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The Female Body and the Sacramental Priesthood in neo-orthodox Catholic Theology, by Tina Beattie

The Female Body and the Sacramental Priesthood in neo-orthodox Catholic Theology

by Tina Beattie (see credits)

Chapter Four in God’s Mother, Eve’s Advocate. A Gynocentric Refiguration of Marian Symbolism in Engagement with Luce Irigaray, Centre for Comparative Studies in Religion and Gender, University of Bristol 1999, pp. 56 - 66; here republished with permission of the author.

Essentialising masculinity - the sacramental priesthood and the maleness of Christ

The twentieth century development of a theology which seeks to define a positive role for women in the church has arisen to a large extent out of the need to provide a theological justification for the exclusion of women from the sacramental priesthood, in the face of the challenge posed by the women’s movement. In the past, this exclusion was based on the claim that women were inferior to men by virtue of the fact that their rational souls were housed in female bodies rather than male ones, and they were therefore incapable of symbolising Christ as the embodiment of perfect humanity. Faced with the need to affirm the equality of women and the goodness of the body, both of which have been significant developments in twentieth century Catholic doctrine, the Catholic church has resorted to an ontology of sexual difference which risks excluding women from the symbols of salvation and therefore from the story of redemption in Christ. Women are no longer denied access to the sacramental priesthood because we are inferior to men but because we are by nature incapable of representing Christ, because we are not male and the masculinity of Christ is essential to his identification with God. Whereas once the saving significance of the incarnation lay in the fact that Christ took human flesh in its most perfect form - that of the male - today it lies in the fact that Christ was a male body which is essentially different from being a female body, and this explicitly excludes the possibility of female Christ-likeness. This is, to quote Janet Martin Soskice, “more than just a moral infelicity from the point of its critics - [it] is a blow at the heart of orthodox Christology.”’ (1)

This shift from a non-essentialist to an essentialist understanding of the nature of sexual difference has been justified through an appeal to scientific developments since the late eighteenth century which have ostensibly confirmed that sexual difference operates at the microcosmic level of the human organism. Biological beliefs about sexual difference have of course always influenced theology. The idea of the active generativity of God the father and the passive receptivity of the maternal flesh was based on the Aristotelian belief that the inseminating father is the source of life and the soul, while the mother is the incubator who provides the matter for the body. However, with the scientific discovery of ovulation and the recognition that both sexes are biologically active in the transmission of life, Catholic theology needed a new biological foundation to justify its paternal hierarchy of generation, and it found this through an appeal to a scientific theory which endorses a theological argument that there is a fundamental and insurmountable difference between the sexes which encompasses the whole person. So, for instance, von Balthasar claims that “The male body is male throughout, right down to each cell of which it consists, and the female body is utterly female, and this is also true of their whole empirical experience and ego-consciousness.”(2)

This means that the metaphorical possibilities of the language of fatherhood and motherhood and masculinity and femininity as concepts which to some extent were capable of transcending the sexed body have become invested with a new literalism, at least as far as the male body is concerned. As I shall show, the idea of an essentially female ego-consciousness does not prove an obstacle to men’s mimesis of Marian femininity as a sign of their creatureliness before God.

Thomas Laqueur has demonstrated that the scientific discovery of essential differences between the sexes can be traced back to the late eighteenth century, when the quest for biological differences was motivated primarily by cultural changes in the understanding of the relationship between the sexes. Before the seventeenth century, Laqueur argues that sex “was still a sociological and not an ontological category.” (3) In adopting post-Enlightenment, quasi-scientific arguments to defend the essential maleness of the priesthood and the essential orientation towards motherhood of the female body, modern theologians have surrendered the traditional Catholic understanding of sexuality as primarily concerned with the right ordering of society and with the metaphorical representation of relationships between humanity and God, to a biological model which Laqueur demonstrates can be linked to sweeping changes in the social organisation of sexual relationships. This has introduced a new literalism to Catholic theology which threatens to undermine the whole symbolic function of theological language. To explore the foundations for this criticism, I am going to begin by considering recent doctrinal arguments regarding the image of God and the exclusion of women from the sacramental priesthood.

The 1976 Declaration on the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood, Inter Insigniores, argues that

The whole sacramental economy is in fact based upon natural signs, on symbols imprinted upon the human psychology. “Sacramental signs”, says Saint Thomas, “represent what they signify by natural resemblance”. The same natural resemblance is required for persons as for things: when Christ’s role in the Eucharist is to be expressed sacramentally, there would not be this “natural resemblance” which must exist between Christ and his minister if the role of Christ were not taken by a man: in such a case it would be diffficult to see in the minister the image of Christ. For Christ himself was and remains a man. (4)

The problem with this argument is that it implies that it is not the human image of Christ but the male image of Christ that is “imprinted upon the human psychology,” so that we relate to Christ’s masculinity before we relate to his humanity. But if this is the case, then a question arises with regard to the salvation of the female body, because if our sexuality takes precedence over our humanity, then where does the woman look for symbols which affirm the uniqueness of the female body in the story of salvation?

