THE BLOG
07/31/2013 05:41 pm ET Updated Sep 30, 2013

Misogyny, Not So Much Homophobia, Is the Church's Root Issue Needing a Solution

The news that Pope Francis has, tentatively, begun to alter the official tone, if you will, as to the intrinsic worth LGBT individuals is significant if only because, over time, changes in age-old institutional tone, if consistent, tend to precede improvement in behavior. That said, however ameliorative Francis' acknowledgement of what all sane people know turns out to be, and however more welcoming to our LGBT relatives and colleagues and neighbors the Church becomes in the next generation, I think his statement was, in fact, unsurprising and people giddy over it or even quite hopeful as a result of it miss a deeper, embedded issue.

Rome could not, Francis could not, fast enough reiterate its commitment to its other and, honestly, far more resistant ancient prejudice born out in its policies about women. As to women in the priesthood, Francis said in the same breath as he spoke about gay people, that door is "closed."

I think I know why.

The Church has known for a good while that it has had to begin to distinguish between

  • those who entered the priesthood and who are gay, men who may have joined that brotherhood because they had to have safe professional harbor as gay men, and
  • its sexual predators, men who are fairly well exclusively not gay.

The Church has a leader now who is not only sharp enough to make and to teach about that distinction but who is institutionally committed to try to end the bleeding, the enormous financial losses and the ongoing fallout from so many betrayals and abiding anger that in many jurisdictions continue to sap Church funds, morale, and attendance. Healing cannot happen absent a leader making and then making clear this distinction as widely as he can.

Confronting this is far easier than facing squarely doctrinal and historical misogyny.

Until the history of institutional misogyny is addressed, moves of openness toward gay people cannot amount to very much: no institution solves a tangential psycho-sexual malady as it "shuts the door" on its root sexual prejudice.

(Let me acknowledge, too, for fairness' sake, that my people, the Jews, the most traditional among us, still harbor similar misogyny as does traditional Islam and several other religious cultures.)

For the Church to open up some by, again, recognizing what we all know about LGBT people, that they are people created and endowed with rights that are inalienable, requires some doctrinal easing.

For the Church to open the door to a mixed-gender priesthood and marriage for priests (living with women) would require opening doctrinal and historical doors to serious inspection, introspection, research, and discussion that it clearly is not yet prepared to broach.

Two reasons, among many, and in brief:

Mark's Gospel, written around 70 C.E., has an unknown woman anointing Jesus with perfumed oil in the days leading to his murder not far off in Jerusalem. His male friends scold her for assuming such a closeness. Jesus tells them they're all wet, that she's the only one in that house who really gets it... that Jesus is prepared, and soon, to die for Justice and that his body should not reek. Jesus tells the men that when this story's told it'll be told "in memory of her" (and, by implication, not in honor of the men in the room, the disciples).

Some scholars have argued that this Markan vignette is the literary signature of the writer of the book we call Mark, and if that's so, then there's a good shot that whoever wrote that gospel was a woman. The scholar John Crossan has quipped of this unnamed woman that, for her, Easter came early that year. He doesn't mean that she has, even prior to the crucifixion, a resurrection-faith; he means that she understands Jesus the man and the social justice enormity of, and the likely result of, his program once he arrives at the capital. She understands in an intimate way what his male companions just do not.

Imagine the Church opening up such a discussion even if it cannot be shown to hold water. Imagine such a discussion's potential effect on the status of women in the Church.

John's gospel was the last of the canonized four, written well after 100 C.E. In it Jesus is almost wholly spirit, save for a moment or two. I'm thinking of the wedding scene at Cana, a tiny village in the Galilee. His mother appears to be the host of the wedding party and his family is there. It's an event said to be important to the gospel writer because Jesus is said to turn water into wine there. It isn't at all new for scholars to wonder (and many, many do and for many, many reasons) if this wedding was that of Jesus to his companion, Mary (Miriam) of the hamlet of Magdala -- later smeared by the fourth-century Church as a whore whom Jesus 'saves' (from herself).

What's fascinating about the scene is that it exists at all in a gospel whose primary intent is to announce (as is the collective intent of Paul's Letters in the '50s) that Jesus-the-man is pretty irrelevant to the new faith. There are far more compelling miracles John can and does draw on later...Perrier-to-Mouton Cadet seems unnecessary at best.

Could the reason the writer called John includes this scene is because he could not imagine dishonoring the now long-dead iconic rabbi by wholly omitting what for all but dreadfully ill Jewish thirty-somethings in his time and place would have been unheard of? All able-bodied, mentally sound Jewish peasant men in northern Israel married. If John knew of Jesus-wedding-stories, honoring him with a brief one and making it miraculous with the water/wine makes some sense regardless of what the Church as an institution said of the tale later on, writing out of it what seems fairly apparent in an historical sense in favor emphasizing the scene's magic.

Imagine the Church opening up this kind discussion and its many related issues.

Paul's Letters, some of them, suggest strongly that women led many of the house-churches he and his companion, Timothy, established throughout the Mediterranean and at Rome.

And think, too: if Jesus did marry his companion, Miriam of the town of Magdala, there would be some reason to think that leadership fell to her upon her husband's death. After all she was the first at the tomb (Peter was not) and the first to announce a risen man/vision (Peter did not), and she did not then flee Jerusalem, according to the stories: the men did.

These are precisely the kinds of issues, many, that would have to be faced squarely were the Church to open its now shut door to women in religious institutional leadership.

Stacked against the so-called challenge of recognizing the full humanity of LGBT people, this one seems much tougher.