A Speculative Argument for a Gender Specific Priesthood

On January 1, on the Feast of Mary Mother of God, a guest priest at my parish took the opportunity to talk about the advance of women’s rights under Christianity, compared to many pagan and other worldviews (he dared mention Islam in this regard).  On the other hand, he noted, our own household is not entirely in order, and he noted, specifically, that the Catholic Church still refuses to ordain women despite the fact that women are just as qualified for ministry as are men.

I’m not sure if Father meant to say that the Catholic Church recognized that women are as qualified as men, but refuses to ordain them anyways, or if the Church has not yet itself recognized that women actually are as qualified – but I suspect the latter.  If, however, he meant the former, I am inclined to agree.  That is because official Church teaching makes no mention whatsoever of women’s capacities (or lack thereof) when defending its decision to ordain only (baptized) men.

While it is true that some arguments against women’s ordination popular in the past were based on men’s supposed greater innate capacity for ministry (sometimes due to an ostensible advantage in terms of rationality), it is also the case that these arguments were speculative rather than positive.  That is, they took the constant practice of the Church for granted and sought merely to explain it in terms amenable to their audience.  This being the case, the deficit of such arguments need not be debilitating for the Church’s current (and, we can remember, constant) position on the matter.

The argument is not, the Church seems to be saying, even about whether or not women are capable.  They certainly are.  The question has to do with something not functional but sacramental.  In positive terms, what did Christ intend as the sacramental structure of the Church?  In speculative terms, what, within the whole set of symbols that illuminate the Christian view of the world, the doctrines of creation and of grace and redemption, does a male priesthood represent?

My goal here is to present a speculative answer to the second question.  As to the first, the teaching of the Church is that Christ chose only men and that the Church has always chosen only men and that it does not feel at liberty to change that constant practice.  Positive (in the technical sense I am using here) arguments for the ordination of women, if they are to be successful, need to meet the Church’s self-understanding on this question on its own ground.  No (speculative) argument that women are just as capable as men is going to convince a Magisterium that does not deny this to change a teaching which it feels to be bound to quite other criteria.

(Of course, many do not believe that the Magisterium does believe women are so capable, but that is a fight for another day.  In any case, insisting that people believe something they claim not to believe is a fairly ineffective way to get them to consider your point of view.)

But to my own project here.

I want to present, in fear and trembling, a speculative reason for the practice of ordaining only baptized men to the priesthood.  (As an aside, we can leave the question of the diaconate for another day.  John Paull II’s Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, for what it’s worth, specifically mentions priesthood, and not diaconate, when it asserts that the Church has no power to confer ordination on women.)

The germ for my line of thought came from reading recently about the debate over men’s obsolescence.  Men, or so many argue, have become obsolete.  In the current state of the world, given various economic, political and scientific realities, men are no longer necessary.  On the other hand, I have also recently seen an upsurge in articles about the importance of fathers in the lives of their children.  Being a father of four, I am predisposed, I must admit, to taking a favorable view to such arguments.

The thoughts generated here have recently cross-pollinated with the response to David Bentley Hart’s new book on God.  The atheist critics (though not all of them), seem to think that a God such as Bentley Hart describes is, like biological fathers according to some others in the culture, obsolete.  They see in Bentley Hart’s articulation of classical theism not classical theism at all, but an attempt to preserve God from the advance of scientific knowledge that ends up turning God into something other than anything any normal believer, or even the great theologians of the past, could have meant by the term – and as something rather remote and harmless and effectively useless at that.

Others have engaged this battle and I need not do it here.  I mention it because, however, it strikes me as an interesting parallel with the claim that men, i.e, fathers, are obsolete.

Let us step back for a moment.  It is not hard, given the realities of human reproduction, to determine the mother of a given child.  Determining the father, is, however, a much more delicate task.  We know, or at least we used to know (before the advent of certain technologies), nevertheless, that there must be a father.

(Virgin births, once considered miraculous, will soon be quite commonplace, one suspects –at least in the sense that no sexual event led to the conception of the child.  Whether the woman in question has ever “known a man” is a separate question but, interestingly I think, a moot one.  That question is now irrelevant to whether or not she may have conceived a child.)

But I digress.  The point is that in normal, biological human reproduction, the man’s role is, in at least a symbolic sense, transcendent.  The very immanent fact of the pregnant woman is evidence of it, but pinning it down can be tricky.  And one wonders, if the pregnancy could be explained without him (as it now can be), would the father be necessary at all?

The immanent is not in any such danger.  No one argues that women are obsolete.

My thesis, then, comes down to this:  presuming that fathers are, in fact, necessary and not merely superfluous or obsolete (and I think it is fair to say the Church is presuming this), restricting ordination to men symbolizes both the irreducibility of the transcendent to the immanent in a culture where more and more people doubt the possibility of transcendence in principle, and the necessity of fathers in the lives of their children in a culture where more and more people think that dads are replaceable.

There is a way, of course, that no argument based on something as complex and intuitive as a symbol system can be a knockout blow.  And I do not intend my argument as such.  The point here is to take seriously the Church’s assertion that what is at issue for the question of the sex of the ordained person is what it says sacramentally.

The ordained man, as symbol of transcendence, exists only within Mother Church.  While it is easy for most of us (including, to a great degree, myself) to imagine an ordained woman, it is not at all easy to imagine Holy Father Church.  The idea is alternately comical and terrifying.  But are these two images, essentially of Christ and his Bride, not inseparable?  Is not the womb of Mother Church that immanent place in which the transcendent can be met?

I have no doubt that there are many women who are as capable as men for ministry.  And I think the Church can only benefit from giving such capable women support in ministry.  But I suspect there is wisdom in maintaining the Church’s constant practice in a world in which men are increasingly seen as replaceable and in which transcendence is increasingly seen as an illusion.


