The insistence of the Roman Catholic Church that priests have to be male reflects the power of men and not Christian theology, says Swiss theologian Doris Strahm.
Strahm is co-author of a recent study into women in leadership roles in the Jewish, Christian and Islamic faiths.
We may all be equal before God, but the study by the Inter-religious Think-Tank shows that this is not the case in certain religious communities.
The study looks at three branches of Judaism, the Protestant and Roman Catholic churches and the Islamic community in Switzerland. In liberal Jewish communities and in the Protestant church, women can hold leading clerical roles.
swissinfo.ch: The study shows that many women work for the Catholic Church but they are not allowed to serve as priests. Why?
Doris Strahm: The Catholic Church justifies this on the grounds that Jesus only called men as his apostles and on Catholic tradition. But this is an untenable argument, as Jesus was a Jew and he did not found a church. The office of priest only goes back to the fifth century.
Even the papal Bible commission, when it debated this issue in 1976, came to the conclusion that the Bible could not be understood to exempt women from the office of priest.
Until the 1980s the ban on women’s ordination was justified by reference to the sacramental character of the office of priest: the priest in his priestly functions represented Christ, who was a man, and therefore the priest had to be male.
swissinfo.ch: What criteria still apply – apart from gender?
D.S.: There are no other special criteria apart from gender. The priests have the same theological training as women theologians.
The fact that the male sex is so important is, in my view, to do with the patriarchal nature of our culture and in particular of Christian theology, with its male images of God as father, lord, creator, judge and a redeemer who was a man.
The man was seen as the standard form of humankind and as the image of God and there was the idea that woman was subservient to man as a created being – these things helped consolidate the view that men are closer than women to God. The church leaders, who have the last word, seem to see it still in the same way. It’s simply a question of power.
swissinfo.ch: And what image of women is at the root of this?
D.S.: The discrimination against women in the Roman Catholic Church is based on the patriarchal understanding of the ritual uncleanness of women, the image of sexual allure and the view of women as being made less in God’s image, which the Church has still to overcome.
swissinfo.ch: How can two churches based on the same beliefs come to such different conclusions regarding the ordination of women?
D.S.: That shows that there is no real biblical or theological basis to exclude women from clerical office. Protestants draw from exactly the same sources; it is the same tradition and the same saviour.
swissinfo.ch: How does the Catholic Church compare with the other religious communities covered by the study?
D.S.: Restricting the office of priest to men is something peculiar to Roman Catholicism. Also, the fact that those with power exercise a monopoly over those deprived of power and claim this is the will of God. They make themselves immune to argument when they say ‘Jesus wants it this way’.
In the other religions the exclusion of women from leading roles is at least not attributed to God.
swissinfo.ch: Your study mentions a women’s church, which has grown parallel to the hierarchical, patriarchal structures. What should we understand by this?
D.S.: Since the 1980s women have turned their energies towards fighting for their own religious needs instead of battling the existing structures. They insist that they are also a church. This is a worldwide movement of critical women that cuts across confessions.
swissinfo.ch: Do you think there is a chance that the Roman Catholic Church will move in the direction of equality?
D.S.: I don’t see this development coming from above, from the official Church. If anything does change, it will come from below. The local churches need the courage to go in new directions and to break through the centralised structures.
Roman Catholic position
swissinfo.ch asked the Swiss Bishops Conference for a short reaction to the sections of the study referring to the Roman Catholic Church. The Conference declined to comment.end of infobox
People’s initiatives on church equality
Signatures are being collected from Pentecost weekend for two people’s initiatives in cantons Basel-City and Basel-Country calling on the Roman Catholic cantonal churches to allow men and women equal access to the office of priest.
Source: Kipaend of infobox
(Adapted from German by Morven McLean), swissinfo.ch