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Around the Kitchen Table

Lloyd Ratzlaff


No theological reasons to define women as servants



A few years before I was invited to join the Kitchen Table columnists, I taught a class at St. Peter’s College for the University of Saskatchewan, and one evening went down to a basement lounge for a pre-class smoke (those were the days!). On the coffee table lay the June 6, 1994, issue of the Prairie Messenger with a bold headline, “Priesthood reserved to men alone.”

The story reported Pope John Paul II’s declaration that there could be no ordination of women, and that genuine Catholics would henceforth remain silent about the issue: “This judgment is to be definitively held by all the church’s faithful. It does not belong to matters freely open to dispute.” Nonetheless he added (though it was hard not to hear it as an afterthought), “the role of women is of capital importance for the humanization of society and for the good of the church.”

The “theological” reasons cited for this edict seemed to reduce to the fact that in the biblical stories Jesus chose men — not women — to accompany him in his travels and to send out on missions. This historical fact was held to imply that neither sociology nor psychology had anything to do with the judgment: Jesus (and thus God) had willed that women remain perpetually ineligible for priesthood.

That same Prairie Messenger carried another item on a bottom corner of the back page, this one with a smaller headline, “Reinstated heretic is honoured by Vatican.” Here the story concerned a postage stamp going on sale at the Vatican to honour Galileo Galilei, issued two years after the pope’s formal acknowledgement that the church had erred in condemning the scientist for his heretical views. Back in those days, John Paul II said, theologians “relied on an overly literal interpretation of the Scriptures to insist that the earth was the fixed centre of the universe.”

I took that copy of the paper up to my room, and at the beginning of class read these items to my students. Most of them happened to be women, and when I finished there was a short pause, then one woman said, “Well, maybe in another 400 years we’ll get a postage stamp too.”

This is not merely a Christian issue. R. H. Blyth makes these severe comments about the Zen he himself had espoused: “The least admirable part of Buddhism is its attitude to sex. The Buddha accepted women into the Sangha with the utmost unwillingness, and indeed prophesied that they would be the ruin of his system. It is said that in this matter the Buddha ‘should not be judged by the standards of the 20th century.’ This is not so. He should be judged by the standards of the 30th. If a man’s views of half the world are wrong, his view of the other half must be so too. In actual fact one of the reasons for the decline of Buddhism in India was the resurgence of Tantrism with its female deities and esoteric eroticism. The same thing has happened in modern times to Christianity, only the sex-worship is extra-church.”

If a religion insists on a “theological anthropology” (as Pope Paul VI had earlier termed the Catholic stance), many who might otherwise return to the church will in principal, and even in good faith, remain protestant — pro, not con, the humanization of both church and society. Such people cannot make themselves believe that there are theological reasons to define women as servants in any sense that men imagine they are not. You may as well say that since Jesus rode on a donkey, the pope shall not travel in a popemobile; because Christ was poor all his life, the Vatican cannot collect valuable artworks; and since Jesus spoke only in parables, no written theology can ever be permitted. Carl Jung, who struggled with his own Reformed tradition, said, “It is no easy matter to live a life that is modelled on Christ’s, but it is unspeakably harder to live one’s own life as truly as Christ lived his.”

One summer night when I was 13, I was walking from my house at the edge of the village to visit Grandpa Gliege. His place was always a refuge from my adolescent troubles, and in the stillness of that night the stars hung overhead in inconceivable numbers as I followed a path through the garden that lay between our homes. Grandpa’s garden was huge, and I passed a stand of oats he was growing for his chickens, skirted the towering cornstalks, then began hurrying between the rows of vegetables on either side of the path. A walk that should have been peaceful was not so. From a few lots over I heard the village drunk in his yard shouting and cursing and beating his wife, and at every step I heard her cries and pleas, and his whaps delivered one after the other as she wailed in the night. I had often seen the man stumbling home from the pub, and knew that anyone who was outdoors that night would have heard the violence. I knew too that no one would interfere, and tried not to think about the children huddled in their ramshackle house, and when I got inside Grandpa’s door I didn’t tell him what I’d heard.

It’s a bitter memory.

Even a mystic like Teilhard de Chardin, in his accolades to the Eternal Feminine, says, “She floats between me and God, and I am astonished by the violence of the forces unleashed in me at Her approach.” A quarter of a century has now passed since John Paul II’s judgement, and apparently women are still on the altar and not behind it. No doubt, women as well as men can live in hell, but it was not women who invented the place.

Perhaps priests are afraid of priestesses. If so, it implies that men know they are not the fixed centre of any universe, religious or cosmic. We humans seek something higher on the evolutionary scale — the trans-humanization, if you will, of both religion and society. Alfred North Whitehead warns, “Those societies which cannot combine reverence to their symbols with freedom of revision, must ultimately decay either from anarchy, or from the slow atrophy of a life stifled by useless shadows.”

Then why not both mediators and mediatrixes, momes as well as popes, to help our incomplete selves toward something more divine? And how about Jesus himself - don't you think he'd be sharing a belly-laugh with that poet Issa? There the great bronze Buddha sits; a swallow darts out suddenly from his nostril.

Ratzlaff is a former minister, counsellor, and university lecturer. He has authored three books of literary non-fiction published by Thistledown Press, and edited an anthology of seniors' writings published by READ Saskatoon. He has been short-listed for three Saskatchewan Books Awards, won two Saskatchewan Writers Guild literary non-fiction awards, and served on local, provincial, and national writing organization boards.