from Woman in the Church
by Louis Bouyer,
translated by Marilyn Teichert,
published by the Ignatius Press, San
1979 and reproduced here with the usual permissions.
We have preferred to limit ourselves in the body of this work to sketching the broad outlines of the most ancient and constant tradition of the Church concerning woman and her ministries. These fundamental ideas must be considered, we believe, by anyone who wants today to reflect on this problem in a serious way. But because they are so neglected, or simply ignored, we wanted to avoid the risk of weakening them, of reducing their import by mixing them, however little, with considerations or suggestions which are personal to us. However, it might be good here to give at least some glimpse of possibilities as yet unexploited, especially those proper to our time, suggested by perspectives opened by the foregoing study. A renewed appreciation, first of all, of the value of consecrated virginity, the traditional meaning of which we have recalled, already lends itself to much more creativity than is apparent at first glance. Then, too, a renovation of the female diaconate, just like that of the male diaconate, and perhaps even more so, should today be much more than a simple restoration: it should be a creative development with manifold implications. But above all, it seems to us, we must begin with a better understanding of what women accomplished in the Church in the past and of what this implies with respect to possibilities offered to or by women in the Church. We must then open our eyes to the wide range of possibilities, still largely unexplored and even less put into practice, which appear to be theirs in our society.
It is in order to present a brief sketch of these possibilities that we have included this appendix, with the understanding that here, as opposed to what has preceded, we are not claiming to set forth the authentic teaching of Biblical revelation and ecclesiastical tradition, but simply to propose some views, inspired by those same sources, which seem to us relevant to the present situation. However, we clearly realize that they may well disconcert not only those Christians who today call themselves traditionalists but also those who believe themselves to be progressives, even when the former simply maintain rigidly very recent and often aberrant customs and the latter merely return to pre-Christian and indeed pre-Biblical errors.
And we also freely recognize how much in these views is necessarily provisory, and therefore uncertain, indeed perhaps erroneous. That is why we have restricted them to the appendix: not that the problem of drawing the nova from the vetera in a spirit of living tradition is secondary, but because we are aware of the difficulties of the task and we are far from believing that what follows is gospel, nor do we wish in any sense to present it as such.
1. Legislation and Influence
Before going into the questions we have just enumerated, we must turn our attention to a sociological finding too little known among modern man, particularly in our civilization, which is so often irrational but no less rationalistic for all that. It is that the reality of social life always goes beyond institutional forms, and often makes light of them. It is perfectly true that the society in which we still live, particularly in France, although everything in it is unsettled or crumbling, remains substantially, on the level of expressly formulated laws, a last or next-to-last avatar of the society which the Napoleonic Code claimed to have created ab ovo. And it is certain that, at least on paper, society was pervaded with masculinity which was suffocating for women. (1)
So much the better that people, therefore, react vigorously against that! (As long as they do not believe, once again, that women will gain the emancipation they dream of simply by being constrained to become female versions of men.) And so, just as it is impossible to believe that legislation which appears to be the most paralyzing would suffice to annihilate the actual contribution of women to society, so also we should not be under any illusions about the extent and importance of the new possibilities which are offered to them even by the most desirable changes in this domain. Proclaiming the equality of all men and women will no more make this equality a reality than denying it would suppress it.
We would even say that to imagine the contrary is a particularly masculine type of illusion. The male adores juridical labels, but he often proves incapable of filling his legal fictions with real content. Women often do without them quite well, for they naturally prefer the reality of power to its appearances. That is why the very societies where women are nothing but perpetual minors, if not slaves, must be more closely scrutinized. It suffices, in this regard, to recall the history of the Ottoman Empire to discover with what ease the exclusive reign of the male, indeed a theoretical superman, could in fact conclude with a dictatorship of the harem!
