When Dr. George Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury, visited Pope John Paul II in May 1992, the two church leaders discussed the probable future ordination of women priests in the Anglican Church. That, the Pope said, “touched on the very nature of the sacrament of holy orders.” A Vatican spokesman said later that “the Catholic Church, for fundamental theological reasons, does not believe it has the right to authorize such ordination.”
For fundamental theological reasons . One wonders what these reasons are. Apart from a splendid essay (“Priestesses in the Church?”) by C. S. Lewis, one scarcely ever encounters a theological argument against the proposition that women should be ordained priests. One hears about “tradition,” and about the “example” of Jesus Christ—these are solid reasons, but not wholly persuasive. The inquiring mind is restless until it comes to understand the theological reasons why Jesus did as He did, and why the tradition is as it is.
In advanced Western societies, the Catholic tradition of excluding women from the priesthood has come (quite suddenly) to seem prima facie unjust. This is doubtless because of the intellectual shift in our thinking from “natural law” to “natural rights.” In natural law thinking, natural differences between males and females (“natural” both in the biological-neurological and in the cultural-symbolic dimension) offered sufficient reason for accepting a differentiation of functions and roles. For centuries, the prevalence of organic, role-differentiated thinking allowed the traditional practice of excluding women from the priesthood to seem fitting and right. In the light of doctrines of “natural rights,” by contrast, according to which equal rights inhere in all persons qua persons, this exclusion has come to seem arbitrary, and in the end unjust.
There is, then, much more involved in the question of whether women can be priests than ecclesiastical practice. At stake is a profound transformation in the Catholic intellectual tradition, nothing less than a “transvaluation of values,” a fundamentally new and different arrangement of the intellectual field in which the concept of justice is located. In the tradition, justice is to be found in the field specified by, among other things, love, the sacramental order, the common good, communion, and justification by faith. In the projected new order, it is located in the field of affirmative action.
Obviously, profound implications for religion in society follow. If the Catholic tradition of selecting only males should be continued, the Catholic Church will seem to be at fundamental odds with the culture in which it is now implanted, and conversely, if women are admitted to the priesthood, the Catholic Church will have adapted itself to the practices of contemporary Western culture.
At certain times in history, fidelity to the true faith has required of the Church that it become a counterculture, a scandalum , to contemporary culture. At other times, adaptation to the existing culture has been both a sign and an instrument of a deeper penetration into the truth of the Gospels. Naturally such choices of direction have always carried weighty consequences.
At present, the arguments for and against ordaining women are formally unequal. The argument for women priests is clear, logical, well-stated, and in accord with at least certain contemporary Western sensibilities, whereas the argument for reserving the priesthood to males is still shrouded in tradition, accepted habits of thought, and instinct. For centuries—indeed until the last two decades—practically everyone, females and males alike, took the traditional position for granted, understood it preconsciously, accepted its plausibility, felt its legitimacy in their bones. The issue did not even arise, for example, at the Second Vatican Council (1961–65) or, barely so, in the century of theological research and ressourcement that preceded it.
We have nevertheless to consider that this long tradition might have been insufficiently developed and that, in the fullness of time, a true and wholly acceptable “development of doctrine” is now rising to the surface, revealing a dimension of Gospel truth to which our ancestors were blind. In many other matters there can be no doubt that the fullness of Catholic truth as it is understood and theologically articulated today goes far beyond the propositional clarity and articulation of Christians in earlier centuries. God does continue to lead and to guide His Church by the path of theological debate, reflection, and intellectual inquiry. He did so regarding various doctrines bearing on the role of one woman, the Mother of God, to name but one example, as in the doctrines of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption.
And because the theological reasons for the reservation of the Catholic priesthood to males have lain dormant and unarticulated over many centuries, and those who disagree with the Church’s tradition have been tempted to mock, simple filial piety would require them precisely to marshal the best possible argument on behalf of that tradition. They should do so in order to save the honor and authority of the Church by showing why what they no longer accept was for so long almost universally taken to be sensible. On the other hand, those who accept the present tradition of the Church as normative are required by a similar piety to give an account of their reasons for holding to so broadly unpopular a position.
