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Mary, the Virgin Priest? by Dr. Tina Beattie

Mary, the Virgin Priest?

by Dr. Tina Beattie (see credits)

From The Month 257 (December 1996) pp. 485 - 493. With permission of the author and editor here published for the first time on the Internet.

In exploring the idea of Mary as priest from the perspective of the contemporary Church the author defines the need to develop a coherent theology of women ’s priesthood ‘that would not simply absorb women into male hierarchies’.

ON CHRISTMAS Eve 1904, Mother Claret of la Touche had a vision of Mary’s priesthood. After having described Mary’s youth as her diaconate, she continued:

“On the day of the Incarnation, the Holy Spirit coming upon [ Mary ], . . . she received by divine unction thc sublime character of Mother of God; thus the priest, on the day of his final ordination, is marked through the Spirit of love by the priestly character, divine and indelible. She became a priest that day, the Immaculate Virgin; she received, as well as priests, the power to sacrifice Jesus, the right to touch his body; the duty . . . to give him to souls. . . Then she rested for nine months . . . preparing herself for her first offering.”

“Jesus came into the world . . . for the first time she took him between her virginal hands, and lifting him towards the heavenly Father, offered herself her first sacrifice. Oh! This first mass of Mary in the silence of the stable .. the infinite cost of this sacrifice.” (1)

Mother Claret was one of a number of victim souls, women who in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century felt a profound longing to be priests, allied to an unchallenged conviction that this was impossible because they were women. In the 1840’s, Caroline Clement wrote, ‘How I regretted that my sex does not allow me to offer the holy Sacrifice! . . . My sorrow was such that it sometimes made me ill. . . It was tearing at my soul.’(2) In the end, these women (who included Thérèse de Lisieux), solved what appeared to be an insurmountable problem by becoming quite literally the soulmates of male priests, devoting themselves to lives of prayer and victimal spirituality to support good priests, and to make up for the deficiencies of bad priests. Their ideas about the form and meaning of this spiritual priesthood accorded central significance to Mary’s role in relation to Christ, drawing on maternal imagery of giving life and nurturing. According to Réné Laurentin,

‘They sense that all this leads not to a second official priesthood, but to a sort of spiritual maternity.’ (3)

In what follows, I explore the idea of Mary as priest from the perspective of the contemporary Church. I am asking if the tradition of the Marian priesthood does amount to the revelation of what might be called ‘a second official priesthood’, with the emphasis on maternity and birth rather than on sacrifice and death. Would this allow for a pluriform understanding of the priestly role which would enable women to be incorporated into the sacramental priesthood in a way that affirms rather than negates the symbolic significance of sexual difference?

Since Vatican II, there has been uncertainty as to the role of the priesthood, and a searching for appropriate models. As I see it, the solution does not lie in a liberal democratic model of Church with a non-sacramental ministry of leadership (which is an essentially Protestant ecclesiology), nor in an androgynous model of priesthood that incorporates women into existing structures (which is the Church of England’s solution). Rather, I think we need a new appreciation of sacramentality that can grasp the enormous significance of God mediated to humanity through the material realities of the created world, and supremely through the embodiment of the human being as male and female in God’s image. How we understand this sexual embodiment in terms of the sacramental priesthood is the main focus of my paper. Some of you might be familiar with Janet Martin Soskice’s 1994 paper, Blood and Defilement, which forms a subtext running through this paper. Soskice says that:

“it is not simply a matter of ‘equal treatment’ to ordain women in churches with a sacramental notion of priesthood. It involves a major challenge to received symbolisms.” (4)

This paper seeks to reclaim some of Catholicism’s received symbolisms that appear to have been returned to sender.

The title of my paper was chosen before the recent contoversy surrounding Tissa Balasuriya’s book, Mary and Human Liberation. Balasuriya has been requested to sign a Profession of Faith on pain of being stripped of his status as a Catholic theologian by the Vatican. It seems that one of the concerns of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith about this book is its treatment of the priesthood with regard to Mary in particular and women in general. Balasuriya says of Mary:

“ Should she not have been worthy to fulfil the functions of thc Christian priesthood such as preside at the Eucharist and share in the teaching of the doctrine of Jesus and administration of the community’? If she was good enough for Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Cana, and Calvary, was she not good enough for (presiding over) the breaking of bread and the sharing of goods’? A well developed mariology can be one of the best supports for the causes of equality of women and men in the Church at all levels.” (5)

The extent of the controversy provoked by Balasuriya would suggest that the question of the Marian priesthood is both topical and sensitive.

