Jennifer Ferrara's argument is presented first.
A decade ago, Michael Novak observed in the pages of this journal that “one scarcely ever encounters a theological argument against the proposition that women should be ordained priests” (“Women, Ordination, and Angels,” April 1993). Though some Catholics have begun to openly defend the Church’s position on women’s ordination, they frequently do so with less zeal than when discussing other topics of social and cultural import. I suspect this is because orthodox Christians of every stripe are often thrown together in an “ecumenism of the trenches” and from that vantage point do not wish to dwell on subjects that divide them. Conservative Catholics who agree with the tradition of restricting the priesthood to men do not wish to offend their Protestant friends who have grown accustomed to female pastors or who may even be female pastors. Nor do they wish to insult their fellow Catholics who may think women should be ordained. A friend who is a priest explained to me that he does not openly oppose women’s ordination because he knows several nuns who “suffer greatly” because they cannot be priests. It can, then, seem easiest and most charitable for those of us who oppose women’s ordination to keep our opinions to ourselves.
However, in doing so, we do not help the suffering nuns, and we concede the high ground to those who wish to interpret Church doctrine in light of feminist ideology rather than the other way around. This is not a small problem: the feminists and their allies have gained ascendancy in many seminaries and dioceses throughout the country. Moreover, by way of response to the current scandals within the Church, they have ratcheted up their calls for women’s ordination, despite the fact that lack of fidelity to the Church’s teachings helped create the problems in the first place.
As a former Lutheran pastor who is now Roman Catholic, I understand the confusion and tension surrounding the issue of women’s ordination. My own spiritual and intellectual journey has resulted in my holding every possible position, from being supportive of women’s ordination, to not knowing what I believed, to being opposed to it. In fact, when I first began to seriously consider becoming Roman Catholic, I disagreed with the Church’s practice of excluding women from the priesthood. I even set out to write an article outlining what I presumed to be the theological deficiencies with the Catholic Church’s position, which in retrospect seems like sheer arrogance. As I began to read in preparation for the article, I became increasingly convinced my presumptions were wrong.
As a Lutheran pastor, I supported women’s ordination as part of a more general argument that God did not intend men and women to have different roles, and I found support for this position in Martin Luther’s writings. In his Lectures on Genesis, Luther explains, “[Adam and Eve’s] partnership involves not only their means but children, food, bed, and dwelling; their purposes, too, are the same. The result is that the husband differs from the wife in no other respect than sex; otherwise the woman is altogether a man.” Differentiation between the sexes according to Luther is a result of the fall of our first parents: “If the woman had not been deceived by the serpent and had not sinned, she would have been the equal of Adam in all respects. For the punishment, that she is now subjected to the man, was imposed on her after sin and because of sin.” As a result, she “has been deprived of the ability of administering the affairs that are outside [the home] and that concern the state.”
According to Luther, the affairs outside of the home include those of the Church because the Church is an estate within the kingdom of the world and is, therefore, guided by the same laws that pertain to civil society. Galatians 3:28 (“There is neither male nor female . . . for you are all one in Christ Jesus”) does not invalidate the law that subjects women to men because it applies only to the kingdom of God. According to our conscience, we are free of the law, but as long as we continue to live in an imperfect world, we are still under the law. Luther’s theology of two kingdoms (law for one, gospel for the other) creates a dilemma for those theologically and confessionally orthodox Lutherans who wish to oppose women’s ordination. The question they must answer is why the law subordinating women to men governs relationships in the Church and perhaps the home, but not in the rest of society. Consistency would require an across-the-board application, as Luther argued.
I believed then that this widespread inconsistency in the application of God’s law invalidated calls for male headship in home and church. In an article in Lutheran Forum, I argued that male headship was not natural law, as Luther thought, but rather a cultural cloak for the law that calls for order in the home. Luther believed that the law which grants men authority over women was designed not only to punish women but also to curb evil intentions. The disciplines that derive from it serve a good purpose: “They tend to humble and hold down our nature, which could not be held in check without the cross.” As a modern woman, I thought our selfish tendencies could be held in check through mutual subjection worked out through egalitarian principles. According to Luther, social arrangements should be preserved within the Church lest we give scandal to the gospel. I thought restricting ordination to men had become such a scandal; it had become a modern-day stumbling block to people’s conversion and continued faith. If the subordination of women to men is, in fact, a human ordinance, we deny the principle of justification when we turn it into law. The acceptance of equality between the sexes throughout much of the world demonstrates that past generations wrongly thought the headship principle was a matter of natural law. Therefore, I thought that ordaining both men and women might well be the best way to serve our Lord in this time and place, despite 2000 years of tradition to the contrary.
When I started to think about becoming Roman Catholic, I went back again to the beginning and read, with a critical eye, John Paul II’s Catechesis on the Book of Genesis. There I found an entirely different vision of creation than that set forth in Luther’s Lectures on Genesis. According to John Paul, Adam and Eve were not created essentially the same. Masculinity and femininity are not just attributes; rather, the function of sex is “a constituent part of the person.” In other words, Eve is not Adam with a female anatomy: “Man and woman constitute two different ways of the human ‘being in a body’ in the unity of the image of God.” Or again, “Womanhood expresses the ‘human’ as much as manhood does, but in a different and complementary way.”
