The Surprising Origins of (and Problem with) the Vatican’s View of Sex and Gender

Father Krysztof Charamsa with his partner Eduard at a news conference this past weekend: "I am a gay priest. I am a happy and proud gay priest."

It’s a grabby headline: “Vatican sacks gay priest as Pope opens Synod.”

Indeed, when Monsignor Krzysztof Charamsa, one the Vatican’s chief theological gatekeepers, openly celebrated his homosexuality and love for his partner as the “will of God” on the eve of the Synod on the Family, he both got himself fired and stirred a chorus of controversy—perhaps beyond his reckoning.

Might it rile an intransigent “hell-no” chorus or empower liberals to face the Church with its own “We’re here, we’re queer. So, deal with it” chorus? Will it expose the brittle historicity (and thus fallibility) of the church’s long naturalized theological anthropology? Can we expect the Vatican to examine its most fundamental notions about sex, sexual identity, and gender?

Along with gay Catholics, keen Catholic feminists also relentlessly point out the oddities of the Church’s vision of the sexed human person. Could this be their moment, too? Indeed, timed for the Synod, the Paulist Press’ publication of an anthology of essays—Catholic Women Speak: Bringing Our Gifts to the Tableexposes how very weird, and not so wonderful, the official Vatican view of sexed human nature is.

Calls for such a deeper theology of the sexed and gendered human person call in turn, for a primer on an issue that brings sex and gender into focus like no other—women’s ordination. Even querying an exclusively male priesthood can sometimes also further expose how raw the nerves of Vatican officialdom are. Just five years ago, the New York Times reported a Vatican statement that “ordaining women as priests was as grave an offense as pedophilia.”

However stunning in its vulgarity, that decree provides another occasion to explore the reasoning critical to a theological anthropology of the priesthood.

Theological justifications for an exclusively male priesthood often begin with the Bible, but end in comedy. Since Jesus was of the male “sex,” priests must be male as well. Furthermore, Jesus only called men to be apostles—assuming, groundlessly, as it happens—that this made the apostles “priests.” But, by the same logic, since Jesus and the apostles were not only males, but Jews, Catholic priests would need to be Jewish men!

Immune to theology’s latent potential for humor, official theologians rapidly reach for other weapons in their arsenal, chief among them the unacknowledged biologism of Greek natural law philosophy.

By “biologism” here, I mean a fixation upon “sex,” a biological category, as a criterion for the priesthood that trumps any and all qualities of character and virtue essential to priestly practice.

Let me explain. Although ordinary speech confuses “male/female” as “sex” categories with “masculine/feminine” as “gender” categories, we should not. (I also respect Judith Butler’s arguments that gender is performative.) But, for official Vatican theologians, arguments about priestly ordination turn decisively on whether someone is “sexed” biologically as male, in the everyday sense of the term. No matter that women may possess a surfeit of the qualities of a nurturing leadership and a moral strength requisite for the priesthood. They can never qualify.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Never mind, for the moment, the assumption that leadership and strength are either a) qualities that belong to masculinity or b) that leadership and strength are what make a good priest. In this case, a ready retort from official theologians is that gender and sex qualities are bundled into hard-wired, one-for-one correspondence with each other. Male superior body strength and size are endowed by nature to support masculine “gender” traits of discipline, leadership, and the drive to protect.

Yet, how the pedophilia scandal painfully revealed how biology and gender are bundled—until they aren’t! What happened to that supposedly hardwired, natural male priestly duty to protect, or to defend the weak?

“Feminine” gender qualities such as beauty, sensitivity, refinement, maternal care and nurture, correspondingly, are imagined to be hardwired by nature with the physical facts of being female—until they, too, show how women serve everywhere as strong leaders, brave and protective as any male.

A major unacknowledged source of this view is Aristotle. In effect, complementing biblical notions of sexual inequality, he taught theologians to regard the sexes as perfectly unequal, and thus absolutely different, pace Butler. Further, the inequality of our biological natures dictates a correspondingly bundled inequality of masculine and feminine gender traits.

As Aristotle noted in The Poetics, it is contrary to male nature that men should complain or weep in public. Those that do, are commended to join the women in the kitchen (sic). Guided frequently by “the Philosopher,” Thomas Aquinas carried Aristotelian attitudes forward into the Christian theology of the sexes. Men and women differ absolutely in terms of both their “sex” and “gender” traits. That manly men don’t cry in public, etc. fits them for priesthood. Flipped over, weepy women should never expect to be leaders of manly men.