Brett Salkeld is Archdiocesan Theologian for the Catholic Archdiocese of Regina, Saskatchewan. He is a father of four (so far) and husband of one.

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  • http://johnspizziri.wordpress.com john spizziri

    As John Paul the Great once said, “Its a long way to Tipperary”

  • http://johnspizziri.wordpress.com john spizziri

    As John Paul the Great once said, “Its a long way to Tipperary”

  • Amy

    Although you draw a very specific application, I’m not sure it qualifies as ‘speculative’ to point out that men have been considered to represent transcendence and women immanence. A lot of theologians have spent a lot of time hashing out the implications of such symbolism.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/voxnova/category/brett-salkeld/ brettsalkeld

      I was using speculative in the technical sense outlined early in the piece, not in the sense of “novel.” In any case, I’d be happy to be pointed to any theologians who have interesting things to say on the matter.

  • Amy

    Although you draw a very specific application, I’m not sure it qualifies as ‘speculative’ to point out that men have been considered to represent transcendence and women immanence. A lot of theologians have spent a lot of time hashing out the implications of such symbolism.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/voxnova/category/brett-salkeld/ brettsalkeld

      I was using speculative in the technical sense outlined early in the piece, not in the sense of “novel.” In any case, I’d be happy to be pointed to any theologians who have interesting things to say on the matter.

  • Jacob W Torbeck

    I’m not on board with your speculative argument. As you stated,JPII’s argument states that the church does not believe she has the authority to ordain women to the sacramental priesthood because the pope believes Christ called 12 male apostles not as an act influenced by culture, but as a free act independent of culture.

    …I for one think that’s a silly argument, from an anthropological and philosophical standpoint, but an infallibly taught doctrine is an infallibly taught doctrine, so here we are.

    Your argument seems to hinge on the current cultural issue of the apparently growing obsolescence of males, which certainly hasn’t always been a concern, and may not be a concern for long, on a cosmic scale. While in this moment, it makes for a good justification as to why we might want an all male priesthood “right now,” I fail to see that such a concern transcends the current context.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/voxnova/category/brett-salkeld/ brettsalkeld

      I’m not sure my argument hinges on our obsolescence, as much as it is brought to the front of my mind by those positing such things. It is perhaps possible that all ages need to be reminded of the relationship between transcendence and immanence and that it is the kind of reminding which shifts. E.g., maybe another age needed to hear that the Church is female because of a degradation of the feminine. Of course, maybe, as some other commenters highlight, perhaps unintentionally, our age might need that too.

  • Jacob W Torbeck

    I’m not on board with your speculative argument. As you stated,JPII’s argument states that the church does not believe she has the authority to ordain women to the sacramental priesthood because the pope believes Christ called 12 male apostles not as an act influenced by culture, but as a free act independent of culture.

    …I for one think that’s a silly argument, from an anthropological and philosophical standpoint, but an infallibly taught doctrine is an infallibly taught doctrine, so here we are.

    Your argument seems to hinge on the current cultural issue of the apparently growing obsolescence of males, which certainly hasn’t always been a concern, and may not be a concern for long, on a cosmic scale. While in this moment, it makes for a good justification as to why we might want an all male priesthood “right now,” I fail to see that such a concern transcends the current context.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/voxnova/category/brett-salkeld/ brettsalkeld

      I’m not sure my argument hinges on our obsolescence, as much as it is brought to the front of my mind by those positing such things. It is perhaps possible that all ages need to be reminded of the relationship between transcendence and immanence and that it is the kind of reminding which shifts. E.g., maybe another age needed to hear that the Church is female because of a degradation of the feminine. Of course, maybe, as some other commenters highlight, perhaps unintentionally, our age might need that too.

  • Amy

    Hi Brett,

    Thanks for your reply. You are right; I did take wrongly take your use of ‘speculative’ to mean ‘novel.’ Since you corrected me, am I right that you meant to outline ‘speculative’ as ‘offering possible explanations for the Church’s constant practice?’

    It did seem that you were presenting the speculations you offered as novel, which puzzled me. I am sure you are familiar with von Balthasar, who explicitly associates the feminine with the immanent and the masculine with the transcendent, or males with God and women with world (This article gives a good overview, esp. p. 268 http://www.ts.mu.edu/readers/content/pdf/65/65.3/65.3.4.pdf). Tina Beattie addresses this a lot, with specific application to the sacramental priesthood. John Milbank has mentioned similar gender associations when discussing same-sex marriage, along with other theologians associated with Radical Orthodoxy, such as Graham Ward and Gerard Loughlin. And then there are the more strident feminists like Mary Daly or Rosemary Radford Ruether, although they can be kind of an infuriating read.

    Did I misinterpret you to be presenting your insight into the men-transcendent women-immanent framework as novel, rather than just the specific connection you made to the present-day feelings of superfluity that men can experience? I think it makes a lot of sense that the Church’s motivation for not wanting to change the practice of reserving ordination to men could be a result of seeing the world according to the symbolic framework that they have no motivation to critique, especially if they view the world as vindicating the framework.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/voxnova/category/brett-salkeld/ brettsalkeld

      Upon reflection, I have to admit my use of “speculative” was actually twofold. It was, in the first and most conscious instance, the technical sense you capture in your first p’graph. But I also meant it in the sense that I was testing an idea out in my own mind. That is to say, it is not novel in the sense that others have not tried version of it, but it is a bit novel in the sense that I am trying it on myself for the first time, inspired by a particular and (to me anyways) rather novel context.

