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Epilogue by Hans Urs van Balthasar from Woman in the Church


by Hans Urs van Balthasar
from Woman in the Church
by Louis Bouyer, translated by Marilyn Teichert,
published by the Ignatius Press, San Francisco
1979 and reproduced here with the usual permissions.

It may appear presumptuous to append an epilogue to an essay as compact and bold as the preceding. We write it in the hope of doing a service to the thoughts of the author, with whose basic argument we are wholly in agreement. By adding a few complementary remarks we hope to protect the author from the attacks which he himself expects from all sides. He will not perhaps hold against his friend this attempt at offering a protective hand, especially since he has repeatedly stressed the incompleteness of his assertions and even the fact that they are open to misinterpretation.(1)

Over against Christ—man and bridegroom —the Church is decidedly and primarily feminine. In this sense we must not hesitate to characterize as “the first and preeminent office” in the Church that ecclesial ministry performed by women who represent the Church as a whole because they have consecrated their entire existence to it in a special way. But Bouyer’s whole train of thought rests on an interior analogy between the natural relation of the sexes and the supernatural relation between Christ and the Church. In the natural relation, the woman enjoys the inward role of bearing, a role which is more perduring, while the man provides an external, episodic function: he merely represents a primal, creative principle which he himself can never be. And the question may be asked whether, in the abbreviated form in which it is presented by Bouyer, this analogy is really capable of carrying the burden of proof.

Let us begin by giving our hearty assent to everything the author says about the essence of woman, and to his conclusion that the ecclesial office proper is unsuited to her. Here Bouyer is saying in an original manner what, in the German-speaking world, a Gertrud von Le Fort and an Ida Friederike Görres said before him in another, no less emphatic way. His basic affirmation is that, in the sexual realm, woman is the full explicitation of the dignity bestowed on the creature of being a second causality alongside, in and through God. Because of this, furthermore, woman enjoys the role of being the world’s comprehensive answer to God. The role of the man consequently acquires a peculiarly open bi-polarity where woman’s role exhibits a closure: as a representative of the Creator God, the man is more than himself, and yet, at the same time, as a mere transmitter who can as such only represent, he is also less than himself. Once this, in my opinion, irrefutable assertion is applied to the relation between the Bride-Church (as a conceiving, bearing, birth-giving and nurturing reality) and the ecclesial ministerial office, it seems that no objection against it would hold up. And this will stand even after the following has been said.

We could ask whether in this short essay the discussion concerning Christ’s essence and position is not somewhat elliptical. Is it really impossible to ascribe to Christ with regard to the Church a role which is as ephemeral as that played by the man as a sexual being with regard to the woman? The author is, of course, aware of this, and he comes to terms with it in two ways. The Church, on the one hand, is the body formed by Christ the Head and proceeding from within him. She is the coming-into-view of the fullness of Christ, who in this “body” or “bride” fashions his own fullness for himself. On the other hand, to do this is possible for him only because, as Bouyer says, the Son in the world is the sole fully valid representative of the only fatherhood perfectly deserving the name: the paternity of the eternal Father who begets the Son in one uninterrupted act and who, together with the Son and the Spirit, creates and sustains the world in just as continuous a manner. In this connection, therefore, the relationship of Christ to the Church is incomparably higher than that which, for its part, the ecclesial ministerial office can assume towards the Church as, in a way, representing Christ within and to the Church.

At this point we can ask in what this incomparability consists between the man Christ (as the representative of the Creator God) and the male ministerial office or, in the first place the male’s natural sexual function. This question places us squarely before the mystery of the Cross and of the Eucharist it makes possible. Here it is that the Good Shepherd succeeds in laying down his life for his sheep in such a way that this life is handed over to his own as their indispensable and ever-available nourishment in the form of bread and wine. Jesus’ whole humanity attains to such supernatural fruitfulness through the Cross that, compared to it, the man’s momentary fruitfulness in the sexual act is but a shadow of an analogy. And so it must be if the Son, in his Eucharist (which is the foremost foundation of the Church’s “body:” I Corinthians 10:17), is to be a true representation of the Father’s eternal fruitfulness, and if at the same time, as man (as male!), he is to be the principle of the Church, which arises as Eve from Adam.

Behind all this there lies an even deeper mystery, one we hardly dare touch, since projecting our sexual differentiation onto God can only create misunderstandings, as Bouyer himself clearly shows. Nevertheless, we can still assert that the Son’s mode of divinity is an eternally receptive one, and this further allows us to understand two things. First, as a man, the Son never represents himself, but always the Father, as if his humility were familiar to him already from the divine inner life of the Trinity. And second, when the Church arises from him as Eve from Adam, the Son foreknows in himself (potentially or eminently, as it were) what the feminine-active mode of receptiveness involves.