Though different, men and women both have the capacity to give of themselves and to receive love. Prior to the fall, Adam and Eve naturally gave of themselves to one another. At the time of the fall, this natural capacity for giving was lost. Henceforth, men and women are prone to view each other as objects, which is why they are now ashamed of their nakedness. Human sexuality, rather than a natural means of self-giving, becomes a way to manipulate and exploit others. Genesis 3:16 (“Your desire shall be for your husband and he shall rule over you”) is not natural law, as Luther argues, but a description of the lasting consequences of original sin. In particular, the woman becomes an object of male domination. Original sin burdens the relationship between men and women, but it does not ultimately define it.
John Paul believes that radical self-giving is what, in the end, makes us human. To lord over others is the antithesis of Christian service (Luke 22:25-27) and results in a turning away from God; it is, therefore, a negation of self. Therefore, John Paul speaks of the need for mutual submission. Here he differs from other conservative Christians, including some Catholics, who think the reestablishment of responsible male headship in church and home is necessary for the reformation of church and society. The Holy Father, by contrast, says we must look to our theological pre-fall history—a history that does not involve the subordination of women to men—in order to understand the relationship to which God calls men and women. When Jesus talks about marriage, he twice uses the phrase “from the beginning.” This phrase is key to John Paul’s thinking about the relationship between men and women. He says Jesus asks us “to go beyond, in a certain sense, the boundary which in Genesis passes between the state of original innocence and that of sinfulness, which started with the original fall.”
When I first read these words, I was startled: they went against all my deeply ingrained Lutheran sensibilities. I had to think outside of the two kingdoms box in which I had resided for most of my theological life. As a Lutheran, I had thought of myself as being simul iustus et peccator (at once saint and sinner). Though Christ’s righteousness had been imputed to me in exchange for my sinfulness (making me a saint), I continued to live in this world (and therefore continued to sin). Marriage was very much a part of this world. The relationship between our original parents in paradise (God’s kingdom) could not be replicated in our fallen state (the kingdom of this world). For John Paul II and Catholics traditionally, the Christian life is one of progress toward holiness, the goal of which is to be like God by becoming “full of grace” (1 John 3:2).
The Pope’s theology of the body and of marriage can only be understood within this context. By God’s grace received through the sacraments (including the sacrament of marriage), we can aspire to something greater in marriage than a power struggle hemmed in by laws designed to curb our selfish intentions. Husbands and wives can be partners in a marriage based upon a sincere and radical giving of self on the part of both spouses, a giving that results in mutual submission. Men’s dominion over women is a result of the fall and is, therefore, something to be overcome in Christ, however imperfectly, in this life.
Jesus, whose authority and kingship is exercised through service, has set us free from sin and provided all people, but men in a special way, with a model for radical self-surrender and self-giving. This model is set forth in Ephesians 5:21-33 (“Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord . . . .”). What does John Paul have to say about the portrayal of Christian marriage in what has become one of the most controversial passages in all of Scripture? He acknowledges some of the concepts in the passage are “characteristic of the mentality and customs of the times.” However, he also says St. Paul demonstrates “courage” when he uses these concepts to describe how mutual subjection in Christ works. Today, our mentality and customs are different, as is the social position of women in relation to men. John Paul goes on to say, “Nevertheless, the fundamental moral principle which we find in Ephesians remains the same and produces the same results. The mutual subjection ‘out of reverence for Christ’ . . . always produces that profound and solid structure of the community of the spouses in which the true ‘communion’ of the person is constituted.”
Though John Paul II never speaks of male headship, he recognizes that inherent to their natures are differences in the way men and women express love for one another. Men have the more active role in the relationship: the husband is the one who loves while the wife is she who is loved and in return gives love. This special capacity to receive love is what is meant by feminine submission and is the basis of the image of the submission of the Church to Christ. Submission here means to be subsequent or responsive, not necessarily obsequious or subservient. For the man, a love modeled upon Christ’s self-sacrifice leads to a desire to provide and protect to the point of a willingness to give one’s life, both literally and figuratively. Men represent Christ in a way that women cannot because men’s relationship to creation is one of detachment and distance. They cannot fully share in the intimacy that women have with their children. Therefore, they better serve as an image of transcendent love, a love that is wholly other but seeks only the welfare of the other. As primarily relational beings, women are images of immanence and ultimately of the Church, which is prepared, at all times, to receive Christ’s love. The result is a mutual submission, even mutual dependence, that does not undermine the role of men in church or home.
John Paul II places the inherent differences between men and women within the context of “an order of love” rather than “an order of creation.” According to this order of love, all persons find themselves by sincerely giving of themselves to others. True authority in the family, in society, and in the Church is exercised through service: “To reign is to serve.” However, men and women serve in particularly masculine and feminine ways. As the Pope explains in his 1995 “Letter to Women,” “a certain diversity of roles is in no way prejudicial to women, provided this diversity is not the result of arbitrary imposition, but is rather an expression of what is specific to being male and female.”
