Patriarchy refers to rule by men. It is an accusation often levelled at the Catholic Church, an institution led by a class of male-only priests distinct in status. Priests decide on disagreements over dogma, administer God’s forgiveness of sins through the sacrament of confession, and institute the Eucharist at Mass—some of the most important Church activities. For most people, this is patriarchal and unwelcome in our age of gender equality.

A good example of the image of the Church is the following illustration from The Handmaid’s Tale. The novel is a feminist dystopia of a totalitarian and theocratic takeover of the United States government, where only men rule and women specialize on reproduction.

The menacing nature of figures on the left and submissive attitudes of the women in white reveal well the power dynamic behind charges of patriarchy. It is not limited to saying men happen to be in charge. It includes the accusation that men are ruling for the sake of men; they are organizing things in their interests.

When faced with critics of the Church, it is not enough to say, “But there are many women involved in high positions in the Church!” Although this is true, it fails because it also assumes equality is only achieved through equality of power—the view that women can only be considered equal to men if they enjoy as much power to dominate others.

Christianity rejects outright this way of looking at the world. It sees the weakest person as the strongest by virtue of his or her dependence on God, and it holds human equality to be most evident in our equal moral responsibility, not in any right or power.

Our basis for equality is not equal autonomy but equal worth in the eyes of God. As God’s children we are of equal status and dignity.

This still leaves a big problem. On one hand, Catholics believe everyone is equal in dignity and able to exercise their dignity through love, while on the other we reserve institutional leadership for persons of only one gender. How is this possible?

Catholics believe the ministerial priesthood (as opposed to the common priesthood which we all participate in through baptism) is and will always be instituted only to men through the sacrament of holy orders. This has always been the case, supported by the life of Jesus as a man, the unique relationship between Jesus and the apostles who were all male, and the concept of priesthood in Jewish salvation history.

Still, while we know these things by way of Church teaching, there is nevertheless an urgent need to understand and communicate it by way of apologia, providing grounding in reason for what we hold in faith.

The most difficult stumbling block is that the aim of our lives here on earth is to love—love as self-giving. We are equal in dignity and the exercise of this dignity is to love God and others. Our assessment of others’ worth is not based on material well-being, human status or career, but dignity in the eyes of God and each person’s capacity to love.

This is where the difference in the sexes comes in. If it is the case that we reach perfection in our lives by loving others, there does indeed appear to be a dramatic inequality between the two genders that is irreconcilable. Women are able to give birth and, in that process, share in the very being of another for about nine months: physical interdependence, mutual suffering, mutual nourishment. Bearing and giving birth to a child is a deep act of love, attested to by the intimacy of relationship that so often results between mother and child.

This is very unequal indeed. Merely by the fact of their sex men are locked out of this dialogue of love, a dialogue so often scorned by our age and yet so akin to perfect love.

Christ’s Incarnation as a man and his creation of a ministerial priesthood among men makes present in the second gender the deep capacity for sacrificial love constant in motherhood. We are all called to sacrifice ourselves and we are all called to love, and yet God makes special vocational demands according to our characters and biographies. Our genders also have a certain biography through which God’s plan has unfolded and become known. Just as some men are called to the priesthood and others not, so too are some women called to motherhood and others not. In both genders, God demands a special example of sacrificial self-giving that provides definition and depth to the capacity of all to love.

Dominic Burbidge is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the James Madison Program at Princeton University.

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