THE BLOG

Darwinism and the Kingdom of God

06/10/2013 04:06 pm ET | Updated Aug 10, 2013
  • Michael Pettinger Professor of literary and religious studies, Eugene Lang College/The New School

Dear Readers -- what would it actually look like if we took the Resurrection of the Dead, the Communion of the Saints, and the Life of the World to Come seriously?

Case in point. My friend and I were in perfect agreement that there is no good theological reason not to ordain women to the Catholic priesthood. But years of arguing politics and religion with my family have engrained in me the bad habit of presenting points of view with which I don't necessarily agree, just to make sure that they get acknowledged. And so I tried to complicate the conversation just a little bit.

"You know, my Mom once told me that if they ever ordain women, she'll leave the Church."

"How old is your mother?"

"She just turned 88."

"Well, eventually those people will just die out."

This friend is one of the kindest, gentlest, most thoughtful persons of my acquaintance. He would never knowingly say anything hurtful or cruel. But this wasn't just a momentary lapse in judgment. Rather, the habits of this world -- in this case, democracy and Darwinianism -- had so thoroughly worked their ways into his soul that it actually seemed perfectly reasonable to him to suggest, if only for the briefest of moments, that I should look forward to the extinction of people who disagree with us on matters of doctrine and practice-- including, it seems, my own mother.

You might be saying to yourself, "OK, I see why you might call what your friend said 'Darwinism,' though it does make you sound like some sort of weird creationist. But democracy? Seriously?" You might even be thinking that I'm one of those Catholics, usually self-described conservatives or traditionalists, who answer arguments with a flat statement that, "The Church is not a democracy." Roma locuta est, causa finita est. "Rome has spoken, the matter is closed." Rome, of course, has spoken and said that my friend and I should not even have been speaking about the ordination of women. Clearly, that didn't stop us.

When Catholics (and non-Catholics, for that matter) reject what they see as the monarchial tendencies of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, they often assume, almost unconsciously, that the solution would be something that looks more "democratic." Democracy, however, is no guarantor of what is right, just or true. If you have any doubts on that matter, consider that more than 30 states have banned same-sex marriage in this country. Many, if not most, of these laws and constitutional amendments were passed by overwhelming majorities in popular referenda. It seems more than a little naive, at least if you're LGBTQ, to assume that the majority is always right. In fact, as the tide turns on that issue and more and more states are approving same-sex marriage, there are many people on the opposite side of the debate who are probably coming to the same conclusion.

We like to think that spirited debate in a deliberative democracy enables us to act as a collective whole. This is does not describe my experience of politics or with my mother. When she told me that she would leave the Church if they ever ordained women, it was in the heat of a very passionate argument. "All those women want is power!" were her exact words. "And men who become priests? What do they want?" was my oh-so cogent reply. She didn't have an answer for that. I felt vindicated. I won that round, and she lost. But this exercise in tit-for-tat left us no closer to agreement or to peace than before.

I suspect that my mother's feelings about the ordination of women are linked to larger issues of feminism. We only had the one argument about women priests, but the argument about feminism came up over and over again. She would complain about something "feminists" would say, and I would respond that "feminists" were not some single, monolithic force, all saying the exact same thing and marching in lockstep across the globe. "Mom, there are all sorts of different kinds of feminism. Some of them would probably agree with you." I stopped pushing that argument after one particularly momentous blow-out, when she told me a story. "I was sitting on that sofa watching a woman on TV. She was saying all the same things I kept reading in the magazines. And all I could do was cry, because they were telling me that I was stupid and worthless because I was a wife and mother."

What could I say to that? We weren't talking about theory or philosophy. We were talking about her visceral, lived experience of the give and take of democratic process. And it had left her wounded and crying. What comfort could I offer? I wasn't there to hear what the woman on TV was saying. I wasn't there to read the magazines. I wasn't there when my Mom married my Dad, or when she bore their children -- except for that one time, and I was busy with other things. I was there when she worked late into the night as my father's secretary, helping him keep the stressful job that put the roof over our head and bread on the table. I was there when she would come back from Mass and complain that Jesus really should have made Mary help Martha in the kitchen. "And then they could all have sat down and talked over dinner." But in a certain sense, I wasn't really there even then, because I am not and never will be, a woman, let alone the woman my mother is.

I am taking a big risk if I pretend to speak on her behalf. I know that there are half a billion Catholic women, at the very least, and that many, many of them can speak with no less passion of very different experiences. I know that many of them want to see the ordination of women accepted by the full church. I want to see that as well. But if I hear anyone, of whatever gender, speak for the ordination of women on behalf of all women, I become my mother's son, bone of her bone and flesh of her flesh. Even if they represent the majority of Catholic women, I know they do not speak for her, I suspect they do not speak for my sister, or the women who continue to enter more "traditionalist" orders of nuns while "liberal" orders are languishing (as noted in the report to the LCWR that has given so much trouble to Sr. Laurie Brink).

Identity politics, democracy, monarchy -- this world creates winners and losers. The former tend to feel justified by the simple fact of winning. The latter are rarely convinced or converted by their loss. Everyone seems to end up feeling wounded, bitter and oppressed. But Jesus tells us that his kingdom is not of this world. It is the only true commonwealth, not because it is absolute democracy, but because it is ruled by One who loves us better than we love ourselves or each other. And if there is one difference between the politics of this world and that of the World to Come, it is in the promise of the Resurrection. Without denying the reality of evolution, the Resurrection is the great slap in the face to Darwinian ways of thinking. In the judgment of God, neither the opponents of women's ordination nor its proponents can ever "die out." We will all see each other, not in a mirror darkly, but face-to-face, clearly and forever, in the Communion of the Saints. Here we can ignore the countless ways in which we wound and abuse each other, but there, none of these hurts will remain secret, each one will be numbered, confessed and reconciled.

It might not be a solution to the centrifugal forces that afflict the Church, but how would it change the way we talk about each other, how would it change the way we talk to each other, if we took the Resurrection seriously, not just as a promise to be fulfilled in some distant future, but in the way we live here and now, as we make our way into the Kingdom of God?