      • Amy

        Hi Brett,
        I’m sorry I totally jumped on you. My initial reaction was to criticize you because, although I know that you are aware of all the theological reflection that surrounds all the immanent-transcendent gender stuff, as a woman I felt kind of mansplained to when you, a man, seemed to be presenting this argument as a standalone instead of mentioning that it represents a train of though from a large body of work. I think you brought attention to a really interesting argument that gives a lot to chew on, and that you could have improved the reception of your argument by specifically making note of the fact that women or others who draw the opposite conclusions from similar observations and are invested in the ordination of women have encountered this sort of argument before, and may even draw opposite conclusions from the same grounds. That way it would have felt to me more like an opportunity to think instead of an ‘aha’ moment against women’s ordination. Since I was hasty and didn’t convey that first, please let me try again!

  • Amy

    Hi Brett,

    Thanks for your reply. You are right; I did take wrongly take your use of ‘speculative’ to mean ‘novel.’ Since you corrected me, am I right that you meant to outline ‘speculative’ as ‘offering possible explanations for the Church’s constant practice?’

    It did seem that you were presenting the speculations you offered as novel, which puzzled me. I am sure you are familiar with von Balthasar, who explicitly associates the feminine with the immanent and the masculine with the transcendent, or males with God and women with world (This article gives a good overview, esp. p. 268 http://www.ts.mu.edu/readers/content/pdf/65/65.3/65.3.4.pdf). Tina Beattie addresses this a lot, with specific application to the sacramental priesthood. John Milbank has mentioned similar gender associations when discussing same-sex marriage, along with other theologians associated with Radical Orthodoxy, such as Graham Ward and Gerard Loughlin. And then there are the more strident feminists like Mary Daly or Rosemary Radford Ruether, although they can be kind of an infuriating read.

    Did I misinterpret you to be presenting your insight into the men-transcendent women-immanent framework as novel, rather than just the specific connection you made to the present-day feelings of superfluity that men can experience? I think it makes a lot of sense that the Church’s motivation for not wanting to change the practice of reserving ordination to men could be a result of seeing the world according to the symbolic framework that they have no motivation to critique, especially if they view the world as vindicating the framework.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/voxnova/category/brett-salkeld/ brettsalkeld

      Upon reflection, I have to admit my use of “speculative” was actually twofold. It was, in the first and most conscious instance, the technical sense you capture in your first p’graph. But I also meant it in the sense that I was testing an idea out in my own mind. That is to say, it is not novel in the sense that others have not tried version of it, but it is a bit novel in the sense that I am trying it on myself for the first time, inspired by a particular and (to me anyways) rather novel context.

      • Amy

        Hi Brett,
        I’m sorry I totally jumped on you. My initial reaction was to criticize you because, although I know that you are aware of all the theological reflection that surrounds all the immanent-transcendent gender stuff, as a woman I felt kind of mansplained to when you, a man, seemed to be presenting this argument as a standalone instead of mentioning that it represents a train of though from a large body of work. I think you brought attention to a really interesting argument that gives a lot to chew on, and that you could have improved the reception of your argument by specifically making note of the fact that women or others who draw the opposite conclusions from similar observations and are invested in the ordination of women have encountered this sort of argument before, and may even draw opposite conclusions from the same grounds. That way it would have felt to me more like an opportunity to think instead of an ‘aha’ moment against women’s ordination. Since I was hasty and didn’t convey that first, please let me try again!

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    Brett, I have a problem with the starting point of your argument: the supposed obsolescence of men. This is an old idea, but I really wonder if it has any traction beyond a very, very small group of feminist thinkers and a larger (but still very small) group of anti-feminists who use this argument as a strawman to attack feminism in general. (You recall the tirade that feminism will turn your daughters into “bra burning, lesbian witches”.)

    Also, for my benefit, could you articulate more clearly what you mean when you refer to the male role in reproduction as a “transcendent symbol”? I have a guess, but given the scatter shot nature of my theological and philosophical education, I would prefer to be sure. I think my critique will involve questioning the binary between immanent and transcendent, but before saying anything I want to pin down for my own benefit what you are saying.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/voxnova/category/brett-salkeld/ brettsalkeld

      Hmmm? The obsolescence of men per se may not be a particularly widely accepted idea. But it seems to me that many trends which seek to actively deny any real difference between men and women beyond, as it is crudely put, “plumbing,” are fairly widespread. I think that such trends hint at the same problem.

      Does that give you a clearer sense of my concerns?

      As for a “transcendent symbol,” I think the male role in procreation only gives evidence of itself through the female role. Transcendence, in my mind, can never be grasped on its own, but only through its effects. That’s why one cannot find “evidence” for God if, by evidence, someone means, as the New Atheists clearly do, something exclusively immanent.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    Brett, I have a problem with the starting point of your argument: the supposed obsolescence of men. This is an old idea, but I really wonder if it has any traction beyond a very, very small group of feminist thinkers and a larger (but still very small) group of anti-feminists who use this argument as a strawman to attack feminism in general. (You recall the tirade that feminism will turn your daughters into “bra burning, lesbian witches”.)

    Also, for my benefit, could you articulate more clearly what you mean when you refer to the male role in reproduction as a “transcendent symbol”? I have a guess, but given the scatter shot nature of my theological and philosophical education, I would prefer to be sure. I think my critique will involve questioning the binary between immanent and transcendent, but before saying anything I want to pin down for my own benefit what you are saying.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/voxnova/category/brett-salkeld/ brettsalkeld

      Hmmm? The obsolescence of men per se may not be a particularly widely accepted idea. But it seems to me that many trends which seek to actively deny any real difference between men and women beyond, as it is crudely put, “plumbing,” are fairly widespread. I think that such trends hint at the same problem.

      Does that give you a clearer sense of my concerns?