Speaking through Aquinas, Aristotle adds the clincher: only males can be priests, because priests need to represent the entire human race. But, for some reason or another, only males perfectly model the human species. The inglorious roots of this weird dogma lie in Aquinas’ view, adopted from Aristotle, that only men are “complete” humans. Women just don’t measure up. Women were “deficiens et occasionatus”—“’defective and misbegotten’” or “’unfinished and caused accidentally,” says Aquinas.

What could women possibly be missing?

St. John’s University professor of philosophy Marie I. George here reaffirms the greater part of this combined vision of the naturalized inequality of the sexes, along with their trailing opposed gender qualities: “God wants inequalities in rational beings, and if we love God we should conform our will to His.”

In other words, God made men masculine and women feminine, and believers should humbly conform their wills to this version of the divine plan—even when priests betray their leadership and protective roles, and even when women inspire us by their extravagant successes in its fulfillment.

Does God really work in such mysterious ways? Or, is it only the theologians who do?

  • pegleggreg

    The Catholic priesthood is modeled on the Jewish priesthood. The Jews believed women were unclean because of their menses. This ritually unclean person could not consecrate the body and blood of Christ. In addition during the consecration any blood on the altar becomes the blood of Christ. The excuses about Jesus being a man is really about Jesus not having periods

  • Artur Rosman

    Actually, there’s the nuptial mysticism aspect of it that requires sexual difference too. Let’s not be too anti-Semite here.

  • Su

    I thought that the Holiness Code of Levitical Law having to do with clean and uncles practices was abolished my Christ and by St. Peter.

  • cranefly

    Here’s what everyone misses. The priesthood is not about real things – like leadership or strength – at all. The Male symbolizes God, pumping it out, and the Female symbolizes the Church, taking it and not complaining. Only they call it
    “receptivity” and praise it as the most wonderfulest righteousness of the feminine, praise and glory upon the woman who can perfectly exhibit its caged, silent, self-erased, oven-like service to God’s life-giving plan. If that’s crude, then take it up with Catholicism, because that is what it teaches. Women can’t symbolize God in a particular male-pleasure-based sexual metaphor, so they can’t play God in our earthy sacramental pantomime; THAT is why they can’t be priests. That is why priests are called “Father” and the Church is called “Holy Mother Church.” Catholicism does not use symbol in order to express truths about the reality of our lives in relation to God; it created a symbol of God from the self-glorifying depths of the male hindbrain, and expects reality to conform and say thank you.

  • lsomers

    Nonsense.

  • lsomers

    It is all about patriarchy and it is a direct inheritance from Judaism as well as the cultures of the 1st century – all male dominated. In Judaism, in particular, women didn’t count any more than then do in Islam today. Paul’s views on women were like those of a gay man towards “fag hags”, because he was a self-hating, closeted homosexual who like to travel with very young men and wanted them circumcised as well. Christianity has very little to do with Jesus and a lot to do with Imperialism and fear of women.

  • sleepingquail

    Does anyone actually read the letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament? We are all priests. How the church ended up with Eucharistic ministers at all is a telling tale of the power struggles in the nascent church.

  • cranefly

    More embarrassing than what?

  • Brilliant Analysis cranefly!!!! Thank you!!

  • JCF

    Moreover, recall that Aristotle and Aquinas bought into the “homunculus” theory of reproduction: new life, the seed, came from the male; females were but the “fertile field”. Yet another way women were incomplete, lesser, only worthy to be implanted!

    Or, as put (nauseatingly!) by Paul Stookey (in his lesser, Christianist, post-PP&M days):

    “As it was in the beginning, is now until the end
    Woman draws her life from man and gives it back again”

    [“There is Love”? No, there is PATRIARCHY! I swear, hearing *that song* at any wedding SHOULD be grounds for a conscientious person to object to the marriage… }-p]

  • Gregory Peterson

    The discovery of the human ovum and sperm cells didn’t happen until modern times. Our most basic scientific understanding of conception wasn’t confirmed until the 1850s, if memory serves.

    So…ancients in Western Civilization generally seemed to think that life began at the moment of ejaculation. The womb’s job was to form the formless child the man gave it.

    As only men could create life, all human lives belonged to men, and…you take it from there.