At the heart of this diversity lies the difference between motherhood and fatherhood. No matter what men and women do, they bring paternal or maternal characteristics to their vocations. The Catholic saint and philosopher Edith Stein always said that all women need to accept their maternal nature if they are to accept their vocation specifically as women. This means that every woman, no matter what she does, brings maternal characteristics to her vocation. All women, married and celibate, are mothers all the time. The same can be said of men and fatherhood. John Paul reminds us that celibacy (continence for the sake of the kingdom) is not a rejection of marriage but a different form of marriage. It is a “nuptial giving of one’s self for the purpose of reciprocating in a particular way the nuptial love of the Redeemer.” This giving of one’s self, which is the definition of conjugal love, must lead in its normal development to paternity or maternity in a spiritual sense, just as marriage does in a physical sense through procreation, rearing, and education of children.
In other words, a Roman Catholic priest is not simply a father figure; he is a father. To state what has ceased to be obvious in a society governed in large measure by the principle of androgyny, fathers and mothers are not interchangeable. Women are not men and, therefore, cannot be priests any more than they can be fathers in the physical sense. If women can step into the role of priest, then it is no longer one of fatherhood.
Why can’t we have spiritual fathers (priests) and spiritual mothers (priestesses)? The answer is one that feminists do not like to hear—namely, that the priest is an icon of Christ and acts in persona Christi at the altar and in the confessional. In 1976 the Vatican issued Inter Insignores or “Declaration on the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood.” As this document says, we cannot ignore the fact that Christ is a man. He is the bridegroom; the Church is his bride. This nuptial mystery is proclaimed throughout the Old and New Testaments. One must utterly disregard the importance of this symbolism for the economy of salvation in order to make an argument for women’s ordination. There are actions “in which Christ himself, the author of the Covenant, the Bridegroom and Head of the Church, is represented.” At these times, Christ’s role (this is the original sense of the word persona) must be taken by a man. This is especially true in the case of the Eucharist, when Christ is exercising his ministry of salvation.
Those who favor women’s ordination argue that women can represent Christ as well as men because femaleness is an attribute along the lines of Jewishness. To say that women cannot represent Christ is to suggest they are less fully human than men. This argument might have merit if it were sensible to believe that men and women are, as Luther suggests, both versions of men—and that those differences, flowing from the fall, would be overcome at the Eschaton. According to this line of reasoning, women should be allowed to represent Christ as a sign of the final consummation.
Such a view, however, is simply contrary to Catholic anthropology. Masculinity and femininity are not traits like skin or eye color; they are modes of being human. As Inter Insignores argues, these modes are built into the economy of salvation. Jesus did not just happen to be male. His masculinity is a reflection of God’s paternity. God’s paternity resides in His being wholly other from His creation. Of course, God is without gender and contains within Himself true masculinity and femininity. As the Catholic theologian Louis Bouyer explains in Women in the Church, “God is neither man nor woman, though He encompasses from the beginning all that humanity will ever bring to realization. He goes beyond masculinity in the only fatherhood worthy of the name, and is at the same time, in this eternal virginity, the antitype of all motherhood.” However, the fact remains that God chose from all eternity to take the form of a man, and that Jesus is the embodiment of the Father’s love.
Moreover, the priest as male represents God’s transcendence. However, as symbol of the gift of Christ’s love for his bride, he does not have the same sort of authority as the “rulers of the Gentiles.” The priest’s authority derives from service and self-sacrifice. It is an authority that should lead to mutual respect and affection between priest and parishioners, not feelings of superiority and inferiority. As Henri de Lubac points out in The Motherhood of the Church, paternal authority is much less apt to result in abuse of power and tyranny than authority derived from other sources. The response of some to the current sexual crisis in the Catholic Church is to say that paternal understandings of authority need to be replaced with functional understandings. As is usually the case with those who dissent from Church teachings, they have it precisely backwards. The most obvious way to ensure fewer instances of clerical abuse in the Catholic Church would be to see that those in charge of seminaries and rectories have a clear understanding of the role of the priest as father. I am not suggesting that this is the only solution to the present crisis, but candidates for the priesthood need to be evaluated for their fitness for fatherhood. A fit father, a good father, does not abuse his children.
Instead, spiritual fatherhood has come under attack in the Church by feminists and their allies who believe the Church should reflect the unisex vision of men and women that pervades society, and they have had an influence in many dioceses and seminaries far greater than their numbers would suggest. A seminarian named Daniel Scheidt writes in the Catholic journal Crisis that men in seminaries and rectories are suffering from a form of identity crisis that mirrors that among men in society at large. Scheidt says that efforts to downplay the theological interrelationships of paternity (God the father) and maternity (mother Church embodied in Mary) have “taught the seminarian to be insecure and embarrassed—or even suspicious and hostile—toward facets of the divine mysteries that give ultimate meaning to his life as a man and, one day, as a ‘Father.’” Clearly, many in the Church today are taking their cues from culture rather than traditional Catholic doctrine.