Moreover, both those who accept and those who are led to reject the traditional teaching would surely benefit from weighing a fully articulated theological argument that puts into words what our predecessors in the faith found true in that teaching. It is after all essential for one who rejects to understand clearly what he is rejecting, with its whole range of intellectual consequences. For the Catholic faith is (even if its moral teaching is not) a “seamless garment.” To grasp clearly the consequences of tearing a piece out of it is crucial for any who cherish its integrity. “Tradition is the democracy of the dead,” Chesterton once wrote. We owe it to the faith of those who have handed it on to us to treat it justly, even though today we grope for contemporary words to express what our ancestors felt in their bones.
To begin with, one thing needs to be stipulated as certain: women have been great preachers of the Word; doctors of the Church; ministers to the poor, the sick, and the needy; high ecclesial authorities such as abbesses, foundresses, and leaders of worldwide institutions; and exemplars of a Christlike way of life. In them, Christ has lived and moved and had his being. If the question is, “Can women be exemplary and saintly ministers of the Gospel?” the answer is unambiguously yes. We each know many women who can perform all the purely ministerial functions of the Gospel and the church community as well as, in many cases better than, males. Within the Catholic tradition itself, one thinks of St. Catherine of Siena, St. Teresa of Avila, and many others, preeminently the Mother of God herself, “Mediatrix of all Graces” as Catholics have long called her.
Outside the Catholic tradition, among those Christian communities that reject “priestcraft” and the liturgical, representative, mediating role of the Catholic priesthood, the question of women ministers has been, on the whole, easy to answer. No theological reason impeded them (or at least many of them) from including women as full-fledged ministers, although longstanding custom, habit, and tradition (in that sense) may have for a time led to hesitation. If such reasons of custom, habit, and “tradition” were for Catholics the only considerations, the question would be ultimately reducible to one of “the courage to change.”
Again, since many contemporary peoples outside the advanced Western societies have in fact expressed serious cultural reasons for resisting such change, Catholic authority might for reasons of universal good order accede to their sensibilities rather than to those of the advanced Western cultures. But these also would ultimately be reasons of prudence, rather than of fundamental theology.
With C. S. Lewis, we must freely concede that God could have done things quite differently. We modern Westerners might surely have done things differently, and in a more “just” fashion than the tradition we are privileged to inherit. Certain reasons might even be adduced as to why we should from now on. The most extreme feminists have argued, for example, that the entire tradition of Christianity is patriarchal, and needs to be reformulated. The less extreme have merely argued that the Catholic tradition, like all things human, is flawed, and needs to be reformed so as to bring it closer to being the Kingdom of God on earth.
But this is precisely what is at issue: would the selection of women priests be a true—or false—development of doctrine? Moreover, the feminist argument here can be turned back on its makers, as Fr. Walter Ong, S.J., makes clear in his study of the masculine and feminine connotations of language, Fighting for Life: Contest, Sexuality, and Consciousness . There are profound “feminizing” tendencies in Christianity, he reminds us, so efficacious that in some cultures males are driven away from participation. The counterbalance to these feminizing tendencies is, Ong argues, a robust masculine symbolism at certain crucial points. This counterbalance is essential both to Christian truth and to psychic equilibrium.
Some feminists further claim that they are made to “feel left out” by what they claim is the tradition’s “noninclusive language.” But as Paul Mankowski, S.J., has pointed out in the December 1992 issue of Crisis , that claim is based on an elemental linguistic error. That certain words have more than one sense, covering varying ranges of cases, is true of all languages and of the nature of language itself, if not, indeed, of the workings of the human mind. The Latin word homo may be used of a male alone (as in “Ecce homo”) or by contrast in a way that includes vir (male), mulier (woman), infans (infant), puer (boy), and puella (girl). Intelligent people ought to be able to follow basic laws of language without artificial crutches, and to judge from context how broad a range of applications is intended, without turning linguistic somersaults.
Again, some who favor women’s ordination do so on grounds of merit. Women, they rightly say, are at least as capable as, and many women are superior to, males in the qualities required of good priests. But it is simply bad theology to hold that the priesthood, a gift of God, is to be won by merit. In a similar vein, others hold that it is unjust to bar women from ordination. Usually, those who offer this objection lay the blame for the injustice at the feet of “the male hierarchy” of the Church, particularly in “the all-male Vatican,” rather than at the feet of God. But this is something of a screen. The question is whether the Church has the authority, the right, to break the pattern established by Christ, who called as His apostles neither the greatest and most capable of all Christians in the qualities necessary for the work of the priesthood, nor His Mother, nor any other of the wholly admirable saints and models among the women who accepted Him as their Lord and Savior.
