Why Women Can’t Be Space Marines…or Priests: Warhammer 40K and Catholic Theology
Warhammer 40,000 (henceforth, 40k) is the world’s most popular miniature war game (“Top Five”, Harrop 3) while the Jesuits are the largest male religious order in the Catholic Church (Jesuits.org). Both institutions are founded on principles featuring women’s exclusion: women cannot serve as Jesuit priests nor become “Space Marines,” a kind of warrior-priest in 40k’s science fictional far future (the year 40,000). The Catholic priesthood officially became male-only in the late 4th century, at the Council of Laodicea near the end of the Perso-Roman War (New Advent, Cannon 11), while 40k’s fan base has remained overwhelmingly male since it debuted in 1987 (Harrop: 1 in 36 players are women; Dakkadakka.com: 7% of site users are female-identifying respondents). This essay analyzes the Church’s public response to women-as-priests by Catholic leaders, such as Jesuit Superior-General Arturo Sosa, Pope Francis, and Pope John Paul II, then draws comparisons to the response of women as Space Marines by the creators and fans of 40k; the two communities have striking similarities. This would not be surprising to German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, who stated in his treatise on the intersection between secular and religious communities, An Awareness of What is Missing: “Secularization functions less as a filter separating out the contents of traditions than as a transformer which redirects the flow of tradition” (18). The goal of this essay is to bridge what Habermas calls the “cleavage between secular knowledge and revealed knowledge” (17) and provide a clear breakdown for a devout Jesuit priest or a fanatical 40k player on how their organization directly supports the oppression of women. My intention is to create communicative action in the Habermasian sense and redirect the flow of a harmful tradition: the exclusion of women from what should obviously be gender-neutral spaces.
40k and the lore surrounding the game is a particularly useful comparison to Catholicism because of how quickly it grew from being a niche hobby into something like its own religion. What started as a tabletop battle system has transformed over three decades into a multimedia platform that publishes novels, video games, and a variety of other content all marketed towards its predominantly male audience; its parent company, Games Workshop, now has market capital of more than a billion British pounds (Hern). Violent games and the surrounding “geek culture” have been overwhelmingly masculine since their development in the 1970’s, as the Atarigame console and pen-and-paper games like Dungeons and Dragons were developed and tested almost exclusively by men. While this “default maleness” in geekdom has slowly shifted to be more welcoming to women in recent years, incidents such as 2014’s Gamergate and the Sad/Rabid Puppies controversy at Worldcon continue to prove how reluctant these conservative cultures are to accepting women as full members of their communities.
While 40k players tend to be middle-class, white “geeks” between the ages of 15 and 40 (Hern), Jesuit priests are a diverse congregation known around the world for their academic contributions and their commitment to helping impoverished communities. This is despite the fact that the Order’s modern vow of chastity is based on Saint Augustine’s incredibly biased theological writings equating a woman’s sexuality with sin (Torjesen 223), creating a dynamic that psychologist and laicized Catholic priest Eugene Kennedy calls, “[a] signature [that] has been branded so deeply into the ecclesiastical organizational tree that it seems as natural to those who tend it as the grain of the wood itself” (174). As of August 2022, Pope Francis continues to block any attempts allowing priests to marry, or for women to be elevated into the lesser role of a church deacon, even though he stated in 2018’s Synod for the Amazon, “Let us not reduce the involvement of women in the Church, but instead promote their active role in the ecclesial community” (Chapter V, 99).
In a similar tactic to skirt accusations of misogyny, the newest Eighth and Ninth editions of 40k feature female characters as centerpieces in Games Workshop’s promotional materials (“Warhammer-Community”), and the previously sexualized models in the armies called the Sisters of Battle (space nuns) and the Dark Eldar (space elves) have been “toned down” since their original creation, possibly in response to related feminist backlash against the game in the early 2010’s. Despite the increase of women’s roles in media portrayals, the various factions of the male-only Space Marines continue to dominate in popularity among casual and tournament players, comprising over 50% of all the armies fielded in 2019, while the Sisters of Battle were less than 2% of all the armies fielded (40kstats.com). In addition, Space Marine characters serve by far as the most common protagonists for the game’s supplementary materials, such as the hundreds of in-universe novels, as well as in related movies and video games (Black Library).