I know how easily this can happen. As a Lutheran pastor I completely accepted the notion that men and women are ultimately the same. In order to be taken seriously, I thought it absolutely imperative that I act like a man and be perceived as being exactly the same as a man. I tried to imitate my father, who was also a pastor, which must have looked and sounded pretty silly. I soon discovered that my parishioners enjoyed seeing me in “motherly” roles, especially those involving children. They repeatedly told me that I brought maternal sensibilities to the office and that they liked that. When I left, the congregation’s leadership told me they wanted another female to succeed me. I found this gratifying and proof that women belonged in the ministry.
I now think that my parishioners’ reaction to me points to a deep deficiency within the churches of the Reformation. Protestants have few female models of holiness to turn to for comfort and guidance. Here I am thinking not only of Mary and the female saints but of the women religious. I attend a parish that is served by decidedly traditional nuns, and I find that they and the priests offer the same sort of balance of the feminine and masculine that ideally exists between mother and father, and that they teach us in the parish by example what it means to be men and women, fathers and mothers. Consecrated women are our spiritual mothers, though many seem to reject this self-understanding.
As a Roman Catholic laywoman, my life as a woman, wife, and mother has taken on a new sense of definition. For the first time, I am trying to listen to what the Church has to say about who I am rather than expecting the Church to conform to what I think it should be. In general, modern women and men chafe against revealed authority because they expect the outer life of institutions to be rendered serviceable to the psychological inner life of individuals. Therefore, if women want to be priests and claim to feel pain because they are not priests, it automatically follows that they should be priests. Yet nuns and other women who insist that they have a call to the priesthood and use their pain as evidence for an authentic interior call from God are, in fact, using the protean politics of pain and not Catholic theology to explain their experiences. If they truly wish to empty themselves and renounce their own will for the sake of God and Church, they will find innumerable opportunities for service, though perhaps not the sort of self-gratification they seek.
Contrary to popular opinion, the Catholic Church offers a rich and multidimensional understanding of what it means for humans to be male and female, far more complex than the unisex vision of many feminists. The interplay between masculinity and femininity is by no means rigid. Catholicism has always recognized that in the spiritual life of both the married and celibate, women acquire masculine virtues and men acquire feminine ones. It is not the principle of androgyny or gender bending at work in Catholic theology. Rather, the Church has an anthropology that recognizes the differences between male and female, motherhood and fatherhood. In Heart of the World, Center of the Church, David Schindler points out that the complementarity of the Catholic tradition is not based on a fragmentation of the male and the female into two distinct parts: “Each images the ‘whole’ of the Trinity, but does so differently.” Men and women share in what is proper to each.
In a tradition dating back to the early Church, all Christian souls have been described as being feminine. This is because receptivity is necessary for holiness. In the Catholic tradition, women have always provided models of holiness for men. Louis Bouyer explains the importance of women for men as follows: “Man, the male, never finds himself except by a process of discovery blemished by narcissism, and, except by and in women, he never meets the world in an encounter which is real communion rather than a simple confrontation. The world is never real for the man except by symbioses with women. It is, moreover, by that alone that man attains the consciousness of himself which is not solipsistic absorption, but the discovery of this identity as participation in the divine image.”
Priests are no different from other men in this regard. Unlike Jesus, they must begin by being fundamentally receptive. As Schindler writes, “The ordained is first dependent upon the Marian fiat even as he is . . . empowered to represent Christ’s initiative.” Mary is the woman through whom the priest finds himself. What does this say about priests who steadfastly avoid having a spiritual relationship with Our Lady? If Bouyer is correct, they run the real risk of becoming profoundly and dangerously narcissistic.
Actually, everyone—male and female—suffers when Church and society no longer recognize the importance of the truly feminine or the “feminine genius,” as John Paul II calls it. The Catholic philosopher Alice von Hildebrand suggests that “when piety dies out in women, society is threatened in its very fabric; for a woman’s relationship to the sacred keeps the Church and society on an even keel, and when this link is severed, both are threatened by total moral chaos.”
The Catholic understanding of the feminine would be lost forever if the Church had a female priesthood. Those who insist the Church ordain women to elevate their status are, in reality, denigrating femaleness, especially motherhood. They are also engaging, as Schindler points out, in a “clericalism” which disproportionately emphasizes the importance of priests and the importance of the masculine: “Common to . . . ‘clericalisms’ is a lack of sense of anteriority, and primacy, of the feminine in the call to sanctity.” We do not raise the status of women by convincing them that what they need to be is men. Though women can and should be allowed to do most of the jobs traditionally filled by men (bringing to them a feminine sensibility), they cannot and never will be biological or spiritual fathers. Those who insist otherwise effectively deny what is noble and holy about being wives and mothers (biological and spiritual) and thereby slight the importance of the feminine (mother Church) in the plan by which God intends to redeem His creation.
