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Male Clericalism and the Dread of Women by Rosemary Radford Ruether from 'Women and Orders'

Male Clericalism and the Dread of Women

by Rosemary Radford Ruether

from Women and Orders, pp 1-13, edited by Robert J.Heyer. Paulist Press, 1974.

THE arguments which have been given recently by the Roman Catholic hierarchy against the ordination of women, i.e., the maleness of Jesus and the apostles, are surprising. They are weak theologically and have little background in traditional thinking. The standard quip that “Jesus also only appointed Jews as apostles” points to the untenability of assuming the sociological accidents of the primitive apostolate as eternal norms for the ministry of the Church. As Emily Hewitt has pointed out, Jewishness was as much a requirement as maleness for the New Testament concept of Jesus and the Twelve. Jesus, as the representative of Israel, and the Twelve, as the representatives of the Twelve tribes, must be both Jewish and male, for the Jewish congregation counted only males as members of the congregation. These norms have been abandoned by the Church. The maleness of Jesus and the apostles is just as sociologically contingent to that setting as is the requirement that they be Jews.

The argument that Jesus was male and, therefore, that only a male can represent Christ, is theologically suspect. In any case, it is doubtful that one should regard the priest as “incarnating” Jesus in any such literal sense. The traditional understanding of the incarnation never meant, as its center, the incarnation of Jesus in the male sex. Rather the point was the incarnation in “human nature.” Traditional Calcedonian orthodoxy even denied to Jesus a “human person,” making his person that of the divine Logos! (Is the person of God sexually male?) We might want to alter this kind of orthodoxy from other points of view, but it is clear that it understood the essential character of the incarnation, not in terms of Jesus’ male sexuality, but in terms of generic “human nature.” Indeed to make maleness essential to the incarnation would have, in traditional orthodoxy, excluded women, not merely from ordination, but from salvation! In fact all of the theological arguments against the ordination of women are based on views which, taken literally, would also exclude women from baptism. All define women in terms which exclude them from full humanity and capacity for grace. As the ancient Patristic theologians put it, “that which is not assumed (by the human nature of Christ) is not saved.” Hence the human nature of Christ cannot be defined in terms which make maleness essential, but in terms of that generic human nature which, in Genesis, is “both male and female.” Anything less than this would define the essential work of the incarnation in a way that would exclude women from the fruits of the incarnation, i.e., redemption.

However, even when these arguments are refuted theologically and shown to be sociologically contingent, we have, I believe, only begun to sound the real depths of the resistance to the ordination of women by a male hierarchy. We know now that women did serve in various leadership capacities in the apostolic Church. Moreover one of the striking characteristics of Jesus is his unconventionality toward women. According to Jewish Law, one was never to look at or talk to a woman who was not one’s wife; a rule Jesus broke to the astonishment of the disciples. To be touched by a woman with a flow of blood was to suffer instant contamination; an idea Jesus also rejects. Women also were forbidden to study Torah, so Jesus, in praising Mary over Martha, was reversing female role stereotypes. When Paul, in his letters, is attempting to reassert the male leadership principles of the synagogue, he does so against what has become the practice of female participation in his own churches. Moreover he does so, not on the grounds of the maleness of Jesus or the apostles, but on the grounds of the “orders of Creation.” According to this analogy, male overlordship and female passivity symbolize the relation of God to Creation, and hence the relationship of Christ to the Church. Krister Stendahl, in his magisterial The Bible and the Role of Women, has fully refuted the tenability of this argument from the orders of Creation as binding on the leadership principles of the Christian community. This analogy is seen as drawn from the current social subjugation of women, and so can have no continuing authority in the order of redemption represented by the Church.