One might, to be sure, initially sympathize with a woman for whom the constant reiteration of language about God only in masculine forms comes to seem a bit annoying, even distancing—especially in view of the way that everyday language, even in secular contexts, tends to lean on masculine forms when feminine forms would be at least as legitimate. This point gains further force from the observation that, after all, being Spirit, God has no gender and is properly spoken of neither as male nor as female. So why, it might be argued, when we have begun to be far more careful in secular language, should religious language about God be persistently masculine?
Two observations tell against this line of reasoning. First, the language of Scripture and Tradition (in the full, authoritative sense, as expressed for example in the canonical creeds) is quite pronounced in its selection of masculine forms for God. This suggests that God’s self- revelation in history has been deliberate and remains significant. Second, there is an anomaly here. On the one hand, feminists wish to assert that whether a priest is male or female makes no difference; gender is simply irrelevant. But if this is so, then no one should be bothered by the fact that priests are male; what matters is the priesthood, not the gender. Yet what is really determinative in the complaint about the tradition of male priests is that gender does make a difference, and that respect for the principle of equality demands both female and male priests. In logic, the principle of equality is inherently expansive: the demand for it cannot be met until the number of female priests is proportionate to the number of females in the believing community.
Yet these two principles—the interchangeability of gender in the priestly role and equal representation of the sexes—have no standing either in Scripture or in the Catholic tradition. There is no evidence that in His dealings with humans God acts by an egalitarian principle. Among all humans, He singled out the people of Israel. In every generation, He “elects” His own. God’s choice has never been transparently based upon equal merit (or any merit at all). On the contrary, it induces to wonder and even fear; its workings are mysterious. If this is true of our salvation, why should it be surprising regarding the priesthood?
Again, one hears that Jesus chose only men as His Apostles in order not to shock the people of his time. Since He did not hesitate to shock them in many other matters—calling the bread of the last supper His body, for example—this explanation sounds more bourgeois than biblical. Jesus never shrank from shocking the conventional wisdom, priestly classes, customs, traditions, or even common sense of His time. If today it shocks our own generation of “enlightened” Westerners that Jesus did not choose women to become priests, why would He have been afraid to shock His generation by choosing women priests?
Nonetheless, a former U.S. Congressman, a wise leader and devout Catholic, said to me as he listened to my views, “Even if you are correct, what you say will not be credible. In a day when women fill every position held formerly by men, no one will accept the claim that women can’t be priests. It’s just not credible.” The heart of the matter, then, is that the “advanced” culture of our age thinks of itself as normative.
The pressure of today’s culture is immense, since many persons do not wish to sit still for theological argument. Nonetheless, the only serious question concerns fundamental theology, not the pressures of contemporary culture. Those who really believe that the Catholic tradition is not credible will find many available alternatives close at hand. If the Catholic Church abandons its tradition because of social pressure, and without sound theological reasons, why should it be credible at all? Would it not then simply show itself to be yet another human institution subject to human power and passively conforming to the spirit of the age?
Thus there is no escaping the need for solid theological reasons; and so the first question that must be faced is the theology of the Catholic priesthood. To what extent is the Catholic priest more than a minister of the Gospel, a preacher of the Word, a minister to the poor and the weak and the vulnerable, and a leader of the local community at prayer?
The answer to this question has three parts. First, the Catholic priest has, in addition to these ministerial duties, a representative, liturgical role. In Catholic worship, the priest stands as a representative of Jesus Christ, head of the community and bridegroom of His bride, the Church. He stands as a representative figure in the ancient order of priests descending from Melchizedek. His being is ontologically marked with the priesthood forever. To be a priest is to be marked—chosen, gifted, indelibly altered—by God. This is the way in which the Catholic priesthood has been understood from the beginning.
By contrast, most of the other world religions, in Christ’s time as in ours, have orders of the priesthood that include priestesses. Until now the Catholic Church, like Orthodox Judaism, has not. Why not? The fact is clear: the selected representative of the community for the worship-prayer of the people has been unmistakeably and deliberately differentiated by gender. And the ground of this selection has been canonically and with all due solemnity codified as a gift given solely to (relatively few) males.
