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Aquinas on Persons' Representation in Sacraments by Christopher Kiesling from 'Women Priests'

Aquinas on Persons' Representation in Sacraments

by Christopher Kiesling

from Women Priests, Arlene Swidler & Leonard Swidler (eds.), Paulist Press 1977, pp. 253-257.
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions

Christopher Kiesling, OP, resided at Aquinas Institute of Theology in Dubuque, where he was professor of sacramental theology from 1956-76. He was at the time editor of Cross and Crown and Formation Director of Scholastics in the Dominican Central Province. His writings include Confirmation and Full Life in the Spirit.

The Declaration’s extension of representation by natural resemblance to persons as well as things in sacramental signs is a step forward. The sacramental sign is no longer regarded impersonally as a few words, gestures, and perhaps objects constituting the “matter and form” of the sacrament. The broader view is in harmony with the perspective of the Fathers of the Church and the early Scholastics. Thomas Aquinas himself makes this extension to the celebrant of the Eucharist and to the recipient of Extreme Unction (as anointing of the sick was known in his day). He also takes it into account in considering woman as the minister of Baptism. We will be considering these instances in Thomas’ writings and the implications for the possibility of women’s ordination.

In the treatise on the Eucharist, Thomas proposes an objection that Christ cannot be immolated in the Eucharist because there the priest and the victim are not the same. In response, he supposes as obvious that Christ is present as victim and proceeds to argue that he is present also as priest in the celebrating priest: “the priest . . . bears Christ’s image, in whose person and by whose power he pronounces the words of consecration” (Summa theologiae, III, q. 83, a. 1, ad 3).(1) The word image is significant here. In the previous response (ibid., ad 2), Thomas says that the celebration of this sacrament is “an image representing Christ’s passion” (imago repraesentativa passionis Christi) and the altar represents the cross (est repraesentativam crucis ipsius). Noteworthy is that the altar is simply representative of the cross, not an image thereof. The priest and the celebration of the sacrament, on the other hand, are representative images of Christ and his passion respectively. What is implied in the notion of image? Is the priest an image of Christ because he is male?

In his treatise on the image of God in “man,” Thomas notes that an image is more than similitude or resemblance, it includes resemblance but adds something, namely, being pressed or squeezed out of another (quod sit ex alio expressum) or, in more euphemistic language, put forth from another or proceeding from another (ibid., I, q. 93, a. 1). Hence an egg, Thomas goes on to exemplify, is not the image of a second egg, however similar and equal it may be to the second, because it is not put forth from the second (non est expressum ex illo). Therefore, one male is not the image of another male simply on the score of similarity in maleness. The first is an image of the second only if his maleness derives from the second, as a son’s maleness is the image of his father’s but not of his brothers’.

The priest is not the "representative image" of Christ because of his maleness. The priest does not derive his maleness from Christ, but from his own father and grandfathers. One might object by saying that the priest does derive his maleness from Christ, for Christ willed that only males be ordained to the priesthood. But that Christ so willed is precisely the point in question. Moreover, in that situation the maleness of the priest would not be proceeding from Christ’s maleness but from his will. Therefore the maleness of the priest would not be the basis for constituting him Christ’s representative image, but only a condition for receiving that which does come forth from Christ to establish another person as his image. The questions on hand, therefore, are what precisely constitutes the priest Christ’s image and whether maleness is an absolutely necessary condition for receiving that constitutive element.

Thomas’statement that “the priest bears Christ’s image” is complemented by the clause “in whose person and whose power he pronounces the words of consecration” (ibid., III, q. 83, a. 1, ad 3). Is this complementary clause merely descriptive of additional facets of the priest’s being or is it explanatory of why the priest is Christ’s image? I submit that it is explanatory.

In response to the question whether consecration of the Eucharist is properly the duty of the priest, Thomas enunciates as a general principle that whoever performs an act in place of another person necessarily does so through power granted by another (Quicumque autem aliquid agit in persona alterius, oportet hoc fieri per potestatem ab alio concessam) (ibid., III, q. 82, a. 1). He goes on to say that when the priest is ordained, the power to consecrate the Eucharist in the person of Christ is conferred on him. Precisely because he is enabled by power from Christ so that he can act in Christ’s stead, the priest is constituted Christ’s image.