Inter Insigniores defends its emphasis on the masculinity of the sacramental priesthood by appealing to the nuptial symbolisation of the relationship between Christ and the church, which requires that a man represents Christ as “the author of the Covenant, the Bridegroom and Head of the Church.” (5) The document acknowledges that one could argue that the priest also represents the church, and in this sense the priestly role could be performed by a woman in a way that is symbolically coherent. However, it refutes this argument by insisting that if the priest represents the church which is the Body of Christ, “it is precisely because he first represents Christ himself, who is the Head and Shepherd of the Church.” (6) In other words, the male body can represent the female body because it has priority, but the female body cannot represent the male because she derives her identity and her significance from him. Von Balthasar picturesquely describes the female church without the male Christ as “an acephalous torso.” (7)

This means that the male body uniquely has universal human significance, and the symbols of salvation require only one female body - that of the Virgin Mary - because there is no role which must necessarily be performed by a woman in the symbolic life of the redeemed community, apart from the single example of Mary’s virginal motherhood of Christ. Insofar as this finds symbolic representation in the bridal, maternal church, it is not exclusive to women and therefore it does not serve as an affirmahon of the value of the female body in the symbols of salvation. Mary Aquin O’Neill describes the following exchange during a talk she gave to a parish group on the role of women in the church:

I asked the audience, “Can you think of a single role in the church that cannot be filled by a man?” One woman shot back, “Yes. The Mother of God.” Undaunted, I pressed ahead. “And how is that role symbolized in the official life of the church?” “It isn’t,” she replied, clearly pondering the import of what she had been led to say.(8)

So far, however, it could be argued that none of this is new. The female flesh has always symbolised carnal weakness and non-godliness for both sexes, and for both sexes the attainment of holiness has to a certain extent been sought through the subjugation of the flesh with its womanly associations. What has changed is that there is no longer any way in which a woman can transcend her own flesh even through the acquisition of manliness, because while the symbolism of womanliness remains inclusive, the symbolism of manliness has been rendered exclusive. So while it is still the case that masculinity symbolises God and femininity symbolises the creature, women are now inescapably confined to the realm of the creaturely and denied any possible access to the symbolisation of their own unique relationship to God as creatures made in the image of God, even : through the mimesis of manliness.

Inter insigniores ends by saying that “The Church desires that Christian women should become fully aware of the greatness of their mission.”(9) This begs the question: what role is available to women in such a way as to reflect “the greatness of their mission” and offer reciprocity with the masculinity of the priesthood? In Mulieris Dignitatem, John Paul II makes an earnest attempt to answer this question.

Symbolic femininity and the female body

Mulieris Dignitatem is an apostolic letter on the dignity and vocation of women which affirms the significance of women in the Christian story.(10) It defends the equality of men and women, rejecting any idea of wifely subordination and describing male domination as a consequence of the fall. It dwells at length on Jesus’ positive attitude towards women in the Gospels, and recognises the need to involve women in the life and structures of the church. It reflects on Mary’s central role in the incarnation and describes her as “the most complete expression”(11) of the dignity and vocation of every human being. She is “the authentic subject of that union with God which was realized in the mystery of the Incarnation of the Word,”(12) and she represents “a return to that ‘beginning’ in which one finds the ‘woman’ as she was intended to be in creation, and therefore in the eternal mind of God: in the bosom of the Most Holy Trinity. Mary is ‘the new beginning’ of the dignity and vocation of women, of each and every woman.”(13)

Perhaps most significantly in terms of my argument, Mulieris Dignitatem points out that whereas in the Old Testament, God’s covenant with humanity is addressed only to men, the new covenant begins with a woman as a sign that “In Christ the mutual opposition between man and woman - which is the inheritance of original sin - is essentially overcome.”(14) This is an insight which has exciting implications with regard to the significance of the incarnation for women. It suggests that the encounter between God and Mary in the annunciation is a unique and decisive moment for women in salvation history, when the mediation of God’s covenant through patriarchal genealogies is ended, and woman becomes the medium of the new covenant. However, in the Catholic understanding of this event, is the woman restored to the integrity of her own person as a female body created in the image of God, or is this a covenant with the persona of woman which excludes the body as woman?

