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Women are Called to Bear Christ into Their Families and the World by Joyce Little

Women are Called to Bear Christ into Their Families and the World

Joyce Little
published in L'Osservatore Romano24:15 (April 1993):6.

It is to all practical intents and purposes impossible to speak in a Catholic way about the advancement of women within the context of the feminist debate, inasmuch as the feminist notion of advancement is tied to inadequate or false notions of faith, freedom, and authority. From the feminist point of view, faith arises out of and is defined by the experience of women, freedom is linked to liberation from the realities and responsibilities of marriage and childbearing (as in "reproductive freedom"), and authority is viewed solely as power. Hence feminists seek "empowerment," and see women's ordination as the means for getting a place in the power structure of the Catholic Church.

Does this mean that there is no truth at all in the feminist challenge to the Catholic Church? Not at all. The feminists are a constant reminder to us of inadequacies in some traditional Catholic conceptions not only regarding women, but regarding the importance of the female character of the new covenant established by Christ. The new covenant, as Pope John Paul II has pointed out, was inaugurated by Mary at the annunciation (Redemptoris Missio, no. 27) and consists ultimately of the marital union of Christ and the Church (Eph 5:32). Jesus Christ is the sole mediator of the new covenant. But the new covenant involves a relationship of reciprocity and interdependence of Jesus Christ with Mary in his earthly ministry and with the Church after his ascension. Both Mary and the Church are charged with bearing Christ into the world. The relationship of Christ to Church as vine to branches (Jn 15) makes it clear that while there can be no Church without Christ, there also can be no effective presence of Christ in the world without the Church (since it is the branches, not the vine, which bear the fruit). The advancement of women, therefore, depends upon a proper reading of the Christ/Church relationship and is irrevocably linked to the Marian/ecclesial side of the new covenant and of the Catholic faith.

The Cause of Women is Not Served by Rejecting Catholic Faith

This means, first, that the true advancement of women rests upon a true understanding of the faith of the Church. The cause of women is not well served either by the feminist repudiation of traditional Catholic faith or by inadequate theologies of the Catholic faith which fail to take into account the enormous significance of the Marian/ecclesial character of the new covenant. To repudiate or to misunderstand the faith of the Church is to repudiate or to misunderstand the female role of Mary and the Church in relationship to the male role of Jesus Christ within that covenant.

Nothing could be clearer in the revelation given to us than that the sexual differentiation of male and female is created by God and constitutes a part of the good creation. Indeed, it is precisely as male and female that we image God (Gn 1:27). That this sexual differentiation is bound up with marital union is equally clear (Gn 2:24), but what is most striking is that sexual differentiation and marital union have as their ultimate goal the marital union of Christ and the Church (Eph 5:31-32). Creation is ordered from the outset to the covenantal, marital union of Christ and the Church. The advancement of women (and of men as well) depends upon our understanding these most basic facts of God's good creation and of the new covenant. The first intimation we are given of the character of the differentiation between male and female comes after the fall, in the so-called curses meted out to Adam and Eve (Gn 3:16-19). Each is hurt by the fall in different ways which reveal to us the specific roles and vulnerabilities of each. Adam is hurt in his relationship to his work and to the world around him. Eve is hurt in her relationships to Adam and to the children she will bear. If the specifically male sphere is defined by work and by the world, the specific female sphere is defined by marriage, home, and family. Although we are told to call no man father (Mt 23:9), Eve is "mother of all the

living" (Gn 3:20), Mary is the Mother of God, and the Church is the mother of all the children of God. Because every woman is defined in her being as mother, "God entrusts the human being to her in a special way" (Mulieris Dignitatem, no. 30).

It is tragic that so many people, including so many feminists, regard the identification of women with home, marriage, family, and personal relationships as demeaning to women. The current pontiff has said that women have a special priority in the "order of love" (Mulieris Dignitatem, no. 29). There can be nothing demeaning about this when we consider that God is love. Pope John Paul II has also said that "the future of humanity passes by way of the family" (Familiaris Consortio, no. 86). Therefore, women, in the Catholic view of things, stand not on the periphery but at the very center of the reality of both creation and redemption.

The advancement of women is connected to the health of marriage, of family, of personal relationships. There can be no advancement of women (or anyone else) in a society in which those realities are unhealthy or disintegrating, as they so clearly are today in Western societies. Women are, therefore, called to place the well-being of marriage, family, and personal relationships at the center of their lives and concerns.

Third, it is the specific female role of Mary and the Church to bear Christ into the world. Although it is not much commented upon, in the context of the laity (whether male or female) in the Church the female role of making salvation a reality in the whole of creation is essential. The primary vocation of the laity does not lie, as so many lay people today seem to think, in service to the local parish, however important such service might be. The special obligation of the laity, as Vatican II pointed out, is the renewal of the temporal order (Apostolicam Actuositatem, no. 7). Pope John Paul II affirms this, reminding us that the laity are called to "consecrate the world itself to God" (Familiaris Consortio, no. 56).

Women Are Called to Bear Christ

Women in particular are called to bear Christ, first, into their families, bringing up children who are the sons and daughters of God, and second, into the larger world, by living out and bearing witness to the order of love, in which the sacred values of human life and personhood from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death are placed ahead of the secular values of power, fame, and fortune.

As regards these secular values, it should be noted, finally, that nothing is more misinformed than the feminist notion that the priesthood will give women access to power in the Church. The magisterium exercises not power but authority, and there is a world of difference between the two. Power is the exercise of the human will over reality, to change or affect it in some way. Authority is the ability to discern a reality and to define the doctrines of the faith. The magisterium has no power to change the reality of revelation. The magisterium has only the authority to discern the mind of Christ and the truth as Christ embodies and reveals it. The notion that the pope and/or the bishops could allow divorce and remarriage, contraception, the ordination of women, and a host of other things desired today rests upon the assumption that they exercise power, not authority. But they have no power to change what Christ has revealed. They have only the authority to discern that revelation. The pope and the bishops are as bound to the faith of the Church as is every other member of the Church. This is what Hans Urs von Balthasar meant when he said that "the feminine, Marian principle is, in the Church, what encompasses all other principles, even the Petrine" (in the epilogue to Louis Bouyer, Women in the Church, trans. Marilyn Teichert [San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1979], p. 113).

Thus do we come full circle. Everything in our lives as Catholics, male and female alike, depends upon the feminine, Marian faith of the Church. To destroy that faith renders all else, including the authority of the magisterium, null and void. All of us therefore have an obligation to know our faith, defend it, insist that our bishops and priests preach it in and out of season, and, most important of all, live it and, in so doing, make it the leaven by which the whole of the temporal order is consecrated to God.


Wijngaards Institute for Catholic ResearchThis website is maintained by the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research.

The Institute is known for issuing academic reports and statements on relevant issues in the Church. These have included scholars' declarations on the need of collegiality in the exercise of church authority, on the ethics of using contraceptives in marriage and the urgency of re-instating the sacramental diaconate of women.

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