Thomas saw this empowering as the sacramental character of orders. Character, it should be noted, means fundamentally a similitude impressed by another—an image. This meaning is exploited by the Church Fathers and theologians in reference to all the sacramental characters. Thomas conceived the characters as instrumental powers derived from Christ perfecting the practical intellect for the making of the sacramental signs (ibid., III, q. 63, aa. 2, 4). By the character of Holy Orders, the priest is empowered to perform those actions in the sacramental rites which signify bestowing divine gifts (ibid.,aa. 3, 6). The character of Orders, then, truly constitutes the priest Christ’s image. It is not a person’s maleness which constitutes that person the representative image of Christ, but a person’s having the sacerdotal character, the instrumental priestly power to perform those actions signifying the giving of divine gifts, a power deriving through ordination from Christ, the donor of God’s grace.

But, according to Thomas, can a woman be the subject of that priestly power, in order to become the image of Christ bestowing divine blessings?

The answer appears to be No in his Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard (In IV Sent., dist. 25, q. 2, a. 1, qa 1, sol. 1; cf. Summa theologiae suppl., q. 39, a. 1). This passage is relied on by the Declaration. The passage makes two points worth noting.

First, we have in this place another instance of an extension of the sacramental sign to cover a person involved in the sacrament, and an extension of the principle of natural resemblance required of persons as well as things in the sacramental signs. The recipient of the sacrament of Extreme Unction Thomas asserts, must be a sick person, in order that the need of a cure be signified. Presumably he sees natural resemblances between ointment and divinely bestowed created grace, between application of the ointment in anointing and the divine act of bestowing interior grace, and between the physically sick person and the soul in need of God’s spiritual healing.

Second, the immediate reason Thomas offers in this passage for woman’s inability to receive the sacrament of Orders is that she cannot signify some degree of eminence or superiority (Cum . . . in sexu femineo non possit significari aliqua eminentia gradus, . . . ideo non potest ordinis sacramentum suscipere). But why cannot woman signify some degree of eminence?’ Simply because she is woman, because her sex is feminine? The answer appears to be No. It is because woman is in a state of subjection (quia mulier statum? subjectionis habet). So it does not appear that femaleness, femininity, womanhood as such is the barrier to woman’s receiving holy orders, but femaleness in a state of subjection. If woman were not in this state of subjection, then perhaps she could signify some degree of eminence and so be fit to receive the priesthood.

Unfortunately Thomas’s idea of the female of the human species involves essentially subjection or inferiority. The state of subjection which Thomas attributes to woman is not extrinsic to her nature, a condition which could be removed from her essence. The subjection is the result of the way in which she is generated (Summa theologiae, I, q. 92, a. 1, ad 1) and the result of man’s naturally having greater discretion of reason (ibid., ad 2). This subjection precedes sin (ibid.). Given these premisses, there is no possibility of woman as woman ever signifying a degree of eminence and hence of ever being a fit subject for the sacrament of holy orders.

If Thomas had not considered woman inevitably conditioned by subjection in virtue of the way she is generated and by reason of her role in generating offspring, would he have said that woman cannot signify a degree of superiority requisite to be a subject of holy orders? In the same question of his Commentary on the Sentences which we have been considering, he uses a distinction of Peter Lombard’s between “things” (res: realities which are taken just for what they are without reference to something else) and “signs” (signa: realities which are not considered for themselves but in reference to something else). When it comes to “things,” woman does not differ from man in the realm of the soul, since sometimes woman is found better than many men in regard to the soul (Quia secundum rem in his quae sunt animae mulier non differt a viro. cum quandoque mulier inveniatur melior quantum ad animam viris multis), (In IV Sent., dist. 25, q. 2, a. 1, qa 1, sol. 1, ad 1). Thomas uses this idea to justify women’s being prophetesses, who, like prophets, are superior to priests, for they mediate between God and priests, as priests mediate between God and people.