John Paul II has developed a rich theology of the body in Original Unity of Man and Woman, in which he claims that “Through the fact that the Word of God became flesh, the body entered theology ... through the main door.”(15) He refers to masculinity and femininity as being based on “two different ‘incarnations,’ that is, on two ways of ‘being a body’ of the same human being, created ‘in the image of God’ (Gn. 1:27).”(16) This suggests a theology which recognises both the revelatory potential of the human body as male and female, and the need for an understanding of the ways in which man and woman together and individually bear the image of God in their sexed bodies. My question is to what extent this insight is actually developed in the Pope’s theology, in a way which allows women a symbolic narrative within which to explore what it means to be a female incarnation of the image of God.

In Mulieris Dignitatem, John Paul II describes the relationship between the sexes as follows:

The fact that man “created as man and woman” is the image of God means not only that each of them individually is like God, as a rational and free being. It also means that man and woman, created as a “unity of the two” in their common humanity, are called to live in a commumion of love, and in this way to mirror in the world the communion of love that is in God, through which the Three Persons love each other in the intimate mystery of the one divine life.(17)

If one considers carefully what is implied in this, it is as a “rational and free being” and in communion with man that woman images God. However, rationality and freedom are not, in traditional Catholic thought, sexually determined characteristics - they indicate the dimension of human existence which is theoretically not marked by sexual difference. This leads me to ask if John Paul II implicitly perpetuates Augustine’s belief that woman images God alone insofar as she is rational (and therefore not woman), but as woman only in relation to man? If so, is this reciprocal, or is it still true that only the male has the capacity to image God in his sexual body as well as his rational (and theoretically asexual) soul, because the male body alone bears the image of God?

Mulieris Dignitatem repeats the argument of Inter Insignores, that in choosing only men as apostles, Christ intended the eucharist “to express the relationship between man and woman, between what is ‘feminine’ and what is masculine”.(18) It identifies motherhood and virginity as the “two dimensions of the female vocation”,(19) symbolised by Mary in whom motherhood and virginity co-exist in such a way that “they do not mutually exclude each other or place limits on each other.”(20) Both of these dimensions allow the woman to discover her own particular vocation to be a gift of self to the other through the vocation of marriage and motherhood, which also describes the spousal relationship between the virgin and Christ expressed in the spiritual motherhood of the religious life.

Referring to the analogy between Christ as bridegroom and the church as bride in Ephesians 5:21-33, John Paul II suggests that it reveals the meaning of the woman’s creation in Genesis 2: 18, namely, that “the dignity of women is measured by the order of love, which is essentially the order of justice and charity.”(21) This order of love is nuptial because it reveals that “The Bridegroom is the one who loves. The Bride is loved: it is she who receives love, in order to love in return”.(22) This feminine capacity to receive love in order to give love finds expression not only in marriage but in all interpersonal relationships, since “Woman can only find herself by giving love to others."(23) The fact that love is the special vocation of women is confirmed because “the human being is entrusted by God to women in a particular way,”(24) so that from the beginning to the end of history, from the Book of Genesis to the Book of Revelation, the woman is situated in the forefront of the struggle with evil. This leads John Paul II to ask, “Is not the Bible trying to tell us that it is precisely in the ‘woman’ - Eve-Mary - that history witnesses a dramatic struggle for every human being, the struggle for his or her fundamental ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to God and God’s etemal plan for humanity?”(25)

All this appears to be a positive statement of women’s centrality to the story of salvation, but on closer examination, what is really being said? A close reading of Mulieris Dignitatem reveals the fact that “woman” bears no necessary relationship to the female body but is a metaphor for humanity’s relationship to God, insofar as everything that is said to apply to the special dignity and vocation of women includes men, with the exception of biological motherhood Even the celibate priesthood is analogous to the spousal love of the virgin woman for Christ.(26) In other words, masculinity and femininity still function as they have always done in Catholic theology, with masculinity defining godliness and femininity defining creatureliness, the only difference being that women are now excluded in a more decisive way than before from masculine godliness.

It is obvious that the vocation to love cannot be particular to women in any literal sense, since this would make a nonsense of the whole Christian life. Indeed, John Paul II repeatedly recognises that what he attributes in a special way to women is true for all:

all human beings - both women and men - are called through the Church, to be the “Bride” of Christ, the Redeemer of the world. In this way “being the bride”, and thus the “feminine” element, becomes a symbol of all that is “human”, according to the words of Paul: “There is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).(27)

This complex symbolisation of sexual difference to describe relationships between God and humankind is not reducible to a binary model of sexual opposites, as Deutscher makes clear in her study of Augustine. Femininity is equated with humanity, with the implicit suggestion that masculinity is equated with divinity, but in a way that requires a proliferation of sexual identities. Consider, for example, the constructs of sex and gender that are operating in this one brief text: there are two sexes implied in the words “both women and men;” there is the feminine “Bride” which is in some sense a third gender since it denotes a collective made up of both sexes; there is the “Redeemer” who is by implication the bridegroom, but in a relationship which either excludes sexuality or includes homosexuality, since the redeemer is bridegroom in relahon to both men and women in the bridal church; there is a “‘feminine’ element” - yet another gender perhaps? - which is a symbol of “all that is human.” And finally, there is the denial of significance to male and female, who are one in Christ Jesus in a way that either transcends gender differences, or absolutises masculinity because Christ is male.

