Thursday, February 10, 2011

Women's Ordination and Abolition of Celibacy: Probing the Theological (and Gender) Issues

It's instructive to read Mary Hunt's latest essay at Religion Dispatches, which asks if women priests will change the Catholic church, side by side with a number of articles that have appeared in the days following the Thomas Euteneuer story, all of which focus on the need of the Catholic church to reconsider its ban on non-celibate clergy.  Recently, Alberto Cutie, a former Catholic priest in Miami who left the Catholic church to marry last year when his relationship to a woman became known, and who is now an Episcopal priest, published a statement about his new book Dilemma: A Priest's Struggle Between Faith and Love.

Cutie argues that a "culture of (open) secrecy" is alive and well in the clerical sector of the Catholic church, and that many priests are involved in relationships with adults, about which bishops often know, and which they tolerate as long as the relationships remain secret--even when their secrecy is an open secret within clerical ranks.  Cutie also cites the case of Fr. Euteneuer, maintaining that Euteneuer was involved in "some sort of sexual relationship with an adult woman" about which both church officials and his own employer, Human Life International, knew but refused to disclose information until forced to do so.

Maureen Fiedler has made a similar point, arguing that Euteneuer's story is "nothing new," but is an old story--priest breaks vow of celibacy--regarding priests violating their obligation of celibacy with adult women.  Fiedler recently interviewed Cutie, who maintains that, in addition to maintaining open secrets about the many priests involved in relationships with other adults, the hierarchy officially frowns on gay seminarians while knowing full well that seminaries are full of gay candidates for ordination, and that there is a "Pink Mafia" within the hierarchy which promotes and protects gay priests and bishops.

Both Fiedler and Cutie call for the church to reconsider its demand that priests commit themselves to celibacy in order to be ordained.  And I say it's instructive to read these post-Euteneuer articles side by side with Mary Hunt's essay on women's ordination for the following reason: in Hunt's view, abolishing the vow of celibacy is hardly all that the Catholic church needs to do in order to return the priesthood to some semblance of scriptural and theological cogency.

It needs, instead, to reconsider the meaning of priestly ministry by placing clerical ministry within the context of the priesthood of all believers--within the context of what Hunt calls the communitarian dimension of ministry, in which all Christians, ordained and non-ordained, are involved.  And it needs, therefore, to link ordination and clerical life to the many forms of ministry within the Christian community that challenge the domination of one group of people by another, of poor people by rich people, of women by men, of gay people by straight ones.

Hunt is dubious about the push to ordain women as long as the structures of clerical life remain intact within the Catholic church, and as long as the insupportable theological foundation on which these structures rest remains unquestioned.  Her fear--and in my view, she is absolutely correct to wonder about this--is that ordaining women while the current structures and the present theology of priestly ministry remain unchanged will only plug women as objects into a badly faltering clerical system that needs warm bodies to fill holes.

It will only, that is, succeed in exploiting women even more than they are already being exploited by the Catholic church.  And it will replicate, with female bodies, a toxic theology of priesthood in which priests are little lords in the kingdom of Catholicism, and lay people are their surfs.

And in my view, Cutie's critique tends in precisely that direction--though I strongly support the drive to make celibacy optional within the Catholic church.  In my view, Cutie's understanding of the gender dynamics within the Catholic church rather uncritically bolsters popular cultural preconceptions about the roles of men and women in the world, in which men predictably come out on top and women on bottom.

I don't hear--I don't see--the radical edge of gender critique in Cutie's story that, in my view, is absolutely indispensable for the reform of the Catholic church and of all Christian churches that have invested so heavily, at this point in history, in gender roles that accord higher status to men and second-tier status to women.  And it is for this reason, I think, that Albert Cutie is spectacularly missing a key point in Fr. Euteneuer's story, which cannot be missed if we want to understand the story aright and make it the beginning of an honest and fruitful conversation about the church we have become at this point in history.

That point is this: Thomas Euteneuer was not just any heterosexual priest involved in "some sort of relationship" with a consenting adult woman.  He was a high-profile, glamor-boy priest (not unlike Cutie himself) who gained extraordinary power and privilege by playing the gender game right, and by presenting himself as a symbol of machismo in the many Catholic media circles that high-profiled him.

And he turned around and used that power and privilege--and the macho status that bought the power and privilege--to abuse a woman or women under his pastoral care.  Far from being a consensual adult relationship, his relationship was, per his own statement about it, one that took advantage of his pastoral charge of a vulnerable woman.  It was, in short, an abusive relationship and not a healthy adult relationship, and abusive in a quite specific way that regards women as objects to be used by heterosexual men, who are entitled to dominate and use women precisely because they are "normal" heterosexual men. 

And the only reason Catholic liberals are now defending that "adult" relationship is this: a surface reading of it reinforces the gender stereotypes, and the unhealthy and erroneous assumptions about sexual orientation, on which much liberal Catholic analysis of the Catholic church depends.  Analysis in which a vicious pink Mafia of closeted gay bishops have turned the priesthood into a misogynistic enclave of gay, women-hating priests.

Which needs real men, married men, to reform it, men of the ilk of Alberto Cutie.  And, God help us, Thomas Euteneuer. 

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