A loss of the feminine and its importance in the economy of salvation is part of the legacy of the Protestant Reformation and its de-emphasis of the iconic elements of faith. Luther placed the institutional Church squarely in the kingdom of the left hand, and the result was a Church more sociological in character. He also effectively denied a role for the feminine in the Church and in salvation when he developed an anthropology that took the male as the sum of what it means to be most fully human. The result was a minimalist ecclesiology that was starkly masculine in character.
For Catholics, the most important icon of the Church and the feminine is Mary, Mother of God. The diminishment of Mary and the severing of her connection to the Church by the reformers was one step along the long road to women’s ordination. Interestingly, the famous Lutheran theologian Paul Tillich recognized the profound change that occurred in the Protestant churches when the figure of Mary was eliminated: “The increasingly symbolic power of the image of the Holy Virgin . . . presents Protestantism with a difficult problem. In the struggle of the Reformation against all human mediators between God and man, this symbol was abolished, and, with that process of purification, the feminine element in everything of ultimate concern was largely eliminated.”
Over time, Protestantism invested God with symbols of immanence. The result has been a leveling out of the differences between creation and Creator. At the same time, the Church took on a more sociological, institutional nature. Hans Urs von Balthasar observes that the prominence of Mary as archetype of the Church has protected the Church “from disintegrating into mediocrity and ultimately into sociology.” These developments within Protestantism paved the way for women’s ordination as ministry took on an increasingly functional nature and men no longer were seen as symbols of God’s transcendence.
For those who are determined to see the Catholic Church embrace the principle of androgyny that dominates the rest of the culture, no argument against women’s ordination will be persuasive. However, those who recognize the God-given inherent differences between men and women, husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, and see their importance not only for the proper working of society but for our salvation, should give thanks for the Catholic Church’s resolve in adhering to two thousand years of tradition—a tradition rooted in God’s good purposes for all men and women.
Jennifer Ferrara is the co-editor of The Catholic Mystique: How Fifteen Women Found Fulfillment in the Church.
To consider the ordination of women is to take a plunge into the rich depths of Christian theology. It is a wild ride indeed, with high stakes, fierce debates, and all sides burning for the purity of the gospel. This is to be expected. Though Vincent of Lérins defined orthodoxy as that which has been believed “everywhere, always, by all,” he was, unfortunately, wrong. Orthodoxy has been a battle from the get-go, as the apostolic epistles amply demonstrate. An appeal to the unchanging teaching of the Church does little justice to the Church Fathers who engaged their whole minds and souls in the defense and articulation of the truth, based on Scripture, reason, liturgy, peculiar strands of philosophy, and sundry other allies they mustered to their side. Studies in the history of doctrine demonstrate that there is development in the teaching of the Church. We are at the crossroads of what will become either a further development or a heresy tossed aside.
Fundamentally, the question of women’s ordination is an ontological one. Though there are arguments for and against it of other kinds, in the end they are inconclusive for the debate. Scriptural injunctions to the silence of women in church are, in the first place, not observed anywhere, not even in churches that prohibit women at the altar. Women sing, chant, pray, and speak in tongues of humans and angels alike. Furthermore, the injunctions against speech and authority are internally contradicted by the equally scriptural witness to the activity of women in the earliest Church: Mary the mother of God praying with the disciples, Priscilla instructing Apollos, Phoebe serving as deaconess, and so on. The Church Fathers acknowledged this too: Basil of Caesarea regarded his older sister Macrina as his spiritual guide and Augustine attributed his catholicity to his mother Monica.
The same inconclusiveness applies to the argument that Jesus called only men to serve in the Twelve and that we must follow his example. Once again our attention is called to the women who were with him and later led the early Church; more to the point, however, ordination as such does not exist in the Gospel narratives. It developed over the next several generations, so that while the women of the New Testament were not called to liturgical priesthood, one may accurately remark that neither were any of the men.
Aside from these specifically biblical issues, there are also sociological and ideological arguments mounted from each side. Here we will deliberately ignore such concerns, however much insight they may contain, as finally not compelling one way or the other.
The matter is ontological because at base it is necessary to discern the true nature of gender and how essential it is in Church teaching. It may be that gender is an absolute category that dictates all relationships on this earth, in and out of the Church; conversely, it may be that gender is provisional and even incidental where the Church is concerned. Or the truth may lie somewhere in between. There are three levels at which the issue must be confronted: at the trinitarian level, of the internal relationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; at the Christological level, regarding Jesus Christ who was born true God and true man; and at the anthropological level, about males and females created in the divine image.
From the beginning—namely, starting with the book of Genesis—the Lord God is referred to with male pronouns. Jesus addresses this God as his Father and invites his followers to do the same. The baptismal formula of Matthew 28, adhered to by Christians for twenty centuries thereafter, is “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” These are all unequivocally masculine terms. What conclusions about gender and the Holy Trinity shall we then draw from them?