But this means that the woman described by John Paul II is ultimately the universal human being understood as feminine in relation to God, in a symbolics which renders the male body essential and the female body inessential in the symbols of salvation. Any body can stand in the place of woman but the converse is not true. Only the male body can stand in the place of man, because only the man can represent Christ who is God and therefore necessarily male. The bride incorporates both men and women because she is human, but the bridegroom is essentially male because he symbolises God: “The Bridegroom - the Son consubstantial with the Father as God became the son of Mary; he became the ‘son of man’, true man, a male. The symbol of the Bridegroom is masculine.”(28)

The shift to an essentialist understanding of man in the defence of the masculine priesthood has absolutised the theological tendency towards androcentrism. It is still true that gender functions metaphorically and analogically in theological language, as the above quotation shows. This is particularly apparent in the complex sexual metaphysics of von Balthasar’s theology. However, rather than gender being a variable which is mapped onto the bodies of both sexes through the mimesis of masculinity and femininity, the female body has now been rendered redundant in the symbols of salvation in a more explicit way than before. Only one sex - the male - is necessary for the performance of the story of Christ with al1 its masculine and feminine personae. This is achieved through an asymmetrical essentialism which on the one hand detaches femininity and motherhood from any necessary relationship to the female body because all the church’s maternal and feminine roles can be performed by men, while at the same time insisting that the female body precludes women from performing any role associated with the essential masculinity of Christ. So maternal femininity now refers to the natural, unmediated functions of the female body when it relates to women, and to the mediated, symbolic functions of the female body when it relates to men. This reduces the woman as female body to her biological function of reproduction which she shares with every other female creature, and that which makes the human animal not like all other creatures - namely, godlikeness - is denied her. If this represents “two ways of ‘being a body’,” then the contrast between the sexes lies in the fact that man is the human body made in the image of God, and woman is the human body in its natural state of animality. The difference between this and past interpretations is that now, there is no escape for women because the doors of symbolic masculinity have been locked and the female body is on the outside.

This is the problem at the heart of John Paul II’s theology of woman, and it is hard to overestimate its ethical implications with regard to the control of women’s bodies by men. He insists that motherhood cannot be reduced to its physical aspects but involves the whole person of the woman. Nevertheless, if all the qualities associated with the woman’s bridal and maternal vocation to love also include men, all that remains exclusive to women is reproduction. So the imperative to produce children becomes bound up with the identity and vocation of women in such a way that the woman who seeks to explore the meaning of her own life through some career other than motherhood is denying the very purpose of her body’s existence, and for a pope who places such a premium on the body, this is unthinkable. Therefore biological motherhood is exalted to a level of the highest significance, so that the fertile female body and the denial of ordination to women have become pivotal issues in the modern church. Only by the celebration of biological motherhood can men avoid acknowledging the extremism of their theological position with regard to the essential masculinity of Christ. By focusing such attention on the maternal body, the men who control the church can hide even from themselves the fact that they have effectively written the female body out of the story of salvation.

Frida Kahlo’s disturbing depletion of childbirth in a work entitled My Birth (1932) expresses some of this sense of the abandonment of the maternal body to silenced animality, while the Virgin raises her eyes to heaven in robed indifference to the mother’s plight. The picture is a stark representation of the three dimensions of suffering which a woman might experience as a mother and a daughter. It depicts the artist’s own birth, but it also evokes a miscarriage she suffered shortly before beginning the work, and the draped head of the mother signifies the fact that Kahlo’s own mother died while she was in the process of painting the picture.