      As for a “transcendent symbol,” I think the male role in procreation only gives evidence of itself through the female role. Transcendence, in my mind, can never be grasped on its own, but only through its effects. That’s why one cannot find “evidence” for God if, by evidence, someone means, as the New Atheists clearly do, something exclusively immanent.

  • Jennifer Butler Basile

    Interesting argument. Well-put even if I’m not sure I agree with all points. I’d be interested to hear your view on the diaconate you alluded to for another time.

  • Jennifer Butler Basile

    Interesting argument. Well-put even if I’m not sure I agree with all points. I’d be interested to hear your view on the diaconate you alluded to for another time.

  • Ronald King

    Brett, my mind is smoking from its different thoughts associated to immanence and transcendence in both genders while entertaining the statement that men are obsolete. I going for a run with my wife so I must be short. What is the source of men being obsolete? My first thought is that this is the result of their detachment from their capacity to form rewarding attachments to loved ones and for their potential for violence.

    Their transcendence in the priesthood remains a mystery only in the material world in my opinion based on their lack of understanding of the mystery of women. In an attempt to become something more than what they are men have always sought to create positions which give them the illusion of transcendence while giving little thought to the mystery of transcendence present in the everyday life of women. I believe there is an underlying sense of inferiority influencing men to become something more or better within the mysterious relationship they have with women beginning with the first encounter in the story of Genesis. Transcendence would require that both genders are necessary for the priesthood in order for the Church to be whole and without fragmentation.

  • Ronald King

    Brett, my mind is smoking from its different thoughts associated to immanence and transcendence in both genders while entertaining the statement that men are obsolete. I going for a run with my wife so I must be short. What is the source of men being obsolete? My first thought is that this is the result of their detachment from their capacity to form rewarding attachments to loved ones and for their potential for violence.

    Their transcendence in the priesthood remains a mystery only in the material world in my opinion based on their lack of understanding of the mystery of women. In an attempt to become something more than what they are men have always sought to create positions which give them the illusion of transcendence while giving little thought to the mystery of transcendence present in the everyday life of women. I believe there is an underlying sense of inferiority influencing men to become something more or better within the mysterious relationship they have with women beginning with the first encounter in the story of Genesis. Transcendence would require that both genders are necessary for the priesthood in order for the Church to be whole and without fragmentation.

  • http://gaudetetheology.wordpress.com gaudetetheology

    If I understand correctly, you suggest that an exclusively male priesthood can symbolize transcendence because fatherhood is transcendent whereas motherhood is immanent, and that this symbol is valuable in a world in which fathers are increasingly seen as obsolete.

    An exclusively male priesthood can also be seen to symbolize that men innately resemble God more closely than women do. I would argue that this is a more apparent symbolism than the symbolism you suggest, because it rests on the immediately present iconic value of male and female, rather than on a) concepts of immanence and transcendence which are unfamiliar to most Catholics, and b) the representation of the sex act resulting in pregnancy, which is not immediately present during the celebration of the sacraments.

    Are you persuaded that the spiritual benefit effected by the former outweighs the spiritual harm effected by the latter?

    Also, I must say, this

    it is not at all easy to imagine Holy Father Church. The idea is alternately comical and terrifying.

    is an extremely weak argument that does not advance your case. Fifty years ago, it was commonplace to express sentiments such as

    it is not at all easy to imagine Madam President. The idea is alternately comical and terrifying.

    Happy International Women’s Day. :)

  • http://gaudetetheology.wordpress.com gaudetetheology

    If I understand correctly, you suggest that an exclusively male priesthood can symbolize transcendence because fatherhood is transcendent whereas motherhood is immanent, and that this symbol is valuable in a world in which fathers are increasingly seen as obsolete.

    An exclusively male priesthood can also be seen to symbolize that men innately resemble God more closely than women do. I would argue that this is a more apparent symbolism than the symbolism you suggest, because it rests on the immediately present iconic value of male and female, rather than on a) concepts of immanence and transcendence which are unfamiliar to most Catholics, and b) the representation of the sex act resulting in pregnancy, which is not immediately present during the celebration of the sacraments.

    Are you persuaded that the spiritual benefit effected by the former outweighs the spiritual harm effected by the latter?

    Also, I must say, this

    it is not at all easy to imagine Holy Father Church. The idea is alternately comical and terrifying.

    is an extremely weak argument that does not advance your case. Fifty years ago, it was commonplace to express sentiments such as

    it is not at all easy to imagine Madam President. The idea is alternately comical and terrifying.

    Happy International Women’s Day. :)

  • http://emmasrandomthoughts.wordpress.com emmasrandomthoughts

    “While it is easy for most of us (including, to a great degree, myself) to imagine an ordained woman, it is not at all easy to imagine Holy Father Church. The idea is alternately comical and terrifying.”

    I want to address this idea. I think that most Americans DO imagine a Holy Father Church.

    Romance language speakers may have a different idea, since their languages are gendered, and the Church has a feminine pronoun. (At least, it does in Spanish, la iglesia) However, most Americans speak English (and only English) which is a gender neutral language.

    Add to this the fact that, for most Americans, The Church is synonymous with the hierarchy, especially the Pope. True, the media has contributed substantially to this image, but I don’t think it’s fair to blame them entirely for this fact. It is loyalty to the Pope and communion with the Pope that is one of the defining features of the Catholic Church. To be Catholic is to be in communion with the Pope. In truth, the Popes of recent years, particularly Pope John Paul, promoted this “Pope=Church,” idea, with the numerous papal visits. He seemed to encourage the idea that loyalty to the Pope could be the unifying feature among a Church divided along theological and liturgical lines. This idea trickles down from the Pope to the bishops and priests.