  • Aquifer

    This whole thing about God creating a women out of a man – seems to me me one could just as well argue that God created man first, as a prototype, and when he saw all the mistakes he made, he created woman 🙂

  • cranefly

    That song is so nauseating OMG.

  • All in favor of a revised concept of nature, just raise your hands!

  • Maybe it’s time for some really imaginative theologians to re-create the poetry of the relationship of Christ to the church, and priests to the community?

  • Contrary to common assumptions, Jesus never ordained any priests.

  • cgosling

    Well written Ivan, thank you. You probably are familiar with Michael Jordan’s book “Encyclopedia of Gods” in which he lists and describes over 2,500 gods past and present. I dare say everyone in these religions believed he/she had the true religion and the rest were false. Christianity suffers from the same delusion. The Catholic Church historically has a horrendous past and an archive of dogmatic trash written by iron age spiritualists who had little understanding of the physical sciences. The Catholic Church still clings to these fairy tales and has many hundreds of full time theologians trying to make sense of the bible and and Catholic dogma. Most religions die on the vine even ones older than Catholicism. Differences within the Catholic Church have engendered break-away religions. The Catholic Church is diminishing except in underdeveloped countries where uneducated and gullible populations desperately cling to any fairy tale that they think will give them comfort, if not in this world then in the next.
    How can a wealthy Church, whose leaders dress in silks and jewels, that owns billions of dollars in real estate, claim to follow the teachings of Jesus who explicitly preached that riches should be used to help the needy, not to stash in banks and investment firms. The hypocrisy of the Catholic Church is amazing. I don’t know why anyone should believe anything the Church preaches about. Other Christian religions are no better, except Unitarians, who don’t have to believe in Christ or God or miracles.

  • Kelly

    Mother Goddesses reveal that men thought we had the monopoly on childbirth (hence why men wondered why women were childless and never thought THEY were the ones shooting blanks). Increased livestock use (where men learned more about sex probably with their sheep than with their wives) helped men figure out males were necessary (unless you have Virgin Births).

  • John Kenyon

    The assumption behind the pov of this article holds that theology is nothing but the construct of the human imagination, therefore is malleable to changing views. Insofar as the shoe fits in too many instances, the other shoe fits the same pair of feet Ivan Strenksy.

  • Janice Poss

    Yes, absolutely! What would equality look like in God-father/mother? Too transgender! OMG can’t have that! Or gender neutral! It’s not rewritten doctrine, but the other half of humanity’s voice being added! And we have quite a bit to say if only the hierarchy would begin to read us, throw out Aristotle’s anthro as incorrect and begin to see us as real people and not a male- invented ‘other’gender in a one-sided complementarity!

  • The first matter to hand, in my humble opinion is to make it hard and fast and sharp distinction between Catholic or Christian values, and attendant theologies. The values remain constant, even as the theologies may change.

  • I am not sure what point you think you are making either against me and my position or any position. Of course you are right. And that is the point of the article. Theologies are malleable. What do you think the church had before the 13th century, and the arrival of Aristotle? How do you think Eastern Christianity has managed as long as it has without Aristotle? Or Aquinas? The problem is the Vatican does not recognize the malleability & variation of theologies. My deeper point is that the core values remain the same, as in those appropriate for the selection of priests –namely leadership, a nurturing disposition, solid moral standing and so forth. but we do without the biology that Aristotle brought us. If we have to have biology, then let us at least update it from that of the fourth century BCE.

    Actually I am all for this, as have others such as Andrew Greeley long ago. So if nature is considered, then we need to reevaluate human sexuality because it was peculiar qualities – we are always ready to have sex, there is no mating season. People are attracted to each other often irrespective of their sexes – E.g., thus homosexuality becomes natural, given what we understand of biology today. And the answer to those who say this also justifies pederasty, is that it isn’t just our natural urges that settle things. Human cultures are also shape by law. Nevertheless natural human instincts must be recognized, and recognized as what they are — functions of our biological nature – but that doesn’t mean that each and every urge must be followed to conclusion, for example like the desire to kill an enemy dash which continue writing more of this comment! Ha!

  • PS I have always thought the Holy Spirit was quite a stud.

  • Yes, as we learn about nature, we need to correspondingly just how our theologies articulate with these new understandings of nature. Let’s not get stuck in the fourth century BCE, please

  • This makes a great salacious story out of a really boring piece of theology, but deep psychoanalysis of entire institution may go a little too far. And besides what do we make a women today who ask men whether they would like to go for a ride? Is this really something new, or perhaps the way it has always been behind the bedroom doors, But never advertised?