Second, the maleness of the priesthood is consistent with the metaphors of gender through which, predominantly, God has chosen to reveal Himself both in the Scriptures and in the long tradition of theological reflection. With respect to the doctrine of the Trinity, Jesus Christ spoke of Himself as the Son of God and taught us to pray “Our Father.” He said that He was “sent by the Father,” Who would afterwards send also “the Holy Spirit.” Gender differentiation seems essential to the metaphor of the “generation” of the Persons of the Trinity. Poor as human metaphors must be when used of God, gender differentiation is clearly signaled in such frequently employed terms as “Father” and “Son.” Are we to hold that such symbols have no significance in revealing the nature of God? That they are required merely for transient reasons?
Similarly, gender differentiation seems crucial to the Christmas story that reveals the mystery of God’s becoming flesh, the Incarnation. One cannot easily imagine in the Christmas narrative the First Person of the Trinity being represented as “God the Mother,” inseminated by a human male. It is mystery enough that a human female, Mary, “conceived of the Holy Spirit,” one with the Father, should bear a human-divine Son. But in this case the humanness of the Son is given concrete meaning. The Son of God is born from the womb of a human mother, nursed by her, brought up by her as other sons are brought up by their mothers. In this respect, the Catholic priest, male as he has always been, is an effortlessly symbolic representative of “the Son of God,” bringing before His Father His bride, the Catholic people. Gender differentiation is essential to such a role, and the gender of the priest is symbolically consistent with that differentiation.
This is no conclusive argument, only an argument from what is “fitting.” It does bring to light, though, why previous ages found the selection of the male so effortlessly plausible.
Finally, one can easily imagine that God in becoming “man” (in the gender-neutral term represented in the Nicene Creed’s “ et homo factus est “) could have been sent as “the Only-begotten Daughter.” But there seem also to have been weighty reasons why the Incarnation was not realized through a female Messiah but through a male. In becoming flesh, God could not simply appear as “a person.” He had to accept the limits imposed by gender differentiation. He could have come in female flesh, as Daughter, but He did not; He chose to come in male flesh, as Son. To be sure, mystery surrounds this choice, as it does all human conceptions of and language about God’s actions in history. This mystery offers fertile, and no doubt fruitful, grounds for wonder, awe, and meditation. But there can be no doubt about the fact . Christian faith was by God’s deliberate will expressed in the language of gender differentiation and, specifically, in the self-revelation of God as Father and God as Son. Together with the Holy Spirit, these two are three-in-one, a communion of three distinct Persons.
The underlying point is that the selection of males for the priesthood underlines the importance God assigned in His self-revelation to gender differentiation, the rules of concrete flesh, and the conditions of human history. God, we are told, “humbled Himself, becoming man.” He accepted the conditions of this, His concrete and much-loved creation. He could have come as Spirit, as an Angel summoning legions of angels to His side. He could have overawed humanity by coming in irresistible power, splendor, and majesty. Instead, He “became one of us.” This entailed assuming human flesh, with all its differentiation and limits”in short, it entailed a choice between becoming male or female. There was no halfway position.
In sum, the Catholic priest is a representative figure selected according to the conditions of embodied, enfleshed persons in concrete human history. The choice was made from all eternity. The selection of males alone as Catholic priests is a sign (a sacrament, bearing grace) of several important revelations about God: about the Trinity, about the Incarnation, about the relation of Christ and His people, and about the importance of gender differentiation.
“If men were angels,” James Madison once wrote, “no government would be necessary.” If men were angels, priests would not need to be (even could not be) males. But under the conditions of human flesh and actual history, it is a more accurate sign of the interior life of the Trinity, of the Incarnation, and of the relation of Christ to His people if the priest is clearly differentiated and selected as a male rather than as a female. Matter is the principle of individuation, and an emphasis on flesh safeguards respect for human individuality, even as it differentiates humans from angels. The priest is male because gender differentiation is significant to the self-revelation of God in history.
In order for us to come to know God, we must go by the path of our own being and knowing. We do not see God. Our knowledge of Him is dark and indirect, even when we accept His Word in Christ. It is knowledge by faith, not by direct vision. Thus, we have to grope our way toward things we cannot see, aware that we see “as in a glass darkly.”