The fact that Space Marines can only be men is echoed throughout the ranks of every Catholic priesthood, but this essay will focus specifically on the Jesuits, as the Order’s reputation of being the most “liberal” wing of the Church was first recognized in the secular American consciousness during the 1960’s (McDonough: “Metamorphoses” 329), suggesting that individual Jesuit priests may secretly be in favor of ordaining women in spite of their current leader, Arturo Sosa, stating in 2017 that women’s full inclusion into the priesthood “has not yet arrived” (“Stirring the Waters”). In contrast to Sosa, feminist scholar and practicing Catholic Tina Beattie positions female priests as a modern necessity in the introduction of New Catholic Feminism:
…until women are recognized as full and equal participants in the life of faith, until we are acknowledged as persons graced with the image of God, capable of representing Christ to the world as fully and effectively as men do, the Church herself will continue to be a spiritual desert where men’s fears and fantasies lead them to refuse the grace that female sacramentality might bring to Catholic liturgical and institutional life (2).
Beattie’s idea that men’s “fears and fantasies” control their views of women is a critical building block in the philosophical parallels between 40k’s history and Jesuit theology. Strict adherence to holy scripture/game lore is necessary for maintaining the identity of a priest/player, and unfortunately, blaming women’s biology, specifically its reproductive or sexual power, serves as a scapegoat for these individuals having to reflect on their institution’s own problematic teachings.
Fictional Game Lore Functions as Religious Doctrine
When Catholic priests and 40k players follow a “divine” canon, it relieves them of personal responsibility regarding their beliefs and actions related to these beliefs. This technique is a very common one in conservative circles, and was used to negate any chance of women Catholic priests by Pope John Paul II in his 1994 apostolic letter, Ordinatio sacerdotalis:
I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful…The fact that the Blessed Virgin Mary…received neither the mission proper to the apostles nor the ministerial priesthood clearly shows that the nonadmission of women to priestly ordination cannot mean that women are of lesser dignity, nor can it be construed as a discrimination against them. Rather, it is to be seen as the faithful observance of a plan to be ascribed to the Wisdom of the Lord of the Universe.
This statement leads devoted Catholics to absolve John Paul II of any moral failure related to the ostracization of women because it is the Church which “has no authority”—and his repeated message of obedience or faith to a mysterious “plan” further reinforces his helplessness as an individual. This type of cognitive bias serves as not just one, but two of the central pillars of Jesuit vows to obedience (Jesuits.org). Another trait visible in the Pope’s statement will feature as a motif in this essay, and that is the role of paying “lip service” to women while also treating them unequally, as this kind of “cheap talk” does not require communicative action in the Habermasian sense (Risse). John Paul II states that “nonadmission of women to priestly ordination cannot mean women are of lesser dignity” or “be construed as discrimination,” but nearly all feminist scholars as well as many female Catholics are clear in their disagreement with this position. Pope Francis has continued the tradition of mitigating the potentiality of female priests as recently as 2020, stating in the Querida Amazonia Apostolic Exhortation:
[Involving women in the Church] summons us to broaden our vision, lest we restrict our understanding of the Church to her functional structures. Such a reductionism would lead us to believe that women would be granted a greater status and participation in the Church only if they were admitted to Holy Orders. But that approach would in fact narrow our vision; it would lead us to clericalize women, diminish the great value of what they have already accomplished, and subtly make their indispensable contribution less effective (100, emphasis mine).
According to Pope Francis, the clericalization of women into advanced leadership roles within the Church will somehow “subtly make their indispensable contribution less effective,” though he provides no evidence to support his reasoning as to why, and he goes on to state:
In a synodal Church, those women…should have access to positions…that do not entail Holy Orders and that can better signify the role that is theirs…This would also allow women to have a real and effective impact on the organization, the most important decisions and the direction of communities, while continuing to do so in a way that reflects their womanhood (103, emphasis mine).
