A sentiment is gaining traction among traditional Mormons that goes something like this: “Women enjoy the blessings and authority of the priesthood through men in the way men enjoy parenthood through women.” Most recently, I read it in this form: “Someone once told me that my husband gets to experience parenthood through me, even though I take the head role in parenting and all the revelations and blessing that come with it. And when I married him in the temple I access the priesthood through him.” This new framing of the old idea, foundational in Mormon culture, that men and women have different divinely ordained roles is new to me so I tried to locate some kind of official originating source, but had no success. Because of the rate at which I’m seeing it on social media, it strikes me there must be some recent catalyst for its popularity. Where this idea comes from matters less to me than that it goes away.
Recent media coverage surrounding Ordain Women has left many Mormons feeling compelled to defend the religion we love and ourselves for loving it. So we cling to the iron rod; we hold fast and true to the philosophy that grounds us. For many LDS, that is the popular understanding that motherhood and priesthood are separate divine gifts of equal value.
I have some questions about that paradigm that most LDS don’t share. Regardless, the sentiment that men have access to parental blessings through women takes the paradigm to a level that should concern us all. Because the idea is suddenly circling, I wondered if it could be an aberration of Elder Dallin Oaks’ April 2014 Priesthood Session talk. A close reading of “The Keys and Authority of the Priesthood” seems to bear this up. Walk with me through a few passages.
In Section IV, Elder Oaks speaks specifically of three doctrinal points regarding priesthood authority and then asks, “How does this apply to women?” In answer, he quotes Joseph Fielding Smith who taught that, although women do not have the priesthood, they have “divine authority.” Elder Oaks follows with:
We are not accustomed to speaking of women having the authority of the priesthood in their Church callings, but what other authority can it be? When a woman—young or old—is set apart to preach the gospel as a full-time missionary, she is given priesthood authority to perform a priesthood function. The same is true when a woman is set apart to function as an officer or teacher in a Church organization under the direction of one who holds the keys of the priesthood.
To paraphrase: In the fulfillment of their church callings, women use–or essentially borrow–the priesthood authority of ordained men who preside over them.
Elder Oaks then said in Section V:
The greatest power God has given to His sons cannot be exercised without the companionship of one of His daughters, because only to His daughters has God given the power “to be a creator of bodies … so that God’s design and the Great Plan might meet fruition.” Those are the words of President J. Reuben Clark.
Here Oaks teaches that the greatest power God gives his sons is not the priesthood, but the power to procreate. I’ll assume Elder Oaks isn’t suggesting sexual intercourse is the greatest power, or gift, God has bestows on His mortal sons. Rather, parenthood is that greatest power, or the gift given. While he points out that men cannot become fathers without women, he does not suggest that women have authority over men in the act of procreation.
Now, lets look at the two ideas together: 1) Women partake of priesthood authority through the men who preside over them, and 2) Men partake of fatherhood, the greatest power God gives men, through women. Although Elder Oaks does not link these ideas as a quid pro quo, it seems some have, and they wind up with a version of “Women partake of priesthood authority through men in the same way men partake of parenthood through women.”
But hold on a moment. Consider Elder Oaks’ next paragraph:
[J. Reuben Clark] continued: “This is the place of our wives and of our mothers in the Eternal Plan. They are not bearers of the Priesthood; they are not charged with carrying out the duties and functions of the Priesthood; nor are they laden with its responsibilities; they are builders and organizers under its power, and partakers of its blessings, possessing the complement of the Priesthood powers and possessing a function as divinely called, as eternally important in its place as the Priesthood itself.”
According to both Oaks and Clark, women do not have the responsibilities of the priesthood because they don’t bear it, but do enjoy its blessings as “builders and organizers under its power,” a power, of course, held by their male counterparts. If Elder Oaks intended the idea that women use priesthood authority through men to be an equivalent to the idea that men experience, or exercise, parenthood through women, we should be able to swap out “priesthood” and “parenthood,” as well as genders, in the his follow-up paragraph and have the new statements be as true as the original. If we do this, we wind up with:
[J. Reuben Clark] continued: “This is the place of our
wives husbands and of our mothers fathers in the Eternal Plan. They are not bearers of the Priesthood Parenthood; they are not charged with carrying out the duties and functions of the Priesthood parenthood; nor are they laden with its responsibilities; they are builders and organizers under its power, and partakers of its blessings, possessing the complement of the Priesthood motherhood and possessing a function as divinely called, as eternally important in its place as the Priesthood motherhood itself.”
Slowing it down, in this new paragraph, the following statements would have to be true: 1) Men do not carry (or bear) parenthood. (Remember, men bear/carry the priesthood while women bear/produce children, so the equivalent idea must reflect this difference.) 2) Men are not laden with the responsibilities, or duties, of parenthood, but 3) Men enjoy the blessings of parenthood because they are a complement to mothers, who, we must infer, have the responsibilities the paragraph suggests fathers don’t have. 4) Fatherhood “in its place” is as important as motherhood.
The only statement in that list that doesn’t fly in the face of The Family: A Proclamation to the World is the fourth, and yet that qualifying phrase “in its place” should give us pause and indicate, again, that we cannot justly conflate the idea that women use priesthood authority under men with the way men exercise parental authority. Fathers are not subjugated to mothers. The proclamation reads:
HUSBAND AND WIFE have a solemn responsibility to love and care for each other and for their children. “Children are an heritage of the Lord” (Psalm 127:3). Parents have a sacred duty to rear their children in love and righteousness, to provide for their physical and spiritual needs, and to teach them to love and serve one another, observe the commandments of God, and be law-abiding citizens wherever they live. Husbands and wives—mothers and fathers—will be held accountable before God for the discharge of these obligations.
Does this sound as if fathers have parental authority because it is granted by mothers? Or that mothers preside over fathers in matters pertaining to children? No. It sounds like men and women are “full partners,” which is the term Elder Oaks borrows from President Spencer W. Kimball later in in this very same priesthood session address.
I doubt a man as intelligent and spiritually in-tune as Elder Oaks would contradict himself in his own talk or defy a statement from the First Presidency. Obviously, something is off in our understanding if we find in his words support for the assertion that women enjoy the priesthood through men in the way men enjoy parenthood through women. But even if this sentiment didn’t spring from a misreading of Elder Oaks’ talk, his words surely repute the idea that the way women access priesthood authority is parallel to the way men access parenthood. If the two are parallel, a mother’s authority subjugates the father. She presides.
The idea of fatherhood as an appendage to motherhood degrades and marginalizes men and fathers. It doesn’t raise the bar for women, it lowers the bar for men. If put into practice, this concept would lead to greater gender inequality, particularly at home, the place Mormons value most. I repeat: Elder Oaks did not create this paradigm. It may be an understandable misinterpretation, but it remains the philosophy of man mingled with scripture. Our culture does not need any more of that than it already has.
Furthermore, if you are an observer of the wider world, you know that, in spite of the persistent media attention to the so-called “war on women,” an ideological war is often waged against fathers. Fathers lose rights quicker and easier than ever before. It seems, legally and morally, fathers are too-often not recognized as a parent until a child is born, but of course, the mother is the mother from conception. The broader society is already easing toward a world in which men are marginalized as parents. Latter-day Saints must remain vigilant in our battle against all things that would reduce the role, influence, and, indeed, authority of fathers. The suggestion that fathers have parental authority through mothers is surely not something faithful Latter-day Saints should be arguing in order to demonstrate we value and respect women.
For God commanded, saying, Honor thy father and mother. (Matthew 15:4)