Mary’s priesthood — the theology

The Virgin Priest is a relatively rare marian title, but the question of Mary’s priesthood has had a long history which is of particular relevance to the Church today. The first part of my paper constitutes a critical engagement with Laurentin’s extended dissertation on the theology of the Marian priesthood. (His earlier doctoral thesis explores the history of the Marian priesthood since the time of the Church Fathers.) (6) Having considered his theological interpretation, I explore a number of contemporary theories that might suggest a different solution to that put forward by Laurentin.

In 1873, Pope Pius IX said of Mary, ‘She was so closely united to the sacrifice of her divine Son, from the virginal conception of Jesus Christ to his sorrowful Passion, that she was called by some Fathers of the Church the Virgin Priest’. (7) In fact, no evidence of this titlc has heen found in patristic texts, although Laurentin suggests its origins might be traced back to some of the poetic allusions used by the Greek homilists. Laurentin demonstrates with painstaking rigour in his historical thesis that the question of the Marian priesthood — is Mary a priest and what form does her priesthood take? — has been increasingly widespread and troubling in the Church’s tradition. A priestly role is most commonly attributed to Mary in the Nativity, in the Presentation at the Temple, and on Calvary. In a broader sense, to quote Caroline Walker Bynum,

“Mary is priest because it is she who offers to ordinary mortals the saving flesh of God, which comes most regularly and predictably in the Mass.” (8)

The problem as Laurentin sees it lies in the persistence with which this idea suggests itself to theologians and mystics alike, allied to a profound reluctance to probe its theological implications. This means that potentially fruitful explorations of what Mary’s priesthood might mean tend to collapse into incoherence and irresolution.

Perhaps it is not surprising that after the growing popularity of the title ‘Virgin Priest’, culminating in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Rome should start to display signs of unease. In 1916 the Holy Office decreed that pictures of Mary in priestly vestments were forbidden, and in 1927 it curtailed discussion of the issue because ‘souls not enlightened would not understand it properly’. (9) Discussion revived in the nineteen forties among Spanish theologians, and as I mentioned, the Marian priesthood was the subject of Laurentin’s doctorate in the nineteen fifties. It has received sparse treatment since Vatican II, although some of the maternal images associated with Mary’s priesthood have resurfaced in feminist theology without reference to the historical tradition. (I shall return to this later.)

Laurentin asks if the Marian priesthood is an elucidation or a perversion of Marian doctrine, and he proceeds to offer a carefully argued defence of such a concept if it is understood, not in terms of the sacramental priesthood, but in terms of the priesthood of all believers. He says that its essential nature lies in two formulae: ‘1) Mary did not receive the sacrament of orders because she was a woman. 2) She is superior to sacramental priests.’ (10)

Laurentin identifies ‘two antinomical tendencies’ between which none of the authors he has studied seems able to decide clearly:

“the propensity to affirm the Marian priesthood is a logical  process. The censure is an intuitive process. A thousand reasons lead towards affirming the priesthood of Mary, a sort of diktat which does not give its reasons blocks the affirmation.” (11)

He describes this as ‘a spontaneous movement of recoil, like the instinctive flight of an animal at the first encounter with an enemy of its breed’. (12) What threat could be so powerful as to prompt this flight of the intellect? The answer — Mary is a woman. This, says Laurentin, is a point on which there is a mysterious silence, beyond the acknowledgement by some writers that being female precludes her from the priesthood. (Mother Teresa of Calcutta neatly turns this into a circular argument. When asked why women were not admitted to the priesthood, she replied, ‘because Mary was not’ . )(13)

Unexamined instinct

Having identified the fact that the reluctance to attribute ordination to Mary is due to an unexamined instinct against women priests running through almost the entire theological tradition, Laurentin sets out to explain why this instinct is theologically sound. He writes:

“ In Christian doctrine, the symbol of man and woman expresses the rapport between God and the redeemed creature. The man represents God: initiative, authority, stability, creative power. The woman represents humanity: power of welcome and receptivity where the all-powerful initiative of God ripens and bears fruit.” (14)

He identifies one feature that is common to all the authors he has studied. and that is that Mary’s motherhood is the essence of her priesthood. All the priestly functions attributed to her are construed in maternal terms. Mary is, he says, essentially mother, and ‘that which is priestly in her is an aspect of her maternity’.(15) He therefore rejects the term ‘Virgin Priest’ in favour of a more nuanced understanding of Mary’s maternal role. The conflation of maternity with priesthood obscures the balance between the unique calling of men to the sacramental priesthood, and the unique calling of women to motherhood.