Thomas Aquinas and other medieval thinkers followed an Aristotelian version of this same argument which equated the social subjugation of women with a subordination intrinsic to the “order of Creation.” According to Aristotle, women (also slaves and non-Greeks) represented the naturally servile personality, vis-à-vis the free, Greek male. Social order was analogous to the hierarchical relation of mind over body. The free Greek male represented the dominion of the rational over the carnal or the material principle essential for order and “justice.” Aristotle defines women, biologically, as “misbegotten males,” who lack full rationality. Aquinas accepted a version of this Aristotelian definition of the nature of women and argued that women (and serfs) could not be ordained because they lack the “eminence” required to incarnate leadership. Lacking full rationality, they cannot represent the divine Logos (Christ). For the same reason their natures are incapable of receiving the “sign” of ordination. This argument, again, if taken literally, would exclude women, not only from ordination, but from normative human nature.

Sexism: The Result of Misappropriated Dualisms

Behind the superficial arguments about the maleness of Jesus and the apostles, then, we must perceive a much deeper misogynism which is the real psychological foundation of the need to exclude women from the ministry. Sexism, or the inferiorization of women, is based, symbolically, on misappropriated dualisms. The basic dialectics of human existence:body/soul; carnality /spirituality; Becoming/ Being; seeming/Truth; death/life; these dualisms are symbolized in terms of female and male and socially projected as the “natures” of men and women. The meaning of the “feminine,” then, is modeled, especially in classical ascetic cultures, on the images of the lower self and world. Autonomous spiritual selfhood is imaged (by men, the cultural creators of this view) as intrinsically “male,” while the “feminine” becomes the symbol of the repressed, subjugated and dreaded “abysmal side of man.”

This sociological projection of the dialectics of existence as “male” and “female” has, as its ultimate expression, the God-nature dualism. In Patriarchal religions God comes to be seen as the “wholly other” outside of and above “nature.” The relation of God and nature is imaged in terms of subject-object dualism. God is seen as analogous to consciousness: a transcendent Subject that reduces Creation to the status of an object or “created thing.” God is made in the image of the body-alienated “male Ego” over against nature, as the sphere to be dominated and subjugated. The relationship of God and Creation is patterned after the language of patriarchal conjugality. God is the “sky-Husband/Father” over against the earth as “wife.” In the Bible this analogy is transferred to the relation of Yahweh and Israel and, in Christianity, to the relation of Christ to the Church. The Church is the passive, dependent “Bride” of patriarchal marriage in relation to the divine “Bridegroom.”

One must suppose from this that the representatives of the Church ought, therefore, to be female! But, of course, the leadership of the Church sees itself as representing, not the Church before God (i.e., Mary), but rather God before the Church! Hence the same imagery of hierarchical patriarchal conjugality, as the relation of Christ to the Church, is introduced to express the relationship of the clergy to the laity. The people are the passive dependent “child-women” before the male Father-husband figure of the clergy, who represent God or Christ. The Church becomes split into a “male” active principle, hierarchically related to a “female” passive principle. The people cease to be seen as having self-generating capacities for leadership which can bless, teach or ordain. Instead they must receive “the Word” from outside and above themselves. The laity assumes the prone position before the representatives of the transcendent Father-God, who brings all grace and truth “from above.”

The Church molded its self-imagery in terms which symbolically exclude the possibility of women representing this hierarchical function. Underneath this image of transcendent maleness and creaturely “femininity,” we must see older and more unconscious ways in which the female is seen to stand for the dark abysmal “side of man..” The notion that women are intrinsically “unclean” and that menstruation and other female bodily functions constitute a dangerous “mana” that would “pollute” the Holy Places, was strong in Judaism. It was taken over in modified form in Christian Canon Law. Menstruation, as a source of uncleanliness, was the chief pretext for suppressing the ancient order of Deaconesses in the Patristic period. Until recent times it was believed to be more “pious” if women did not come to communion when they were menstruating. This view is still inculcated in traditional Catholic and Orthodox women. To this image of woman as “unclean,” Catholic spirituality added a heightened perception of women as sexual threat over against a “male” spirituality. Women were seen as representing the “carnal,” vis-à-vis male intellectuality, spirituality and virtue. The sacred sphere becomes the preserve of this male spirituality, which must be protected from contamination by “female” sexuality. This view of woman as sexual threat is deeply ingrained in the psychology of a celibate priesthood, although the same mentality has by no means vanished from Protestantism, despite its married ministry. As Clara Maria Henning has shown in her article on women in Catholic Canon Law (in my forthcoming book on Images of Women in the Jewish and Christian Traditions; Simon and Schuster), most of the references to women in Canon Law have to do with excluding them from contact with priests, both personally and in relation to the sanctuary.