The valuable notion here is that Thomas recognizes that a person who is woman can be superior to men. It could be rejoined that Thomas does not admit the superiority of the woman precisely as woman, that is, as of particular bodily constitution, but as possessing a human soul, in which she does not differ from man. But if woman’s biology and psyche were seen as equal to man’s and equally active, though in a complementary way—rather than as inferior, passive, and subject—then the difference between man and woman by reason of bodily constitution would be neutralized. The subject of Holy Orders would have to be discussed in terms of the radical subject, the hypostasis, suppositum, person (in the Scholastic sense). The question would then be whether the human person, male or female, is able to signify a degree of eminence and hence be an apt subject for Christ’s image by ordination. In view of Thomas’ admission that a person who happens to be a woman can be superior in matters of the human spirit to many other persons who are men, it would have to be admitted that the female person as well as the male person is an apt subject to bear Christ’s image as priest through ordination.

Thomas deals with the natural resemblance of sacramental signs when he considers the legitimacy of woman’s baptizing in the case of necessity (Summa theologiae, III, q. 67, a. 4). The third objection Thomas proposes to woman’s baptizing is this: In the spiritual rebirth which is baptism, water seems to take the place of the maternal womb and the one who baptizes represents the father. Since it is not fitting that a woman represent a father, she cannot baptize.

In line with his biology and his theology of the minister of sacraments, Thomas answers (ibid., ad 3) that in human generation a woman cannot be an active principle but only a passive one. In spiritual generation, however, neither man nor woman function in virtue of their own powers, active or passive, but only as instruments of the power of Christ. Therefore a man or a woman, in the same way, can baptize in the case of necessity. Should a woman baptize outside of necessity, she and any cooperators would be doing wrong, but the person baptized should not be rebaptized. The requirement of natural resemblance between the persons in sacramental signs and the mystery signified is not so absolute that it cannot give way in the case of necessity.

According to Thomas, natural resemblance is a condition for sacramental signs to signify, but it is not finally constitutive of a sacrament. Sensible things by their very nature have a certain aptitude to signify spiritual effects. But it is divine institution that determines this aptitude, restricting it to one special significance. God chooses certain things before others to convey the significance of the sacraments in order that these signifcances can be more suitably conveyed (ibid., III, q. 64, a. 2, ad 2; cf. q. 60, a. 5, ad 1).

Care must be taken, then, in two directions. On the one hand, we must not overly emphasize natural resemblance for our understanding of sacramental signs. We could miss what is truly the divine choice of what is to be signifed. This choice is constitutive of the sacraments and natural resemblances subordinated to it. This choice must be discerned in divine revelation. It may be that the oft-quoted passage of Galatians 3:28 (“There does not exist among you Jew or Greek, slave or freeman, male or female. All are one in Christ Jesus”) tells us something about the subject of the sacrament of Orders which theories of natural resemblance do not. It took the Church some decades to see through the dichotomy of Jew and Greek still more centuries to see through the division of slave and freeman. It is premature to say that we fully understand the Christian view of the male and female diversity.

On the other hand, we must acknowledge that God uses natural resemblances between sensible things and persons on the one side and, on the other the mysteries of grace to be signified. One of the reasons Thomas offers for the necessity of sacraments is that by them human beings are led through sensible realities to spiritual realities in the manner appropriate to human nature, which proceeds from knowledge of the sensible world (ibid., III, q. 61 a. 1). Without any natural resemblances, analogies, between sensible realities and the revealed mysteries, sacraments would lead us into a world of illusion. God chooses certain things and persons to be the content of the sacramental signs precisely in order to provide more suitable signification (ut sit convenientior significatio) (III, q. 64, a. 2. ad 2).

We must take seriously, therefore, all the implications in the psychological and sociological realms of male priests to represent Christ. We cannot too readily dismiss what has been done and thought in the past as merely cultural determinism. The final arbiter, however, must be the totality of revelation. We need to continue to explore that revelation and hence the male and female imagery of the Scriptures. That imagery must be taken seriously also. If we cannot trust it to be telling us accurately about the mystery of the human-divine relationship, where do we go for truth? But at this point in history, we can wonder if this imagery as we understand it exhausts the divine revelation with regard to the relationship of man and woman, woman’s place in world and in Church, and in the ordained priesthood.


1. English translation from St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae Vol. 56, trans. Thomas Gilbey, O.P. (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Com pany, 1975), p. 137.

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