'Rites' for women, 'rights' for gays: Cardinal George's double standards

by Jamie Manson

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In his recent column in the Chicago archdiocese’s newspaper, Catholic New World, Cardinal Francis George dedicated his attention to the question of the ordination of women. The cardinal believes that the realm of Catholic rites is no place for a woman to claim rights.

The commentary was a response to a September full of pro-women’s ordination actions in the Chicago area, including the Women’s Ordination Conference’s 35th Anniversary event, the screening of the documentary Pink Smoke Over the Vatican (Reviewed by Marjorie Maguire), and the Irish-born call for a worldwide boycott of Mass on Sept. 26.

George bases his stance on a distinction he makes between a “gift” and a “right,” saying:

A gift is not a gift if the recipient has a right to it…. Our civic order is arranged to help individuals receive their rights; this is the goal of legal justice. A gift, however, is not due in justice; it comes from love, is freely offered and can’t be manipulated by the recipient. . . . I write this because the nature of the sacrament of holy orders has recently been publicly discussed as if it fell into the order of rights rather than the reality of gift, as if it were a matter of rules rather than a mystery of faith.

The cardinal’s statement is painful to me as a woman who feels called by God to serve in ministry. And as a gay person seeking equal civil rights protection for my relationship with my partner, his words are downright ironic.

It’s no secret that George has been a key player in the anti-gay marriage movement.

The cardinal has joined forces with Mormons in this campaign (see Mike Sweitzer-Beckman’s column: Catholics and Mormons: a shotgun wedding). He attempted to block the inclusion of LGBT persons as a protected class in the Illinois Human Rights Act.

As leader of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, George helped create a partnership with the Knights of Columbus that, in effect, sanctioned the funneling of millions of dollars from the Knights to the National Organization on Marriage, a political outfit that aggressively seeks to deny gay and lesbian people the civil right to marry. (See Nicole Sotelo’s column: Knights, Minnesota archbishop endanger church neutrality)

When he needs to attack those who seek women’s ordination, George conveniently recognizes a distinction between what is an issue of legal justice in the civic order and what is sacred in the sacramental order. And, yet, he has worked tirelessly to use his religious and sacramental status to prevent individuals from receiving their rights in the civic order.

Of course, for the Catholic Church the covenant of marriage is a sacramental reality. However, only 24 percent of the U.S. population is Catholic, and of those Catholics, 46 percent support same-sex marriage, according to a 2010 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center.

For the vast majority of the U.S. population, gay marriage is an issue of civil rights, not sacramental theology.

Later in his column, the cardinal chides women’s ordination activists for “using political tactics to change church teaching to what one would like it to be.” But by sanctioning the Knights to fund the National Organization on Marriage and trying to influence the content of a human rights act, isn’t the cardinal also using political tactics to impose a religious ideal on a civil law?

For the cardinal rights may not have any claim within a rite, but a rite possesses the power to take away rights.

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The cardinal tells his readers: “In the order of grace, no one has rights and everything is gift from a God who loves us. . . . We can’t demand it from God; nor can we tell God to change it to suit us.”

The cardinal doesn’t seem to realize that no one who fights for the inclusion of women in priestly ministry is demanding anything from God. God has already given the gift of calling forth women to service and leadership in God’s church. The demand is being made of the institutional church.

The teachings of the church exist in history, but the unfolding, and, ultimately, mysterious wisdom of God is transcendent and timeless. George’s failure to make this distinction between the temporal and the eternal reaches its peak when he argues against the claim that Jesus was “inclusive.” According to the cardinal the church is as inclusive as Jesus because Jesus, too, condemned non-believers. He quotes:

“But it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the judgment than for you. And as for you, Capernaum, ‘Will you be exalted to heaven? You will go down to the netherworld.’ Whoever listens to you listens to me. Whoever rejects you rejects me. And whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.” (Lk 10:14-16)

By using this quotation the cardinal implies that the eternal teachings of Jesus Christ, God incarnate, are of equal importance and weight to the institutional church’s constructed doctrine of holy orders. Not only does his use of Scripture here evoke a fundamentalist Christian rhetoric, he suggests that dissenting from a church teaching constitutes a rejection of God.

It’s one thing to defy a church teaching. It’s quite another to deify it.

The statement assumes a disingenuous tone as the cardinal insists “over the centuries, the church has said she is not free to change the gift that comes to us from Christ himself. The argument is with Jesus, not the church. . . . The church is not free to change it, anymore than the church can change the nature of baptism or the Eucharist or matrimony.”

Since George is considered a leading intellectual voice in the U.S. Catholic church, he should remember that up until the Second Lateran Council of 1139 many priests -- like Jesus’ disciples -- were married. The church saw it fit to change holy orders to fit the demands of the times by creating mandatory celibacy.

If George’s memory doesn’t stretch back that far, he may recall that one year ago, the Catholic Church began to formally invite ordained married men from the Anglican Church into the Roman Catholic priesthood.

The cardinal would also do well to review historian Gary Macy’s The Hidden History of Women’s Ordination (Oxford University Press, 2008) for even more facts about the changing history of ordination in the Roman Catholic Church. He should focus on the chapters devoted to the 12th and 13th centuries, about which, Macy writes: “Rarely in history has ritual practice and understanding changed so completely.”

If the cardinal wants to uphold and defend a church doctrine that sanctions the exclusion of women, I suppose he is within his rights to do so. However, to pin the blame on God or Jesus is to misrepresent the teachings of the Gospels -- which say nothing about an ordination process, a hierarchy, or the role of women in church ministry.

The women and men who support women’s ordination are not demanding “rights.” They are asking the institutional church to allow God to call servants forward and to cease reducing the transcendent nature of God’s calling to an arbitrary set of rules that have no biblical or historical basis. They are asking those who, like the cardinal, were blessed to receive the gift of holy orders to stop impeding God’s work of offering this gift to all human beings. Their desire is not to win rights, but rather to ensure a fuller life and future for all members of the Catholic Church.

God has been calling all of God’s beloved children long before the beginning of the Catholic Church and will continue to call women and men long after the institutional church loses its influence and power.

As the institution’s leadership continues to drive a deeper wedge between the Catholic Church and women and LBGT persons it only hastens its own passing.

[Jamie Manson received her Master of Divinity degree from Yale Divinity School where she studied Catholic theology, personal commitments and sexual ethics with Mercy Sr. Margaret Farley. A writer based in New York, she is the former editor in chief of the Yale magazine Reflections. As a lay minister she has worked extensively with New York City's homeless and poor populations. She is a member of the national board of the Women's Ordination Conference.]

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