    If I was to show the average American a picture of a priest and a picture of a bride and ask “Which one of these represents the catholic Church?” the average American would pick the priest. Furthermore, if I was to ask the average American, “Which one of these adjectives describes the Catholic Church, masculine or feminine?” I think most Americans would pick masculine. (I haven’t performed this experiment myself, but I am pretty confident that these would be the results.)

    Would allowing women to be priests help this situation? No, not really. It just furthers the idea that “Church=clergy.” However, it’s worth remembering that for most Americans, the idea of Holy Father Church is neither comical nor terrifying. It is reality.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      For what it is worth: David Weber, in his Honor Harrington series, created a world ruled by a benevolent theocracy that (despite its roots in evangelical protestantism) resembled the Catholic Church. This church routinely described itself as “Holy Father Church”. I guess this is what others are seeing when they look in on us from the outside.

      • http://emmasrandomthoughts.wordpress.com emmasrandomthoughts

        I think even most average Catholics in America are probably unfamiliar with the idea of the Church as feminine.

        At the same time, I’m tempted to say, “The Church is feminine. So what? It’s an abstract idea that doesn’t mean anything in the day to day reality, even for a devout Catholic woman.”

        • http://emmasrandomthoughts.wordpress.com emmasrandomthoughts

          To clarify, what I mean is, the Church pays lip service to the idea that the Church is feminine, but has never truly bothered to consider the implications of this teaching. Imagine, for a minute, that the Church really believed that a man cannot represent the Church to the world. This would radically alter how the Church views evangelization, teaching, corporal works of mercy, public prayer outside of Mass, religious processions, and religious devotions. For example, it would be far more fitting to have women, and only women, working in Catholic Charities, since they can more fully represent the Church to those they serve. It could also be more fitting to have women lead public devotions and processions, since the women more fully represent the Church. Even the reception of communion could be radically altered by this theology, since a woman receiving communion is a much more fitting sign of Christ giving His body to the Church than a man receiving communion.

        • hydrochloriawk

          I like your points below about what it would look like to have only women representing the Church. Perhaps if any of this were true, some credence could be lent to the Church’s arguments about this stuff. But really, I think the “Mother Church” thing is useless and nothing more than something sentimental. I’m inclined to think referring to the Church as feminine is no more meaningful than referring to boats as feminine. The Church is a boat, after all, isn’t it? it carries us along, so to speak, on our journey to salvation? Perhaps the “femininity” of the Church is more related to it being seen as a “vessel”, which is the start and end of the usefulness of women, apparently. Referring to “mother Church” and the “feminine genius” (which ultimately boils down to motherhood, which in the eyes of the hierarchy seems to boil down to vessel-hood) IS lip service. I would love to hear a compelling argument for why women are intrinsically different from men beyond a reduction to “vessel-hood”, and one which accounts for socialization (that is, prove to me that the “tenderness” and “nurturing” of women is not learned). I have yet to hear it, and so I’ll probably go on thinking that the “mother Church” metaphor is just a metaphor, not some sort of intrinsic reality. The explanations as to why boats must be referred to in the feminine tend to be just as daft and misogynistic as the explanations as to why priests must be men (with the latter always including, “But the Church is a mother! Also, Mary!”).

  • http://emmasrandomthoughts.wordpress.com emmasrandomthoughts

    “While it is easy for most of us (including, to a great degree, myself) to imagine an ordained woman, it is not at all easy to imagine Holy Father Church. The idea is alternately comical and terrifying.”

    I want to address this idea. I think that most Americans DO imagine a Holy Father Church.

    Romance language speakers may have a different idea, since their languages are gendered, and the Church has a feminine pronoun. (At least, it does in Spanish, la iglesia) However, most Americans speak English (and only English) which is a gender neutral language.

    Add to this the fact that, for most Americans, The Church is synonymous with the hierarchy, especially the Pope. True, the media has contributed substantially to this image, but I don’t think it’s fair to blame them entirely for this fact. It is loyalty to the Pope and communion with the Pope that is one of the defining features of the Catholic Church. To be Catholic is to be in communion with the Pope. In truth, the Popes of recent years, particularly Pope John Paul, promoted this “Pope=Church,” idea, with the numerous papal visits. He seemed to encourage the idea that loyalty to the Pope could be the unifying feature among a Church divided along theological and liturgical lines. This idea trickles down from the Pope to the bishops and priests.

    If I was to show the average American a picture of a priest and a picture of a bride and ask “Which one of these represents the catholic Church?” the average American would pick the priest. Furthermore, if I was to ask the average American, “Which one of these adjectives describes the Catholic Church, masculine or feminine?” I think most Americans would pick masculine. (I haven’t performed this experiment myself, but I am pretty confident that these would be the results.)

    Would allowing women to be priests help this situation? No, not really. It just furthers the idea that “Church=clergy.” However, it’s worth remembering that for most Americans, the idea of Holy Father Church is neither comical nor terrifying. It is reality.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      For what it is worth: David Weber, in his Honor Harrington series, created a world ruled by a benevolent theocracy that (despite its roots in evangelical protestantism) resembled the Catholic Church. This church routinely described itself as “Holy Father Church”. I guess this is what others are seeing when they look in on us from the outside.

      • http://emmasrandomthoughts.wordpress.com emmasrandomthoughts

        I think even most average Catholics in America are probably unfamiliar with the idea of the Church as feminine.

        At the same time, I’m tempted to say, “The Church is feminine. So what? It’s an abstract idea that doesn’t mean anything in the day to day reality, even for a devout Catholic woman.”

