Who is the Church? by Linn Marie Tonstad

Linn Marie TonstadThe headlines blared, “Who am I to judge?” News outlet after news outlet led with the pope’s conciliatory stance toward gays, expressed during an interview aboard the pope-plane as he returned from Brazil. Among the several headers from Fox News (I encourage not clicking!), we find discussions of the pope’s “reaching out” to gays and even one that combines this development with his “urging” of a “greater role” for women. The New York Times story introduced the pope’s comments as follows: “For generations, homosexuality has largely been a taboo topic for the Vatican, ignored altogether or treated as ‘an intrinsic moral evil,’ in the words of the previous pope.” Ignoring the astonishing comment that this has been the case “for generations,” as though homosexuality has historically been the kind of issue for the church it has become in the wake of radical queer movements – see Mark Jordan’s several books on this for the most helpful treatments – the story went on to say that the pope’s comments “resonated throughout the church.” Although the NYT article did a better job than some contextualizing and nuancing the pope’s comments, they were still termed “revolutionary” in an assessment better suited to an opinion page than to a news report. Better-informed commentators, such as James Martin, offered a measured response. Martin said that although the pope’s remarks didn’t really signal a significant change in policy, “in the church, style often proves substantial,” implying that the “pastoral” tone might have effects in the implementation of policy. More significantly, Martin praised the pope’s adherence to Jesus’ injunction not to judge as an instance, first and foremost, of the pope’s commitment to mercy as the hallmark of his pontificate.

My Facebook feed, predictably, lit up with links to and discussions of these comments. While most were thrilled, a few posts noted that, even if Pope Francis is in fact (which is not proven) walking back Benedict XVI’s language of “intrinsically disordered,” the church’s policy has not and will not change in any significant way. What was missing in all but a few instances was attention to the pope’s comments in the same interview on women, and the deep theological problems with the assumptions contained in those comments. And while I, as a queer theologian, would never wish to downplay the struggles of LGBTQI people in the Roman Catholic church, there are rather more women than queers in that church (as elsewhere!). What’s more, it is arguable that it is the sexism and heterosexism of what Marcella Althaus-Reid memorably termed “T-Theology” that underlies condemnation of homosexuality in Roman Catholic theology.

In the structural or theological logic of certain streams in Christian thought, a particular interpretation of the marriage between Christ and the church is ultimately the ground both of condemnations of homosexuality and of the restriction of the priesthood to those assigned male at birth alone. But both these restrictions derive from the gendering of the God-world relation of this marriage between Christ the bridegroom and the church his bride. Because priests serve in persona Christi, the argument goes, they must be male, as he was. Because sexual difference ultimately takes its meaning from the relation between Christ and the church, the argument goes, the natural orientation of women is to men, so same-sex relations pervert the theological significance of sexual difference. And Mary’s consent to God represents humanity as a whole, and grounds the possibility of the church’s existence, so that yes-saying is the peculiar privilege of the woman. (See, for instance, Mulieris Dignitatem, which furthers the sexism of such moves already in its title.)

These moves are of course well known to those of us who have had occasion to study Christian theology. Yet in almost all reports on Pope Francis’s interview, the ‘woman thing’ was mentioned only in passing if at all. The door is closed to women’s ordination, he insisted, and – given the logic of the above moves – I believe he is descriptively correct. That is, I do not think the Roman Catholic church will shift on women’s ordination in the foreseeable future. Priestly celibacy? Quite possibly – the desire for rapprochement with various Orthodox churches and for the absorption of clerics from other denominations suggests that such a change may well happen in practice if not in theory.

These incidents leave me with two concerns that reflect the need to work (for those of us who remain within Christianity) for transformation. Why did the comments on homosexuality seem so much more important to most news organizations than those on women? Because they signified, at best, a stylistic difference in the way ‘the church’ treats gay (male) people? (The question was originally about gay priests, and there are ongoing debates about whether ‘gay’ can or ought to indicate ‘lesbian’ as well even as it has often come to do so in practice.) Yet might one not have imagined headlines – effective ones – saying something like, Pope: “The door is closed” to women. After all, that is the grounding theological logic of the church’s stance.

More depressing yet (and intentionally performed in the preceding), though, is the equation between ‘the pope’ and ‘the church’, and the attention given to his statements from so many different directions. The Roman Catholic church consists of many figures other than the pope – many women, many queers of all ‘kinds’, many fighters for justice, many feminists, many activists, many theologians fighting the logic identified above. It is patriarchy too that teaches us to forget them while remembering and discussing him. Blessings upon them and their work.

Linn Marie Tonstad is assistant professor of systematic theology at Yale Divinity School. She is currently completing her first book, provisionally titled God and Difference: Experimental Trinitarian Theology. 

Author: Linn Marie Tonstad

Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Yale Divinity School.

4 thoughts on “Who is the Church? by Linn Marie Tonstad”

  1. I hadn’t thought much about Pope Francis’ statement in the Times before this, thanks so much for your post, Linn Marie!!

    Certainly it is not a reaching out, but It feels like there is a beginning of something here: or maybe it’s just a matter of one small breakthrough at a time. Remember, there were all sorts of lines drawn in the sand in previous feminist movements, so that feminism itself has had to stutter step through its own path of evolution, especially as regards religion. Many otherwise feminist women refused to support Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s work on “The Woman’s Bible,” for instance. I remember reading that Susan B. Anthony tried to placate the younger suffragists, but they issued a formal denunciation of the book instead. That seems so shocking now, especially that it was the younger generation, not the older, that had dug in their heels. If the Pope is moving in a good direction, his method has to be very carefully planned, no sudden moves.


  2. I listened to commentary on the Pope’s statements on CNN and BBC international. I too was puzzled that the pope was being portrayed as a moderate and even kind and loving, when he had just reiterated the church’s prohibition on women priests and hadn’t done anything significant to change its “teaching” on homosexuality. Thanks for reminding us that this “guy” has not yet proven himself to be a “good” guy!!!!


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