Pope Francis establishes that “appropriate” gender roles are the true foundation of Catholicism, and his command that women should serve in a way that “reflects their womanhood” is a familiar conclusion the Church has been claiming for over a thousand years. Academic researcher Peter McDonough criticized this viewpoint in 1990:
In a patriarchy, the institutional consequences of [reforms] in what might seem to be merely symbolic quandaries about the role of women are potentially very great. The connections between gender inequality, psychosexual identity, and organizational authority are—or once were—extraordinarily tight in Catholicism. Change in this area, which poses a crisis of individual and corporate identity and purpose, is centered on the working out and sustenance of a male role and personality in opposition to women (“Metamorphoses” 334).
A devoted 40k player undergoes an identical form of disassociation regarding the role of women as Space Marines; this person is heavily invested in the “world” of the game, as they have developed a kind of mental landscape out of the myriad of details regarding the different armies and alien races across a ten-thousand-year timeline that also includes many lengthy characterizations of the universe’s key human figures. In this fictional universe, the God-Emperor of Mankind is the most important character, similar to how Jesus or God plays a central role in the life of a Jesuit—when John Paul II uses terminology such as “the Lord of the Universe,” it is not difficult to see the connection between the two different mindsets. In fact, the origin story of 40k’s God-Emperor and the creation of the Space Marines from his own genetic material was intended to be a satire of religion and was partially inspired by Milton’s Paradise Lost (McAuley 192).
The ever-expanding 40k lore is known within the community as the “fluff.” While some players pay minimal attention to the fluff and instead focus on the tabletop, skirmish-based combat of the game or the hobby of painting its miniature models, other players become monk-like chroniclers of this information, with some even contributing their own material to the canon, establishing a greater ethos in their “faith” in a process not unlike being formally accepted as a priest. As of June 2020, there were over three hundred books set in the 40k universe published under Games Workshop’s literary imprint, the Black Library; some of these stories began as fan fictions which won a sponsored competition (Walliss 129). As one player stated in Walliss’ 2012 study on gender in 40k fanfiction: “the existing fluff is a kind of Bible of sorts…the established fluff is law, and breaking that is to commit some unwritten crime” (123). A central pillar of this “40k Bible” is that Space Marines can only be male, according to the original lore by Rick Priestly, and this outlook is still quietly supported by Games Workshop. A lengthy article on the game’s official website contains many explanations and diagrams regarding the pseudo-scientific enhancements a Space Marine must undergo to become an immortal, godlike super-soldier, and one section states, “…only a small proportion of people can become Space Marines. They must be male because zygotes are keyed to male hormones and tissue types, hence the need for tissue compatibility tests and psychological screening” (“Rites of Initiation”, emphasis mine).
This innocuous detail supports the baseline of a misogynistic worldview in the fictional far-future of 40k: because the vast majority of its players are male, many don’t even recognize how this element effectively denies a woman a sense of normality in the game’s hierarchy, where the Space Marines, like bishops or cardinals in the Church, are at the very top of the organization’s bureaucratic power structure. This is in part due to an internet phenomenon known as Poe’s law. First recognized in response to a Creationism forum in 2005, Poe’s law states: “Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is utterly impossible to parody a Creationist in such a way that someone won’t mistake for the genuine article” (Ellis). Poe’s law functions as a philosophical shield for a 40k player who can point to the game’s hypermasculinity and hyperbolic levels of violence as a parody of the space opera genre, allowing them to safely assert that its feudal, “grimdark” setting should not be taken seriously, thereby inoculating its lore, and their personal beliefs, against all arguments regarding gender politics. This is in direct opposition to one of the game’s primary creators, Rick Priestly, who stated in an interview in 2015:
To me the background to 40k was always intended to be ironic…There’s no guarantee that the Emperor is anything other than a corpse with a residual mental ability to direct spacecraft. It’s got some parallels with religious beliefs and principles, and I think a lot of that got missed and overwritten (Duffy).
