Recently, the Catholic hierarchy moved to bring the Leadership Conference of Women Religious into line with orthodox Church teachings . This organization of American nuns had been in conflict with the Vatican over issues related to women's rights, including reproductive rights. The spectacle of an all-male task force being brought in to tell women what they must think may seem badly dated. Yet, male priests still tell most of the world's women what to think and their message is often anti-feminist.
Anti-feminism and inequality
Popularly floated explanations for clerical opposition to female equality with males are unsatisfying. Most reduce to a single word: conservatism; tradition; family; patriarchy, and so forth. This is a problem because it does not explain why the conserved tradition is biased against women to begin with instead of being biased against men.
It is not just that the priests are male. In some societies, women take a leading role in specific religious rituals. This was true in ancient Greece, for example, where priestesses presided over festivals in honor of the god Dionysus, but this was nevertheless a heavily male-dominated society and the priestesses did not advocate female domination.
In many world religions, women are making inroads in religious professions but the trend is resisted by the Catholic Church that allows women to serve as nuns but bans ordination. When one considers that some religions face a crisis of falling priestly vocations, yet refuse to ordain women, it seems that the churches would literally rather die than accept women as equals of men.
One way of thinking about this puzzle is to see gender inequality within the broader framework of social inequality. Religions that have been around for a long time tend to accept, or support, the status quo in practice. Even if some of their texts are hostile to power and pomp, they cozy up to the politically powerful.
Religions are useful to political leaders because they can justify steep social hierarchies. From the deified Pharaohs of Egypt to the divine right of English monarchs, the beneficiaries of inequality used religion to justify their elevated status.
Contemporary research also finds that religion thrives in situations of inequality. Places where there is highly unequal distribution of income (Gini coefficient) are significantly more religious (2). With the establishment of more equal social democracies, religion declines as illustrated by the decline of the majority Christianity in Europe.
So the aversion of religious leaders to gender equality may be a specific case of their more general endorsement of social inequality. To be more specific, conservative churches endorse male supremacy in the household for much the same reason that they endorse the power of kings, dictators, oligarchs, and elites.
By endorsing the existing power structure, religions serve a useful function for the powerful whether they are monarchs, or men in a male-dominated society.
To say that religious leaders merely mirror the power structure of the society may be an intriguing idea but is there any concrete evidence that anti-feminism in the church is caused by anti-feminism outside the church?
Evidence that religious anti-feminism mirrors the overall society
One way of analyzing this problem is to ask what sort of society ordains female priests. These are generally societies in which women have taken strides toward equality in most other professions.
So countries like Sweden and Denmark in which women achieve at the highest level in most professions -- and are broadly represented in political life -- are also places where women serve as ministers and adopt other leadership roles in churches. The official Church of Sweden has ordained women since 1958 and the Lutheran state church of Denmark also ordains women and admits them as bishops.
In countries like the U.S., where there are comparatively few women in politics, there are correspondingly few female ministers and bishops, although protestant denominations and non Christian religions are more open to female clergy than Catholics are.
In countries of the Middle East, female imams are generally not allowed to lead congregations containing men. Women play little role in public life (although some, like Benazir Bhutto, of Pakistan, rose to the top).
So, if you want women to be better treated by their church, ordain more women! If you want more female ministers, begin with gender equality in the society!