To return to the West and to the heart of the problems of the Church, I cannot forget a conversation I had a short time ago with a Reverend Mother Abbess, who was particularly bitter against the constraints and restraints of the Code of Canon Law. But after all, Father! she exclaimed, Does the Church believe us women so incapable of exercising authority that she surrounds what she allows us of it with so many reservations?
Do you not believe, Reverend Mother, I answered her, that she knows you to be so gifted in the exercise of this authority that she found it prudent to provide some reins in giving it to you?
My questioner had enough good sense to break into laughter, knowing too well, and from experience, that everywhere a female monastery exists in association with a male one, under the supposed superiority of the cowl over the wimple, it is Reverend Mother in reality who, not content with regulating everything in her own domain, ordinarily presides over almost everything in her neighbors as well.
To return to more general observations, more pertinent to the laity: are not these males, filled with the awareness of their privileges, and foregoing no occasion to recall them, three-fourths of the time abject slaves of those women who appear ecstatically to accept their subordinate condition? Molière, and even more Voltaire, had a few things to say about this state of things which should long since have opened the eyes of the male sex, if their happy complacency was not above all else the result of their blindness. I refer you without pressing the matter further to the last lines of L'Homme aux quarante ecus.
I know perfectly well the furor that such observations habitually unleash among the current brand of feminists. But I persist nonetheless (with male obstinacy!) in the unshakeable certitude that the only probable result of this kind of emancipation of woman would amount to her trading the reality for its shadow.
This does not at all mean that one must not correct, in the legislation of the Church as in that of the State, or simply in matters of custom, everything that does constitute oppression or diminution of the possibilities of truly feminine action. But it is even more important not to misunderstand the importance of real influence, no less great than that of legislation, throughout human life in general, and in the life of women in particular. So it is vital to grasp the fact that masculine efficacy is rather in the domain of formal prescription, while feminine efficacy is above all in that of influence. Without at all minimizing the importance of institutional modifications, such as those we are going to suggest, we must not fall into that form of feminism which is nothing but that of womenunconsciously riveted to males to the point that they can no longer conceive of any other means of affirming their place under the sun than those which men have forged: apparent successes which, all things considered, may well be quite illusory.
2. The Consecrated Virgin in Todays World
An historical truth brought to light very effectively by Rene Metz in his work on the Consecratio virginum is that the consecrated virgin, as such, had a recognized place in the Church long before the appearance of the monastic movement. When this latter was developed, on the other hand, it is true that it favored the institutionalization of this consecration. But we might ask ourselves if it did not also reduce the image of the consecrated virgin, first to that of a monastic, respectable as it might be, then to that of the religious, and finally of the good sister, whom it is superfluous to characterize and who escapes all definition.
To this situation, or rather this progressive decline of the value placed upon the idea of consecrated virginity, clearly no remedy can be offered by an aggiornamento which has sometimes consisted for sisters in disguising themselves as glamour girls in order to explore more easily, with similarly secularized priests, what our modern laxists amusingly call thethird way. What is necessary on the other hand, above all, is a rediscovery and a recasting of the status of the Christian virgin in the Church. It is only after this that the feminine monastic vocation can be regenerated and, more generally, a radical reform of what we call religious can be envisaged, which will preserve them perhapsat least for a certain timefrom turning into some new variety of demi-saints.
But even more than this rediscovery and before this reform, a fundamental ministry of woman in the Church must emerge, no less important in its way than the priestly ministry, and its indispensable complement. I would immediately add that it would be most advantageous to maintain a jealous independence with regard to the latter, certainly along the lines of that which is most attractive in contemporary femininity: womans desire no longer to cling to man, which is the reverse side of her ability to do without him.
In view of the erotomania of contemporary civilization, which is that of perpetual adolescence when it is not a regression to an infantile sado-anal state, I do not think the Church can do anything more healthy and health-restoring than finally to develop in all its possible dimensions womans first and most elevated ministry.
