In the Eucharist there is neither male nor female…

One Sunday back around 1990 or so, I attended the Eucharist at an Episcopal convent. The nuns typically invited everyone present to stay afterward for biscuits and conversation. On this particular day the conversation revolved around a local woman who had brought her small son to the Eucharist. The celebrant (one of the nuns who was also an Episcopal priest) knew the woman and the child well enough to know that he had never been baptised. When it came time to distribute the hosts and the chalice, she was faced with a liturgical dilemma: the woman came forward to receive the Body and Blood of Christ, and the young boy came right along with her (he was old enough to walk, but still pretty young: maybe 5 or 6 years old), mimicking his mom and holding out his hand to receive the Sacrament.

“What could I do?” mused the nun/priest afterward. “If I refused to give him the Sacrament, then one of his earliest memories in church would be that of being denied. So of course I gave it to him.” When pressed about the question of his not being baptized, she acknowledged that offering him the Sacrament was against the rules, but felt that he would be more likely to eventually desire baptism and participation in the life of the church if his earliest memories were more positive.

Last night in class, I was talking about differences in male and female forms of moral development — following the work of Carol Gilligan, whose landmark book In a Different Voice explores the question of how men and women follow different paths of ethical reasoning. Gilligan pointed out that “male” morality tends to be organized around rights and responsibilities, while “female” morality tends to be organized around relationship and community (I’m putting “male” and “female” in quotation marks because I believe these gendered perspectives aren’t entirely 100% locked in to biological sex — sometimes women might exhibit “male” moral reasoning, and vice versa). I thought about the female Episcopal priest and the unbaptized communicant and realized it was a classic way to illustrate this point.

If that same little boy had attended a Catholic mass, he probably would not have received the host. After all, Catholics deny communion not only to the unbaptized, but to small children who have not been educated about the Sacrament. A male priest is more likely to think in terms of the rules (rights and responsibilities) and be comfortable saying “if he wants communion, he needs to be baptized first and go through the training” while the female priest based her ethical decision on the relational consideration of providing the little tyke with the hospitality of Christ and a sense of communal security, that he was welcome and allowed to fit in at the church. It’s important to note that the woman priest is not just blowing off the rules: I’m pretty sure if the kid and his mother kept showing up Sunday after Sunday, she would have explained to the mother that the child would need to be baptized as part of his participation in the church. In her ethical reasoning, it’s not relationship versus rules, but rather relationship and rules — with relationship taking the higher priority.

In Roman Catholicism today, the official line about ordaining women is that the church can’t do it because the church doesn’t have the power to do so. Here is masculine moral reasoning through and through. The church must obey the rules, period; and since the rules come from God, only if God himself were to come down and change the rules could there be a change in church practice. The reason why I (and many other Catholics of conscience) support the ordination of women is because I believe the church’s reasoning here is specious. It uses masculine moral reasoning to say that only males can be priests, “because those are the rules.” This flies in the face of Paul’s bold declaration that “In Christ there is neither male nor female” (Galatians 3:28). But it also flies in the face of the relational consideration of honoring and valuing women who clearly exhibit the gifts of priestly ministry — including a rich dimension of moral insight that has largely escaped the notice of men who have been so wrapped up in following the letter of the law.

What seems to me to be really at issue here is fear of the feminine. If the church embraced women as priests, how would this impact so many other aspects of the church’s doctrine and practice? After all, it’s the same follow-the-rules mindset which denies priestly ministry to women that also denies the Blessed Sacrament to small children or to Protestants or to those who are “conscious of grave sin” (let alone the unbaptized). Catholics have a joke about how Peter stands at the pearly gates of heaven, sternly keeping all the sinners and non-Christians out — while Mary keeps watch over the back door of paradise, where she lets all the riff raff in! It’s a classic joke with a kernel of truth: once the Catholic church proves its devotion to Mary by ordaining women, the balance of power between law and grace really will tip in the favor of grace. And maybe that’s what all the traditionalists who are opposed to women’s ordination really fear.