Although he was writing more than a decade before the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium incorporated mariology into ecclesiology, Laurentin sees the solution to the Marian priesthood as lying in the rediscovery of the relationship between Mary and the Church which developed during the patristic era and began to emerge again in the nineteen forties and ftfties. A true understanding of Mary’s priesthood entails a reaffirmation of the community of the Church as the priesthood of all believers.(16) Mary’s priesthood is the supreme and pre-eminent example of the priesthood of all believers, a sacrifice of praise that responds to but does not initiate the sacrifice of Christ. But because she was present on Calvary, because by her compassion she intimately participates in Christ’s Passion, her position is higher than that of the sacramental priesthood. Mary is unique because she ‘possesses in herself, personally and in fullness, the priesthood which simple Christians possess as a collective title, as members of the priestly body of Christ which is the Church’. (17)

Laurentin’s argument is however deeply flawed. Even putting aside the extrapolation of gender roles from a mistaken medieval notion of woman’s biological passivity in the act of generation, scripturally the identification of man with God and woman with creature seems impossible to justify. Genesis 1 tells us that God created humanity in God’s own image as male and female (cf. Gen 1:27). Galatians tells us that in the baptismal community there is neither man nor woman (cf. Gal 3:27-8), and even if we do not read that as obliterating sexual difference, we must surely read it as equalising man and woman before God. Indeed if we push the distinction between man/God and woman/creature too far, we might ask how Christ or any man can possibly be fully human, just as we might ask in what way woman can possibly be made in the image of God. Moreover, Laurentin’s argument locks women into a position of biological predeterminism from which men are excused. For instance, he says:

“If one can rigorously affirm that the hierarchical priesthood is by nature manly, the femininity of the communal priesthood calls for a more nuanced approach. While women are excluded from the hierarchical priesthood, men enter into the ranks of the communal priesthood.” (18)

Hans Urs von Balthasar uses very similar arguments.(19) Even the instigators of the new orthodoxy indulge in gender-bending when it allows men to move freely between the sexes, so long as women stay put. Is this kind of male colonisation of femininity really what we understand by the Christian dignity and freedom of both sexes?

In setting out to justify the instinct against women priests running through the Catholic tradition, Laurentin proves himself prey to the same instinct, which is put forward as an a priori fact that must then be given theological justification. The taboo against women priests has remained largely unexamined until our own age, when theologians have been confronted with the task of justifying it. What is intriguing is the extent to which the arguments change but the conclusion remains the same. In our own time, when excuses based on women’s moral inferiority or creaturely dependence are deemed unacceptable, we find the maleness of Jesus elevated to an ontological status that by its very nature excludes women from participation in the priesthood.

Maternity: a form of priesthood

I now want to look more closely at the long tradition of seeing in Mary’s maternity a form of priesthood. Because the tradition of the maternal Marian priesthood has been repressed, its language and imagery are not well-known today. However, the idea has not died in the Christian imagination. Consider, for instance, this contemporary poem by Frances Croake Frank:

Did the woman say,
When she held him for the first time in the dark of a stable,
After the pain and the bleeding and the crying,
‘This is my body, this is my blood’?

Did the woman say,
When she held him for the last time in the dark rain on a hilltop,
After the pain and the bleeding and the dying,
‘This is my body, this is my blood’?

Well that she said it to him then,
For dry old men,
brocaded robes belying barrenness
Ordain that she not say it for him now.” (20)

María Clara Bingemer movingly suggests a connection between motherhood and the function of the priesthood in the context of life in Latin America. She writes:

“It is women who possess in their bodiliness the physical possibility of performing the divine eucharistic action. In the whole process of gestation, childbirth, protection, and nourishing of a new life, we have the sacrament of the Eucharist, the divine act, happening anew. . . Breaking the bread and distributing it, having communion in the body and blood of the Lord until he comes again, means for women today reproducing and symbolising in the midst of the community the divine act of surrender and love, so that the people may grow and the victory come, which is celebrated in the feast of the true and final liberation.” (21)

So although Laurentin sees something fundamentally wrong in describing motherhood in priestly language, it seems that the Catholic imagination is repeatedly drawn to do just this. These maternal images often suggest a different understanding of the Eucharist. The language of sacrifice is used in a context that opens the imagination not primarily to the dead and bloodied man on the cross and the violence that surrounds him, but to the mother’s love for her child, a maternal sacrifice of love and care for the salvation of the world. In exploring the implications of this, I ask how it might affect our understanding of the Mass and the priesthood.