        • http://emmasrandomthoughts.wordpress.com emmasrandomthoughts

          To clarify, what I mean is, the Church pays lip service to the idea that the Church is feminine, but has never truly bothered to consider the implications of this teaching. Imagine, for a minute, that the Church really believed that a man cannot represent the Church to the world. This would radically alter how the Church views evangelization, teaching, corporal works of mercy, public prayer outside of Mass, religious processions, and religious devotions. For example, it would be far more fitting to have women, and only women, working in Catholic Charities, since they can more fully represent the Church to those they serve. It could also be more fitting to have women lead public devotions and processions, since the women more fully represent the Church. Even the reception of communion could be radically altered by this theology, since a woman receiving communion is a much more fitting sign of Christ giving His body to the Church than a man receiving communion.

        • hydrochloriawk

          I like your points below about what it would look like to have only women representing the Church. Perhaps if any of this were true, some credence could be lent to the Church’s arguments about this stuff. But really, I think the “Mother Church” thing is useless and nothing more than something sentimental. I’m inclined to think referring to the Church as feminine is no more meaningful than referring to boats as feminine. The Church is a boat, after all, isn’t it? it carries us along, so to speak, on our journey to salvation? Perhaps the “femininity” of the Church is more related to it being seen as a “vessel”, which is the start and end of the usefulness of women, apparently. Referring to “mother Church” and the “feminine genius” (which ultimately boils down to motherhood, which in the eyes of the hierarchy seems to boil down to vessel-hood) IS lip service. I would love to hear a compelling argument for why women are intrinsically different from men beyond a reduction to “vessel-hood”, and one which accounts for socialization (that is, prove to me that the “tenderness” and “nurturing” of women is not learned). I have yet to hear it, and so I’ll probably go on thinking that the “mother Church” metaphor is just a metaphor, not some sort of intrinsic reality. The explanations as to why boats must be referred to in the feminine tend to be just as daft and misogynistic as the explanations as to why priests must be men (with the latter always including, “But the Church is a mother! Also, Mary!”).

  • http://digbydolben.wordpress.com dismasdolben

    The only reason that makes sense to me for restricting the sacerdotal role to men is that Christ became incarnate as a man; it’s simply a matter of love for Second Person of the Christian Trinity.

    What, however, strictly-speaking IS “the sacerdotal role”? Isn’t it just transubstantiating the Eucharis and forgiving sins in confession? If that’s all it is, and that’s all it need be for the simple parish priest, or the military chaplain, or the pastor in a school or an old folks’ home, what is the issue with giving more responsibilities to women in the Church’s various congregations and curial offices? Haven’t boy-princes and non-priests been made cardinals MANY times in the past? Is there really ANY canonical impediment to making a woman a cardinal, so long as she is willing to refuse the office of pope or bishop or patriarch, as in the Eastern Churches? Couldn’t Pope Francis actually make a woman a cardinal tomorrow, if he wanted to?

    Shouldn’t we be remembering that Christ was the first and greatest “feminist” in the history of Christendom?–and that he surrounded himself with as many female disciples as male?–and that the Early Church would never have flourished and grown without Roman matrons and female martyrs?

    • http://emmasrandomthoughts.wordpress.com emmasrandomthoughts

      I think that’s a very important question. Does the government of the Church really need to be performed by priests? As you said, why NOT give women responsibilities in curial positions and in congregations in Church governance? If there is no sacramental or sacredotal power needed for a curial position, and there is no symbolism of Christ in that position, then there is no reason whatsoever to restrict these positions to men.

      • Amy

        I think maybe there is a corollary that can go with the whole complex of symbolism. Assuming that something called ‘masculinity’ actually symbolizes Christ and ‘femininity’ symbolizes the Church, and that ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ also correspond to male or female bodies, doesn’t that have universal implications for every body? Depending on how exactly symbolism relates to actual male or female bodies, you can get some pretty universal gender roles where women are always coded as immanent and men are always coded as transcendent, with political implications. It seems that the Church accepting any kind of role for women other than as wives and mothers–including in Church governance– is theological, since it takes a stance on what kind of situations this symbolism is applicable in. Then again these days since JPII disingenuously proclaimed that the Church has always taught that men and women are equal and complementary, the Church isn’t really making a big deal out of the whole active-passive transcendent-immanent symbolism. They just make really unconvincing arguments about how maleness was a specific object of Christ’s intentionality in who he ordained. But honestly I think the transcendent-immanent argument is way more convincing, even if it is kind of unacceptable today. At least it goes back to Aristotle, and at least it’s honest.

        • http://emmasrandomthoughts.wordpress.com emmasrandomthoughts

          The question I would ask then, is, does the political represent the imminent or the transcendent? It seems to me that the day to day government of the Church represents this temporal, created realm, and therefore the imminent. If the day to day government is imminent, then it is more symbolically appropriate to have women perform the day to day governmental functions.

    • hydrochloriawk

      There is no coherent theological reason for this. And because there is no coherent theological reason for it (and yet it is very clear in canon law that cardinals must be priests and must be ordained bishops after being made cardinals, if not before), I can’t in good conscience believe that there isn’t the slightest bit of misogyny at the root of the teaching on ordination. If the issue were actually about ordination, and not about authority, the section on cardinals in the code of canon law would not recently have been edited to specify that priests comprise the pool (especially since the earliest cardinals were lay people). If the issue were actually about ordination, and not about authority, we would have women prefects advising congregations in Rome. The issue is not about ordination, but it certainly is easy to throw one’s hands up and say, ‘we wish we could help, but Jesus left no wiggle room here’ (because that’s so well documented).

      • http://emmasrandomthoughts.wordpress.com emmasrandomthoughts

        Your post reminds me of a recent post on Daily Theology. It talked about how the pope recently put together a new Council for the Economy with eight cardinals and seven laymen. Laymen is the proper term, since there are no women on the council.