I think even a cursory reading of the Gospels will reveal how Christ built much of his ministry around joyously deconstructing such follow-the-rules thinking when he healed or gathered food on the sabbath, much to the apoplectic annoyance of the respectable religious leaders of his day. As much as I love the Catholic tradition, at the end of the day my conscience demands that I be more faithful to Christ’s inclusivity than to the Vatican’s exclusivity. It is my confident hope that the Catholic church will become much more faithful to the fullness of Christ’s message of lavish love, once women are exercising priestly ministry. I hope you will join me in praying that this may come to pass, and soon.

Spiritual Orientation
In Memoriam: Kenneth Leech
Concerning Emergence, Contemplation, and the Faith of the Future
Simplicity and Silence
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • ned

    Carl, I recently heard a talk on the What is Enlightenment? site with Cynthia Bourgeault on gender and nonduality. She truly spoke well about the nondual transcendence of gender, and about reconciling the relative identity (as a man or a woman) with the Absolute: (you need a login to hear it)

    I’ll quote the main thing she said here:

    The ultimate liberation is to be liberated from the identification with being a woman. My womanhood is not the deepest thing that can be said about me. The deepest thing is that I’m a living a trajectory of divine purpose and compassion moving through this time and space dimension in this form, and one of the names that I bear is woman. But it is not the whole of the consciousness. How subtle this thing called “identification” is! When we’re just at that moment of experiencing ourselves as free and connected and spacious consciousness, we immediately dive down the rabbit hole and say, “Oh yes, but I am a woman! Oh yes, but I am an American! Oh yes, but I am a Sufi!” and we start labeling again. This utter fixation upon identifying yourself with something — with anything — actually creates the last barrier to living a life of nondual consciousness. And if you can learn not to do that, if you can learn in your deepest self not to make that motion of grabbing at some form of identity, then the love that runs the stars and the sun will flow through you and create a kind of strength and an organic field around you that is a protection and a beauty because it connects with the infinite.

  • ned

    Btw I think your point about how the inclusion of women would tip the balance of power between rules and grace toward grace is really spot-on.

  • Raven~
  • Peter


    I love what Cynthia has to say here! Not just her eloquent way of saying it, but the reality of it: the choice to live in nondual awareness and connect with the infinite, by letting go of our addictive “identifications” at the threshold places of consciousness.

    Sounds like home to me! I believe that’s where I came from, and where I’m headed–and anything that I can choose to do to facilitate it happening sooner, or to invite others to join me there too–well, it sounds like a heavenly party to me!

    In celebration (even if it is the beginning of Lent!),

  • MikeF

    This is superb, Carl. Ned is so right in pointing out the truth of what you say about tipping the balance between law and grace. I love that picture of our Lady letting all the riff-raff in by the back door…!

  • Bob

    What a bunch of crap.

    You’re right…the child would not have received the Eucharist in the Roman Catholic Church. The child would have received a blessing from the Priest instead. He would not go away “empty handed.” The way I see it, that creates a perfect teaching opportunity to instruct the child about the Eucharist which, should help lead the child deeper into the faith. Such instruction should increase the child’s desire to be baptized and receive Communion.

    And…rather than get into a debate about the ordination of women…one needs to look no further than the Episcopal Church (Anglican Church) to see how destructive and divisive such a practice is. I mean, hey, why do we need any rules at all? – According to you all, let’s just throw them all away.

    One is either Catholic or he (purposely did not write “he/she” here) is not. One cannot be 99.9% Catholic. You either are or you are not. Obedience is better than sacrifice, and is best when it is a sacrifice.

    Pope John Paul’s letter on the question of ordaining women

  • Carl McColman

    Bob, your first sentence — “What a bunch of crap” — really says it all. I don’t know whether you are intentionally trying to be contemptuous or if you think using phrases like this is funny, but either way, your lack of civility is neither needed nor wanted here. Your position has been, and continues to be, aggressively promoted by people with a lot more power and money than either you or I. It need not receive any more air-time here.