These traditional ways of symbolizing the duality of God/nature and soul/body as male and female received a significant reshaping at the hands of modern Romanticism (itself the heir of medieval Mariology and Courtly Love). Today we are more the heirs of this modern “feminine mystique,” which overlaid and hid the older misogynism on which it was based. Traditional asceticism saw women as less moral than men. They were the “carnal” over against “male” spirituality. But in Romanticism women typically come to be seen as more moral and even more spiritual than men, although this does not alter the view of them as less rational! By the same token morality and spirituality are sentimentalized and are seen as deriving from women’s “exclusive relation to the Home.” In the 19th century the old dualism of materiality and spirituality qua “femininity” and “masculinity” is partially reversed. The old schism is also translated into the new alienation that opens up between the home and industrial work. At this time productive labor was being drawn out of the Home into the factory, and women were becoming domesticated in a way that had not existed before (bourgeois women, that is). Over against the view of the industrial work world as a sphere of alienation destructive of human values, the Home becomes a compensatory ideology. The Home comes to represent the sole sphere of personal morality, over against alienated, impersonal, “materialistic” work. Now men come to be seen as more “materialistic” and less moral than women, but also more “realistic.” The world of male work is seen as the “real world,” vis-à-vis the romanticized myth of the Home where woman presides. Much of the anti-sexuality of the Victorian form of this myth was undercut by the Freudian revolution. But the basic form of the romantic “feminine mystique” still remains as the language of the modern ideology of the Home that supports consumer society and the “ladies magazines.”

In the feminine mystique morality is sentimentalized. It is privatized and “feminized.” “Christian” values are seen as intrinsically “feminine.” Morality in this sense exists only in the sphere of private interpersonalism represented by marriage and the Home. The real world is the realm of materialistic values and “no-nonsense” technological rationality. Bishops, industrial leaders, politicians and unionists all pay lip service to this myth of the “feminine” when they oppose rights for women on the grounds that the true “femininity” of women and their authentic role as “moral nurturers of the race” depend on their staying out of the “dirty rough and tumble” of the real world and remaining “in the Home.” This mystifying rhetoric and the sentiments it evokes continue on, despite the fact that, today, large numbers of women do work. This rhetoric does not exclude women from work in reality. Its chief effect is to create a resistance to women in visible leadership roles or work that carries social esteem. It does nothing to prevent women from being structured into the more rote and servile forms of labor.

However, the adoption of the feminine mystique as the image of “Christian morality,” by both Catholicism and Protestantism, and their acquiescence to the modern split between the Home and work, moral man and immoral society, mean that the Church finds itself psychically and socially structured into the “feminine sphere.” Clergy are out of place in the “real world.” So we see a clergy, the heir of patriarchal and misogynist self-images, now serving primarily in the realm of domesticated passified “morality” which society calls “effeminate.” This seems to me to be a part of the present identity crisis of the clergy, and a strong element in the almost paranoid resistance of the clergy to women in the ministry. As heirs of these contemptuous views of the “feminine,” barely covered by its idealization, the appearance of a woman in that role would unmask the last shreds of authority, revealing the cleric as a man dressed “in skirts.” The place where he serves, the values he embodies, belong to the sphere which society calls “feminine.”