Cooey writes of this painting that

The bleakness of the room, the suppression of the mother’s face, the stretching of the vaginaal opening by the infant’s head, and the image of the Virgin’s head (with us at birth and at death) work together with verbal silence to communicate a fragmentation and wounding of female bodies not nominally associated with the “naturalness” attributed to childbirth and the nobility consigned to motherhood in much of Western culture, especially in the context of the miscarriage of a chosen pregnancy. The painting is gruesome, depicting life-and-death struggle not verbalized by the participants and, therefore, unrelieved.(29)

The juxtaposition of the idealised Virgin who has a head and no body, and the labouring body of the woman whose head is covered as if in death, serves as a powerful visual protest against the kind of maternal politics which inform contemporary Catholic doctrine, with the romanticisation of motherhood being used as a strategy intended to silence and exclude women from positions of ecclesial and theological influence. Kahlo’s maternal body with its covered head might lead a Catholic woman to ask if this is perhaps what is meant by the likening of the maternal church to “an acephalous torso.”(30)

The significance which attaches to birth has changed along with the significance which attaches to the priesthood in modern theology. Although Christianity has always been culturally distinctive in its valuing of life from conception to death, turning its face against the abortive and infanticidal practices of the ancient world as much as of the modem world,(31) it has not in the past placed a particularly high premium on procreation per se, which is why it has always valued virginity more highly than marriage. Augustine sees no justification for sex in marriage beyond procreation, but he also suggests that even procreation is of dubious value since it prolongs humanity’s suffering and defers the coming of God’s Kingdom.(32) In the past, it was not physical childbirth that was significant, but baptismal rebirth as the sign of eternal life in Christ, so the symbolic significance of birth lay not in its actual physical reality, but in the sacrament of baptism. Similarly, the nurturing function of the individual female body was not in itself accorded any special significance, but it acquired sacramental significance when it became a symbol of the eucharist and of God’s compassion for humankind.

Mary Daly argues that this amounts to the appropriation of motherhood by men, who have created a “sacred House of Mirrors”(33) with a sacramental system which spiritualises motherhood, raising it to an elevated status so that its functions can now only be performed by “anointed Male Mothers, who naturally are called Fathers.”(34) While I agree with Daly in practice, in theory I think it is important to have a collective symbol of motherhood which recognises that there is a gap between the body and language, so that the individual human body does not become invested with excessive symbolic significance. Rather than denying the theological and liturgical significance of the maternal body, it seems desirable that either sex should be able to perform the maternal role in the administration of the sacraments, with the proviso that language thereby seeks to express rather than repress the body’s significance. The problem with the church’s maternal identity is not the symbolisation of motherhood in a way which makes it cultural rather than natural, but the exclusion of women from the enactment of this cultural symbolism.

However, the symbolic significance of the maternal body has also undergone a shift in emphasis which has had a subtle but profound effect on the life of the church, particularly insofar as the Mass is concemed. Prior to Vatican II, and especially in the symbolism of the early church, the church herself was the symbolic mother of the Christian community.(35) Since Vatican II there has been a significant loss of maternal symbolism through the emergence of a new image of the church as the people of God. In an article entitled “Whatever Happened to Holy Mother Church?” Derek Worlock writes:

There was no doubt that the model of the Church had changed with Lumen Gentium. It was then that we stopped referring to the Church as “She”. Had the substitution of the People of God for many scriptural paradigms been at the expense of the holiness of the Church and her maternal nature?(36)

This shift in symbolism has created anxiety in a conservative Catholic hierarchy which finds itself presiding over a church which is deprived of its maternal self-image. The recovery of this maternal symbolism has been sought partly through the reaffirmation of Mary’s centrality to the life of the church, especially in the writings of John Paul II and von Balthasar,(37) but it has also found expression in the idealisation of the individual mother as the locus of all the frustrated ideals and lost opportunities of a church which has in effect failed in its maternal duty to the world. Both von Balthasar and John Paul II see a world increasingly controlled by technological forces and masculine values of aggression, competition and power, and both of them see the restoration of maternal feminine values to culture as an urgent imperative to halt the decline into violence and exploitation which marks the extreme masculinisation of culture. In John Paul II’s letter to women written in July 1995, he refers to the necessary involvement of women in society, since “it will force systems to be redesigned in a way which favours the processes of humanisation which mark the ‘civilisation of love’.”(38) He also refers to “a kind of affective, cultural and spiritual motherhood which has inestimable value for the development of individuals and the future of society.”(39) But at the same time, the Catholic hierarchy is resolutely committed to the exclusion of women from positions of visibility and influence in the church, which is arguably unique in its potential to act as a maternal culture which is opposed to what John Paul II has referred to elsewhere as the “culture of death” (40) of contemporary society. Catholicism has within its resources a symbolics of motherhood which might well constitute a collective space in which women could come together to mount a maternal counter-offensive against male power while at the same time rejuvenating the traditional understanding of the church as mother, but the very men who seem to recommend such a move insist that women cannot occupy this symbolic space.

The phallus, the priesthood and the symbolic transformation of the Mass

The loss of the maternal potency of the preconciliar church has meant that the sacraments are not invested with the same intimate relationship to the maternal body that they once had. Instead, the essentialisation of the male priesthood has led to another change which, from an Irigarayan perspective, is the inevitable corollary to the devaluation of the mother’s role, and that is the increased emphasis on the symbolic significance of the phallus.