Let us, then, by a leap of imagination, put ourselves in the place of God before He had created humans. He did not have to make us sexed. God has no sex. Neither, as we said, do angels. Us He made into two distinct sexes. In this sense, God knew “in advance” that He would send His Son to redeem us, as one of us, embodied in male flesh. God had sexual differentiation in His mind at the very foundation of the history of salvation. “Male and female He made them,” it says right at the head of the Book. To redeem us, He would send His only-begotten Son, born of a woman, Mary, and this Son would teach humans to pray “Our Father.” Thus sex differentiation is not simply a trivial detail, to be discarded or altered without concern for consequences; it is essential to the story of human salvation. Fundamental. Foundational.
Moreover, the two sexes cannot be reversed without entirely altering the story of salvation. The conception of the Savior could not have happened by the instrumentality of a divine mother. To grasp that much requires no special gift for narrative. One cannot picture a human father (Joseph) conceiving the Man-God by a divine mother. Does the infant just suddenly appear in the straw? In what way is it human? In the story of Bethlehem, the humanity of Jesus is vitiated if Joseph is imagined to be the generator and God the mother. (Besides, Christianity without Mary would have had an impoverished history, so much so that apart from her its narrative is virtually inconceivable.)
Hypothetically, of course, one can easily imagine that in sending us a Savior, God could have had Mary bear a daughter. The Messiah could have been a woman. Why not? Joan of Arc captured the imagination not only of France but of the world. But then, sed contra , a woman Messiah preaching meekness and peaceableness would have sounded no new note. The long vulnerability of woman in pregnancy and childbearing, as well as a neurological difference in hormonal aggression, would have made such a claim seem but ordinary, self-serving, and typical of women. Thus, such a Messiah would not have launched any “transvaluation of values.” Such a Messiah would have demanded, in effect, that in order to become Christians, males had to become like females.
By contrast, it was, and is, far more startling for a male Messiah to challenge the warrior-male and to insinuate such ideas as gentleness, compassion, and peace into the cultural patrimony of males. Males today would behave quite differently had they not been tutored for nineteen centuries by the image of the gentle, suffering Man-God. A religion whose Messiah was female would have nourished a culture far different from that of the Christian cultures we have known. That it would have been a better culture, with a more powerful impact on males, is, to say the least, not obvious.
Some might object that a culture whose God taught humans to pray the “Our Mother,” and whose Messiah appeared as a daughter rather than as a son, would be a kinder, gentler religion than Christianity has been. Maybe. But it is at least odd that some of the feminists who make that case at the same time have recourse to the imaginary history of a matriarchal era during which women were warriors, fiercer than males. Others wish to hold the contradictory proposition that to ascribe characteristics such as “warlike” or “gentle” to either sex is without foundation. However one wishes to describe the demeanor of women in the realm of history and culture, it is futile to deny that since time immemorial males prided themselves on being warriors and conquerors. Among almost all the peoples that Christianity first reached, women were treated as handmaidens, servants, and even, in some cases, slaves.
The impact of Christian belief and sacramental practice on such peoples, working slowly like yeast in dough, was both to ennoble the female to equal status before God and to gentle the male. For just such reasons, some anti-Christians slandered Christianity as “a religion for slaves,” “effeminate,” and “emasculating.” Later writers as diverse as “the genealogist” Friedrich Nietzsche and the devout Catholic Alessandro Manzoni wrote that the effect of Christianity on the Roman legionaries was to “feminize” them. Benito Mussolini proscribed the second-person feminine usage lei , which he interpreted as an anti-fascist sign of effeminacy, and insisted on voi as the fascist, manly usage. (Thus the simple locution lei became an act of political protest.) Moreover, the culture of fascism explicitly mocked the “effeminacy” of the West, which it attributed to Christian influence. It aimed to restore the hard, pitiless, and willful “masculine” spirit of the pre-Christian warrior peoples of Europe. In fascism, the world saw a return to the ideal of the male without the gentleness taught by Jesus Christ.
