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When Tradition Trumps The Message

The following opinion column was published in the Main Line Times on May 8, 2009 and in the Delco Times on May 11, 2009.


Excommunication is the greatest punishment of the Roman Catholic Church, and with its latest sentencing, the Church has sent a clear message that tradition supercedes Jesus’ message. On April 26, in a ceremony condemned by the Catholic Church, two Roman Catholic women were ordained as a priest and a deacon respectively. Regarding the ordination, Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia has said: “I am concerned pastorally for the souls of those involved” and commented on the automatic excommunication the two ordained women and the person performing the “pseudo-Ordination.” Admittedly, he described the role of women in Catholicism as “necessary and irreplaceable”, but in the same sentence also says women’s role is “not linked to the ministerial priesthood” – an exclusion simply because of gender.

While I don’t claim to have the ability to see into whatever heaven may exist, I can imagine Jesus sitting up there right now, shaking his head and lamenting the fact that his followers have missed the point. Jesus’ message was one of love, acceptance, and equality, yet the interpretations of the Church hierarchy have founded a tradition of female exclusion from the priesthood that is out of step with this core message and with contemporary sensibilities. I’ve heard the arguments – that none of Jesus’ twelve apostles were women, that the priest as male is a reflection of Jesus’ own gender, and that the role of priest is as fundamentally male as childbearing is fundamentally female – and for this reader, this reasoning has fallen flat.

Some of Jesus’ most loyal disciples were women. According to Luke’s Gospel, the very first people Jesus appeared to after the resurrection were his female disciples. Furthermore, I find the suggestions that being a man makes the priest more naturally representative of Jesus and that the priestly role is fundamentally male to be outdated interpretations that privilege tradition over message. After all, the Bible says of humans: “God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them.” It would seem to me that this passage says men and women were both created in God’s image, not that men have the advantage because God is male.

If a woman is qualified to deliver Catholicism to a community and has the desire to serve as a priest and perform the rites involved with the mass, why should her progress be impeded by something as natural as gender? At this point, is it really about the good news, or does it come down to upholding an outmoded tradition? Of course, tradition can have its positive points, but not in cases such as this, where its presence obstructs the message. Maybe, once it comes time for that second coming, Jesus should return as a woman and appoint twelve female apostles. Of course, by that time one would hope that people will have discarded this archaic notion of an exclusively male priesthood. One would hope.