In fact, our permissive society is breaking down from below as it lies full length in the enormous pool of its cheap pleasures. Kierkegaard had already said that, while our ancestors were ready to throw themselves on their knees to gain their salvation, we would like to have it, like water and gas, on every floor at the mere turn of a faucet... Woman, even more than man, is the victim of this, for she finally becomes the simple object of this pleasure for whose attainment there is no longer any desire to make even the least effort.
In contrast to what has always been the case, it is no longer prostitution which offers a substitute for love, but marriage, which tends to be reduced to a form of domestic concubinage. In fact, all these frenetic activities generously baptized erotic, are nothing more than sad collective sessions of masturbation.
In the face of such a deterioration, the best thing the Church can do for the world would be to show it that there is no true and lasting happiness without asceticism, and no fruitful asceticism without an interior life. But what can we expect from the Church if increasing numbers no longer pray and no longer fast? It is certainly not such a Church that can drive out these demons.
On the contrary, it is essential to the Christian virgin to be the witness par excellence of that which can restore human integrity at the same time as openness to God: the voluntary renunciation motivated by faith. It should then be clear that, at a time when so many priests are no longer capable of being the first among the faithful of the religion they still pretend to represent, the only serious hope for bringing humanity back to health and restoring to it a witness of Christian sanctity which will touch it right at the seat of its evil lies in a reactivation of this virginal witness.
But be clear about this. It is not a matter of some exhibitionism of virtue succeeding to the former one of shamelessness. Witness has nothing to do with showmanship. To use one of the slogans of theological word-games of a while back, it is a question of presence (which is, as we have seen, entirely feminine) and not of apostolate (which is a vocation for men at least insofar as emasculating rationalizations do not confuse apostolate with apostasy).
In this our world, the beings most fragile, menaced and nevertheless most capable of new independence are single women, whose number has been multiplied by the dissolution of the family. The witness of the Christian virgin which, after or along with martyrdom, was already in antiquity the motive of conversions to Christ, must surely be revived under rejuvenated forms.
I am perfectly aware of the snickering this proposition will provoke, beginning with the camp of professional feminists. The salvation of Church and world by the old maids! we will be told by these so-called emancipated women.
Let me then make it clear from the start that the first condition to be put upon the exercise of this regenerated ministry of the Christian virgin is that it attract girls who would not have had any more difficulty, and perhaps less, than many others in finding husbands, and that their consecration, while making them take down their sign, as St. Francis de Sales picturesquely put it, will not transform them thereby into so many pitiful pearls. But I do not hesitate to add that there are vocations which are manifested through the pressure of ineluctable circumstances as well as by completely spontaneous inspiration. In other words, many unmarried women who only remained so because they had no choice in the matter, if they have the courage, may very well come to the point, not only of ratifying, but of transfiguring a sad necessity into such a joyous conviction that it finally becomes no less convincing than that of their sisters favored with the gifts of nature, if not of grace.
Poverty having been always the necessary accompaniment of consecrated virginity, or, rather, consecrated virginity being itself no more than the consummated interiorization of Scriptural poverty, how are we to conceive the forms it should take today for the virgin united to Christ? We do not have far to look: typist, seamstress, salesgirl in a department store, nurse or laboratory worker, etc. These and other professions offer more than enough choices for them to earn their bread by the sweat of their brows, without great risk of falling into the excesses of our consumer society. Since the usual possibility of living protected in the womb of the family, which was the recourse of virgins of antiquity, is no longer much more than a dream or a memory, it would be permissible to our modern virgins either to live together in twos and threes in a modest apartment or to opt for solitude, which certainly demands more courage, but can, after all, prove to be even less trying.
Without necessarily entering into all the already over-complicated machinery of the contemporary secular institutes, these could also share with freer associations the simplest and best of their experience. On these bases it is desirable, while seeking all the good advice available, but without committing themselves to follow it always (since it is a question of women, there is little danger of this happening), that they make their rules of life for themselves rather than receiving them ready-made from some good priest.