Implicit in this is another, potentially more troubling question: why is it that educated men will fall over themselves in the rush to flee like frightened animals from an idea which Laurentin admits seems like a logical conclusion — that Mary is a priest? I think that fundamental to this is an issue of blood, an issue for which we have still perhaps to receive a healing touch. To begin to unpack this claim, I ask if the symbolism of blood, so intimately associated with the Eucharist, might be profoundly affected by sexual difference.

Consider Réné Girard’s description of the significance of blood:

“When men are enjoying peace and security, blood is a rare sight. When violence is unloosed, however, blood appears everywhere — on the ground, underfoot, forming great pools. Its very fluidity gives form to the contagious nature of violence. Its presence proclaims murder and announces new upheavals to come. Blood stains everything it touches the colour of violence and death. Its very appearance seems, as the saying goes, to ‘cry out for vengeance’.” (22)

This is an interpretation based on an exclusively male relationship to blood, and it suggests a surprising degree of oblivion with regard to the significance of blood for women. For a man, the sight of his own blood must always be associated with trauma and violence. Men’s bodies do not bleed unless they are wounded. But for a woman, the sight of her own blood is routine, and the messages it gives are usually to do with fertility and birth.

In order to suggest ways in which the symbolism of blood pertains to a feminine priesthood, I am going to appeal to certain insights offered by Girard, Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, and Soskice. Although I refer to Kristeva and Irigaray’s psychoanalytic theories to do with the maternal body, I am not suggesting that theology should submit to psychoanalysis nor am I unquestioningly endorsing the psychoanalytic perspective. I do however think that psychoanalysis can shed light on some of the dilemmas that arise with regard to women and the priesthood.

‘A defiling potency’

Girard argues that sacrificial violence is the universal foundation of every social order, in mythology and pagan religion and also in the modern political order, with social equilibrium being maintained by a vicious circle of cathartic acts of violence against randomly chosen victims (scapegoats).(23) Only in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures does Girard see a source of revelation capable of exposing and therefore subverting this order of violence that has humanity in its grip. The role of religious sacrifice is to channel and thereby contain violent forces which constantly threaten the social order, and this means that blood, and in particular women’s blood, is seen as having a defiling potency through its association with violence. Referring to the near-universal taboos that surround menstruating women, Girard writes:

“The fact that the sexual organs of women periodically emit a flow of blood has always made a great impression on men; it seems to confirm an affinity between sexuality and those diverse forms of violence that invariably lead to bloodshed.” (24)

He argues that not just in overtly violent sex acts, but in childbirth and in the violence provoked by sexual infidelity, for instance, there is an inherently violent aspect to sexuality:

“We are tempted to conclude that violence is impure because of its relation to sexuality. Yet only the reverse proposition can withstand close scrutiny. Sexuality is impure because it has to do with violence.” (25)

In other words, he is suggesting that women’s blood is defiling because its sexual associations imply violence.

Irigaray criticises Girard for perpetuating a masculine understanding of religion that fails to examine the possibility of an alternative religious order based on women’s values.(26) Citing the fertility cults of the Greek goddesses, she suggests that women’s religion would be founded not on sacrifice but on natural fecundity. Only the continued silencing of women allows the Girardian emphasis on sacrifice over fertility to go unchallenged.

I think Girard’s interpretation of the significance of women’s blood bears out much of what Irigaray is saying. Surely, the blood of menstruation and childbirth symbolises fertility and not sacrifice? My answer to this is yes and no. While I think few women would agree wholeheartedly with Girard’s description, nevertheless it is important to recognise that for women as well as for men, fertile blood has the power to create feelings of fear and shame and it does not represent an uncomplicated celebration of fecundity. Fertility needs to be redeemed from its associations with violence. Irigaray tends to put a romantic gloss on the fertility cults that ignores their darker aspects. If women’s blood suggests the promise of new life, it also suggests sexual oppression, the terror of childbirth, and the vulnerability of the mother and her child. God tells Eve

“ I will multiply your pains in childbearing, you shall give birth to your children in pain. Your yearning shall be for your husband, yet he will lord it over you.” (Gen 3:16)