    I have said repeatedly that you and I have different theological values that inform our perspectives on the Eucharist, ordained ministry, mystical theology, and even what defines “Catholic.” If you wish to promote your views, go start a blog of your own. If you leave any further messages here that I find in any way offensive, I will delete them. Of course, since I believe in hospitality, I am willing to post any future comments from you as long as they are truly civil and written in a spirit of respectful disagreement rather than this kind of aggressive bluster.

  • zoecarnate

    Bob, I’d have to agree with Carl here. Of course, I gather in a clergy-less house church, so my opinion is probably even less valuable to you than Carl’s.

    “Why do we need any rules at all?” Good rules, good boundaries, serve to nurture and strengthen faith. But Jesus himself said it best “Religious rules [in his original context, the Sabbath] are made for people, not people for the rules.”

    When I read Catholics like Richard Rohr or Brennan Manning or my friend Carl, it deepens and widens my respect for the tradition–they challenge me, and enlarge my heart to love God and neighbor more. But when I read posts with tones like yours, Bob, I wonder why I even identify myself as ‘Christian’ at all. I mean, try this: Read through the gospels sometime. No commentaries–heck, find a Bible without verse numbers if you can. And ask yourself this question: Did Jesus come to play by the religious rules of his context? Or did he come as a holy revolutionary–not needlessly flouting tradition, but subverting it when needed so that people wouldn’t feel enslaved by it?

    I think the priest in question acted pastorally by serving the boy, and is 100% in line with the radically inclusive meal-sharing example of Jesus.

  • girlwhocriedepiphany

    Dear Carl,
    You articulated so well the “either/or” rule of the Church that leaves me in stuttering bafflement.
    Not only is there a fear of the feminine, but there is the fear of what the Church has decided the feminine might be. The Church was built in opposition to wildness and nature and the body and the vital connection of the human spirit to all of those messy, muddy things. Initially, Christianity managed to refashion pagan festivals and goddesses into holy days and saints like Brigit. Now, it is necessary to willfully misunderstand the feminine in order to keep at bay the chaos that might accompany such an expanded vision of the heavens and the earth. How would the public face of the Church be transformed if the rules were redrawn so that women could be recognized as truly equal to men? Wouldn’t we discover that such equality would help one transcend the body (if memory serves, the Church still puts a great deal of stock in Augustine’s denial of the flesh)? I am certain I am not the first one to balk at the irony that the denial of women in the priesthood and the general distrust of the feminine is exactly what keeps the Church firmly planted in the mundane plane of biology.

    Wow, thanks, your post really helped me sort out some of my own feelings on this topic.

    Oh, and another situation that has made me growl at the artificial rules imposed by the Church: in Father James Martin’s wonderful book My Life with the Saints there is a chapter about the Ugandan Martyrs. A fascinating and otherworldly seeming story to be sure (as I read it in all of my American comfort), but one with an example of the bizarre and artificial division between Christian denominations. I guess some of the men had converted to Catholicism and others to Anglicanism – essentially identical paths in comparison to the original spirituality of Africa, I would think. Though all were canonized eventually by their churches of choice, there are separate shrines and a separate claiming of souls. Was it about dying for Christ or dying for a prayer book? Are there going to be different doors in heaven for those who point their prayer mats toward Rome and those who are more in a Canterbury frame of mind?

  • Laurel

    Hello Bob.

    Three thoughts:

    …”obedience is best when it is a sacrifice”. Perhaps, when it is self-sacrifice. Not when itt is others whom we sacrifice.

    Mark 10:13-14 “And they were bringing children to him, that he might touch them; and the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw it he was indignant, and said to them, “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God.”

    Yes there is turmoil in the Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion, but one must be aware that, even though the media do not report it much, MOST of the members of that church and communion are talking to each other, listening to each other, respecting each others concerns, and engaging in serious, prayerful discernment of the way to balance the difficult issues and move forward as family and as the body of Christ.

    Carl – thank you for providing this forum.

