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A Fitting Symbol by Joan Chittister, O.S.B. From 'Women, Ministry and the Church'

A Fitting Symbol

Joan Chittister, O.S.B.

From Women, Ministry and the Church , Paulist Press 1983, pp.97-101; reprinted on www.womenpriests.org with the necessary permissions.

The ordination of women to the priesthood has not been the central issue in my personal life. I have never been against it - in fact, I found the very discussion of the question a fascinating indicator of the type of world to come and looked forward to it. On the other hand, I myself have been concentrating more on what I thought were the pressing and the immediate woman issues: the right to equal educational opportunities, economic equality, civil rights, equality of status and position or, in the case of women religious, community self-determination. The recent Vatican Declaration, “Women in the Ministerial Priesthood,” however, raises such questions in my mind about the effect of “maleness” on the integrity of the faith itself.

The proper symbol of Christ, says the recent Declaration, is male. If that is so, then many other things are not: that Christ is God, that both women and men are bound to be “other Christs,” that sacraments are effective by virtue of the power of God, that grace makes new creations of us all.

The Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, through this publication, has brought the Church to a moment of crucial reflection. For the first time since the Council of Trent, a Vatican document has purported by official statement to declare the inadmissibility of women to priesthood and to “clarify this by the analogy of faith” or consistency of its teaching. The explanation itself, however, is based on arguments that themselves introduce inconsistency into the Christian tradition.

Prior to this time, and even now in some parts of the world or in some people in our own, the female priest is socially unacceptable. The male-dominated society which fostered this exclusion is a direct outgrowth of notions of male and female that were based on faulty understandings of biology, on social systems that depended for their existence on physical force, on false psychologies that promoted the education of men but not of women, on primitive blood taboos, on the incorrect identification of the man as life-giver.

Not only were women not priests in societies such as these, they were also not doctors or teachers or actors or mayors or senators either. Some of these understandings remain as residual influences in this society and account for the slow, difficult pace of woman's movement to full and equal humanity.

The Vatican Declaration against the ordination of women priests does not use these arguments, but one is tempted to wonder whether or not these are not yet really the underlying assumptions, since the verbalized explanation so directly contradicts basic Catholic teaching. The point the document makes is that a priest must be male so that the historical Christ can be "fittingly" imaged, represented or symbolized.

In the words of the document itself, the explanation reads:

". . . the bishop or priest, in the exercise of his ministry, does not act in his own name, in persona propria: he represents Christ, who acts through him... .

".. . this representation is found in the altogether special form in the celebration of the Eucharist (in which) the priest .. . acts not only through the effective power conferred on him by Christ, but in persona Christi, taking the role of Christ, to the point of being his very image.

"... the priest is a sign . . . that must be perceptible and that the faithful must be able to recognize with ease.

". . . the whole sacramental economy is in fact based on natural signs, on symbols imprinted on the human psychology."

This use of symbolism as an explanation for the male priesthood raises in me several serious questions:

  1. What is a symbol, a sign, an image, a representative?
  2. What is being symbolized in the priesthood and its supreme moment, the Mass?
  3. What is being communicated by this kind of sign?

The document uses the terms "symbol," "sign," "representative" and "image" as the central concepts supporting an exclusively male priesthood. The problem lies in the fact that the interchangeable use of these terms calls into question the traditional explanations of what is being symbolized "in the altogether special form of the Eucharist."

Briefly, symbols are generally defined as "visible signs of something invisible" and are therefore charged with meaning; signs, on the other hand, indicate or refer to particular information or specific things, events or conditions which stand in literal or one-to-one correlation; representatives portray or act as agents for another; images give likeness.

If nothing invisible is being commemorated in the Mass, then a sign or representative of the man Jesus is sufficient. If, however, as Church doctrine maintains, the Mass is the re-creation of God's saving plan for humanity, then more needs to be communicated than the simple act of the Last Supper event for which only a male figure will really do. But we have been led to believe more.

The question becomes then whether or not it is the purpose and total meaning of the Mass simply to recall the historical Jesus and, if so, is even the male priest an adequate sign of that?

Other teachings tell us that Jesus was both God and man and had the properties of both. If indeed this is the case there are interesting implications of this reality that must be brought to bear on any discussion of who is or is not a proper candidate for orders. God we believe from earliest tradition, both Judaic and Christian, is neither male nor female but, in the fullness of ineffable mystery and nature, both. God says, in Genesis: "Let us make man in our image, in the likeness of ourselves" and "in the image of God, male and female he created them." In this passage, too, God is called Elohim, a feminine noun with a masculine plural ending. The point is that the "image" of God includes both male and female. In that case, it can be inferred that Christ, who is God as well as man, is also inadequately imaged by one sex alone and only. In fact, among the many traditional symbols of Christ, two - the pelican who feeds her young and the mermaid whose dual nature signified the humanity and divinity of Jesus - are clearly female renderings which emphasize the androgynous nature of Christ.

Furthermore, though it is true that the incarnation assumes the male sex it is also true that the male but not the female sex was bypassed in the very process. The point is that though males are certainly closer types or pictures of Christ’s humanity they are no more a symbol of his divinity than women who in their person also recall the humanity of his birth.

God’s self-identity “I am who am” led the Israelites to forbid the creation of images that purported to identify and therefore limit the nature of God. The immanent tragedy is that the Church, despite social evolution and the developments of theology and science, stands on the brink of perpetuating an image of maleness in God’s very name. The intent and disposition of the minister, we have always been told, are not necessary to the sacramental act, but apparently maleness is. In the spiritual order of things, that is a difficult conclusion to draw.

What the present Declaration seems to intend with its argument for an exclusively male priesthood, then, is an historical description rather than the communication of the essential elements of sacrifice, re-creation, reconciliation and redemption.

As the Declaration itself maintains, signs and symbols must be “easily perceptible.” What is not made conscious in the document is the fact that something becomes symbolic to a group because it conjures up for them common associations or meanings outside itself which speak to the group itself, its relationships or its fundamental purposes.

Consequently, as the group’s understanding of itself changes, its symbols must also change. When American settlers saw themselves as British citizens, the Union Jack and the Crown were important symbols of their identity. Once they saw themselves as a people distinct in place and purpose, they communicated themselves differently: as a collection of separate stars, an independent eagle.

As the followers of Jesus saw themselves less a Jewish sect and more a universal Church, their symbols changed, too.

Now, more and more, the Christian community becomes aware that the subordination of women - a result of the fall - is also lifted by Christ’s death and resurrection. “To put on Christ” is the right and responsibility of all of us, male and female. And if not the right, then it is not the responsibility either.

To maintain a symbol-system that is actually incomplete in its theological consciousness is to leave the Church with nothing but an historical sign of its very being. The questions the document raises for me need more of an answer than that to satisfy the fullness of a creation whose likeness is “made in the image of God, male and female he created them.”

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