This shows us once again that all gnostic speculation about divine sexual beings (syzygies) or a hermaphroditic primal human being does indeed point in the general direction of the Trinity, and yet in so doing it totally misses the mark of the Trinitarian mystery. Both here and even more explicitly in other books, Bouyer’s manner of criticizing such speculation is exemplary: he does not simply reject its basic impulse or demythologize it as merely the way the Trinity appears to us. The radical separation of feminine Sophia (God’s plan for the world and at most, in its realization, the world’s answer to God) and masculine Logos (which in Jesus becomes flesh) results in the perfect bridal character of both: through Christ and in the Spirit, the created world is introduced into the bridal chamber of God the Father. And Bouyer does not overlook the fact that even God’s masculine Word (memra) has a feminine aspect: through the Word, he is implanted into creation as Sophia.

For us, however, the more essential question is the following: What are the implications of everything we have said about the manner in which the Son represents the Father (by being distributed in the Eucharist) for the bearer of the ecclesial priesthood? Bouyer’s assertions in this essay concerning “spiritual fatherhood” impose strict limits: God alone is our Father through Christ’s work. No person, not even an officially delegated one, may arrogate to himself more than the possibility of transmitting. But if we do not interpret this “spiritual fatherhood” primarily on the analogy from below (that of the sexes), but rather on the analogy from above (the Christological), then our emphases ought to be slightly shifted. “Spiritual fatherhood, which imposes on the priest his particular vocation, is so far-reaching that it can scarcely be equated with physical fatherhood and its particular responsibilities. Once the latter has been sacrificed as is demanded, however, then there occurs what is always the case with all authentic sacrifices: one rediscovers at a higher or deeper level (the meaning is the same) the entire, precious, human reality which had been surrendered." (2) And concerning the exodus of the first monks into the desert, Bouyer says that it was undertaken to struggle with the evil forces vicariously, for the good of the Church. But he then sends the monks “back into the world that their spiritual fatherhood might have its effect on others, since it is this fatherhood which alone merits the monk his name, and he proves this not only by his dress but by the Holy Spirit within him.”(3)

Now, against all of this the final objection could be raised that the spiritual fruitfulness both of the priest and the monk (that the latter is included, not being a priest, is significant) falls to them insofar as they have a living faith and are, therefore, children of Mother Church like all laymen. This can in no way be denied, not even for the priest. Precisely at this point is where we must most emphatically lend our strongest support to Bouyer’s extremely fertile idea of an inseparable conjunction of the priestly ministerial office and the intercessory ministerial office, which exhibits the traits of both the virgin and the mother. With regard to the priest’s “spiritual fatherhood,” however, one will never be in a position of calculating which graces flow to him from the eucharistic Head whom he represents and which from the “Body” whose intercession supports him.

This non-calculable character of grace in no way invalidates the clear opposition we showed earlier between (masculine) representation and (feminine) conception that actively bears to full term. If this short epilogue appears to be something of a rehabilitation of the male in the Church (especially of the man on whom the priestly-episcopal office has been conferred), it was only our intention to set in relief a couple of key ideas which the author has himself already sketched elsewhere. We did not seek to undermine the humility which is always required of the male and which concludes the Gospel of the Beloved Disciple, united as he was to Mary. In the passage in question, Jesus must three times ask Peter, his first pope and the one who betrayed him three times, whether he loves him, before he can hand over to him the shepherd’s staff.

So as not to close this epilogue with our own critical remarks, we have appended some refreshing reflections by a full-voiced thinker who harmonizes perfectly with Bouyer. I speak of C. S. Lewis, the great Anglican lay theologian who, in spite of being a professor of philology, was perhaps in our century the most conversant in theological matters.(4)


1. From a wholly different direction I already ventured such protective help in my book, Der antirömische Affekt (1975). In it I showed that the feminine, Marian principle is, in the Church, what encompasses all other principles, even the Petrine.

2.L’Eglise de Dieu (1970) 259; cf. 345.

3.Ibid., 564. These quotes also make clear how we are to understand Bouyer’s statements about priest and woman concretely. And he says clearly enough what he thinks of all those things people are fond of calling the “third way,” but which amount to a corrosion or destruction of celibacy from within. The custom of times past of having a “spiritual bride” at priests’ First Masses—today mostly forgotten or reduced to external convention—witnessed to an instance of ancient Church wisdom which led no one to think of any abuse.

4. The following essay appears in: God in the Dock (1970), Essays on Theology and Ethics, 234-239. It first appeared in “Notes on the Way,” in: Time and Tide, v. 29 (August 14, 1948) 830-31. We gratefully acknowledge the permission of The Trustees of the Estate of C. S. Lewis to reprint this essay here.

The epilogue is from Louis Bouyer, Frau und Kirche, translation and epilogue by H. U. von Balthasar: (Einsiedeln: Johannes Verlag, 1977), 87-95. We are grateful to Fr. von Balthasar and Johannes Verlag for permission to include it here.

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