From the beginning, it has been a clearly noted mistake to draw the conclusion that God is thus internally, essentially, ontologically male. The same Old Testament that provides the pronouns also states, “Since you saw no form when the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire, take care and watch yourselves closely, so that you do not act corruptly by making an idol for yourselves, in the form of any figure—the likeness of male or female” (Deuteronomy 4:15-16). The inference of masculinity in God is not only inaccurate, but actually idolatrous. The pronouns function as convention. It may be that the preference stems from resistance to local fertility religions that identified the deity too closely with the “maternal” nourishing soil. But the logic cuts both ways. The converse danger—and to judge from the scriptural accounts of the struggle, the more threatening one—is to tie divinity to masculinity on account of supposedly similar traits, such as transcendence, in contrast to the immanent earth. This amounts to an elevation of the biological process that sounds more like the rain god Baal fertilizing passive mother earth than the Lord of Israel. Paganism sees masculinity in God and femininity in earth and its inhabitants; Judaism and Christianity do not.
Although Christians must decidedly reject this line of defense for the masculine pronoun and the names Father and Son, there are compelling reasons to retain the choice of words all the same. These words are first and foremost the language of Scripture, the cradle of the gospel. They are also the language of worship—the first response of the first witnesses to the resurrection before the first New Testament documents were written—and the language of the creeds, which in a few words summarize four centuries of struggle towards the truth. None of these can be discarded if we are still to recognize Christianity in two thousand years of continuity.
The baseline of this language lies in two endearing terms of address. Jesus calls upon God as Father; even his Aramaic cry of “Abba!” is preserved for us. This God, the Father, in turn claims the human Jesus as His beloved Son. These names are given to the Church; there is simply no reason to use any other. Only these names carry the assurance of faith.
However, once again, to infer an internal masculine relationship between the Father and the Son is to miss the point. The terms do not refer to maleness. From the patristic era, it has been understood that they refer to the eternal generation of the second person of the Trinity by the first. The Son is “begotten by the Father from eternity,” and to this reality the metaphor draws our attention. Metaphors have a hard time holding their own in our day and age; they are either absolutized (in which case they cease to be metaphors and become identities) or they are considered optional and thus freely discarded (which voids them of all their content). The metaphor of Father and Son cannot mean father and son in an identical earthly sense—indeed, that would make the Son secondary to the Father in time, which involves us in more theological problems than we can number. Rather, as Irenaeus illuminates the simultaneous necessity and limitation of the metaphor, “[God] may most properly be termed Light, but He is nothing like that light with which we are acquainted. And so, in all other particulars, the Father of all is in no degree similar to human weakness. He is spoken of in these terms according to the love [we bear Him]; but in point of greatness, our thoughts regarding Him transcend these expressions.” God is Father, and yet unlike any human father we know.
Any more specific attempt to say God the Father is like a human father in that he is caring, unselfish, and forgiving with His children is true insofar as these attributes are assigned to Him by the Scripture, but misleading when they are held to be in contrast with a mother: mothers are all these things as well. As Julian of Norwich wrote, “To motherhood as properties belong natural love, wisdom, and knowledge—and this is God.”
The salient point for our discussion on ordination is that a man is not an intrinsically more accurate sign of the Trinity than a woman. Gender is not a feature of God.
In Christian teaching, the doctrine of the incarnation is crucial in revealing the nature of God. God is not merely distant, clouded, indifferent, and unknowable. God truly shows Himself by sending His only-begotten Son, Jesus the Christ, who is the image of his Father in heaven. What we know of God can never be severed from what we know of Jesus.
One thing that we know of Jesus, beyond any shadow of a doubt, is that he was born a man and not a woman. By the same logic noted above, this incarnational fact might lead one to conclude that God is thus male, because His image is a human male. On trinitarian grounds such a conclusion must be rejected. But the fact of Jesus’ maleness still raises certain questions.
It happens, though, that these questions are of far more interest to Christians of the last several decades than they ever were before. Contemporary believers demand to know what the maleness of Jesus means; but believers before them, when they bothered with the question at all, were considerably more interested in spelling out what Jesus’ maleness does not mean.
The traditional unconcern follows the lead of Scripture. Very little is made of Jesus qua male in the canon. The evangelist John, for instance, deals in dialectic: on the one hand, he says that Jesus is the Word of God who is God and dwells with God; on the other, that the Word became flesh (sarx) and dwelt among us. This Word-flesh typology was at the heart of the controversy at the Council of Ephesus, wherein the orthodox Cyril of Alexandria insisted that Jesus was the Word made flesh, not the Word united to a human man—a subtle distinction, but one that places the emphasis on the complete assumption of human nature by the Word rather than the particular choice of a man by God. A better translation of the Nicene Creed for English speakers would read not “by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the virgin Mary” but rather he “was made flesh of the Holy Spirit and of the Virgin Mary.”
In the letters of Paul, who in fact has very little to say about the life of Jesus on earth and far more to say about the risen Christ, the focus is on the Savior as human, or anthropos—the Greek term inclusive of both genders. The best known and best loved of these assertions is in the Philippians hymn, which proclaims that Christ Jesus in the form of God “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself” (2:7-8; in both instances, the word translated as “human” is anthropos). What matters is the sacrifice of godly privilege for the lowliness of humanity, irrespective of gender. Likewise, the marriage analogy of Ephesians (composed by Paul or more likely an admirer of his) must, like the Father-Son metaphor, be treated with care. The writer himself says of the conjugal relationship, “This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the Church.” The male-female pairing is not an inherent feature of the Church and its Lord but an image for understanding its intimacy and permanence.
