Siya Khumalo | Dear Pope Francis: Why Is the only woman your church ever loved a virgin mother?

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Pope Francis. Franco Origlia/Getty Images
Pope Francis. Franco Origlia/Getty Images

The Pope’s words that same-sex unions should be civil law inspired Siya Khumalo to write an open letter questioning the misogyny in Catholicism’s opposition to marriage equality and women’s ordination. 

There is a story in the Bible whose characters, setting and events inspired Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale — which has been widely and rightly hailed as everything from a searing Midrash (rabbinical exegesis) to a prophecy that’s remained relevant since 1985.  

This is the Genesis story of the Jewish patriarchs, which is held together by the actions and presence of women.

The sisters Rachel and Leah had mirrored their shared husband’s prior rivalry with his sibling. Rachel was about to continue the pattern of deceit that had been Jacob’s since birth when, emerging from the womb, he held his twin’s heel in anticipation of the conflict regarding the firstborn son’s birthright. Remembering that moment, his scheming mother had told him to fetch two goats, the raw ingredients for a stew for his father and, presumably, the fur with which they would trick that father (whose eyesight was fading) into thinking Jacob was his hairy older brother. The father ended up giving the birthright to the wrong son.

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Anyway, Jacob had also just finished robbing his father-in-law (who had cheated him out of seven working years’ worth of wealth, palmed his unmarriageable daughter off on him by disguising her as her sister during their wedding night, and changed his wages 10 times) when he approached the sisters and confirmed that they were okay with leaving their dad, who’d sold them and their inheritance like slaves.  

Before they headed off into the hills of Gilead, Rachel stole her father’s idols. When her dad Laban discovered they’d escaped and started pursuing them, he had a dream in which God told him to stand down. Now, I think there’s a possibility that by taking away the source of his courage, Rachel opened a door in his mind that "let in", as it were, the archetypal personification of his rival’s courage. Having failed his own gods, he felt unrighteous and unholy in their eyes.

When Laban does catch up with the escapers, Jacob allows him to search each of their tents under the agreement that whoever the idol-thief turned out to be, he or she could be executed.

In her tent, Rachel hides the idols under a camel saddle and sits on it. "I am sorry I cannot stand in your presence, Sir," she says to Laban when he gets to her. "I am on my period."

I believe by saying this, Rachel closed another door in his mind — that is, the possibility of searching where she’d sat — which anticipates (what Christians now call) the Old Covenant’s proscription on touching anything that had come in contact with a woman on her menses.

Blood of Atonement

I further believe that her camel saddle anticipated the Mercy Seat, on which the High Priest would sprinkle the blood of atonement. Her tent anticipated the Holy of Holies, and her father foreshadowed the High Priest of the Old Covenant searching up and down that tent for righteousness before a pantheon he, though seeing, could not see hidden beyond his misogyny.

The blood of atonement was sourced from one of two goats: one for the Lord, the other, a scapegoat exiled from the community bearing its sins. These mirrored the goats Rachel’s mother-in-law had used to transfer the birthright.   

Rachel was sitting as Christ the "Seed of the Woman" would be said to be seated next to the Majesty On High after making purification for sins in his blood. He is the personification of the blood-splattered Mercy Seat foreshadowed by Rachel’s saddle.  

The idea of a sitting priest was a radical break from the understanding that the High Priest’s job was never done and he never sat in God’s presence. Yet, Rachel sat on the saddle. So we have two priests in one tent, one male, one female, with the female one sitting and concealing the substance of righteousness from the male priest, who would not look where her menstrual blood had been.    

Why, then, does Catholicism insist that God’s (supposed) masculinity means only (celibate) male priests can legitimately represent him? From the very start, the Jewish — and I emphasise Jewish — Messiah was prophesied to be the Seed of the Woman and the personification of God’s Wisdom, Sophia, a feminine entity through whom God’s worlds were made.  

"The Son is the effulgence of God’s glory and the impress of his substance," we’re told. Is this Son (and his "Father") transgender, or intersex, like the "born eunuchs" Jesus speaks about in Matthew 19, regarding whom the Church seems to have taken a nunly vow of silence? Because can’t possibly be cis-gender. Or is it, as some of your theologians say, that if the union between Christ and the Church is congruent with the relationship between the Father and the Son, that there is something akin to gender complementarianism in the Godhead? Is this why you guard marriage so closely — because it conceals what Apostle Paul euphemistically called "a mystery"? 

A mother and a virgin

The closest your Church seems to have come to venerating the centrality of women in the advent of this Messiah is exalting his mother to a status no human woman could possibly reach except by sacrificing her full humanity on the altar of your Church’s gaslighting hierarchy. Born without "original sin", rumoured to not have died a natural death but to have been "assumed" into heaven, she eternally remains a mother and a virgin.  A symbol, like Laban’s idols, of the unattainable.  

Don’t get me started on the cherry-picking and text-massaging whereby your Church clears itself of breaking the very First Commandment against creating and bowing before images. When I was a child, the Uganda Roman Catholic Church in Umlazi, G 831 had an image above the altar where God (white), Mary (white), Jesus, (white), the angels (white) and the saints (white) hovered above a separation that distinguished them from black supplicants praying up at them. I denied what I was looking at for years until my younger brother said he’d seen it too.

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Similarly, your Church has ingeniously managed to enjoy the social benefits of venerating a woman who is no human woman at all by torturing out of what she represents compliance to two contradictory ideas of womanhood: misogynists love her because she’s never been sexually touched by a man, and women hate themselves because of her. In her statue-like silence, she accuses them in their desire to be human. Like Laban, your organisation couldn’t have concealed its secrets and vulnerabilities in a more revealing female icon of the salvation its priests need but will not find. 


To the extent of your organisation’s influence, we’re all handmaids in your Handmaid’s Tale, which is about a woman giving birth for a woman who couldn’t. Short of divine or medical interventions, can virgins have babies?  If so, why does the notion of women deciding for themselves whether to use contraceptives bother your colleagues so much? Is it that they can be acted upon, but cannot act of themselves? Is that why (unlike Rachel) they can’t be priests? 

In this ingenious veneration of a woman by which you separate women from themselves, you get to have your cake and eat it. You’ve done what you accuse them of doing, when you say the use of contraceptives (and the right to make choices about their bodies in general) allows them to enjoy sex without being honest about its full implications.    

Like our Methodist Church, you finally admit that same-sex couples should be protected by law from a large number of civil violations. But you will not bless a union or sanction a sex act where there isn’t a man acting upon a woman with the possibility of producing children.  

Is this why so many of your priests can’t keep their hands off of children?

 - Siya Khumalo is the author of You Have To Be Gay To Know God (2018). He is also a Mr Gay South Africa runner-up and Mr Gay World Top 10 finalist.

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