        If this is an isolated incident, it would not bother me at all. However, I am curious. Of all the professional and academic lay advisors to the myriad of committees at the Vatican, how many of them are women? After all, these are lay positions, so they cannot say that they are all men because they need to be priests. They cannot argue for divine example, unless they can prove that Jesus’ economic council was all men.

        Actually, now that I think about it, Jesus did have an economic advisor, and he was a man. His name was Judas Iscariot.

  • http://digbydolben.wordpress.com dismasdolben

    The only reason that makes sense to me for restricting the sacerdotal role to men is that Christ became incarnate as a man; it’s simply a matter of love for Second Person of the Christian Trinity.

    What, however, strictly-speaking IS “the sacerdotal role”? Isn’t it just transubstantiating the Eucharis and forgiving sins in confession? If that’s all it is, and that’s all it need be for the simple parish priest, or the military chaplain, or the pastor in a school or an old folks’ home, what is the issue with giving more responsibilities to women in the Church’s various congregations and curial offices? Haven’t boy-princes and non-priests been made cardinals MANY times in the past? Is there really ANY canonical impediment to making a woman a cardinal, so long as she is willing to refuse the office of pope or bishop or patriarch, as in the Eastern Churches? Couldn’t Pope Francis actually make a woman a cardinal tomorrow, if he wanted to?

    Shouldn’t we be remembering that Christ was the first and greatest “feminist” in the history of Christendom?–and that he surrounded himself with as many female disciples as male?–and that the Early Church would never have flourished and grown without Roman matrons and female martyrs?

    • http://emmasrandomthoughts.wordpress.com emmasrandomthoughts

      I think that’s a very important question. Does the government of the Church really need to be performed by priests? As you said, why NOT give women responsibilities in curial positions and in congregations in Church governance? If there is no sacramental or sacredotal power needed for a curial position, and there is no symbolism of Christ in that position, then there is no reason whatsoever to restrict these positions to men.

      • Amy

        I think maybe there is a corollary that can go with the whole complex of symbolism. Assuming that something called ‘masculinity’ actually symbolizes Christ and ‘femininity’ symbolizes the Church, and that ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ also correspond to male or female bodies, doesn’t that have universal implications for every body? Depending on how exactly symbolism relates to actual male or female bodies, you can get some pretty universal gender roles where women are always coded as immanent and men are always coded as transcendent, with political implications. It seems that the Church accepting any kind of role for women other than as wives and mothers–including in Church governance– is theological, since it takes a stance on what kind of situations this symbolism is applicable in. Then again these days since JPII disingenuously proclaimed that the Church has always taught that men and women are equal and complementary, the Church isn’t really making a big deal out of the whole active-passive transcendent-immanent symbolism. They just make really unconvincing arguments about how maleness was a specific object of Christ’s intentionality in who he ordained. But honestly I think the transcendent-immanent argument is way more convincing, even if it is kind of unacceptable today. At least it goes back to Aristotle, and at least it’s honest.

        • http://emmasrandomthoughts.wordpress.com emmasrandomthoughts

          The question I would ask then, is, does the political represent the imminent or the transcendent? It seems to me that the day to day government of the Church represents this temporal, created realm, and therefore the imminent. If the day to day government is imminent, then it is more symbolically appropriate to have women perform the day to day governmental functions.

    • hydrochloriawk

      There is no coherent theological reason for this. And because there is no coherent theological reason for it (and yet it is very clear in canon law that cardinals must be priests and must be ordained bishops after being made cardinals, if not before), I can’t in good conscience believe that there isn’t the slightest bit of misogyny at the root of the teaching on ordination. If the issue were actually about ordination, and not about authority, the section on cardinals in the code of canon law would not recently have been edited to specify that priests comprise the pool (especially since the earliest cardinals were lay people). If the issue were actually about ordination, and not about authority, we would have women prefects advising congregations in Rome. The issue is not about ordination, but it certainly is easy to throw one’s hands up and say, ‘we wish we could help, but Jesus left no wiggle room here’ (because that’s so well documented).

      • http://emmasrandomthoughts.wordpress.com emmasrandomthoughts

        Your post reminds me of a recent post on Daily Theology. It talked about how the pope recently put together a new Council for the Economy with eight cardinals and seven laymen. Laymen is the proper term, since there are no women on the council.

        If this is an isolated incident, it would not bother me at all. However, I am curious. Of all the professional and academic lay advisors to the myriad of committees at the Vatican, how many of them are women? After all, these are lay positions, so they cannot say that they are all men because they need to be priests. They cannot argue for divine example, unless they can prove that Jesus’ economic council was all men.

        Actually, now that I think about it, Jesus did have an economic advisor, and he was a man. His name was Judas Iscariot.

  • Chris Sullivan

    I think that your speculation seems to boil down to a claim that men are supposedly more transcendent and hence more God-like than women. This not only contradicts scripture’s many female images of God but is very dangerous theology enabling male dominance over women.

    The highly speculative nature of such arguments underscores the reality that the ban on ordaining women has no clear rational basis but is instead grounded in irrational and myscogynist claims which have littered its history.

    IMHO, it would be better, as Pope Francis has often pointed to, to examine the role of the BVM who transubstantiated bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ in her womb and performed a sacerdotal role in offering her son at Calvary and continues as mediatrix of all graces, including those sacramental graces minister by male priest.

    God bless

    • http://emmasrandomthoughts.wordpress.com emmasrandomthoughts

      “IMHO, it would be better, as Pope Francis has often pointed to, to examine the role of the BVM who transubstantiated bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ in her womb and performed a sacerdotal role in offering her son at Calvary and continues as mediatrix of all graces, including those sacramental graces minister by male priest.”

      For me, the question then becomes, what, if anything, does that mean for Catholic women today? Do women, by virtue of being women, share in Mary’s mediation of graces to the Church and to the world?

