A few weeks ago, I came across a very small but significant story in our military newspaper; Stars and Stripes. Hidden on page “nowhere”; between the comics and the commercials was a blurb about nuns in the Vatican. Apart from the fact that it sounded like a Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway musical, it was an eye-opener. That little unobtrusive article opened up questions about faiths that refuse to acknowledge women on equal footing as men in both ministry and prayer. Some faiths go as far as not recognizing women’s participation in congregational prayer; they prohibit them from sitting in close proximity or in the same breathing vicinity to men. Which leads to another insidious question: why as women are we good enough to lead the corporate and political world but not God’s? What are we lacking? What sets us apart?
The Vatican article disclosed the disturbing fact that nuns assigned to Vatican “duty” are in servitude to the male clergy. They rise at dawn to prepare breakfasts for the clergy, and seemingly go to bed late at night still catering to the male clergy. Duties include and are not limited to preparing meals, doing housework, and washing clothes. The whistleblower in a “habit” who wishes to remain anonymous (for obvious reasons), went public hoping for change. Good luck to her. Not to be out done by nuns; that same week, a blogger(who I presume is of Judeo faith),opined on this newspaper that women were being asked to move or change seats on airlines because Haredi Jewish men refused to sit next to them. Charming. Although the blogger’s experience ended up positive (in her opinion, and because she did not mind moving), other women’s experiences were not as rosy. The female degradation in the name of God spans around the globe and laterally in all predominant faiths. We do not even need to discuss Islam; a long story for another day.
Being Catholic and of an inquisitive mind, I decided to go to the source, and ask the inevitable question: why are women still treated as second class citizens in the Catholic Church? More accurately: why can’t women be priests in the Catholic Church? I asked these questions of a good friend who also happens to be a “man of the cloth”. Albeit uncomfortable, he was eager to broach the subject and accommodate my inquisitiveness. But half an hour into the conversation we were neither closer to an answer nor within a reasonable viable explanation. Eventually, his stammering answers resembled a pseudo rendition of Fiddler on the Roof and Tevya’s rendition of: “Tradition”. Tradition seemed to be the catalyst for discrimination against women becoming priests. Who’d have thought!
I could have accepted numerous theological nuances that defined my specific role as a woman in my faith and church. But that was lacking. Instead the discussion was primarily about Christ’s choice of apostles: all men. The four gospels were written by men. Peter as leader of the church; was a man. Therefore, according to the theological logic of my faith and church, we must inevitably conclude that Christ and Christianity should be run by men. My friend’s argument that men followed and men were chosen could not be disputed; but I pointed out that at the time of Christ, who was a Jew, only men had the power to make personal decisions for themselves and the women in their families. Women were excluded from any decision making to include worship. I also reminded my good friend that it was women who remained with Christ at his crucifixion. It was also women who allegedly found his grave empty; and it was women who eventually followed the new faith and often died for it. Martyrdom was inclusive. Tradition is not dogma or divine intervention. Tradition is manmade (pardon the pun). Tradition evolves and changes with time. It is not the word of God but of man. Social and cultural traditions should never be mistaken with the divine. My dear friend rested his case.
Five years ago, the election of Pope Francis as head of the Catholic Church brought hope to millions of Catholics especially women, who were anxiously awaiting a new era that would bring more transparency to the Church, and less traditional patriarchy. But this Pope continued with the same rhetoric for excluding women from the priesthood: the apostles were men. Well go figure! If we go down that path of thinking; two thousand years ago only women raised kids. Now husbands stay home as house husbands. Should we then not allow men to take on this role? In the early 20th century, nurses were predominantly female and doctors were males; we broke that barrier as well. Disappointedly so, apart from pseudo social activism on human rights, Pope Francis and his all male curia stand their ground on women’s rights and roles in the Catholic Church. I don’t know which is worse; the flat dismissal of women’s role as priests or his patronizing remarks that women serve well in other capacities. Or perhaps his penchant for championing left wing political causes in the name of human rights? I digress. An insult to our intelligence and intellect. Our Pope’s support of women stops at telling mothers they can breastfeed in church.
But Catholic women are not the only religious women on the outside of their faith looking in. The Women at the Kotel, a Jewish women organization has often been demonized and women have been imprisoned for demanding equal rights in prayer and praise at the Kotel. Why? Because male Haredi Orthodox Jews who happen to have control over the Kotel, are refusing worship and prayer outside their orthodox circle or Haredi rules. One might want to ask these “holy” men if non-Haredis are less Jewish, less faithful, less worthy to lift up their voices to God? Do these men have a monopoly on God? Several years back, I had the privilege to visit the Kotel. I stood with all the Jewish women and touched the ruggedness of the bricks and wept for all of us as I prayed with the women to our God. The Kotel gave me God as my own faith never had. Why should a man deprive me of my relationship with God because of my gender? It is an obscenity in itself.
“Tradition” cannot remain the excuse and battle cry of the Vatican for not allowing women to dedicate themselves to the priesthood and service of the Lord. “Apostle” is defined in Webster’s (10th Edition) as “one sent on a mission”. The various writings in the New Testament: the bedrock of Christian faith, vary in defining who was an “apostle”. Matthew and Mark mention “apostles” once in their narrative, whereas Paul sets a wider net in describing “apostles”. Paul considered those who helped spread the word of Christ as apostles; the missionaries. Theologians surmise that Christ chose twelve people to represent the twelve tribes of Israel. However, nowhere in any new biblical text is there reference to the exclusion of women as followers of Christ because of gender. The fact that the apostles were males should be recognized as an obvious historical realization of the times and not dogma or faith.
Faith or religion should never be a barrier to anyone, male or female. It pains and angers me when faith leadership regardless of denomination stifles women’s right to minister or pray. Spirituality allows everyone regardless of gender, the same opportunity to minister as a priest or wear a tallit and pray loudly at the Kotel. Being closer to God should never be a gender issue. Does God discriminate? Somehow I doubt it. Are things ever going to change? Hopefully. In the meantime women groups like the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests and Women of the Kotel must continue their struggle against patriarchal traditions in our faiths. We need to stand by these women because the God we worship belongs to all of us and not to the privileged few.