So again we ask: Why the recent epidemic of interest in Jesus’ maleness as such? The conversation began at the initiative of the feminists and their allies, not surprisingly, and has been taken up by those displeased with the feminists’ results. The most significant piece to open up the debate is Rosemary Radford Ruether’s essay “Can a Male Savior Save Women?” Ruether raises the soteriological question that Jesus-as-man precipitates: If salvation comes through the assumption of human nature by the divine, can one who is female be saved by one who is male? Or is the uterus an insurmountable blockade between women and eternal life?
Clearly, for orthodox Christianity, the salvation of women has never been in question, at least not in the practice of the faith. But theologically the reason why the question has never become a crisis is precisely because of the emphasis upon the flesh, upon the anthropos, upon Jesus assuming all of humanity to himself, which means that his maleness is de-emphasized. It is not just the crucifixion by itself, but the crucifixion of the God-made-flesh that brings salvation to humankind. The basis of Gregory of Nazianzus’ Christology, asserting that Jesus Christ assumed all of human nature, is that “the unassumed is the unhealed.” In that case, if men and women are so profoundly different, and if Jesus is so profoundly male, then—rudimentary logic will complete the syllogism. Patristic theology does not drive towards the difference but towards the essential similarity, with obvious implications. Ruether’s suspicions only gain credence in a Christianity more enamored of the maleness of Jesus than of his humanity.
It is not a hysterical overstatement, then, to assert that the ordination of women is closely tied to the salvation of women. If the female cannot represent Christ because of her femininity, it is hard to understand how Christ in his masculinity can represent her in his death and resurrection.
By now it should be clear what is at stake in constructing an anthropology of male and female human beings. Distinguishing the respective natures of men and women on an ontological level bears weighty consequences.
However, it is at just this moment that we should note how very slippery the term “ontology” is. With the Holy Trinity and Jesus Christ, the matter is somewhat clearer, for we are dealing with the sui generis about whom very much has been said in the Christian tradition. Moreover, our claims for the nature of God are fairly modest due to our own ignorance. But when we speak of males and females of the human race and their ontology, the term itself begins to reveal its ambiguity. What exactly are we talking about?
A discussion of the proper use of the philosophical category of ontology would take us too far afield here, but for now let us consider humans at the three basic levels of being. First and foremost there is the body. Surely there is no doubt that men and women are both members of Homo sapiens. Biologically speaking, the difference is not all that great: the principal dissimilarity is in the quantity of certain hormones during gestation that develop identical tissue into two different sets of parallel organs. Otherwise all parts are held in common. But presumably, as Christians, we are not speaking at the level of science.
As far as the soul goes, again we would be hesitant to say that male souls and female souls are entirely different things. Men and women both share human nature in God’s image, in all of its aspects, which Christ assumed to himself; to say otherwise is to get caught up in another theological whirlpool. (Another Christological controversy arose because some wanted to say that Christ did not have a human soul—in which case the human soul was not assumed and therefore not healed. The same reasoning mentioned above follows here too.) And certainly no one will want to say that male and female brains are “ontologically” different—especially since the genealogy of that line of thought has historically led to decidedly misogynist judgments on the female intellect.
If we exclude body, mind, and spirit from whatever differences the term “ontology” seems to carry, we are left with a strange brew of personal and cultural assessments of the situation. That men and women are different somehow is undeniable, but pinpointing those differences often proves a difficult task. The moment we say “women are gentle” we instantly think of men who are more so and women who are not at all; as soon as we assert “men are aggressive” contrary examples come to mind. The very fact that we tend to associate certain traits with one group, and then are forced to apply them to the other, reveals the stereotype as a shortcut for thought, preferred by lazy minds and lazy societies. At the very least, we are hard pressed to say that any set of characteristics, especially so protean as those of human beings, can constitute an “ontological” difference.
Perhaps at the root of strong assertions of male and female differences is the fear of so identifying the two as to make them interchangeable. Biology clearly blocks such a move; men are fathers because of the organs they possess and women are mothers because of the organs they possess, and short of highly invasive surgery nothing is going to alter that reality. Still, parenthood is the common activity of both, and if biology is going to clarify the differences in the roles, we hardly need call upon ontology to do the job. The biological fact will also subvert those who would employ a notion of interchangeability in order to defend homosexuality—perhaps another underlying fear that drives ontological thinking where gender is concerned.