Many modern 40k fans and writers have fallen into the trap of Poe’s law and are unable to discern the satirical elements of the game from the parts they actively enjoy: the actual misogyny is indistinguishable from the ironic misogyny. One of many, many examples of this fractured mental state is in the 2006 novel focusing on the Sisters of Battle, titled Faith & Fire, by James Swallow. Throughout the book, male characters often muse about what it would be like to “bed” one of the Sisters, and the women are referred to constantly as “church bitches,” “wenches,” “harlots,” and “whores” throughout the text. But this one book is just the tip of a misogynist iceberg; these books inhabit shelf space at your local library and used book stores around the world, with some even appearing on the New York Times bestseller list (Harrop 4). Nearly every book is by a male author, and they are so riddled with casual sexism that the mindset of these super-fans lies in the same state Kennedy writes about Catholic priests, with “the signature branded so deeply into the ecclesiastical organizational tree that it seems as natural to those who tend it as the grain of the wood itself.” Priestly recently spoke against this trend in another interview in 2019:
…in the ‘history’ of the Imperium I always imagined there were a number of eras during which human space was divided or where societies diverged and different moral or ethical values prevailed—however—[Games Workshop] always tended towards ‘Waagh the Emperor’—for such is the nature of the business—so the portrayal of the Imperium as one, simple idea became the things that it was possible to promulgate through the business as a whole…I always thought of the Imperium as a vast self-serving bureaucracy in which no-one really knew what they were doing but they continue [to] do it out of a sense of tradition and routine—so status and power become bound up with all kinds of half-baked assumptions, received wisdom and superstition. Much like the real world really (BaronBifford).
Unfortunately, the tradition of excluding women in 40k has become “bound up” as Priestly says, with “status and power and half-baked assumptions,” but this is also an accurate portrayal of the Catholic church when addressing issues related to feminism. Tina Beattie notes the Church’s bias in her response to a 2003 letter to the public from Pope John Paul II:
Instead of seeking a balanced engagement that would acknowledge affinities as well as dissonances between Catholicism and feminism, the letter sets the (male) authority of the Catholic hierarchy over and against feminism, in such a way that all feminists are discredited and the Church’s expertise in humanity is confidently asserted (New Catholic Feminism 18).
Many 40k fans response to feminist arguments like this one in the exact same way as Catholic leaders: they assert their ethos as players/priests and cite examples of lore/doctrine as “proof” that the sexism was already there all along. What’s worse is that while these arguments are circulating, a vast amount of mental inertia accumulates as a form of religious interpretation; in over three decades of 40k’s existence, Games Workshop has slowly grown and adapted to this audience as a source of income. The company determines what remains in the canon, and radical adjustments to the lore would turn away the “hardcore” players, who are their best customers. Thus, the only hope of changing the rule of “male hormones and tissue types” for Space Marines lies in lobbying 40k’s core audience to ask for this change—the male fans—making the task appear impossible. Brunkhorst notes this obstacle in her summary of Habermas’ philosophy: “[Habermas] has never abandoned the Marxist thesis that the economic forces that determine social action have become autonomous and therefore represent a problem…” (30).
Much like other geek-identified spaces, such as Magic: The Gathering and online video games, the road to equality begins with convincing a single, biased individual to self-reflect and choose to change his thinking or behavior regarding his own sexism (Muñoz-Guerado and Triviño-Cabrera 195). But this is an incredibly difficult proposition for a population who use their identities as geeks as a form of escapism: their loyalty to the game supersedes their loyalty to any moral arguments surrounding gender equality, which many fans with traditionally conservative beliefs may actively fight against anyways. McDonough puts the Jesuits in a similar position in his book Passionate Uncertainty, which analyzes the worldviews of American priests, stating, “The Jesuits are in a bind. They cannot go back, insofar as that course would entail a return to clerical dominance in an age of lay ascendancy. But they cannot move forward without placing their clerical identity at risk” (2). Likewise, the majority of 40k fans are trapped in a cycle of moral limbo regarding the more problematic aspects of their fictional universe, and it is often easier for individuals to convince themselves that it is all “just a game” and return to a state of sublime indifference as they paint the imaginary boltguns of their immortal, eight-foot tall warrior-priests…who can only be men.
