Former President Jimmy Carter recently hosted a conference at the Carter Center regarding women and their affiliation in leadership roles with organized religious groups, specifically the Catholic Church. Mobilizing Faith for Women will be looking at this relationship as an important human rights issue. In the comments posted in response to an article about the conference in The Huffington Post, Carter is being labeled anti-Catholic, but one thing is certain, he is not afraid to speak out in favor of reform that might bring women a better life. In speaking with Time Magazine reporter Elizabeth Dias, regarding the Catholic Church not ordaining women as priests he responded, “That is wrong, I think.”
Former President Carter stated that he felt if women were allowed to become Catholic priests, the status of women would have to improve because religious organizations’ treatment of women sets a standard. Not allowing women to become priests signals a level of “denigration of women.” Women are tacitly oppressed if they cannot become priests.
This is an interesting idea but I am not sure it holds very much water, or holy water, if you will. Women have been civic leaders and leaders of nations and the status of women has not moved more than an inch. Women have been queens and still their female subjects were no better off than they were five minutes before. Why would it be that this one change would bring about significant social reform? How is the religious arena any different from the civic? Is it so important to establish that women are equal in the eyes of God as well as in the eyes of the community?
Some women may find comfort in the fact that the Church has not progressed toward a more equal role for women and men in ways other denominations have. Some women probably like to see men on the altar because it reminds them of their childhood, their schooling, their past, even their own fathers.
Yet, more than a few Catholics would welcome a more central role for women and, according to the organization Roman Catholic Women Priests, “ordained women are already ministering in over 29 states.”
So, is there middle ground? Some whole and happy place where the immediate need to assert equal rights for women and the need for a Catholic priesthood made up entirely of baptized men alone? I think the answer lies in a quick scan of religions where women are allowed to preach. Can you make the case that women are in poorer straits when men preach or in better when women are at the podium? In Episcopal or Presbyterian congregations, or in many Jewish communities with female rabbis? Since there are far more men inside the congregation than inside the vestments, it seems more likely that the kind of change that will impact women’s lives for the better will have to come from the congregation regardless of the gender of their pastor. And if 70% of Catholics interviewed believe that women should be ordained as priests, it could become reality sooner rather than later. Public pressure on the Vatican from outsiders is one thing, but pressure from your shareholders is another.
I am reminded of my own Confirmation in the seventh grade. Typically, the Bishop comes out to the congregation to quiz the petrified confirmands, those being confirmed, about the lessons they covered in their study for receiving the sacrament. On that day, I was approached because I was sitting on the aisle and asked why women could not become priests. Everyone laughed when I didn’t have an answer, but to this day, I still don’t have an answer.
Still, it will be interesting to see what comes out of this conference, who supports it, and how the discussion will continue once the conference ends. Here is a link to the group’s position paper.
Anne Born has been an editor and writer all her life. She writes poems, short stories, and personal essays on family history and her view of living in a big city after growing up in a small one. She likes an audience or she would keep her writing in her personal notebook. This embarrasses her children. She lives in the South Bronx and writes on and about the MTA – the New York City system of buses and subways. You also find her at Open Salon and Red Room, and you can follow her on Twitter at @nilesite.