The Feminization of the Church

May 25, 1994|By LEON J. PODLES

The Vatican's approval of altar girls is another step in a process that has been going on since the Middle Ages: the feminization of the church.

In the 12th century St. Bernard of Clairvaux preached that God was the lover and the human soul his spouse. After that a feminine emotional relationship with Jesus replaced masculine comradeship in spiritual warfare as the most common Christian experience: ''Jesus lover of my soul'' of the Methodist hymn more and more replaced the Conqueror of sin and death. If the best attitude for a Christian to take to God is a feminine attitude, women are a lot better at being feminine than men are, so women filled the churches and Sunday schools to the point that some American denominations have a 90 percent female membership.

The main-line churches are basically a woman's club, with a few men and boys present because of feminine insistence. The enrollment in liberal seminaries is already over 50 percent women, and we will probably see the Protestant clergy become, like nursing, a basically feminine profession.

Even in the Roman Catholic Church, which still has a male clergy, women make up 80 percent of religion teachers, prayer-group members and youth workers.

The Vatican refuses to allow women to be ordained, but the American church has found ways around Rome. Women are appointed to head parishes and run diocesan affairs. Priests become simply chaplains, making flying visits to parishes to administer the sacraments. Since most Roman Catholic theologians in America believe that ordination is an act of the community and not of the bishop, many Catholics conclude that the refusal to let women celebrate the sacraments is mere Roman legalism, and the American church should lead and let Rome catch up.

Why do men stay away from church and turn it over to women? A boy learns to be a man, not by imitating his mother, but by putting some distance between him self and the closer parent. He breaks with the mother so that he can stop being protected and nourished, and becomes a masculine protector and nourisher of his own wife and children. Since religion is part of the feminine world of the mother, the boy feels that to be a man he must put some distance between himself and the church.

Of course, some boys never make a break, and stay more or less immersed in the feminine world. A Vatican official commented approvingly of the new catechism that it was the same thing his mother believed. Why do boys become priests? Because of their mothers; fathers seem to have no role in vocations. Of course, if being attached to the feminine world is the best qualification for being religious, a women would make a better priest than a man.

Men are happy to leave Christianity to women, bit they still have a spiritual impulse. They seek their initiation into the mysteries of lifeand death in other ways. Violence is the most common substitute, and it takes many forms: sports, adventure, crime, war, fascism. American black men find in Islam a religion that is not feminized.

Christianity has social utility; it has faults, but the substitutes for it are worse. The more dechristianized men become, the more they are open to the demons that haunt most natural forms of religion.

Male religious professionals become prickly when this lack of men is pointed out, and feel their own masculinity is being questioned. In some cases, as recent scandals show, there is a serious lack of normal masculinity in a few members of the clergy. But the larger problem is that the various churches owe it to themselves and to society at large to preach the Gospel to every living creature, including the group hardest to reach, men.

Leon J. Podles writes on gender-related issues. His forthcoming book is ''Masculinity and the Feminized Church: Gender in Western Christianity since the Thirteenth Century.''

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