The Problem of Women’s Bodies
Perhaps what is most surprising about 40k pre-2017 was its total erasure of empowered female characters across the in-game universe, as succinctly pointed out by Muñoz-Guerado and Triviño-Cabrera (198-205). Their essay proves that it doesn’t matter which army a player chooses across the dozens of different factions and species available in the game: women are inevitably silenced, invisible, deceitful, or cruel, and when they are present, such as in the Sisters of Battle or with the elf-like Eldar, they are always subjected to the male gaze (200). But a striking example of Games Workshop shifting into post-sexism, defined by Lorente as needing to create its own aesthetics to break away from its previously stale, virile image, is with the Repentia, a squad of Sisters of Battle who have failed in their oaths to the Emperor and given up one of their “senses,” transforming them into zealous warriors. The older, pre-2017 Repentia models featured women wearing scraps of clothing, exposing oversized breasts ubiquitous in female characters throughout fantasy and science fiction settings, but in the newer, version eight models, these women are more realistically muscular and they now wear modest shorts and tank tops (“Warhammer-Community”). But nothing else about the lore surrounding this squadron has changed—these women are still whipped into a frenzy with a literal whip as punishment for their “loss of purity,” which is an echo of Christianity’s obsession with virginity and a nod to the Inquisition’s practice of flagellation. Making any alterations to the lore surrounding the Repentia would be considered heretical by most players, as adhering to the game’s “grimdark” tone makes it so that the universe is in a process of endless war: every character (male, female, or alien) is effectively dehumanized as a form of necrocapitalism, or the subjugation of life to the power of death by political and economic forces (Banerjee 1). Changing the rules or backstory of even a single problematic squad, such as the Repentia, is an impossibility because of the multiple novels, tactical books, and physical models that are already in the hands and minds of players, reinforcing the unit’s existence as a “fact.”
But despite having many instances of sexualized female characters in 40k’s models, art, and story descriptions, most lore contrasts any imagery of a woman’s body with a strong de-emphasis on romantic or consensual relationships; these are stories about brothers-in-arms going to battle, even if the characters are women (The Black Library). The “eye candy” is for the player only, as Space Marines are entirely asexual, evidenced by Dembski-Bowden when he writesupon the mindset of a new soldier,“Sexuality is a forgotten concept, alien to his mind, merely one of ten thousand humanities his consciousness has discarded” (9). In accordance with the fluff, 40k remains a tabletop war game that, like the Space Marine character, has no need for sexuality, and is powered by what Wallis calls, “a universe of testosterone-fueled conflict with little or no room for the emotional complexities or morally grey areas that characterize everyday life” (130). Because of this purposeful choice in tone by both fans and Games Workshop, a woman in this universe, the same as a man or an alien, exists only as an object that produces or absorbs violent acts. This leaves no space for empathy, confirming what J.J. Bola writes in Mask Off: Masculinity Redefined:
The effect of [violent games] is not only that extreme violence is normalized, and a social talking point for boys and men, but these games also constantly reinforce the idea of an ‘Other’; an enemy. Many boys grow up thinking that there is always someone to fight against, inculcating a kill or be killed mentality… (55).
For many 40k fans, the Beauvoirian idea of the feminine Other becomes synonymous with the enemy Other, as the nearly all-male fanbase engages in conversation with itself about the game. Some psychologists, such as Donald Meltzer, might compare this behavior with that of an individual trapped in a level of pseudo-maturity that results in masturbatory behavior; or sociologist Michael Messner could assert this is another form of “soft essentialism” which creates a naturalized version of men who society dictates can’t control their actions, as both these comparisons have been drawn from academics analyzing a variety of gaming and “men’s rights” communities on the internet (Ging). In either case, voluntarily celibate priests or involuntarily celibate players may manifest a subconscious fear and hatred of women as the source of their sexual frustration. Beattie draws this conclusion:
While celibacy can be a beautiful vocation and an inspiring witness to faith, it can also be a form of gynophobia if it leads men to form closed communities as a way of avoiding contact with women. Gynophobia infects church teaching with an impetus to dominate women through various tactics of sexual and reproductive control and priestly exclusion (“Empire of Misogyny?”).