Such reflections give one pause before the story of sex differentiation in the unfolding of modernity. The role of the God-Man, the male Messiah, is pivotal in that transvaluation. Henry Adams in The Virgin and the Dynamo explores this process by means of sustained reflection on the impact of Mary, the Mother of God, on the Western imagination—Catholic as distinct from Protestant. Denis de Rougement in Love in the Western World and C. S. Lewis in The Allegory of Love have described the cultural transformation evoked in the West by the myth of romantic love and the change in male-female relations that it wrought—compared to which, Lewis writes, the Protestant Reformation was as a ripple in the ocean.
The cultural significance of sexual differentiation is vastly deeper than our present generation of feminists has yet to imagine. One tampers with matters of such profundity at civilization’s peril. If someone had predicted, for example, that following the advent of feminist practices and standards in American society, violence, especially among males, would by no means decrease, that person would have been correct.
Indeed, to bring theological reflection to bear on the role of sex differentiation in transforming pagan into Christian cultures (and back again) would require an immense work now barely begun. One would have to examine rigorously and in detail the mythology of male and female implicit in radical feminist writers. The widely accepted notion today that any position of responsibility or field of action open to males is also by right and justice to be open to females might at first seem highly plausible. And yet such a notion ultimately rests on rejecting the transvaluation effected by the Christian faith.
For it was Christian faith that first taught the male warrior a code of courtesy, compassion, and charity, whose first expression was Christian chivalry, whose later expression was the ideal of the Christian gentleman, and whose underlying ideal has been the equality of women and men in baptism, in faith, and in the promises of God. The Christian ideal of equality before God not only did not erase sexual differentiation, but, on the contrary, rested upon that reality as its foundation.
Before God, there is neither male nor female, yet male and female for His inscrutable and unchangeable purposes He made them. And through this separation of the sexes He parted the veils of mystery that necessarily mask His essence, in order to offer us such insight into His inner life as He thought would best serve us: that we should pray to Him as “Our Father,” and receive His Son into our mouths and hearts and minds, and worship Him as “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” three-in-one.
Made in His image as we are, it is through our complementarity as male and female that we piece together such fragments of His reality as we are vouchsafed to come to know. Christian marriage itself, mirrored in the liturgical worship of His people, gives witness to the intimate and profound role of sexual differentiation in our knowledge of, and union with, God. A male and a female, united through the sacrament of marriage with the Triune God, embody a human communion of persons mirroring the divine.
One cannot, in short, yank the thread of sexual differentiation from the Christian faith without unraveling the whole. A weakening of the integrity of the mysteries of the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Church, Christian marriage and family life, and much else besides, must inevitably follow.
Theologically, one of the most difficult of insights necessary for those aspiring to be Christians concerns the difference between Christianity and spiritual religion. Converted at first from the worldly experience of carnal pleasures and material interests, the newly aspiring Christian faces an almost insuperable temptation to imagine that to be a Christian is to reject both the things of this world and the temptations of the flesh in order to flee to the things of the spirit. Here the aspiring Christian is on treacherous ground.
For to be converted from this world and the flesh is not yet to find God; there remains a third temptation, that of the “pride of spirit.” Indeed, the angels themselves, being neither of this world nor of the flesh, are according to the Scriptures submitted to this formidable third test”as are all the saints. Being “beyond” the flesh and the attractions of this world, the person to be tried in this way imagines himself, or herself, to be standing in a purer realm. Being neither male nor female, he or she rejoices in the potency of unencumbered intellect and will, the power of being pure spirit. Here there are no embodied, sexually differentiated persons, only agents of pure understanding and pure willing. All is calm. All is serene. One has only to will and it is done. Here there is no recalcitrance of history, no hazard of contingency or accident, no weakness of the flesh nor torpor of the body. She (or he) gains self-esteem by defining her being by her willing. “I will, therefore I am.” Here many of the mighty fall.
Humans too are susceptible to this temptation of the spirit. A common name for it, noted above, is “pride of spirit,” but the underlying form of the disease, among humans, has sometimes been called “angelism” by theologians, and “gnosticism” by historians. The essence of angelism is to shuck off from one’s self-understanding the reality of embodiment in the flesh, so as to imagine oneself a pure spirit, neither male nor female, without carnal appendages, desires, or limitations. “What the will desires, the will desires,” Woody Allen would have said, had Woody Allen been an angel without a carnal heart. Unmoved by temptations of the flesh, such a strong spirit would rejoice in the power of the pure will. In addition, angelism entails pride in a raised consciousness, beyond the mere habits, customs, and common sense of the less sophisticated. Angelism, or gnosticism, is the realm of the disembodied person of raised consciousness and unresisted will.