I argued in chapter 3 that sexual difference in pre-modern theology was used to situate people in relation to one another and to God, in complex ways which are not reducible to two sexes in fixed relationships to one another. This means that, although the analogy of marriage has always been applied to the relationship between Christ and the church, and since the Middle Ages to the relationship between Christ and Mary, this is not primarily concerned with the physical sexual relationship between man and woman. It is clear in Ephesians 5 that the author is not referring to the biological dynamics of sexual intercourse, but to the lifelong principle of self-giving love which makes marriage analogous to the love of Christ for the church. However, with the new nuptial symbolism of the male bridegroom and the female bride which is used to defend the masculinity of the priesthood, there is an explicitly sexual function attached to the priesthood which means that the symbolism of the Mass has gone from being a celebration of death and rebirth focused to a large extent on the maternal body, to being a celebration of sexual intercourse which is primarily focused on male sexuality. To argue that Christ’s eucharistic gift of self is the action of the bridegroom in such a way that its performance requires a male body, is to make it an act of coitus and not of selfgiving in death. The symbolic function of the priesthood is therefore no longer primarily concemed with death but with sex, since male and female bodies both die and therefore either sex could represent the death of Christ.

In the early Middle Ages, the focus of the Mass was not just the sacrificial death of Christ but the incamation as a whole, in the late Middle Ages, it came to be understood more explicitly as a sacrifice; today it has become an act of (homo)sexual intercourse. Previously, women could not represent Christ on the altar, not because Christ’s death had sexual connotations, but because it was the death of a perfect human being who is only imaged in the man, since the female body is an incomplete or defective version of the same thing. In our own age however, the female body is recognised as equal but different and is still incapable of representing Christ, because Christ’s kenotic self-giving has become implicitly associated with the male orgasm, with all the pagan overtones that this implies.

Consider, for example, the imagery evoked in von Balthasar’s question, “What else is his eucharist but, at a higher level, an endless act of fruitful outpouring of his whole flesh, such as a man can only achieve for a moment with a limited organ of his body?”(41) The “what else ... but” implies that it is nothing else. This is the eucharist understood not primarily as Christ’s identification with the universal human tragedy of death, but rather as the identification of Christ’s death with the uniquely male experience of penile ejaculation. Sarah Coakley points to “the symbolic connection between male sexual release and death.”(42) I am not advocating a reductive symbolics which would refuse to permit such associations, for freedom of interpretation is surely the essence of a rich and prolific symbolic life and to some extent there has always been an implicit sexuality to Catholic symbolism. I am however pointing out that the justification given for the essentialisation of the male priesthood has reduced the symbolic richness of the Mass so that it is indeed nothing but a cosmic male orgasm, as von Balthasar suggests. The female body, lacking the “limited organ” which allows for this expenence, cannot represent Christ in the eucharist. Ultimately this means that women have become bystanders in the metaphysical consummation of homosexual love, a marriage between men and God in which the male body is both the masculine bridegroom and the feminine bride, the masculine God and the feminine creature, the masculine Christ and the feminine church.

This makes Catholic theology more explicitly phallocentric than has been the case in the past, since the phallus has become the defining symbol of Christ’s giving of self in the Mass. The Catholic church has always been a patriarchal institution, based on descending hierarchies of male power starting with God the father, but this was seen in metaphors of relationality rather than metaphors of genitality. Now, however, it is not the patriarchal structure but the phallus itself which holds the symbolic system in place, and from a feminist psycholinguistic perspective this affects the functioning of language, creating a more structured form of discourse with a more rigid logic and dualistic imagery. For example, if the phallus is the marker of sexual difference, all sexual identities are defined in terms of possession or lack, presence or absence, and this diminishes the possibility of employing a proliferation of sexual identities to explore the rich complexity of relationships between God, Christ, the church and the sexed human body. Poetry and analogy yield to systematicity and literalism, and from there it is a small step to believing that the words we use to describe God actually define God.

So, for example, whereas the word “father” might allow for several imaginative possibilities in terms of personal relationships,(43) fatherhood, maleness and masculinity have now been identified with God in such a way that it is very hard to see how the unknowability and otherness of God can be affirmed when confronted with masculinity as a non-negotiable feature of God’s fatherhood. Von Balthasar claims that “However the One who comes forth from the Father is designated, as a human being he must be a man if his mission is to represent the Origin, the Father, in the world.”(44) This equation between God as the origin of life, fatherhood, and the maleness of Christ, couched in the language of necessity (Christ “must be a man,”) comes precariously close to an idolatry of masculinity.