    • http://digbydolben.wordpress.com dismasdolben

      Beautifully put!

  • Chris Sullivan

    I think that your speculation seems to boil down to a claim that men are supposedly more transcendent and hence more God-like than women. This not only contradicts scripture’s many female images of God but is very dangerous theology enabling male dominance over women.

    The highly speculative nature of such arguments underscores the reality that the ban on ordaining women has no clear rational basis but is instead grounded in irrational and myscogynist claims which have littered its history.

    IMHO, it would be better, as Pope Francis has often pointed to, to examine the role of the BVM who transubstantiated bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ in her womb and performed a sacerdotal role in offering her son at Calvary and continues as mediatrix of all graces, including those sacramental graces minister by male priest.

    God bless

    • http://emmasrandomthoughts.wordpress.com emmasrandomthoughts

      “IMHO, it would be better, as Pope Francis has often pointed to, to examine the role of the BVM who transubstantiated bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ in her womb and performed a sacerdotal role in offering her son at Calvary and continues as mediatrix of all graces, including those sacramental graces minister by male priest.”

      For me, the question then becomes, what, if anything, does that mean for Catholic women today? Do women, by virtue of being women, share in Mary’s mediation of graces to the Church and to the world?

    • http://digbydolben.wordpress.com dismasdolben

      Beautifully put!

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/voxnova/category/brett-salkeld/ brettsalkeld

    Thanks all for your thoughtful comments and critiques. Please bear with me as I try to respond. I have very little time these days.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/voxnova/category/brett-salkeld/ brettsalkeld

    Thanks all for your thoughtful comments and critiques. Please bear with me as I try to respond. I have very little time these days.

  • http://middlevoices.com Jack Hartjes

    I agree that “Holy Father Church” just doesn’t work as an image. But when Holy Mother Church is thought of as a bride, that bride is Christ. The Church is also a body, Christ being the head. When I ask myself which of those two images applies to the relationship of a priest to the People of God, clearly it’s the latter, not the former. I simply can’t imagine the priest at the liturgy as groom, but he very obviously is the head, or leader, of the celebration. I don’t think either “Holy Mother Church” or “Bride of Christ” tells us anything about the priesthood.

  • http://middlevoices.com Jack Hartjes

    I agree that “Holy Father Church” just doesn’t work as an image. But when Holy Mother Church is thought of as a bride, that bride is Christ. The Church is also a body, Christ being the head. When I ask myself which of those two images applies to the relationship of a priest to the People of God, clearly it’s the latter, not the former. I simply can’t imagine the priest at the liturgy as groom, but he very obviously is the head, or leader, of the celebration. I don’t think either “Holy Mother Church” or “Bride of Christ” tells us anything about the priesthood.

  • http://middlevoices.com Jack Hartjes

    Correct me if I have my history wrong but it seems to me the idea that the priest represents Christ the Bridegroom is rather recent, appearing on the scene of the debate over women priests after all the other arguments failed to convince. Anyway, my counter-argument runs as follows: We all, including women, represent Christ to the world and to each other in many ways, especially at liturgy, as acolytes, lectors, choir members, etc. Clearly we’re not representing Christ the Bridegroom in these roles, or women would not be allowed to perform them–representation requiring physical resemblance. So is there something especially bridegroom-y about the priesthood? That’s what I just don’t see.

    • http://emmasrandomthoughts.wordpress.com emmasrandomthoughts

      I have a feeling it is rather recent. As Kyle Cupp writes in his new post, St. Thomas Aquinas argues that women cannot be ordained because a woman cannot signify eminence. “Since it is not possible in the female sex to signify eminence of degree, for a woman is in the state of subjection, it follows that she cannot receive the sacrament of Order.”

      I just read through the portion of the Summa where St. Thomas Aquinas addresses the question of women receiving Holy Orders. There is no mention of marriage imagery anywhere in this portion. Of course, this does not mean that no one in the Middle Ages ever used this argument.

      I have a hunch that the Bridegroom analogy has become much more popular in recent years with the propagation of Theology of the Body. It has lead to some strange statements, not just about the priesthood, but about the Mass as well. I read one article that called for all male altar servers. In the article, he almost seems to argue that the altar rail signifies the hymen. I hope I misread him I really do.

  • http://middlevoices.com Jack Hartjes

    Correct me if I have my history wrong but it seems to me the idea that the priest represents Christ the Bridegroom is rather recent, appearing on the scene of the debate over women priests after all the other arguments failed to convince. Anyway, my counter-argument runs as follows: We all, including women, represent Christ to the world and to each other in many ways, especially at liturgy, as acolytes, lectors, choir members, etc. Clearly we’re not representing Christ the Bridegroom in these roles, or women would not be allowed to perform them–representation requiring physical resemblance. So is there something especially bridegroom-y about the priesthood? That’s what I just don’t see.

    • http://emmasrandomthoughts.wordpress.com emmasrandomthoughts

      I have a feeling it is rather recent. As Kyle Cupp writes in his new post, St. Thomas Aquinas argues that women cannot be ordained because a woman cannot signify eminence. “Since it is not possible in the female sex to signify eminence of degree, for a woman is in the state of subjection, it follows that she cannot receive the sacrament of Order.”

      I just read through the portion of the Summa where St. Thomas Aquinas addresses the question of women receiving Holy Orders. There is no mention of marriage imagery anywhere in this portion. Of course, this does not mean that no one in the Middle Ages ever used this argument.

      I have a hunch that the Bridegroom analogy has become much more popular in recent years with the propagation of Theology of the Body. It has lead to some strange statements, not just about the priesthood, but about the Mass as well. I read one article that called for all male altar servers. In the article, he almost seems to argue that the altar rail signifies the hymen. I hope I misread him I really do.