For human beings, of course, angelism is a realm only of pretense and self-delusion. Moreover, those “angelists” (or “personists”) who imagine that the stage of consciousness in which they dwell is higher, more enlightened, more just and more spiritual than that of historical Christianity, which in their view has some catching up to do, have not yet grasped one fundamental premise of Christianity. To put the point another way: they have not yet overcome one stumbling block, one scandalum . They do not see that Christianity is a sacramental religion, that is, a religion of the flesh.
Immemorially, it is true, Christian pastors have spoken of “the salvation of souls,” but that was only shorthand for saying that they are working sub specie aeternitatis , in the light of eternity, and not by the standards of this world. And in the light of eternity, Christianity promises the resurrection of the body. (In this sense, there will be, in the Kingdom of Heaven, male and female, fired alike by the love and light of God.) Each of the Christian sacraments addresses the body as much as the soul: cool water on the head of the baptized; oils for the ill; the appearances of bread and wine in the eating and drinking of the Eucharist; human words and signs of absolution in penance; chrism and (once upon a time) a slap on the cheek at confirmation; the laying on of hands at ordination; and both stated vows and the consummated union of lovemaking in holy matrimony. Christianity is a religion neither for angels nor for disembodied persons. It is a religion for males and for females, for embodied persons, for creatures of body and spirit, for waist-expanding and graying (or balding) seekers after truth and love and God, such as we.
The Christian sacraments, for example, are not valid unless both form and matter are present as prescribed. The tendency to spiritualize Christianity is nonetheless pervasive-to make it like so many other religions, to attune it to the angelism that in every generation attracts so many of the most intelligent and sensitive souls. In opposition to those who would wish a purely spiritual religion, G. K. Chesterton once defined Catholicism in shocking terms resonant with the sacramental sense of God’s presence in His creation: Catholicism, the very fleshly G. K. said, is a thick steak, a glass of stout, and a good cigar.
A religion committed to the flesh is at least as lowly as a smoked cigar. It is for commoners as much as (even more than) aristocrats and is also, alas, irremediably vulgar. Catholicism sometimes seems positively weighted down by the flesh, as on a too-hot day, beneath the droning of a too-poor sermon, in a too-crowded church filled with listless, distracted, bored fellow participants. Weary with having tried to make things constantly better, experienced Catholics have learned to employ such experiences as epiphanies of grace, like the sacraments themselves, reflecting that here too Christ is present, emptying himself, making himself disponible, redeeming our heavy humanity. At the heart of Christianity lie the sinner and the humdrum mediocrity of daily life. The neighbor we are called upon to love is not the rosy abstraction, humankind, but exactly those neighbors who get on our nerves—and indeed precisely when they do so. Christianity is not a religion of escape. It commands the acceptance of the banal, the boring, and the repetitive—on the grounds that these especially are vehicles of grace, even though often disdained and contemned as was the Messiah in Isaiah 53. These especially are as surely the bearers of the life of grace as are, for the human body, the repetitive beating of the human heart and the steady circulation of the blood. Such boring realities are always undervalued until their rhythms threaten to come to a halt—when suddenly we glimpse how precious they are, and how miraculous each strong, steady beat of the weakening heart actually is.
Because it is a religion of the flesh, Catholicism sees signs of the Creator in all the things He has created. Like a lover, one sees bursts of His glory in the morning sun and the crisp air, in the bellowing fury of a storm and in a caterpillar hunching himself on his slow course up the length of a bending leaf. Each angle and idiosyncrasy of concrete things is like a mystery to be read and wondered at. Why are there caterpillars? Why so many species of indescribably poignant roses? Why is there anything at all?
It is in this same sacramental vein that the experienced Catholic contemplates the mystery of the priesthood. If you do not see the priesthood as a mystery, you do not understand. The most wonderful miracle in the world occurs at the priest’s canonical bidding: The Son of Man, who already did a wondrous deed in assuming male flesh, now becomes again male flesh and blood under the appearances of bread and wine. The humility of God, and His love for our presence, surpasses understanding. That is the true mystery, of which the role of the priest is but an instrumental and sacramental part. To the extent that we hunger for the Eucharist, food for the soul as for body, we honor the priest as its bearer. Vessel of clay, yet vessel carrying God to us.