Certainly, it would be good for them to profit freely from all that ecclesiastics who are capable of understanding them can provide, particularly on the level of doctrine and confessions. But what spiritual direction they need could often be more advantageously given them by their companions or more experienced sisters than by the best-intentioned clerics or religious.
Considering some of the aberrations of the contemporary clergy and its return at breakneck speed to the mores and customs of the fifteenth century, under the guise of progressivism, it would be much to their advantage not to mix too much in these circles if they value their consecrationand, as a matter of fact, their virtue.
In ideal circumstances which, obviously, our present circumstances can hardly be construed to be, their parish church should be their chapel. Barring that, they will certainly discover with a little luck and, if possible, a small car, some place, monastic or not, where people still pray in the Catholic fashion and where the Eucharist is celebrated in a manner which makes it possible to recognize it as a Catholic Mass.
But, one might ask, what would be, with all this, the ministry of these virgins? Essentially to prayto pray at church and at home, in such a way that they move toward praying without ceasing, carrying in prayer their whole existence and that of all those around them, a prayer in which their total donation to God in Christ, head and members, is ceaselessly expressed and renewed, which only total renunciation of all that is not Him renders truly effective.
It is this witness, and, beyond the witness, this mysterious bringing Christ to birth in others by association with his Cross in the eucharistic spirit, which will always constitute, as it has always constituted, the proper ministry of the consecrated virgin. Let us not hesitate to say it again: it is just as essential to the Church and the world as the priestly ministry. And it has perhaps never been more obviously necessary.
Let no one answer that all this is Utopian. To be sure, it has no place in the sacrosanct and empty cadres of specialized Catholic Action nor in those of the great orders or of the more modest congregations. But it already exists and is much more widespread than one might think. I would even be tempted to say that this form of consecrated life already has its saint, who can easily do without canonization: Madeleine Delbrel. If one reads Nous autres gens des rues one will see that I have not simply made this up. This will permit me to pass from the consecrated virgin as such to the monastic and the religious, as one would wish them to become againor become for the first time!
3. Religious Vocations Today
The monastics constitute traditionally the milieu par excellence from which liturgically consecrated virgins are drawn. More exactly, if she has come to the monastery in what the canon lawyers call integritas corporis, the nun is called to receive this consecration as the crowning of her religious life definitively constituted on the base of the solemn profession. It is not amiss to compare this with the professed monk who then can and, in fact, often does receive the priesthood.
The nun, in fact, like the monk for his part among the baptized of the masculine sex, is no more than a baptized woman who undertakes to realize, as immediately and totally as possible, all that baptism renders desirable. She does this by the means that baptism itself indicates and which are not in general more than an application of the cross of Christ to all of life, with a view to an anticipated communion with his resurrection.
In this regard, there is nothing clerical about either the monk or the nun. In principle, they are no more than laymen particularly involved, as people like to say today, but not in some political cause, simply rather, in the Christianity of the Gospel.
After that, work, according to the best monastic tradition, is the first of all the ascetic practices and the basis of all the others. And there is hardly a human task that can be assumed by a woman that the nun cannot make hers, so long as it can be accomodated to her vocation to a thoroughly evangelical life.
Understood thus, the monastic life of women, as well as of men, far from being a life apart and although it must be energetically separated from life as the world knows and practices it, is a life whose concrete realization in a group which is communally consecrated to it should normally furnish a center where the laity (continuing to live in the world and beginning with the consecrated virgins who are not monastics) come to revive their zeal by deepening their faith and their prayer. (Even some priests might do this, but, in our day, one must not expect too much!)