Christianity has emphasised (some might say destructively), the problems that surround women’s sexuality in its association between Eve, women and fallen nature, but it has also recognised that this curse is undone in Mary. Gregory of Nyssa wrote, ‘The woman hath made an excuse for the woman. . . The one through the wood brought in sin: the other through the wood brought in against it a blessing.’ (27) Even Augustine, in typically condescending fashion, sees sexual difference as significant for the understanding of salvation:

“ It was necessary that the liberation of man should be made manifest in both sexes. Therefore, since it was fitting that he should take the human nature of man, the more honourable of the two sexes, it remained for the deliverance of the female sex to be shown by the fact that this man should be born of a woman.” (28)

I am suggesting that the undoing of Eve’s curse in Mary and the deliverance of the female sex has not yet been fully recognised in all its implications by the Catholic Church. There is a deeply buried connection between Christianity’s rejection of pagan sacrifice and the exclusion of women from the altar, based on a latent fear of the relationship between violence and blood. If we would heed the injunction repeated so often in the New Testament — ‘Do not be afraid’ — this terror has to be confronted, not by adopting an androgynous model of the priesthood which simply masks the problem, but by daring to ask what it is about women’s bodies that makes them such a threat to the male priesthood.

Breaching taboos

I am going to return to Laurentin now, because he refers briefly to a factor which I think is of great significance. In his analysis of Mary in the writings of the Fathers, he demonstrates how christological titles such as king, prophet, victim and mediator had feminine equivalents in Mary, but ‘priest’ is conspicuously absent from this list. He suggests that the avoidance of the word ‘priestess’ is associated with an instinctive reaction against the pagan priestesses in the cults that surround the early Church, allied to Christianity’s perpetuation of the exclusively male Jewish priesthood. (29)

If, as Girard suggests, women’s blood is closely associated with violence in men’s minds, and if Christianity supremely rejects the sacrificial violence of pagan religions, then it seems a small step for Christian men also to reject women’s bodies, which not only have associations with paganism but which also have a disturbing tendency to bleed. But Christianity represents the ending of divisions between the Jewish and Gentile worlds and the breaking down of the rituals and taboos that kept these worlds apart. Why, in this great act of reconciliation, does the taboo against women priests persist? Moreover, if Christianity is about the liberation of both men and women from the violent shedding of sacrificial blood, why is this act of liberation achieved more easily when dealing with the relatively bloodless male body, than when dealing with bloody women?

Kriesteva offers a psychoanalytic insight which might shed light on why there is a Judaeo-Christian taboo against the maternal priesthood. Analysing taboos relating to childbirth in the Book of Leviticus, she argues that at the base of all the Levitical codes of defilement is the fundamental necessity for the people of Israel to separate themselves from the maternal cults of paganism in order to become the people of God. The chaotic fecundity of the maternal pagan cults is replaced with a logic of speech and identity based on ever-more elaborate ritualistic distinctions and differences. She says, ‘Far from being one of the semantic values of that tremendous project of separation constituted by the biblical text, the taboo of the mother seems to be its originating mytheme’. (30) Kristeva also argues that part of this movement away from paganism by Israel was a rejection of sacrifice. The sacred would no longer be sought through sacrificial rites but through respecting laws based on social rituals associated with purity and impurity.

I realise that there is debate among biblical scholars as to how Levitical codes and their relationship to the New Testament should be interpreted, as there is regarding the role of sacrifice and the influence of Canaanite cults on the religion of the Old Testament. I am not, therefore, suggesting a rigid framework of interpretation, but something fairly allusive which offers important insights if handled with care. (31) For instance, it does seem that a longing for the maternal body finds expression in a number of Old Testament writings that refer to Zion and Jerusalem in maternal language. (cf. Isa 66:9-11) That this might primarily relate to the sense of alienation created by exile from the land, need not preclude it from also suggesting a growing separation from the maternal embodiment of pagan religion.

Kristeva argues that in Christ’s breaching of Levitical codes associated with separation from the maternal flesh (variously symbolised by taboos relating to blood, flesh, food and diseased or dead bodies), he achieves within himself reconciliation between the maternal substance of paganism and the linguistic order of Israel.(32) Christianity has, she says, failed to live out this reconciliation. Christ alone achieves perfect heterogeneity between the divine law of the Jewish world and the maternal flesh of the pagan world. The rest of us live in a state of internal division and conflict owing to the repression in Christian culture of the relationship to the mother’s body.