Why is the priest male? It figures. It fits. The priest’s maleness is a reminder of the central role played in our salvation by the sacramentality of human flesh—not flesh-in-general, but male flesh. “This is my body,” he says in the place of Christ, the male Christ. “This is my blood.” It is not an angel we eat and drink, not spirit, not a (disembodied) person: but the male Christ, body and soul, human and divine person.
The priest’s maleness reminds us with Nicea: “ Credo in unum Deum, PATREM omnipotentem . . . . ” We believe in the Father almighty, and in Jesus Christ His only Son, who was conceived of the Holy Spirit by the Virgin Mary, “ et homo factus est .” The Word was made flesh, caro (John 1:14)—not “person,” not hermaphrodite, and not female, but male. But, a feminist might object, “By the same logic, Jesus was a carpenter and a Jew, and that does not mean that all priests must be carpenters and Jews.” Except, of course, that it is not the same logic. For an embodied person, being either male or female is of the essence of being human; whereas to be Jewish or Irish, carpenter or professor of logic, is only an accident of culture and circumstance. That the priest be male is fitting to the essence of Jesus, a divine Person embodied as a male, a fully human male. One can “see Christ” in every human being, male or female, but a female cannot represent the male Christ before the community. Not, at least, without jangling symbols beyond their meaning, without communicating something essentially different.
In order to believe that Catholic priests may also be female, one has to believe that sexual differentiation does not illuminate the self- revelation of God in the doctrines of the Trinity; the Incarnation; the shocking transvaluation of sex roles in the moral teaching of Jesus; the spousal relation between Christ and his people; the precisely detailed emphasis of Christianity on the real flesh (including the resurrection of the flesh); its opposition to angelism under all its forms; and the exact complementarity (not interchangeability) of male and female in the mystery of God’s self-communion in matrimony.
The institution of female priestesses would reverberate off-key through most of the major symbols of God’s self-revelation. The beautifully wrought sexual differentiation of the narrative of Christian faith will have buckled. And its collapse will have cracked every arch in its theological architecture.
In order to believe that Catholic priests may also be female, one has to believe, further, that the traditional hierarchy of the Church is not now a sacramental sign of God’s commitment to this people until the last day but, rather, an unfaithful bearer of errant patriarchy, sexism, and injustice. One has to believe in some ideal Church of the future, separate from the “oppressive” Church against which feminists rage. One has to reject the real, concrete Church of today as sacrament, and to cast it aside as a source of injustice and alienation, an obstacle to God’s grace and an abomination. One has to see in the Vicar of Christ, stubbornly insisting on fidelity to God’s word, not the presence of Christ but the disfigurement of Christ. Indeed, one has to see in his claim that maleness is essential to the validity of orders an impediment to the true sacrament. One has to believe that in the matter of the sacrament of orders, maleness in the subject signifies nothing of essential importance, and femaleness in the subject alters no sign essential to the faith.
One also has to believe that in the authentic form of the sacrament the intention of Christ, of the orthodox tradition, and of the Church is now to select females as well as males, and that this selection will have no bearing on the cultural significance of any other Christian teaching.
It is entirely possible that there might somewhere be a lovely, haunting religion worshipping a Goddess, cherishing a female messiah, and liturgically represented by priestesses. But whatever such a religion might be, it will not be Christianity.
To be sure, Christianity is a many-splendored robe. As of November 1992, twelve of the twenty-eight churches in the Anglican communion have begun ordaining women priests and, in some cases, consecrating women bishops. The cultural logic of this choice has not yet been played out. Its full symbolic implications for key symbols of the faith might take four or five generations to reveal themselves completely. For a century or two, the church as a whole might wisely elect to watch and see, and to judge the new practice by its fruits.
Individuals, of course, have no such horizon. Since each life is short, we must each entrust our eternal salvation to one choice or the other, without being able to see the end of the tale. Down one path, orthodox teachings seem coherent, down the other, a great deal seems up for grabs. That things will go worse in the feminist churches is a wager, I think, with odds higher than Pascal’s.
Michael Novak, a member of the Editorial Board of First Things , is Editor-in-Chief of Crisis: A Journal of Lay Catholic Opinion.