A “Proper Sense of Paternity”

In Pope Benedict’s new book, “Light of the World: the Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times,” he states that that homosexuality is “incompatible” with the priestly vocation.  In further explanation, the Pope refers to a 2005 Vatican document that said homosexuals cannot be priests because their orientation goes against “the proper sense of paternity” of the priesthood.

This “proper sense of paternity” is seldom elaborated on in media coverage, but it is a troubling underlying metaphor for church positions on marriage, ordination and even the eucharist.   It is inherent in the familiar symbolism of bridegroom and bride in describing the relationship of Christ and the church.  The basis is that fathers initiate life.  Christ gave his life to create the church.  Biologically, the male “seed” creates life in the female who receives it.  By analogy, the priest is a spiritual father who gives a gift that transmits life through the eucharist, and spiritual fatherhood cannot be separated from biological fatherhood.  Therefore, homosexual men cannot be priests, because their orientation violates that “paternal” image.  Obviously women do too.

Juxtaposed with what’s known today about the actual biological process of conception, this notion of the male as the source of life is incredibly primitive and inaccurate.  New life is conceived through a highly complex process that joins a single egg with just one of millions of eligible sperm, only a few hundred of which actually get near the egg, and it’s hardly a mechanistic procedure (“Insert plug A in socket B.”).  One writer calls it “the primeval mating dance – the fertilization tango – when the mother’s chromosomes and the father’s chromosomes fuse together to create a new life” (emphasis added).

Throughout, it’s a dynamic activity on the part of both egg and sperm.  While the sperm are swimming toward the egg, they actually are going through “capacitation,” which gives them the ability to fertilize the egg.  Meanwhile, the egg emits chemicals that help guide the sperm to it.  Then, when they are finally proximate to the egg, the sperm work together to disperse the egg’s outer protective layer.

Eventually enzymes produced by the group of sperm make a tiny hole in the egg’s outer shell, so that one and only one can swim through to the surface of the egg. (Another author’s interpretation is that the sperm are competing for the privilege of entry.)  When a sperm enters, the egg creates an impassable wall so that no others can do so after it.  Then the genetic material from the man and the woman join together to form an embryo which immediately divides into two cells, then four, etc.

Contemporary knowledge depicts procreation as a joint enterprise of male and female.  What might this imply for the priesthood?

Copyright Peg Conway 2010

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