    Blessings to all –

  • ned

    What people like Bob and other religious dogmatists don’t realize is that rules are *instruments* of the soul, which ultimately exceeds any and all rules. For this reason all mental rules and intellectual doctrines have only *relative* value. And in fact absolutising rules and beliefs is itself a form of idolatory and attachment, which is truly ironic.

    This is just human egoism all over again — getting so fixated on a few formulaic rules that you become completely unconscious about your own moral hypocrisies. Morality has serious limitations. By this I don’t mean we should become amoral, but that we should realize how relative morality is to the supramoral station of union with the Divine.

  • Bob

    @ ned:

    In our post-modern world, “truth” is thought to be relative, subjective, and therefore, ultimately unknowable by humans. So why even waste time pursuing it? As a consequence of such thinking, truth simply ceases to be and renders all of our faculties, our actions, and everything else ultimately meaningless, futile and fruitless. What is left is human egoism.

    As “spiritual” persons, we need to challenge this kind of thinking and hold absolute truth to be objective and knowable. Only by doing so, we can come to know the truth, be properly using our God-given faculties and capabilities of knowing the truth (otherwise, why do we have them?), giving an ultimate meaning to our actions, realizing that there are consequences for them, and making our lives fruitful. If we do not do this, all is just vanity.

  • ned

    Bob, the only objectivity is God himself. If you take the meaning of objectivity to be “real, independent existence”, the only objectivity is the Supreme. Everything else is contingent on him. That means all our mental thoughtforms are subjective, all our religious doctrines are subjective, all our religions and mythologies are RELATIVE to the Absolute Reality, which is God himself. Realize God himself, and you will have an objective view of the world.

    Unfortunately, the Absolute is far off, and most do not have the courage to even begin the process of inner realization.

    I quote from my guru, Sri Aurobindo, who wrote in his book “The Synthesis of Yoga”:

    “All these are within us waiting to wall in the spirit with forms; but we must always go beyond, always renounce the lesser for the greater, the finite for the Infinite; we must be prepared to proceed from illumination to illumination, from experience to experience, from soul-state to soul-state, so as to reach the utmost transcendence of the Divine and its utmost universality.”

    Yes, the Absolute Truth is knowable. But not through the mind. Only through an inner realization that transcends the mind.

  • Liz

    I am probably way off the mark here…it’s been a long time since I’ve had the opportunity to dialogue with individuals as well thought out as many of you are. I apologize in advance for my clumsiness.

    Last week I was reading Thomas Merton’s “Springs of Contemplation” which is really just a transcript of an ongoing conversation he had with a group of nuns.

    He addressed the ordination of women issue in what I thought was a unique way that really summed it all up for me. He said of course women shouldn’t be ordained, since the priesthood, as it exists today is really an outgrowth of all the stuff that men find important (standing up in front, wearing special gowns, etc). Merton didn’t see women as even wanting to be a part of such a thing.

    But he didn’t diminish women’s contributions to the Church and the work of God. He just couldn’t see them really wanting to become a part of the ongoing evolution of what is a patriarchal system.

    I guess I can relate to that. I can’t imagine why women would want to be priests. It all just seems so male, so power based. That doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate the priesthood (although I can see how some would question that based on this post). And I’m not trying to be overly dualistic and divide people into gender. However, I do believe that, by my biology and my physical makeup (and perhaps my spiritual makeup as well), I am very different from the men in my life. I appreciate what they have to bring and I appreciate what I have to bring and they are not the same thing.

    Perhaps I am seeing what is only personal differences and overly generalizing my conclusions. Perhaps. I don’t know.

    Still, I don’t think women are liberated when they base that imitation on how well they can imitate men. And sometimes that is what I feel is at the base of the women’s ordination issue.

    I understand that God is neither male nor female. But I am female. And for the most part, the rest of humanity are one or the other. I cannot wrap my mind around the idea that we are interchangeable. However, that may be my own limitation. (And quite possibly, may not even be what any one else here believes.)