Oh, fig it… And don’t mention the S word



There is an old fig tree growing against the wall outside my window and it reminds me of the story of Adam and Eve. The pair donned the big, five lobed leaves o cover their nakedness after they had eaten forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden.

These handsome leaves have become synonymous with the idea of a cover-up for difficult subjects: to my mind a bit like the Catholic Church’s attitude on sex and sexuality, on issues like the ordination of women, married clergy and gay and LGBTQ+ rights. These and many other matters preoccupying congregations came up in the recent report made by Irish Catholics following meetings and discussions and sent to Rome as a response to a process of consultation known as ‘synodality’ initiated by Pope Francis.

The report deals with advice for change in the church. Watching from the sidelines as it were – I am not involved in formal religion – it seems sensible. A bit like bottom-up communication to the boss, when it is felt that employees and customers may leave the firm, given the way it is being run.

It remains to be seen if hopes for fresh developments are answered. The ordination of women would be a wonderful recognition of their wisdom and worthiness to serve. On the other hand, some might see the move as expedient: a means to shore up an ailing institution suffering from a severe drop both in the number of priests and numbers attending mass.

In the very early days of the church there were women priests but the Catholic Church is currently unequivocal on the subject of women and the priesthood. Only males can be ordained as priests, deacons or bishops as an unalterable requirement of God, nor does the church ordain those who have undergone sex reassignment surgery.

A 1976 declaration by the Congregation on the Doctrine of Faith held that only men could be ordained since masculinity was integral to Jesus and his apostles.

That situation was two millennia ago and the absence of female apostles was a reflection of the limited role of women at the time. Things have changed, if the Vatican’s decision makers chose to observe other social norms of AD 25 or so, would they ride asses or camels rather than drive cars or use tablets and styli rather than computers?

Leaving theological arguments aside though, wouldn’t some women make wonderful priests? Empathy is surely a quality that is needed in spades in the ministry, a quality, together with the ability to care and support others, that women so often possess. It is heartening to see the way that women clergy minister successfully in other churches. A third of the 500 clergy in the Church of Ireland, where women were first ordained 30 years, ago are now women. Also a growing number of people in Ireland are now opting for a humanist celebrant to conduct occasions like weddings or naming ceremonies in preference to a priest and there are many women among the 50 strong membership of the Irish Humanist Society, launched 20 years ago.

The theology around married priests is less clearcut. Some of Jesus’ disciples were married and in earlier times priests were generally married. The requirement that priests should not marry and remain celibate only became firmly established after the Reformation with different influences playing a part, from the need to curb priestly misconduct to the belief that the priesthood should reflect the life of Christ who was married to the church.

However, he church does make exceptions to the celibacy requirement. The Vatican admitted in 2019 that the policy had not always been enforced. Rules had been established by the Vatican in secret to protect non-celibate clergy who violated their vows and some clergy were allowed to retain their clerical state after fathering children or secretly marrying women:  fig leaves come to mind.

The submissions in the synodailty report reflect a desire for new thinking but it maybe that the faithful are hoping in vain on the issues raised here, considering that the Vatican still rules out artificial contraception. While reliable contraception does not involve elderly, celibate males personally, surely in an over populated world, where one in every three suffer food insecurity, it should concern them, never mind the need to consider informed thinking on relationships and sexuality.

Would the ban on artificial contraception last if women were ordained and priests had wives? I think not.

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