In fact, there have been moments in Christian history, particularly in the Middle Ages, when a powerful maternal element has pervaded the Church. In Soskice’s essay Blood and Defilement that I referred to earlier, she demonstrates how there were associations in the medieval mind between the imagery of the cross and the imagery of childbirth, with the Church being pulled from the wound in Christ’s side. John’s Gospel describes blood and water flowing from Christ’s side — fluids which occur together more commonly in childbirth than in death. In some medieval paintings, these fluids flow either directly into the mouths of the faithful, or into a chalice held by angels. Soskice argues for a greater appreciation of the fluidity of Christian symbols of sex and gender, pointing to ‘the symbolic identification . . . of the crucified Christ with the human female body, both in giving birth and in feeding’.(33) She suggests that the restoration of women’s embodiment is supremely achieved on Calvary where Christ’s own body takes on womanly features and functions, subverting Levitical taboos through the symbolic association between the fluids of childbirth and the crucifixion. There is, she says, ‘abundant sense in seeing Christ as our mother’.(34)

As I said at the beginning, Soskice’s paper has stimulated many of the ideas that I explore in this paper. However, I think there is a problem in suggesting that the end of taboos relating to women’s defilement is adequately symbolised by the feminisation of Christ’s body on the cross and its association with birth. If reconciliation with the maternal is symbolically represented by the male Christ taking on womanly features, this seems to perpetuate the denial of the mother’s body rather than reconcile us to it. I am left wondering if this confirms Irigaray’s claim that the founding order of western culture, including Christianity, is an act of ‘matricide’ which leads to the obliteration of sexual difference.(35) It is a small step from seeing Christ as mother to the virtual elimination of the woman’s body from the symbols of salvation. The fact that ideas which seemed obvious to the medieval Church have almost disappeared from Catholic consciousness today, would suggest that focusing on the body of Christ alone might not keep alive the maternal dimension of the crucifxion. Its sacrificial role begins to dominate, and the imagery of blood and birth that came so naturally to embodied medievals seems far more problematic in a culture that has effectively repressed its relationship to the maternal body.

Symbolic reconciliation

John’s Gospel, which describes the flow of blood and water from Christ’s side, locates Mary at the foot of the cross as central to the drama of the crucifixion. Several times during his public ministry Christ seems to deprive Mary of her status as mother, calling her ‘woman’ instead and identifying her with his other disciples (cf. Jn 2:4; Mk 3:31-5; Lk 11:27-8). On Calvary, she remains ‘woman’ in relation to Christ but she is reinstated as mother in relation to the beloved disciple. Jesus says, ‘Woman, this is your son,’ and to the disciple, ‘This is your mother’. (Jn 19:26) Mary’s presence on Calvary seems to carry more than one meaning, but what concerns me here is the fact that the dying Christ restores Mary to the role of mother, in a way that in the Catholic tradition has always symbolised the birth of the Church. Might this be the moment of symbolic reconciliation between Jew and Gentile, between the maternal pagan cults and the religion of Israel, between the Law of the Father and the body of the mother which have up to this point developed in growing isolation from one another? In the moment of dying, Christ bequeaths to the beloved disciple his relationship to the maternal body, no longer represented by the biological motherhood of Mary but made present through the symbolic motherhood of the Church. If Irigaray is right, the significance of this act has yet to be fully recognised and celebrated in Christian culture.

The maternal priesthood of Mary symbolises the rehabilitation of the maternal flesh through the salvation of the pagan world. But only if we can demonstrate that the connection between women’s blood and violence has been broken, might we aspire to the religious celebration of fertility rather than sacrifice that Irigaray envisions. Girard refers to ‘the bestial monstrosities of mythological births’.(36) When we contemplate the tradition of Mary’s maternal virginity, we see a rupture in the identification of the female body with violent sexuality. Free from sexual domination and (according to tradition) giving birth without pain Mary represents the breaking of the connection between women’s blood, sex and violence. Of course, many see Mary’s virginity as a denial of women’s sexuality, and I think it has functioned in such a way. Nevertheless beneath such cultural distortions, there is a truth of the utmost significance. Mary symbolises not the denial of woman’s sexuality but its redemption.

