordination of women to the priesthood.
In the days before Gallup, an ancient ruler in the Middle East once took a poll of his own. Hearing the leanings of the crowd, he went ahead with their will… and crucified Jesus. So remember that polling isn’t always the best means of policy-setting.
The beauty of any faith, but especially this one, is that it isn’t something we make or alter on our own or by consensus. No matter where we find ourselves in the billion-plus Catholic fold, none of us are its masters. If this is news to you, that’s understandable: the Church of today has done an abysmal job of presenting this message, but that doesn’t change the fact that our task is to be the stewards of something handed on to us—a Tradition so important we use a capital “T” for it. As it’s given to us, we’re responsible to pass it on to those who come after us, intact at its core and stronger and purer than we found it.
This faith—at least, when it’s communicated correctly—is something that inspires us to go out into the world, to lift it up, to serve those who need it, to heal, to bridge, to seek out the lost, to take all comers, and to do all this with the guidance and encouragement of knowing that Deus caritas est, “God is love”; not so much the recent encyclical of the same name, but that simple message handed on from the early Church.
Even if 99.9% of those queried sought it, ordaining women is one of those things the Church can’t do. As Catholics, we believe that the priesthood takes its origin from the Last Supper of Holy Thursday, when Christ instituted the Eucharist and charged the Apostles to “do this in memory of me”—a mandate that, over time, came to include preaching and the broader functions of sacramental ministry.
From the Gospels, we know that Jesus broke more than just a few of the social conventions of his day, especially in the role played by women in his public life and ministry. Having had a woman in the room for the Last Supper would have been just another taboo defied. However, it didn’t happen. Far too often, this teaching has been used to justify misogyny, sexism and discrimination against women—it didn’t take long for some on the Church’s rightward fringe to disparage and lampoon the women taking part in Monday’s ritual. When that happens they aren’t speaking for the Church any more than the participants were on that boat last week.
Then again, some of you might be asking yourselves, who could blame the Pittsburgh 12? In a world where glass ceilings continue shattering all around us—and rightly so—shouldn’t we be celebrating that a further push is being made for equality in the Church?
It’s a misleading question: All of us are equal to begin with. But yet again, the Church has, by and large, done an awful job presenting that message. Consequently a lot of people think that the only way they can optimally serve is to seek the priesthood.
To put it simply, nothing could be further from the (Big “T”) Truth.
Over the forty years since the close of the Second Vatican Council, great strides have been made in many places to more fully encourage and integrate the gifts and talents of laypeople in the life of the Church. In its ministries of education, communications, health care, social services, parish operations and even, in some dioceses, the prominent office of Chancellor—reserved to priests until the 1980s—the work of the Church has been enriched beyond measure by the wealth of commitment, brilliance and effectiveness shown by its laity who, at great sacrifice, have chosen to serve in the Catholic equivalent of “internal affairs.” Not to mention that they’re more interesting, inspiring and intelligent than a lot of the clerics I know.
While these fruits of the collaboration are borne out in many places, others have had leadership that sees the Church’s business as belonging to none but the men in black. And when that happens, not only does it make for what the Italians call a brutta figura—that is, a bad appearance; in this case, one of imbalance—but it sends the message that the Church places a lower regard on the talents and desire to serve of its lay faithful than it does on those of its priests.
This school of thought, commonly referred to as “clericalism,” goes a lot deeper than can be described in this space. Far too often, though, it bears its consequences early, when many young people with an interest in Church are reflexively expected to be priests/sisters-in-the-making, and unintentionally let down others when that doesn’t turn out to be the case. While priestly and religious vocations are always a much-desired need and deserve our wholehearted support and prayers, the best way to cultivate them is for them to be the natural product of a well-formed whole, as opposed to the result of a two-track method of outreach that only serves the purpose of dividing a Church which is already needlessly divided enough.
Yet again, those divisions bore their fruit on Monday, when a group— lending credence to the deficient message that the only role that “counts” in Catholic life is priesthood—gave that mindset a victory it didn’t deserve.
One of the group offered her first “Mass” in a United Methodist Church. That doesn’t sound terribly Catholic to me, and it’s further proof that the fracture caused by this latest development counters the mandate of Jesus: that “they might be one.” If we can’t find unity around the Lord’s table, we’d be hard-pressed to find it anywhere else. And when the priesthood becomes an object of polarization and politics as opposed to a means of communion and service, it betrays its very reason for being.
The Church’s ways aren’t always our own, its teachings might not always be what we would wish, and living within its life can often make for quite the interesting journey. But whether we walk it as clergy, religious, or laity, female or male, whether we’re at a difficult patch or smoothly cruising along, we need to be reminded more often that our identity comes not from the role we play in the grand scheme of it all, but in our journey together as the People of God.
When we lose that, we lose everything. And, now more than ever, it’s a loss we can’t risk.