Some Thoughts On Altar Girls at Star of the Sea Parish in San Francisco

I saw this story yesterday morning.  I know people who go to Star of the Sea in the Richmond (or, perhaps, know people who used to attend Star of the Sea).  It's a pretty normal parish, in a diverse, residential, middle class (by SF standards) area of the city.  Star of the Sea is no different from a thousand parishes all over the country.

In and of itself, this story about whether altar girls will be allowed at Star of the Sea Parish is not of tremendous significance.  Most Catholic parishes do allow altar girls.  Most people don't care much one way or the other.

No, I would submit that people who see this story, who have a reaction to this story, are not reacting to the story itself.  They are reacting to the discussion that we are not having, and so they are using this story as a proxy to fight the real battle.

Here is the real battle.  For all but a few isolated periods of recorded history, the following things are essentially undeniable:

  1. Women have been viewed as being inferior to men;
  2. Women have been excluded from a wide variety of professional and cultural positions, including positions of leadership in religious bodies;
  3. #2 has been, in large part, a product of #1;
  4. #1 and #2 have been justified, buoyed, and reinforced by the notion that these realities are a result of divine mandate, understood in various ways with various nuances.
Faced with these undeniable facts, there are only three possible options.  First, this history is God's history--that, indeed, all four of these facts are derived from divine will.  Second, this history is our history--the product of cultural and sociological ideas created by humans, and humans alone, having nothing to do with the will of God.  Or, third, some of this history is of God and some is not.

There are folks out there are of the opinion that all of this is God's history.  Members of the Taliban, one presumes.  There are also folks who believe that it is all our history.  I basically fall into that category.  The key is that both of these positions are really the easy positions--either you accept all of what comes from history, or you reject all of it (or, at least, don't view it as binding).

The third position is the hard one, because it requires one to take a scalpel and pare out the stuff that is "of God" from the stuff that is "of people."  There are no obvious signposts within the tradition that mark the junctions between the two.  In large part, that's because of Fact #4--on its face, everything is presented as being "of God."  So, to pull off the third position, you have to come up with some sort of hermaneutic for getting rid of the fake "of God" parts from the real "of God" parts.

That's a tough thing.  And, it's even tougher because you have a bunch of folks running around, like me, who suspect the entire project is doomed and illegitimate from the start.  It's also complicated by the fact that the people that are doing the slicing are often people with a certain personal or ideological interest in having the cut fall along a particular line.  Especially where the guys doing the cut are, well, guys.  One doesn't have to be a conspiracy theorist or some sort of man-hater to be leery of whatever comes out of folks with an obvious conflict of interest.

I suppose it is possible that Fr. Illo is of the school that everything the Church has ever said about women is of God.  So, for instance, he might agree with Thomas Aquinas when he says:

"Woman is defective and misbegotten, for the active force in the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex; while the production of woman comes from defect in the active force or from some material indisposition, or even from some external influence, such as that of a south wind, which is moist."  (ST I q. 92, a. 1).

or, a bit later:

"Good order would have been wanting in the human family if some were not governed by others wiser than themselves. So by such a kind of subjection woman is naturally subject to man, because in man the discretion of reason predominates."  (ST I q. 92, a. 1, reply 2).

or with St. John Chrysostom when he says:

"There are in the world a great many situations that weaken the conscientiousness of the soul. First and foremost of these is dealings with women. In his concern for the male sex, the superior may not forget the females, who need greater care precisely because of their ready inclination to sin. In this situation the evil enemy can find many ways to creep in secretly. For the eye of woman touches and disturbs our soul, and not only the eye of the unbridled woman, but that of the decent one as well."  (On Priesthood, VI, ch. 8)

But let us suppose that he does not--that he does not think that a woman is a defective man, or less intelligent, or less moral.  He is faced with the task of showing why statements like this, which clearly represent the idea that women are inferior, and which he presumably rejects, do not poison the well on other doctrines that he wants to preserve--like whether women should be allowed to serve on the altar.  To go back to our four points, if he rejects #1, and he rejects #4 (at least insofar as #4 is used to justify the rejected statements under #1), but wants to hold on to #2 with regard to women being priests, he has to show why #3 is not true.  He has to explain why the doctrine excluding women as priests is not a result of reflections on the "moist south wind," or whatever.

The burden is on folks like Father Illo to prove his case.  Instead, you get no acknowledgement at all that this is a problem.  "Ha, ha, yeah, I know we used to say some crazy  stuff about the ladies in the past, the moist south wind and all of that.  Isn't that wild?  But, seriously though, women can't be priests."  And then they act stunned why folks find this less than persuasive.

People go insane about this kind of stuff because they are not getting an adequate explanation for the real question.  Why is this teaching not a product of all of the old stupid stuff that used to pass as divine wisdom with regard to women?  The failure to give an honest and cogent answer to this question, and not "radical feminism" or "gender ideology," is why people of both genders are becoming less and less accepting of this kind of argument.  Because, lurking in the background, is the suspicion that this is a pretense--that this really is about women being ontologically, morally, and intellectually inferior.  At least in the minds of folks like Fr. Illo.

People want an honest acknowledgement of the horrible history of misogyny in the Christian church.  They want to have a new, clean conversation, free of the lingering stink of the moist south wind.  And as long as they don't get that conversation, people will freak out about altar girls.


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