The salvation of woman’s embodiment is made real by the participation of Mary in the events of the cross reminding us that the blood of the incarnation is shed for the world in birth as well as in death. The anguish of mother and son on Calvary lays before us the terrible reality of sacrificial violence, a reality that we confront nightly on our television screens, on our city streets, and behind the closed doors of the family home. But the symbolism of the cross also promises that in the moment of Christ’s death we are born into a new maternal community, the Church, bound together not by sacrifice and violence but by love, forgiveness and reconciliation. If we exclude Mary from the cross, we risk forgetting its fertility and focusing only on its violence, which might amount to the same thing as privileging the man’s religious perspective over the woman’s, in Irigaray’s terms.

In an Angelus address, Pope John Paul II says that Mary is present in the sacrifice of the Mass:

“Every Mass puts us into intimate communion with her, the Mother, whose sacrifice ‘becomes present’ just as the sacrifice of her Son ‘becomes present’ at the words of consecration of the bread and wine pronounced by the priest.” (37)

This Marian dimension of the Eucharist is surely best represented by the woman priest, supported by a theology which makes clear that women are not simply being incorporated into the existing male understanding of the priesthood? The Mass already symbolises fertility as well as death with the maternal activity of nurturing the faithful. St Cyprian said of the Church, ‘of her womb we are born, of her milk we are fed, of her Spirit our souls draw their life-breath’. (38) Such maternal imagery makes the exclusion of women from the priesthood indefensible on symbolic grounds. Is not a female priest naturally more suited than a male priest to perform the function of feeding the faithful with the body and blood of Christ, mediated to humankind through the maternal body of Mary and the Church?

But I want to add a proviso. I am not advocating a reductive biological understanding of the priesthood so that only women can represent the priesthood of Mary, and only men can represent the priesthood of Christ. This merely perpetuates our present problem of biological literalism. Even today the Church is well able to understand sexual identities in analogous terms when it comes to incorporating men into the so-called feminine, Marian Church. There is a need for a conceptual shift from the present celebration of biological motherhood in some Catholic quarters, to a celebration of the Church’s maternal calling to protect and nurture the poor, the weak and those who are increasingly uncared for in our world. This understanding would be far more in keeping with the Church’s tradition than the present romanticisation of childbearing women. Catholic Christianity offers a richly gendered symbolism which neither obliterates sexual difference nor locks the believer into a rigidly pre-determined biological destiny. There is a delicate balance between over-privileging the significance of the sexed body and eradicating its significance altogether.

Many see the Catholic Church’s refusal to consider the question of women’s ordination as an almost insurmountable problem. I see it rather as an opportunity and an incentive to develop a coherent theology of women’s priesthood that would not simply absorb women into male hierarchies. The Church’s own symbolism leads along the path of a maternal priesthood. What is it that some men are really afraid of when they contemplate women priests? They have yet to come up with a convincing argument that justifies their fear.

Note on the author. Dr. Tina Beattie is at present a part-time lecturer at the Department of Theology and Religious Studies of the University of Bristol, UK. She wrote:

  • Rediscovering Mary - Insights from the Gospels, Burns & Oates, Tunbridge Wells 1995,
  • and God’s Mother, Eve’s Advocate, ‘A Gynocentric Refiguration of Marian Symbolism in Engagement with Luce Irigaray’, University of Bristol 1999.


1. Quoted in René Laurentin, Marie, L’Eglise et Le Sacerdoce, Vol. 1, Essai sur le Développement d’une Idée Religieuse (Paris: Nouvelles Éditions Latines, 1952), pp.429-30. Ellipses as given. All translations of Laurentin’s work from the French are my own.

2. Quoted in Laurentin, Marie, L‘Eglise et Le Sacerdoce, Vol. l, p.423.

3. Laurentin, Marie, L ‘Église et Le Sacerdoce, Vol II, Étude Théologique (Paris: Nouvelles Editions Latines, 1953), p.SI.

4. Janel Martin Soskice. ‘Blood and Defilement’, p.5. (References arc to an unpublished version of Soskice’s paper, given to the Society for the Study of Theology Conference. Oxford. April 11-14, 1994. 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).

5. Tissa Balasuriya OMI, ‘Mary and Human Liberation’, Logos, Vol . 29 Nos. 1 & 2, March/July 1990, p.99.

6. These two studies are published as Marie, L’Eglise et Le Sacerdoce, Vols. 1 and 2, referred to above.

7. Quoted in Michael O’Carroll, Theotokos — A Theological Encyclopedia af the Blessed Virgin Mary (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1982), p.293.

8. Caroline Walker Bynum, Fragmentation and Redemption —Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion (New York: Zone Books. 1992), p.l01.