In Mulieris Dignitatem, John Paul II is at pains to emphasise that “’fatherhood ‘in God is completely divine and free of the ‘masculine’ bodily characteristics proper to human fatherhood.”(45) But if this is the case, then there can be no necessary link between the fatherhood of God and the maleness of Christ and the sacramental priesthood. One could equally argue that the female body as priest serves to emphasise the fact that the fatherhood of God is not like human fatherhood.

The Mass constitutes the most intimate expression of the relationship between God and humankind in the Catholic faith, and contains within itself the whole story of Christ and the church. It symbolises consummation and birth, dying and rising, nourishment and love. Its meaning is rich enough to accommodate many variations on its themes, many possible ways of understanding its symbolic significance. Yet in what way is the female body a necessary part of this story of divine incarnation? Like an Elizabethan drama, it is a masked performance of changing identities, with all the parts being played by men. An all-female community cannot celebrate Mass since a priest is necessary, but the converse is not true. In an all-male community, the male congregation represents the feminine, bridal church, while the male priest represents the bridegroom. A statue or a picture of the Virgin Mary serves to remind men that once upon a time, a woman’s body was necessary for the story to begin, but her fertile creatureliness has no further part to play once the man has been born into eternal life beyond the cycle of sex and death.

So through a complex process of symbolic transformation, the patriarchal structures of the church have solidified around a phallocentric theology which makes it almost impossible for a woman to find herself as a symbolic presence in the church’s life. She is more truly than ever before absence, negation and non-being, a body surrendered to animality with no access to the symbols of theological personhood. Yet this is a move which does violence to the very heart of the Gospel and that is why I believe that it is an act of fidelity to the church to resist it and to expose it for what it is, not through an appeal to extraneous resources but through a deepened appreciation of the potential significance of sexual difference for theological symbolism.


1. Soskice, “Blood and Defilement,” unpublished version of paper given to the Society for the Study of Theology Conference, Oxford, April 1994, 3. For published versions, see Soskice, “Blood and Defilement” in ET: Journal of the European Society for Catholic Theology (Tübingen: Heft 2, 1994), abridged in Bulletin of Harvard Divinity School (January 1995).

2. Von Balthasar, Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory, Volume 2: The Dramatis Personae: Man in God, trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco, 1990 [1976]), 365. For other examples of such quasi-scientific theological arguments, see Mulieris Dignitatem, n.18, 68; Miller, Sexuality and Authority, 171-82. See also Loughlin’s critique of von Balthasar’s “body theology” in Loughlin, “Erotica: God’s Sex” in Milbank, Catherine Pickstock and Ward, Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology (London and New York: Routledge, 1999-forthcoming): 143-62.

3. Thomas Laqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (Cambridge MA and London UK: Harvard University Press, 1992), 8.

4. Inter Insigniores: Declaration on the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood, 15 October, 1976 in Austin Flannery, O.P. (general editor), Vatican Council II, Volume 2, More Postconciliar Documents, (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1982): 331-45, 339, quoting Saint Thomas, In IV Sent., dist. 25, q.. quaestiuncula 1& ad 4. Ruether pointedly observes that “bread and wine do not ‘look like’ a male human being, but have always been understood to represent Christ.” Ruether, “Catholicism, Women, Body and Sexuality: A Response” in Jeanne Becher (ed.), Women, Religion and Sexuality. Studies on the Impact Religious Teachings on Women (Geneva: WCC Publications, 1990): 221-32, 224.

5. Inter Insigniores, 340

6. Ibid, 341.

7. Von Balthasar, Spouse of the Word - Explorations in Theology II (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 199 [1961]), 19.

8. Mary Aquin O’Neill, “The Mystery of Being Human Together” in LaCugna (ed.), Freeing Theology 139-60, 157.

9. Inter Insigniores, 343.

10. Mulieris Dignitatem is written as a sequel to Redemptoris Mater, John Paul II’s encyclical letter on Mary’s place in the church. Both were written to mark the occasion of the Marian year in 1987~8. See John Paul II, Redemptoris Mater, 25 March, 1987 (London: Catholic Truth Society) and Mulieris Dignitatem, l August, 1988 (London: Catholic Truth Society). I focus on Mulieris Dignitatem rather than Redemptoris Mater, because at this stage my concern is with the general theological understanding of the female body rather than with Marian theology in particular, and Mulieris Dignitatem is a more useful resource from this point of view since it incorporates both Marian perspectives and more universal propositions about the nature and role of women.