  • Demetra Mills Cordova

    The Catholic Hierarchy has accepted evolution and Science, why are women deaconess so hard for them to accept?

  • All true. But the hard fact remains that there are millions if not over 1 billion Catholics in the world, and what they do and believe matters to the entire globe.

  • Right, especially as there is oblique reference to them in the New Testament letters of Paul. See Scott Bartchy on this

  • Demetra Mills Cordova

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eD52OlkKfNs …..Something to consider…

  • Gene Bammel

    This is a wonderful article, pulling together stuff that has been out there for a long time (The Aristotle/Aquinas nuttiness about women being incomplete men, with contemporary understanding of sex roles…culminating in the conclusion that women should be priest-able, although it will take place long after all of us are long gone….

  • cranefly

    I’m sure it is not new, but by asking “What do we make of [something real]” you are already out of bounds of any permissible priesthood discussion according to the Catholicism in which I was catechized. That women can be great leaders, and men can be weak and terrible leaders, is obvious even to the most conservative Catholics I know (if not to the hierarchy, which seems scared to let women in to use the bathroom). The reason women can’t be priests is because priesthood is about imaging the maleness of Christ in a Christ-Bride allegory. This is what I was literally taught, in detail that makes what I wrote hardly salacious. “Receptivity is written into the female body according to creation.”

    I would love to see the Church rethink this theology in my lifetime, but they only permit contradiction when their target is no longer women, but gays, to whom they say (as Francis has said) that it takes both male and female to image God (at least in the home). Sex is the only thing that affects real life that the Catholic Church can still (sort of) claim to have been always right about. Defending sexual behavioral expectations is the new apologetics, and average Catholics are hypnotized by the profundity of the mystical marriage idea. I don’t find it particularly profound; I find it to be built on a foundation of misogyny and male gaze. I think it amounts to idolatry of sex at the expense of a much more ennobling gospel of human family and personhood. But try saying that to anyone but the choir.

  • Wow

  • Smknws

    You would think the hierarchy of the
    Vatican might check Genesis once in a while refresh their memory .. Genesis
    1:26..27 but they arent alone so many arguments about gender .

    I think 1:26..27 definitely says ALL wo /man
    /kind were created in “Gods Image ” the body isn’t important

    in the arguments , with out “Gods image ” our SOUL the body is useless or
    maybe i have misunderstood why God created US … I believe we are just the form
    in which God lives and uses our body to create a world of LOVE !!! The female
    image of God is identical to the male image of God and is spiritually equally
    qualified to be a priest , gay people are spiritually able to chose the person
    they wish to love … it is the image of God within all wo /man / kind who is
    in charge of the body’s choices .. we just haven’t figured it out yet ..

    the SOUL is the S -ource O-f
    U -niversal L -ife

    If we had FREE WILL before we recognize ourselves as the creator who
    created US

    ((( in HIS own image he created US ))) the results are
    what we see happening in the name of religion ALL over the world … Yes i saw a
    documentary a scientific look at the brain in motion , they discovered all
    choices were made nano seconds before the people made the same choice , thats all i
    remember and there is a book explaining why we have ” No Free Will . So as i
    understand it all the people being punished for “making wrong choices” are not at fault . Maybe
    Father Krysztof Charamsa with his partner Eduard should remind all of those who
    make the rules in the Vatican to take a long look at Genesis again ..

  • cgosling

    Ivan – I don’t think faith based religion will ever die out, and that is for the good of humankind. Without spiritual comfort, the poor and disadvantaged people of the world would have nothing. Religion is dying among most educated nations but will probably hang on in third world nations. The Catholic Church will probably continue to lose members as it has in the past. I really think theCatholic Church will be forced to modernize and reject literal interpretations of the bible. Independent Fundamentalist protestant churches will continue to hang on but traditional Protestant churches will evolve to resemble the Unitarian/Universalist churches. And, by the way, at least half of those who claim to be religious don’t really believe the tenants of their religion. They attend church mainly for personal and family reasons and not because they believe what their religious leaders are preaching to them.

  • Pennywhistler

    Don’t know much about your Paul but your “male dominated” Judaism is an expression of your ignorance and prejudice.

  • Pennywhistler

    The Jewish priesthood did not / does not marry people.

    Ritually impure MEN could not perform sacrifices either.