All this is highly theoretical; it is wise to let theology have its say as well. Opposition to the ordination of women relies heavily on the strain of Christian thought that, despite the slipperiness of the term, still insists upon the “ontological” difference between men and women. But an equally Christian and venerable strain of theology lies at quite the other extreme. The division of male and female was not at all the good will of the Holy Trinity from the beginning, according to this perspective, but an anticipation of the Fall and a provision for procreation. Gregory of Nyssa posited a double creation, first the human being as the image of God, and then the male-female dyad as a concession to the problems of impending sin. He writes in reference to Genesis 1, “There is an end of the creation of that which was made ‘in the image’: then it makes a resumption of the account of creation, and says, ‘male and female He created them.’ I presume that everyone knows that this is a departure from the Prototype: for ‘in Christ Jesus,’ as the apostle says, ‘there is neither male nor female.’ . . . Thus the creation of our nature is in a sense twofold: one made like to God, one divided according to this distinction.”
Maximus the Confessor goes further in saying that Christ “frees the whole of nature from the attributes of male and female. . . . Man was not intended to be divided into the categories of male and female, as is now the case.” This is to take Galatians 3:28 very seriously indeed. The New Testament (and the Old as well) provides ample evidence that an “ontological” rift was imagined between the Gentile and the Jew, even more serious than that between men and women, and an overwhelming portion of first-century Church struggles were in overcoming that division. Maximus applies the logic to another estranged pair, man and woman, who also are made one in Jesus Christ.
These two competing strands of orthodox Christian tradition (the ontological-difference strand and the gender-as-compromise strand) both claim the Genesis creation stories for themselves. The short poem of Genesis 1:27 reads, “So God created humankind in His image, in the image of God He created them; male and female He created them.” This brief text has been made to carry more weight than its few words can bear, delicious as they are. For now, we can safely assert without fear of interpolation that the passage makes two claims: first, that all humans are made in the image of God, and second, that all humans are male or female. There is nothing to settle the aforementioned dispute, because there is nothing to lend support to either side.
The second Genesis creation story in chapter 2 is a little more illuminating. Adam—which simply means “earth”—falls into a deep sleep while the Lord extracts a rib from his side with which to create Eve. The man’s response is one of joyful recognition, after too many days in the dull company of animals: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh!” The emphasis is on the unity and similarity, for the woman comes right out of the man; and with procreation, the man comes right out of the woman (a point reiterated in Adam-Christ and Eve-Mary typologies). Together they cease to be two separate entities; instead they become one flesh.
When we talk of the difference, we are best served by the Scholastic distinction between essence and existence. Essence is what something is (corresponding to ontology, rightly understood); existence is how something is; essentially, men and women are the same, but existentially, they differ. Conflict between the two is the curse of the Fall, but it is overcome by the unity of Christ. The unity is not a matter of social politesse or cooperation, but the essential unity of those who share the same flesh and the same bones. For this reason Jesus’ retort to the wily Sadducees—“For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Matthew 22:30)—is not a heretical denial of incarnational life or a plug for interchangeability, but an anticipation of the reunion that his own life already inaugurates.
The conclusion to be drawn is that all human beings, males and females alike, bear the same image of God and the same human nature. Jesus Christ took the flesh of human nature and made it wholly his own. In the unity of the Church, a Gentile is as much an image of the Jewish Christ as a Jew; a slave is as much the image of the freeborn Christ as a citizen; a woman is as much the image of the male Christ as a man. It is arbitrary to slice up the unities in one way and not in the other. It is a bizarre fixation on gender that requires male body parts to represent Christ. In fact, it is a denial of Jesus’ incarnation and resurrection alike to say that women cannot stand in persona Christi .
And if this were not enough, there is additionally the ironic fact that to insist upon an ontological difference between men and women is to award the victory to the very feminists and their allies who insist upon filtering everything through the experiences, feelings, and oppressions of women. If men and women are indeed so very different, then the practices and teachings of the Christian Church—which are overwhelmingly the products of men—of necessity cannot speak to women, so women have little choice but to reinterpret everything in their own image. Only if our Scripture, doctrine, and worship are both the work and the enlightenment of human nature as a whole will women have a share in that heritage as well.
Much has been said here of why there is no reason not to ordain women. A word or two as to why it should be done is yet needed. It would be absurd to say that women bring unique gifts to the ministry that men do not, given the impossibility of saying just what these gifts are. It would also be unkind to say that the ordination of women is demanded to show women their full participation in Church and humanity alike, for churches that do not ordain women still embrace them as sisters in the faith, and Christian women have managed for many centuries without admission to the altar
As Sister Thekla once said, “The only justification for the monastic life lies simply in the fact that God calls some people to it.” By the same token, the only justification for the ordination of women lies in the fact that God calls some women to it. It is profoundly uncharitable to attribute the desire for the office to self-serving pain, or a quest for power, or sheer determination to make a point. Like Deborah and Priscilla, if a woman is called to lead and to serve, then she is bound to follow the calling. The Church discerns the legitimacy of her call, identifies her gifts, and puts them to work. The ordination of women is nothing more or less lofty than the recognition of the work of the Spirit for the good of the Church and the world. Women have nothing to offer but their own selves called to sacrifice, suffering, and service—and that is quite enough.
Dr. Sarah Hinlicky Wilson is an assistant research professor at the Institute for Ecumenical Research, an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the editor of the American theological quarterly Lutheran Forum.