Rorate Caeli

Dear Father: Answers for Troubled Times
- Gender Ideology and the Priesthood

Dear Father,

I watched Cardinal O’Malley’s interview on Sixty Minutes the other night. I like him and have every reason to believe that he is a good bishop and takes that role seriously. But he made me uneasy when he was discussing the question of whether women can become priests. The Pope himself said that this was not a question “that could be put on the table”, not up for discussion. But the Cardinal seemed to be having difficulty responding to Norah O’Donnell’s question about whether the exclusion of women in the priesthood is “immoral”. His response, when it came, seemed to be the right one to give, but it included a statement that if he were to found a church he would love to have women priests. Am I wrong in being uneasy about all of this?

Ataloss in Atlanta

Dear Ataloss in Atlanta:

Cardinal O’Malley apparently resisted being interviewed on 60 Minutes for a long time but finally gave in. In so doing he put himself into an impossible position of trying to make sense of Church doctrine in a purely secular context, that is, a context that sees everything through the lens of personal rights and equal opportunity. When Norah O’Donnell, his interviewer, first brought up the question of why the Church denies the priesthood to women, the Cardinal’s answer was solid: he referred to the Incarnation and the maleness of Christ. He did not follow that through, however, for he was immediately forced to respond to the question in the secular way of thinking as set by the interviewer: power, fairness, exclusion, discrimination against women. O’Donnell, using “gender” terminology as a preface, asked the Cardinal the set-up question: Do you think the exclusion of women in the priesthood is “immoral”? The Cardinal was put in the position of having to respond to the question in terms of “gender”, gender discrimination. And that is where he stumbled, for Catholics do not believe in the ideology of gender theory. We believe in sex: male and female. He could have gone back to the Incarnation and the maleness of Jesus Christ, but that would be talking about theology, about doctrine, something of no interest to secularists, even Catholic secularists.

I suppose the Cardinal had to reassure Ms. O’Donnell that he understood the “problem” in the way she posed it, and that although he had to support Church teaching (and he does), he assured her that if he were to found a Church he would be happy to have women priests. This is a good example of what happens when priests refuse to stand up to the smugness of liberal secularism, and instead say silly things that are a signal to the secular interviewer that in the end they are both on the same page. Cardinal O’Malley, a few days after the 60 Minutes interview, offered some reflections on his experience of the interview. In that reflection he brought up St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who, he said, wanted to be a priest. Quite apart from the danger of taking St Thérèse’s remarks out of their context, surely the Saint’s desire to be a priest in any sense has little to do with the doctrine of the Catholic priesthood, and once again, to say something like this plays into the sentimentalism that is the mark of secular thinking.

Dear Ataloss, the source of your uneasiness is watching the Cardinal being forced to answer a question of theology and doctrine on the basis of an ideology that is in direct opposition to the teaching of the Catholic Church. One of the marks of secularism is its lack of a sense of the importance of history except as proof that “we have come a long way, baby!” And so it is fruitless to offer the historical arguments for the male priesthood: that Jesus chose only men for his apostles (who are the first priests) even though he had important relationships with women (especially his Mother!); and that the male priesthood has been a “given”, factually and doctrinally, both in the East and the West since the very beginning.

But the real reason why this question has come into play again despite the Pope’s words to the contrary is because the current reigning understanding of human sexuality in the West (imposed by intellekshuals) is in terms of gender, which is never anything “given” but fluid and determined for all sorts of reasons. In this understanding Christ’s maleness, his being a male, has no ultimate significance. But this is wrong. To be male is ontological, a fact of one’s being, how one “is” in the world. And so it goes beyond functionality, beyond culture, beyond self-perception, it is how the male “be”s in the world. Sorry for that rather Germanic-like language in my explanation, but what used to be understood by all, must be now explained to many and this is not easy.

So when Cardinal O’Malley retorted to his interviewer that “priests cannot be mothers”, thinking that this was a convincing answer to the charge of unfairness and discrimination, he was wrong. He was “lost in translation”. That answer makes no sense in a world with families having "two fathers" or "two mothers", in a world of surrogate mothers, in a world of "transgender" normalcy. For me the best way to understand the necessity of the priest being a man is that at the Mass the priest is the “image” of Christ, the “icon” of Christ, he stands there as the “alter Christus”. And therefore just as a statue or icon of Christ must show him as a man, so too the priest at the altar must be a man. But this makes sense only if we take the God-given-ness of male and female seriously. It is hopeless to have these conversations, whether in interviews on 60 Minutes or in every-day talking with ordinary people if they have drunk the Kool Aid of gender ideology.

There are signs that some in the Church, even bishops, are seeing that the ideology of gender is a heresy that is dangerous to the Church and must be confronted. Perhaps there should be a Synod on Human Sexuality in Rome after we get through the Synod on the Family next October. It would seem, at least to me, that the two subjects are related.

Be of good cheer, Ataloss. Pray for priests, bishops and the Pope, that they may find the strength to preach the truth to a world that never wants to hear it.


Father Richard Gennaro Cipolla