In contrast to Games Workshop’s shift into post-sexism, the Catholic church refuses to budge even remotely on their position regarding women’s bodies as representations of sin and sexuality, having lapsed since the 1960’s into what one Jesuit has called “pelvic theology” (McDonough, Passionate Uncertainty 1). The current doctrine of Catholic beliefs in this area is still influenced primarily by the conclusions made by St. Augustine in the early 400’s, as his teachings became the Church’s main structuring device since Pope Pius XI in 1930, even though many references regarding marriage and sexuality existed before him (Clark 1-2). According to Augustine, the root of evil lies in the emotion of sexual passion, a necessity required to stimulate an erection, which results in a pleasure that is not on the account of God, and because of this, the only way to entirely avoid sin is to refrain from marriage and become celibate (On Marriage 1.19, 1.27). Because a woman’s sexuality—the sensory experience of her body by a man—is what triggers this “blush of shame” (Chapter 7), her uncontrollable physicality is what separates her from the purity of the priesthood and God. Thus, the requirement of celibacy in the Jesuit priesthood is inextricably linked to both a woman’s physical body and her ability to become ordained in their Order, creating a similar philosophical conclusion to the impossibility of female Space Marines in 40k. The Catholic church and Games Workshop teach that a woman has the wrong “tissues,” and this mantra remains a cornerstone of these biased institutions. A final warning about the lengths the Catholic church is willing to take against women comes from Beattie, who has been erased in the real world by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith. She spoke out against the hypocrisy being perpetuated by Pope Francis, stating in 2018:
Yet far from offering a genuine model of equality in difference, [Catholic] theology of the body is ridden with sexual stereotypes and essentialisms that are largely motivated by a resistance to feminism, women’s ordination, homosexuality, abortion, contraception and, more recently, what is usually referred to in magisterial documents as “gender ideology” (“Empire of Misogyny?”).
Her arguments here were partially in response to having speaking engagements at both churches and Catholic universities cancelled, the modern-day equivalent of being branded as a heretic.
Inequality is Equality: Sisters of Battle and Nunneries
The most common argument against female Space Marines or female Catholic priests is that women already have their place within their respective institutions: in secular, working positions and nunneries for the Church, and as Sisters of Battle or in minor roles of other armies in 40k. The fact that priests/players have difficulty fathoming how weak these female organizations are when compared to their powerful, male-only counterparts is due in part to what social philosopher Zygmunt Bauman has termed “liquid modernity,” which emphasizes globalization and individualization as the major factors that have shaped our modern world, resulting in a depersonalized sociality. Sociology scholar Ross Abbinnett meshes liquid modernity with the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, stating that the proximity of close relationships, such as the “brothers-in-arms” mentality of priests/players, creates an ethical bond where the principles of justice do not apply to the strange Other (107), and draws this conclusion:
This then is the mechanism of destitution that is implicit in liquid modernity: the constant re-creation of vast tracts of waste humanity who are deprived of means of securing a place in the productive networks of global capitalism…if one falls below, or never acquires, a given level of social and economic capital, one is permanently cut adrift from all but the most basic necessities of life (114-115).
Abbinnett is referring here to poverty-stricken populations who are kept in the cycle of endless need, but this lesser social status parallels the position imposed on nunneries and the Sisters of Battle. By never being allowed an equal foothold within their institutions, they are limited to the “basic necessities” of their status, which translates to fewer model options and less powerful units in 40k, and women serving only as workers in Catholicism, i.e., having subservient roles that do not participate in the higher echelons of the Church’s decision-making hierarchy; examples of this include the appointment of an all-male Catholic Council for the Economy in 2014 (Zagano), and the more obvious fact that all of the voting members at the 2019 Amazon synod were men despite Pope Francis declaring earlier that year that women “should be fully included in decision-making processes” (Viggo Wexler) as yet another example of his “cheap talk” that fails in the Habermasian sense.
Games Workshop has majorly mitigated the Sisters of Battle since their inception, resulting in the army having only expensive, metal models for over twenty years, as well as a lack of flexibility in customization of their units, and a higher “point-per-unit” cost on their current models. Even though Gav Thorpe wrote the original Sisters of Battle codex in 1997, the models were only available as pewter figurines, by far the most expensive method of production (Floyd), meaning that a playable “army” of Sisters could cost a player well over a thousand dollars. This created a chicken-and-egg problem: because the Sisters had such a high price point, they sold poorly, and because nobody bought them, there was no incentive to produce plastic models. As a macabre example from my own experience with 40k, one of my fellow players bought a few Sisters models only because he thought they made exquisite corpses—he would mutilate their bodies and place them under the feet of his mighty Chaos Marines.