In this primordial task of hospitalitya total hospitality offered to the soul as well as the body, fatigued by our existencewhich is often hectic and too often devoid of meaningthere is no doubt that nuns faithful to the spirit as well as to the letter of their holy rules, as they say, would be much more easily and widely efficacious than men, even those of indisputable sanctity. If you ask why, the answer is quite simple: as the ants have their hills and the bees their hives, so women quietly make their homes, as naturally as men, assembled even for the most sublime motives, tend regularly either to the mixture of militarism and laxity found in the barracks, or to the exclusive comfort of a club for old bachelors. (It is not I who say this: it is the most learned modern Benedictine commentator on the Rule of St. BenedictDom Cuthbert Butler.)
What is one to think of the marvelous developmenthas it been sufficiently described to us as such in the past?by which monks became religious, indefinitely multiplied and diversified? Is it truly a privilege of the West, while the East has hardly known such a phenomenon? Yet this proliferation is still of small proportions compared to that of women religious.
At the end of the nineteenth century, the foundation of a new congregation of women became the sign of a clerical career reaching its glorious apotheosis.
However, since at least the end of the Middle Ages, it was clear that this multiplication of religious men and women had as its primary effect the loss from view of the meaning of monastic life, whose essential character we have just recalled, and which appears an indispensable element to a Christianity in progress and not in decadence. Is it not clear that today all this vegetation is more than exhausted, to the point that one could not touch it without its falling into dust or decay?
Is it not the moment, leaving aside here male religious, to ask ourselves this question: would not the rebirth and transposition of the ancient order of deaconesses and widows, either within or outside of the monastic cadre, be the only realistic way of revivifying whatever, deserves to survive of the religious of yesterday and today? We would have at the same time the chance to redevelop within the Church, beside the fundamental ministry of woman, that of the virgin consecrated to Christ in the prayer of faith and other ministries justifiably diverse, as a function of the concrete services which the Church and the world, today, can expect of the most fervent Christians. To wish to enter here into the details would this time be to move into Utopia or would lead us too far into analyses which are not within our province. But the best that we could do was, we believe, to pose clearly the question which has just been enunciated.
And now we arrive at a conclusion which will provoke the accusation that we are simply defending a housewife feminism, from the same critics who would have seen nothing in what has preceded but a pious salvaging of the old maids in waiting.
Well, so be it, as long as nothing is attributed to us but what we actually say. We make no claim that the role of housewife should be the only possible ministry for women, nor the ideal ministry. We have just developed the contrary position at length.
This does not lessen the fact that the mass of women, whether Christian or not, just like the mass of men, is destined for marriage. And today as always, if there is a place where the most ordinary of women, and many of the most extraordinary, can give their full measure, and that which they alone are capable of giving, it is quite certainly, however much one might affirm the contrary, in the family which is not only theirs, but which they will have produced (yes, with the cooperation of their husbands! but with a cooperation which remains episodic and, in the best of cases, always more or less amateur: see above). Péguy, in a beautiful passage of oratory, calls the fathers of the family the adventurers of the modern world. Yes, without a doubt, but adventurers who would have every chance of caving in from thirst or hunger in the desert of the modern world, with or after their kids, if the women were not there, like Sarah in the tent, who certainly had good excuse to laugh up her sleeve. Whatever be, then, what is pompously called action in the world, to which one would hope women, like men and Christians in the front ranks, can and must consecrate themselves: the action in the family, on the family, through the family, remains and shall always remain that of the great majority of women, and no one else will ever replace them.
There is no doubt that they must themselves envisage, prepare and create new forms in confused and confusing circumstances. But that is surely why, after having limited ourselves to clearing the way, we shall leave them to enter upon it, without pretending to teach them how.
1.To say, as it is often said, that this thereby belies the societys archaic character, is not to know what one is talking about. It is sure, however, that in what concerns women as in what concerns the working class and peasants, it represents a resurgence of the type of societies present in Greek antiquity. But this post-Napoleonic society is nonetheless far behind, for example, the Latin society, which, in fact, recognized and (what is worth more than all the declarations of rights with no solid economic basis) assured in practice an astonishing independence to women.
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