11. Mulieries Dignitatem, n.5, 17.

12. Ibid, n.4, 15.

13. Ibid, n. 11, 45.

14. Ibid, n. 11, 43.

15. John Paul II, Original Unity, 175.

16. Ibid, 62.

17. Mulieris Dignitatem, n.7, 22-3.

18. Ibid, n.26, 98.

19. Ibid, n.l7, 64.

20. Ibid, n l7, 65

21. Ibid, n.29, 107.

22. Ibid, n.29, 106.

23. Ibid, n.30, 109.

24. Ibid, n.30, 112.

25. Ibid, n.30, 110.

26. See ibid, n.20, 78.

27. Ibid, n.25, 94

28. Ibid, n.25, 95.

29. Cooey, Religious Imagination, 105.

30. Reproduced from Andrea Kettenmann, Frida Kahlo (1907-1954): Pain and Passion, trans. Karen Williams (Köln: Benedikt Taschen Verlag GmbH, 1993), 38.

31. See J.T. Noonan Jr., “An Almost Absolute Value in History” in Noonan (ed.), The Morality of Abortion - Legal and Historical Perspectives (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1970): 1-59. See also Ranke-Heinemann, Eunuchs for Heaven, 51-61. It should however be noted that until the late nineteenth century, Catholic doctrine regarded early abortion as a venial sin which was not considered to be amnact of homicide. See the discussion in L.H. Tribe, Abortion - The Clash of Absolutes (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Co., 1990),31.

32. See Augustine, “On the Good of Marriage,” 285-6.

33. Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father: Towards a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation (London: The Women’s Press, 1986 [1973]), 195.

34. Ibid, 196.

35. See the studies by Henri de Lubac, The Motherhood of the Church, followed by Particular Churches in the Universal Church and an interview conducted by Gwendoline Jarcyk, trans. Sr. Sergia Englund, O.C.D. (San Fnmcisco: Ignatius Press, 1982 [1971]), and Joseph C. Plumpe, Mater Ecclesia: An Inquiry into the Concept of the Church as Mother in Early Christianity (Washington DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1943).

36. Derek Worlock, “Whatever Happened to Holy Mother Church?” in Priests & People, Vol. 9, Nos. 8, 9, August-September, 1995: 301-5, 301. This change in the church’s image is well-illustrated by considering the opening paragraphs of two Vatican documents on the church’s role in the world. Pope John XXIII’s encyclical, Mater et Magistra, was written just prior to the Council in 1961, and it opens with the lines, “Mother and teacher of all nations - such is the Catholic Church in the mind of her founder, Jesus Christ; ... To her was entrusted by her holy founder the twofold task of giving life to her children and of teaching them and guiding them - both as individuals and as nations - with maternal care.” John XXIII, Mater et Magistra in Michael Walsh and Brian Davies (eds.), Proclaiming Justice and Peace: Documents from John XXIII to John Paul II (London: CAFOD amd Collins, 1984): 1-44, n.l, 4. The Vatican II Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, written in 1965, opens with the words, “The joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the people of our time, especially of those who are poor or afflicted in any way, are the joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well. Nothing that is genuinely human fails to find an echo in their hearts. For theirs is a community composed of people, of people who, united in Christ and guided by the holy Spirit, press onwards towards the kingdom of the Father and are bearers of a message of salvation intended for all people.” Gaudium et Spes in Austin Flannery O.P. (ed.), Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents (Dublin: Dominican Publications; New Town NSW: E.J. Dwya Pty. Ltd., 1992): 903-1001, n. l, 903. The ethos expressed in both documents is not fundamentally different, but there has been a transformation in the language and imagery which describes the church’s vocation of care for the world.

37. See especially von Balthasar’s essay, “Women priests?” See also the essays in Moll, Helmut (ed.), The Church and Women.

38. John Paul II, “A Letter to Women” in The Tablet, 15 July 1995: 917-9, 918.

39. Ibid.

40. John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, 25 March, 1995 (London: Catholic Truth Society): n.12, 22.

41. Von Balthasar, Elucidations, trans. John Riches (London: SPCK, 1975 [1971]), 150, quoted in Coakley “Creaturehood before God,” 349.

42. Coakley, ibid, 349.

43. Cf. the discussion in Soskice, “Trinity and the ‘Feminine Other”’ in New Blackfriars (January 1993 2-17), in which she discusses the potential of using the language of fatherhood as relational, rather than a literally referring to the inseminating male. See also Diana Neale, “Out of the Uterus of the Father: A Study in Patriarchy and the Symbolization of Christian Theology” in Feminist Theology, No. 13 (September 1996 8-30; Jürgen Moltmann, “The Inviting Unity of the Triune God” in Claude Geffré and Jean-Pièrre Jossu (eds.)" Monotheism, Concilium 177 ( Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1985): 50-58.

44. Von Balthasar, Theo-Drama Vol. 3, 284.

45. John Paul II, Mulieris Dignitatem, n.8, 29.

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