Even though Games Workshop finally committed to the promise of selling cheaper, plastic units for the Sisters in 2019, this army is still more costly by a wide margin than a Space Marine army of equivalent point value. As a comparison, creating a 650 point “field” for both armies using the official website, the Sisters cost $415 (U.S.), while the Space Marine army of equivalent points is only $185 (“Warhammer-Community”, prices in June 2020). In addition to this “pink tax” where the Sisters are more than twice as expensive, there are only about thirty different models for sale in their army, while the variety of Space Marine units is in the hundreds. Also, even though this army is the Sisters of Battle, five of their available units are still male models, and the masculine presence in this supposedly all-women organization breaks the common fan argument of “there can’t be female Space Marines because there are no Brothers of Battle.” In contrast, the only female unit that can be included in a Space Marine army is from the Emperor’s elite assassins, a woman whose shape-shifting capabilities only function because the drugs are “compatible with her gender,” reinforcing the woman-as-betrayer trope that is so frustratingly common throughout 40k (Muñoz-Guerado and Triviño-Cabrera 202).
This game-based data shows a measurable, mathematical way of tracking how the Sisters of Battle are at best, a third-rate competitor to the Space Marines, but correlating data from the Catholic church regarding various female-only groups of nuns and male-only groups like the Jesuits is more of a challenge. According to a survey in 2014, the number of the Catholic sisters in the U.S. has fallen from 180,000 in 1965 to about 50,000, whereas the total number of priests has dropped comparatively less, from 58,000 to 38,000 during the same time period (Lipka); the percentage of male priests has dropped by 34%, while the nuns have dropped by over twice that, at 72%. While the reasons for this discrepancy are multifarious, the main culprit appears to be tied to the secular women’s rights movement: in 2012, an all-women Catholic organization, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), 80% of whom are Catholic nuns, was investigated by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith—the same Church branch which has branded Beattie as a dissenter—and many of the letters exchanged between these two factions were kept from the eyes of the public (NCR Staff).
Leaders in the LCWR have made their voices heard regardless of any sanctions the organization received: these women are simply demanding equality in the Church, yet are continually told to “rediscover their identity” by conservatives (Fiedler), causing many women to simply abandon traditional Catholicism in favor of more progressive interpretations of the doctrine. One such group is the Roman Catholic Women Priests, who reject the penalty of excommunication imposed on them by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith in 2008, and identify as “loyal members of the church who stand in the prophetic tradition of holy obedience to the Spirit’s call to change an unjust law that discriminates against women” (Roman Catholic Women Priests). Unlike 40k, where there are so few female players that their voices go unheard, Catholic women are loudly proclaiming and making statements in the public sphere regarding the unjust practices of the Church, who continue to engage in cheap talk in response to them—the only strategy that has proven effective in creating change, regrettably, is for women to leave their own Faith.
The Jesuits often contradict themselves on the issue of women’s ordination. Norbert Brieskorn, a Jesuit and Professor of Social and Legal Philosophy in Munich, responded to Habermas’ initial argument in An Awareness, stating, “The protection of human rights and the freedom of the religious communities to organize themselves must be guaranteed no less than the limitations placed on religious communities by generally valid laws” (35). Brieskorn believes that a religion, in this case Catholicism, should be allowed to organize itself however it wants, with an all-male voting leadership, for example, in response to the limitations placed on the religion by “generally valid laws,” which intersects meaningfully with the German Constitution, which was changed in 1994 to read: “Men and women shall have equal rights. The state shall promote the actual implementation of equal rights for women and men and take steps to eliminate disadvantages that now exist” (Article 3). Brieskorn, like the majority of Catholic priests, has decided that this particular portion of the German Constitution is one of the “not generally valid laws,” and therefore believes the Church does not need to follow a State document and take the necessary steps to eliminate the sexist disadvantages in his own Order. He defends his position thusly: “There cannot be a state Church. Reason does not presume to act as a judge concerning truths of faith and it does not require that religion should be truncated into socially useful morality” (35, emphasis mine). One of these “truths of faith” in the view of a male priest like Brieskorn is that women cannot be ordained, so the rules of the State do not apply, and thus their religion cannot be “truncated into socially useful morality,” despite the Church’s continued claims of serving as a moral authority on many social issues. Feminist theorists are exasperated by this type of reasoning, as it sets up what Beattie calls “draping [the implications of dominating women] in the romantic language of maternal nature and ‘feminine genius’” (“Empire of Misogyny?”).
