Fr. Mother, Or, Is There an Equivalent to the Priesthood for Ladies?

Fr. Mother, Or, Is There an Equivalent to the Priesthood for Ladies? August 3, 2016

A while ago I wrote this ironically-distanced post about how one might defend the all-male priesthood on feminist grounds:

I think a feminist Catholic could legitimately say that women are already treated as available, as disposible, even as Kleenex. A woman priest, therefore, would just be a cliche. Of course a chick is here to serve you! That’s not radical at all. A male priest is new and different and needed–a radically disposible male, not a female. A man-Mary, whose only word can be, “Fiat voluntas tua.”

(more if you want it)

As my friends have children I’m actually becoming increasingly convinced that there’s a deeper analogy between motherhood and priesthood. I know nothing about the theology of the priesthood; I would rather be a marmoset than a priest, so this issue has never exercised me and I haven’t much investigated it. But what are blogs for if not irresponsible speculation?

So, one might ask: Is there a role which is exclusive to women, and which is in some important respects parallel to the priesthood for men? When you look at nuns and women religious their roles don’t actually seem too similar to the role of the priest; their equivalents are more like monks and brothers.

But then you look at motherhood. There are aspects of physical motherhood that men can never do: gestating the child within your body, giving birth, nursing at the breast. Not every mother does these things (not every shepherd of souls is a priest) and not everyone who does these things also nurtures and educates her child well. But these are forms of self-gift and sacrifice exclusive to mothers, and therefore exclusive (bracketing trans men for the moment!) to women.

You can draw other symbolic parallels: the transformation of egg and sperm into a new human individual within the woman’s body is in some way like the transformation of the Communion wafer into the Body and Blood of Christ, cradled in the hands of the priest. In his hands, as in her womb, mere matter becomes life, through God’s grace.

This parallel makes self-absorbed or cruel priests look worse–if you’ve ever known someone with a narcissistic mother, you know how badly that can damage a child’s developing personality–and it makes clear that roles of authority can (and should) also be roles of sacrifice.

I’d be interested if people have scholarly comments on the idea of priesthood as motherhood for men. (Or motherhood as priesthood for women! Is that part of the meaning of those “Mary as priest” portraits? This post goes through several moments of Mary’s life where her actions mirror a priest’s, although these are specific to Mary & not mothers in general.) For now I will close this admittedly sketchy post with a lovely paean from St. Anselm to the motherhood of St. Paul:

Who is that affectionate mother who declares everywhere
that she is in labour for her sons?
Sweet nurse, sweet mother,
who are the sons you are in labour with, and nurse,
but those whom by teaching the faith of Christ
you bear and instruct?

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