Nuptial Imagery and the Sacramental Priesthood
Rome says that a priest should be a man because of the symbolism by which Christ is the Bridegroom and the Church his Bride.
The Church is Christs bride, whom he loves because he has gained her by his blood and made her glorious, holy and without blemish, and henceforth he is inseparable from her. This nuptial theme, which is developed from the Letters of Saint Paul onwards (cf. 2 Cor. 11 :2, Eph. 5 :22-23) to the writings of Saint John (cf. especially Jn 3:29, Rev. 19:7, 9), is present also in the Synoptic Gospels . . . . That is why we can never ignore the fact that Christ is a man. And therefore, unless one is to disregard the importance of this symbolism for the economy of Revelation, it must be admitted that, in actions which demand the character of ordination and in which Christ himself, the author of the Covenant, the Bridegroom and Head of the Church, is represented, exercising his ministry of salvation-which is in the highest degree the case of the Eucharist-his role (this is the original sense of the word persona) must be taken by a man. Inter Insigniores § 30-31.
The symbolism of God in the Old Testament and of Christ in the New, as Bridegroom, belongs basically to a Jewish cultural context. It is only a way of speaking. Scripture itself transcends male symbolism in more than one case. The Bible stresses that there are feminine aspects to God's compassion. God's everlasting fidelity is compared to the never-forgetting love of a mother for her children (Isaiah 49,15). Christ is spoken of as being tender (Hebrews 5, 2) and anxious as a hen wanting to protect her chickens (Matthew 23, 37). Even Paul speaks of himself as a mother (1 Thessalonians 2, 7; Galatians 4, 19).
However, there are three specific reasons for which this symbolism of Bridegroom and Bride does not exclude women priests.
- In Scripture the symbolism of Bridegroom and Bride is never extended to the priesthood of Christ.
- The symbolism of the Bridegroom's feast is hinted at in the eucharistic liturgy, but the overriding symbolism is of Christ as the Mediator of salvation.
- The symbolism of Bride and Bridegroom is itself ambivalent. Every Christian represents both the Bride and the Groom
Both Inter Insigniores and its commentary call attention to those texts in which Christ is related to the Church as bridegroom to bride. The Declaration then goes on to make a theological extension of this image not found in the New Testament: the priest represents Christ the groom and therefore must be male. In the New Testament the image is used only of Christ and the Church, and never extended into the area of ministry.
John R. Donahue, A Tale of Two Documents, in Women Priests, by L. and A. Swidler, Paulist Press, New York 1977, pp. 25-36; see also J. R. Donahue, Women, Priesthood and the Vatican, America, Vol. 136 (April 2 1977), pp. 286-287. John R. Donahue, SJ is Associate Professor of New Testament at Vanderbilt Divinity School and the author of Are You the Christ? Thc Trial of Jesus in thc Gospel of Mark. He has been a member of the Executive Board of the Catholic Biblical Association and is currently a member of the Editorial Board of the Journal of Biblical Literature.
The symbolism of the Bridegroom's feast is hinted at in the eucharistic liturgy, but the overriding symbolism is of Christ
Before Holy Communion, the priest may invite the faithful to come forward with the formula: This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Happy are those who are called to his supper.
The allusion here is to John 1,29 (the lamb who takes away the sins of the world) and to the exclamation: Happy are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19,9). This meal, at which Jesus himself is the paterfamilias, is the eschatological fulfilment of heaven. Nuptial imagery, depicting the covenant relationship between himself and the community, is thus being introduced. There is an undeniable link to the Eucharistic meal.
However, such allusions to Bridegroom imagery are of secondary importance, as David Coffey points out.
It should first be pointed out that the invitation formula just given only dates from the time of the post-Vatican II reform, and that its text only has the status of an option. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal only requires that the priest invite the faithful "to participate in the meal... using words from the gospel".(§43) But there are weightier considerations also.
In the liturgy the priest represents Christ as head of the mystical body. Apart from the fact that this is solidly attested by the magisterium, it is the necessary link between the priests representation of the church and his representation of Christ, as we have also shown. I now wish to make the point that insofar as he represents the one person, Christ, under one particular symbol, it is not possible for the priest simultaneously to represent him under another symbol. It is not possible, therefore, for him simultaneously to represent Christ as head of the mystical body and as bridegroom of the church. Admittedly, allusion is sometimes made to this second symbol in the liturgy, but the representation remains consistent, namely, of Christ as head. Admittedly, this allusion is more telling when made by a man, but it could also be made by a woman.
David Coffey, Priestly Representation and Womens Ordination, in Priesthood. The Hard Questions ed. Gerald P. Gleeson, Columba, Dublin 1993, pp. 79-99; here p. 96.
The symbolism of Bride and Bridegroom is itself ambivalent. Every Christian represents both the Bride and the Groom
An everlasting proxy marriage is perhaps not the ideal relationship between Christ and the Christian. Christ is primarily present in the Church, and the Church is uswe are other Christs, we are Christ in the world. This is part of the priestly nature of the whole people of the Church, that we mediate Christ to the world. While we are Christs, this ministerial priesthood which is composed of representatives of Christ is also composed of individuals who like ourselves are members of the Church. That is, they are members of the bride, the Church, which is feminine, at the same time as they are Christ, masculine, the bridegroom. But they cannot be said to be both bride and groom, both masculine and feminine, out of their very nature.
We can only overcome this if we say that there are two ways of looking at an individual member of the ministerial priesthood, as a priest in which he has certain functions which are related to the person of Christ, and as a member of the Church in which he is a Christian like ourselves. That is, at one time he is symbolically masculine, at the same time symbolically feminine, and neither symbolic position is affected or falsified by his biological role. In other words, if a man can be a member of the Church, symbolically feminine, then a woman can be a member of the ministerial priesthood, symbolically masculine.
Paul Lakeland, Can Women be Priests?, Mercier Press, Dublin 1975, pp. 64-65; see also his Theology and Critical Theory: The Discourse of the Church, Abingdon, Nashville 1990.
The symbolism of Christ who relates to the Church as a Bridegroom to his Bride does not invalidate the representation of Christ at the Eucharist by a woman priest.
Read: Can Men be Ordained?, by Rosemary Radford Ruether