Last month in this space, Lindsey Simmons defended the Judeo-Christian tradition that priests are male. Depending on your theology, it dates back either thirty-five hundred years, to Aaron, or further, to Melchizedek, a contemporary of Abraham. In Judaism and Christianity, a priest is a man set apart to make sacrifice to God.
Why men only? Why not women too? After all, in the religions of various nations throughout the Mediterranean world in biblical times, female priests were not unheard of—the Vestal virgins at Rome, for example.
To the orthodox, whether they be Jewish or Christian, the idea of a mixed-sex priesthood is so radical in the literal sense, going straight to the root of the matter, that they are often at a loss to explain, like a parent whose five-year-old child has just asked why women can’t be fathers. The question is profound and at the same time childlike, an expression perhaps of a kind of holy innocence, though not necessarily of a holy wisdom.
To fully explain my agreement with Lindsey, I would need more than the approximately five hundred words I have space for here. Let me gesture, then, at a book that would be helpful and at an idea that speaks directly to the issue but is seldom invoked in these discussions.
The book is Men in Groups by Lionel Tiger (1969, 2005). The idea is that male bonding is an anthropological fact, a pronounced feature of human societies that is universal, historically and geographically. Males naturally gather themselves into fraternities, usually informal fraternities—the term of disparagement for them is “boys’ clubs.”
Fraternal association supplies a particular style of social interaction for which men and boys are hard-wired and around which human societies at large half-consciously organize themselves. Note that, in modern Western cultures, the trend away from “unisexual aggregation” (Tiger’s term) in education, politics, and religion coincides with the rise of organized sports, in which a critical mass of our population is now more emotionally invested than in any other institution of public life.
When I lived in downtown Cleveland, on Sunday mornings I walked to church. Every other week during the fall, I passed long chains of tailgate parties, the ritual pregame observance of the ritual itself, the Browns game at 1 p.m. at the stadium on the shore of Lake Erie.
Mine was a lonely march to noon Mass. Sure, once I got there, I found myself joined by a couple of hundred worshipers. At the stadium, though, there were eighty thousand. The number watching on TV was closer to seven figures.
The men in orange and brown commanded a far larger and far more conspicuously devout following than did the men in green (and then purple, during Advent) up on the altar. The former were felt to be purposeful, engaged in a mission on which the psychic well-being of the city depended; the latter, to be carrying on a folk tradition of interest primarily to aesthetes and antiquarians.
The instinct to belong to or support an army of men on whose side the angels are—that has largely shifted from the altar to the playing field, at least in North America and in Europe. To follow the Anglican example and just close out what’s left of the fraternal character of the Catholic priesthood would be one response to the gradual decline that the institution has suffered in the West (though it’s booming in Africa), but would a nonfraternal priesthood be true to the fraternity that Jesus founded and founded, presumably, for a reason?