Transformation of Ministry

This paranoia seems to me to be the psychological root of the antipathy to women in the ministry, which continues all the more virulently when its arguments have been exploded theologically, historically, scripturally or sociologically. The possibility of women in the ministry touches not merely the question of the personal rights of women. For a woman to be regarded as playing the ministerial role regularly (not just exceptionally, as is still the case in denominations which ordain women), the entire psychodynamics, which images the God/man, soul/ body, clergy/laity relations in terms of sexual hierarchicalism, would be threatened. A psychological revolution in the way we relate to God, to leadership, to each other, to “nature” and to the relation of the Church to “the world” would be required. The revolution symbolically represented by the ordination of women is profound. We must understand the antipathy to it as much deeper than the flimsy and usually irrational arguments given by its opponents.

But these reasons for the resistance of the clergy to the ordination of women are also the very reasons why we must regard it as necessary. These dualisms, symbolized by the sexual dualism, incarnate a heritage of self-alienation and the social projection of inferior and auxiliary humanity on to women. Racism, anti-Semitism and the subjugation of lower classes and colonized peoples regularly borrow the same language of misappropriated dualisms. The same images justify our ravaging of nature and the amorality of technology. The Church stands as the cultural guardian of these symbols of domination and subjugation. This role must be recognized as an apostasy to the Church’s true mission as representative of the liberated Humanity. Instead the Church becomes the chief representative and the sacralizer of the old order, presiding over and blessing that sanctuary where these schisms continue to be preserved.

The ordination of women cannot mean simply the insertion of a few female persons oddly into the present shape of the clergy. It must require a deeper revolution of consciousness that reshapes the psychodynamics of our self, social and world relationships. Leadership must change from its present paternalistic mode to a dialogue form where it is seen more as the skill to evoke the gifts and creative initiatives of others. The “Word” is no longer to be seen as coming from outside the people, from the raised pulpit that reduces the congregation to passive “women-children.” Rather it springs into being in the midst of the people through dialogue. The Church can begin to become community, rather than an alienation of “male” clerical activity and “female” lay acquiescence. As community, the whole Church is to teach one another, support one another, forgive one another, engage in theological self-reflection on its own ministry to each other. But this overcoming of the language of self-alienation in the Church’s internal life must also explode the present encapsulation of the Church in the sphere of privatized sentimentalized “morality.” If both the clergy and women have suffered from the encapsulation in the domestic sphere, then they must see each other as allies in a common struggle to overthrow the false schism between “private morality” and the “real world.” In order to pray Jesus’ prayer that “God’s will be done on earth,” we must break apart the false schizophrenia between private “feminine” morality and the public world of technological rationality which renders the message of the Church “effete,” while the Masters of War go about their “manly” activities. The message of the Church must be seen as the social mandate of human history, rather than private individual “salvation.”

Only when men and women are peers in the Church can we create human relationships that express authentic communication and exorcize the evil spirits of injustice and dehumanization that turn women and all oppressed people into fantasized symbols of the negative self. When the mentality of patriarchal hierarchicalism is exorcized from the ministry, then the Church can begin to assume the shape of community representing redemptive reconciliation with God and with each other. Only then can the Church be credible as the sacrament of redeemed humanity, lifting up the redemptive direction of society. Our anthropology must cease to be modeled after sexist doctrines of male hierarchicalism and polar complementarity and become centered in the full human personhood of every individual. For each of us unites all those dualities of thinking and feeling, activity and receptivity, falsely polarized as “masculine” and “feminine.” We can begin to relate to each other out of all sides of our being in truly reciprocal ways.

I suspect that the ordination of women must also reshape our image of God. Instead of making God in the image of male superordinate Ego over against subjugated nature, perhaps we should rather think of God as Ground of Being, that divine Matrix of ever reborn creation, out of which all living things both come to be and are renewed. Such a redeeming God cannot be set over against nature, for the same divine Spirit is the ground of both redemption and Creation. The liberation of women from negative projections must also reshape our ways of relating to the bodily and earthly side of existence. The project of human life must cease to be seen as one of domination of nature and subjugation of the bodily self. Rather we must find a language of authentic cooperation; of ecological responsiveness of consciousness to the great web of life, within which we too live and move and have our being. Only then can we redeem our Sister, the Earth, from her bondage of destruction, restoring her as our partner in the creation of that new world where all things can be “very good.”

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