NPR Radio Host Terry Gross interviewed Bishop Leonard Blair yesterday on her show. He aims to explain why the Vatican has scolded U.S. nuns, and he weighs in on issues of contraception, obedience and women’s ordination.
In an interesting exchange, Terry Gross plays an excerpt from an earlier interview with Sister Pat Farrell, the president of the LCWR. On the subject of obedience — which is the heart of the conflict between the Church patriarchs and the LCWR — Sister Pat says:
“First of all obedience to God. But, the word comes from the Latin root meaning to hear, to listen. And so, as I’ve come to understand that vow, what it means to me is that we listen to what God is calling us to in the signs of our times.”
Terry Gross asks Bishop Blair to respond to the Sister Pat’s thoughts on obedience. He says:
“No one can argue that we have to be obedient to God and that we have to follow conscience. But, on the other hand, it flies in the face of two thousand years of the notion of religious life that obedience means obedience to lawful superiors within the community and it certainly means the obedience to faith to what the church believes and teaches. Again, Catholicism understands Christianity to be a revealed religion in which the truths of faith under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit are authentically taught.”
Bishop Blair clearly argues that obedience to God can only come from obedience to Church leaders because they are the true conduits of revealed religion. We can allegedly only understand God’s message through the lens of two thousand years of patriarchal superiors. It isn’t enough for us to listen to God’s calling, but we must interpret God’s voice only through the eyes of our Church superiors.
At one point in the interview, Terry Gross suggests that nuns and others must be subservient to priests. Bishop Blair flinches at the word subservient, even though he makes this case for obedience to Church superiors. He is also uncomfortable with the term patriarchy, yet, we all know that superiors in the Catholic church can only be men. And, according to Bishop Blair, we can only be faithful if we are obedient to the male leaders of the Church.
On the subject of women’s ordination, Bishop Blair rears back on two thousand years of patriarchal practice. He explains that, while Protestants allow women to minister, the priesthood is a very theologically different religious role. Within the framework of priesthood, Bishop Blair explains why it isn’t — and will never be — possible for women to be priests:
“It is a theological question. It’s not political; it’s not sociological . . . about what it means for a man to stand on the altar and act in the very person of Christ. And, St. Paul talks about Christ being a groom and the Church being his bride. That symbolism theologically is very much a part of our understanding of the Mass and the priesthood. . . . the church doesn’t say that the ordination of women is not possible because somehow women are unfit to carry out the functions of the priest but, because on the level of sacramental signs, it is not the choice that our Lord made when it comes to those who act in his very person as the church’s bridegroom . . . if you are a Catholic, this is part of our sacraments and our practice for two millennia. It is not an arbitrary decision of male oppression over women.”
As an aside, listening to Bishop Blair’s marriage-symbolism claims highlights why the Church hierarchy is so threatened by same-gender marriage. But, to the point, Bishop Blair declares that men are allowed to be priests because Jesus was a man. (Certainly, weakens their argument that the word “man” is equivalent to “human.”) I’ve heard this argument before and, previously, have dutifully accepted it at face-value. But, when we really analyze this sentiment, I wonder: Is a penis what makes priests Christ-like? Men are able to embody Jesus in the flesh on the altar because they share similar reproductive organs?
Patriarchies thrive on binary divisions, yet God created sex organs as tools of connection and creation — not division. Our wombs should not relegate us to roles of subservience to Church superiors nor negate us from serving as Church leaders.