There was one poignant question in that debate about merits of the Catholic Church that echoes our own, ISKCON discourse – female priesthood. There’s a short answer here and a longer, uncut version continues here. Since there was a little confusion about the question itself, here it is in the original form.
When the moderator relayed it to Anne Widdecombe she asked “Why not women priests in the Catholic Church?”. Widdecombe objected and reminded that the original question was, shortened for brevity: “Why is it wrong for a woman to become a priest but perfectly okay for her to become an MP?” Quite an important distinction even if the subject is still the same. Moderator stripped it of the comparison to an MP, a comparison which, in Widdecombe’s answer betrayed “vast ignorance”. There was an undecipherable reaction from the audience to the “vast ignorance” phrase but in a second it turned to laughter and even applause, they really wanted to hear Widdecombe explanation.
“A member of parliament, a male of female, does not stand in persona Christi at the point of consecration,” she said. In Vedic language in persona Christi means as God Himself, a bona fide guru, and consecration is dīkṣā, initiation. In Catholic doctrine God does not manifest Himself as a female for the purpose of consecration. Or, in our speak, Kṛṣṇa does not manifest Himself as a female for the purpose of dīkṣā.
Catholics have their own ways to explain it but, in general, that’s how the church conducted their consecrations throughout history. They have this straightforward instruction from Paul, for example: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.” 1 Tim 2.12. One of the recent Popes said “I do not have the authority to consecrate women,” which was a clever way to nip the subject of women’s rights in the bud. Whatever the reasoning, the verdict is clear – women can’t stand in place of Christ for the purpose of consecration. As Widdecombe clarified it’s different from ministry, which is preaching or discussing Lord’s pastimes, I guess, she said that this rule is specific to the priesthood and people should know the theology of the priesthood to understand it. She finally said that it is no more possible for a woman to represent Christ at the point of consecration than for a man to be a Virgin Mary. Clear enough.
Why can’t we have the same clarity? I guess because guru is a principle for us and guru manifests himself in a variety of forms, including female. The question then becomes about peculiarity of dīkṣā. Catholics have a simple “can’t be a woman” rule that seems to be lacking in our tradition. We need to deduce it from statements on different subjects, like in the case with Dhruva and his mother. We also have historical precedents and the basic fact that our material genders have nothing to do with our spiritual identities at all.
Well, until very recently the question of female dīkṣā gurus didn’t exist and everyone was very clear on this, too. Catholics still stay clear but maybe one day somebody will challenge them just as people challenge GBC in ISKCON.
Next up was Fry’s rant about Church being likely to kick out Christ himself if he showed up at its door today. It was a good rant but it means nothing. If he is suggesting that the Church lacks any introspection and no one there ever thinks of how his actions would be perceived by JC then Fry is clearly wrong. Yes, it would have made for an appalling picture of the Church but it’s not the real life, it’s a caricature, and a rather pointless one for the purpose of the debate. It scored him easy points with the public, though, and was followed by a long applause. This rant was one of many misrepresentations of the Catholic Church and its doctrine, just see what follows.
The short continues with Fry’s rant about limbo and how it was legislated out of existence in the year 2000. This prompted Widdecombe to respond directly. She said she was raised a Catholic, went to Church, read the books, etc etc and she didn’t recognize the limbo he was talking about. Now, the actual Catholic version expressed in her own words isn’t much better but the main point is that a civilized debater, if he wants to explain the position of the other side, would always check that his representation is correct.
That’s what Prabhupāda always did when discussing other people’s philosophy. He didn’t just hammer his own visions of it, he asked people to explain it themselves first and if he volunteered his own version he’d always check that it was acceptable and not a wild distortion of it. Fry is simply no gentleman here, and Hitchens was guilty of the same behavior, too, even though it escapes me on what aspect of Christianity exactly. In this rant Fry declared that concept of “purgatory” is not in the Bible and Catholics simply invented it. He assumed the position of authority on Catholic doctrine and thought it was perfectly okay for him to teach Catholics proper Christianity, which is going lower and lower (limbo, get the reference?)
Atheists do this all the time, which is fine in their own circles but they should know better in public. We do this all the time, too, but anyone who thinks we can easily convince advaitins of the error of their ways because advaita looks so illogical and easy to refute in our own classes simply hasn’t tried. The fact is that for each and every argument they have long and convincing responses. Advaita was taught by Lord Śiva himself, after all, our intelligence in minuscule compared to his, we should remember that. I believe this is one of the reasons Lord Caitanya explicitly forbade us to hear advaita explanations of the scriptures – it’s too big for our little brains and we can’t defeat it by intellect alone, we should know our limits, just like with association with women – won’t work, lust will surely develop.
This is basically it, the short version of the debate is practically over. There are only a couple more points I wanted to discuss and I don’t want them to be short ones because they apply to us, too, and so we need to understand them thoroughly.
PS. I wish I had a simple, conclusive, and also comprehensive answer to female dīkṣā controversy. I don’t, there isn’t a way to easily put the matter to rest. Personally, I think it’s nonsense but there’s always a chance that there’s a qualified vaiṣṇavī out there who deserves the honor and I don’t want to get in the way of her service.