9. Cf. O’Carroll, Theotokos, pp.293-4.

10. Laurentin, Marie, L’Eglise et Le Sacerdoce, Vol . 2, p.37.

11. Laurentin, Marie, L’Eglise et Le Sacerdoce, Vol. l, p.630. His italics.

2. Laurentin, Marie, L’Eglise et Le Sacerdoce, Vol. l, p.632.

13. Quoted in Helmut Moll,. ‘Faithful to her Lord’s Example’ in Helmut Moll (cd.). The Church and Women — A Compendium (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), 161-76, p.l74.

14. Laurentin, Marie, L’Eglise et Le Sacerdoce, Vol.1, p.644.

15. Laurentin, Marie, L’Eglise et Le Sacerdoce, Vol.II, p.200.

16. Laurentin distinguishes between ‘le sacerdos’, which refers to the priesthood of all believers, and ‘le prêtre’, which refers to the ordained priesthood. Michael Richards makes this distinction in English by using the word ‘priest’ for the universal priesthood, and ‘presbyter’ for the ordained priesthood. Cf. Michael Richards, A People of Priests— The Ministry of the Catholic Church (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1995), pp.6-7.

17. Laurentin, Marie, L’Eglise et Le Sacerdoce, Vol. 2, p.48.

18. Laurentin, Marie, L’Eglise et Le Sacerdoce, Vol. 2, p.75.

19. Cf. Hans Urs von Balthasar, ‘Women priests? A Marian Church in a fatherless and motherless culture’ in Communio 22 (Spring, 1995), pp.l64-70.

20. Quoted in Susan A. Ross, ‘God’s Embodiment and Women’ in Catherine Mowry LaCugna (ed.), Freeing Theology — The Essentials of Theology in Feminist Perspective (San Francisco: Harper SanFrancisco, 1993), 185-209, pp.185-6.

21. Maria Clara Bingemer Women in the Future of the Theology of Liberation’ in Marc H. Ellis and Otto Maduro (eds.), The Future of Liberation Theology—Essays in Honor of Gustavo Gutierrez (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1989), 473-490, p.486.

22. René Girard, Violence and the Sacred (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1979), p.34.

23. For a helpful summary of his theory, see Girard, ‘Generative Scapegoating’ followed by discussion, in Robert G. Hamerton-Kelly (ed.), Violent Origins—Walter Burkert, René Girard, and Jonathan Z. Smith on Ritual Killing and Cultural Formation (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1987), pp.73-145.

24. Girard, Violence and the Sacred, p.35.

25. Girard, Violence and the Sacred, p.34.

26. Cf. Luce Irigaray, ‘Women, the Sacred, Money’ in Sexes and Genealogies (New York: Cohumbia University Press, 1993), pp.73-88.

27. Quoted in Thomas Livius, The Blessed Virgin in the Fathers of the First Six Centuries (London: Burns and Oates Ltd., 1893), p.48.

28. Quoted in Kari Elisabeth Borresen, Subordination and Equivalence—The Nature and Role of Woman in Augustine and Thomas Aquinas (Kampen: Kok Pharos Publishing House, 1995). p.74.

29. Cf. Laurentin, Marie, L’Eglise et Le Sacerdoce, Vol. 1, pp.91 -2.

30. Iulia Kristeva, ‘Semiotics of Biblical Abomination’ in Powers of Horror—An Essay on Abjection (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), 90-112, pp.l05-6.

31. Questions also arise as to what extent the reputed violence of pagan cults is more a product of Christian demonisation than a record of historical reality. Tikva Frymer-Kensky offers a thoughtful analysis in her book, In the Wake of the Goddess — Women, Culture and the Biblical Transformation of Pagan Myth (New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1992).

32. Cf. Kristeva, ‘Qui Tollis Peccata Mundi’ in Powers of Horror, pp. 113-132.

33. Soskice, ‘Blood and Defilement’, p.9.

34. Soskice, ‘Blood and Defilement’, p.l2.

35. Cf. Irigaray, ‘Body Against Body: In Relation to the Mother’ in Sexes and Genealogies, pp.7-21.

36. Girard, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (London: the Athlone Press, 1987), p.222.

37. John Paul II, Angelus of 5 June, ‘At the root of the Eucharist is the virginal and maternal life of Mary’ published in L’Osservatore Romano (13 June 1983), p.1.

38. Quoted in Monica Migliorino Miller, Sexuality and Authority in the Catholic Church (Scranton: University of Scranton Press; London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1995). p.153.

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