An example of this “draping” is when Arturo Sosa, Superior General of the Society of Jesus, argues that the Jesuits are making movements in the direction of equality, even though his rhetoric falls into the same lip service category as the statements made by Pope Francis. He made many compliments to the “feminine genius” at the Vatican in 2017, ironically concluding with, “We can listen carefully to the experience of women in the public sphere, hear how they work together, and be inspired by their courage. These are stories of doing the impossible” (“Stirring the Waters”). To be clear, this is the message women are getting from the Catholic World Church: We will listen to you, and then change nothing.
In 2017, as a way of maintaining his liberal persona, Pope Francis created a “Study Commission on the Women’s Diaconate” to explore the history and role of women in the Church structure, and to many of the Faithful, the act of making this commission looked like an extended hand to build communicative power with women in the Habermasian fashion. But members of the academic and secular community now see this motion as a massive failure: the commission finished its research in 2019 and not only did the review board advise the Pope that women can’t be priests, even the matter of making them deacons, a lesser role that still has little power in the Church hierarchy, was questioned—and yet another commission has been formed to look into that matter (Winfield). Again, because of the rapid pace people live under during “liquid modernity,” Pope Francis and his successors only need to keep making commissions where the board members draw disapproving or mixed conclusions, and then the argument for making women priests, or even deacons, can be suspended indefinitely.
Conclusion: No Girls Allowed?
If Arturo Sosa truly wants to make a difference in the lives of women, he must follow his own advice and do more than just listen—he should reach out to the Women’s Ordination Campaign (WOW). Founded in 1996, WOW has meticulously documented all the ecclesiological arguments necessary to ordain Catholic women priests and has support from individual Jesuits, though usually posthumously or on their deathbeds (Sagado). With the combined efforts of WOW, the LCWR, Roman Catholic Women Priests, and other like-minded organizations, the Jesuits have the unique opportunity to blaze a new path by being the first Order in the history of the Church to ordain women. But Sosa, like all the other male-only priests, possibly fears repudiation at the hand of Pope Francis, who upholds traditional doctrine and has excommunicated both male priests who support the ordination of women and also women who try and become priests, as well as any advocates for other hardline topics such as gay rights or the right to an abortion (Dias and Gorny). Likewise, Games Workshop fears the loss of their hardcore male fanbase if they are too openly “woke” in regards to female Space Marines.
Patriarchal institutions stay in power because of the collective like-mindedness of their male populations while also keeping access to resources restricted to the men in their leadership roles. By comparing the beliefs and behavior patterns of members of the Jesuit faithful to the nonreligious members of the 40k gaming community, this essay implores both priests and players around the world to undertake action on the personal level and begin lobbying their institutions to stop the cheap talk regarding the subjection of women. As Habermas states near the end of An Awareness:
Violations of universally accepted norms of justice can be more easily established, and denounced with good reasons, than can pathological distortions of forms of life…I suspect that nothing will change in the parameters of public discourse and in the decisions of the politically empowered actors without the emergence of a social movement which fosters a complete shift in political mentality (73-74).
The lack of gender equality in 40k and Catholicism is a pathological distortion that people everywhere should no longer abide. As Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote in 1825, “He who begins loving Christianity better than truth will proceed by loving his own sect better than Christianity, and end in loving himself better than all” (Dupre 173). Whether these men read the Bible or a Space Marine codex, pray to Jesus while kneeling behind a pew or to the Chaos Blood Gods when rolling attack dice in a Games Workshop store, Catholic or secular, their sexist beliefs remain the same. It’s past time we made the change: we need Jesuit women and female Space Marines, not 40,000 years in the future, but today.
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