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?