God Squad: Deeper look at ordaining women

God Squad

Rabbi Marc Gellman God Squad

Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.

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Recently, you offered a prayer for the new pope, and said that "Old practices that are true but not popular need to be preserved. Old practices that are just old and not true need to be let go." The week before, you asked readers for the one question they'd ask God. After reading these two columns, I have my one question for God: Are women and men spiritual equals? If they are, and a woman has a calling, why shouldn't she be able to fully participate in the Catholic Church and be a priest?

-- L., via email

In Orthodox Judaism, women cannot be rabbis, cannot read from the Torah scroll, cannot be counted in a prayer service and cannot sit in mixed seating with men. The struggle to allow women to be priests is thus a part of a larger struggle for women's full religious rights.

I'm on your side. The single most important reason why I'm not an Orthodox Jew is that I want my daughter Mara to have the same ritual horizons as my son Max. I understand you, and I agree with you. However, I've always tried to see the other side of every dispute, particularly disputes where I have strong opinions and therefore know all too well that in such disputes I might not be sufficiently open to views that contradict my own.

So let me try my best to make the best case against the ordination of women in the Catholic Church, not because I believe these arguments are dispositive but rather because I believe they're both important and authentic.

The first thing that must be understood is that an all-male priesthood doesn't mean or even imply that men are holier than women, closer to God than women or in any sense better than women. Separate does not always mean unequal. Men and women are both made equally in the image of God.

Different roles do not in and of themselves mean lower spiritual status, just different status. It has been widely assumed that one of the main reasons for excluding women was a concern that their traditional roles as the primary caregivers for children would inevitably conflict with their nearly unlimited duties as priests.

Of course, nuns solve this problem the same way women Catholic priests would solve it -- by taking a vow of celibacy and forgoing marriage and family in favor of celibate service to the church and God.

Nuns serve the church in deep and powerful ways, despite the ecclesiastical and sacramental limitations they face. I understand these limitations are significant, but they should not deter any devoted and pious woman from becoming a nun and serving with all her heart and soul. The holy service of nuns is, to me, as an outside observer, on a profound spiritual level.

My judgment as to the real issue in the ordination of women is that of celibacy -- and the loneliness it can bring. If women were one day ordained as priests along with men, it seems inevitable to me that they would both want to establish ministries that include families of their own. The great obstacle to getting more people to become priests is not that it is an office that excludes women, but rather that it is an office that excludes spouses.

Celibacy allows a far greater sacrifice for God, but it also allows a far greater amount of loneliness and isolation. Most priests I know struggle with loneliness far more than they struggle with celibacy. I think women are naturally more familial and nurturing, and I do believe that the ordination of women would produce the end to celibacy in very short order.

Now, this might be a good thing -- in full disclosure, I think it would be a very good thing -- but it's not without its problems.

I remember my son Max pleading with me one night when I had to go to the synagogue, "Daddy, do you have to leave? I want you to stay with me!" I wanted to be a priest that night.

I pray that the Church might balance the wisdom of Galatians 3:28, "there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus," with the wisdom of Genesis 2:24, "Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh." Somewhere between these texts, God is calling.