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Traditional Feminine Ministries

Traditional Feminine Ministries

Chapter V
of 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.

As incomplete and imperfect as they are, the preceding reflections suffice to clarify very precisely the strong foundation of the traditional practice of the Church concerning the granting of the episcopal and priestly ministry to males only. This is so evident that it might appear superfluous to enumerate ponderously the inevitable practical consequences. However, our unbalanced world is such that what should go without saying often needs to be said, and the most erroneous ideas are always liable to appear the most convincing when someone omits to dot the i’s and cross the t’s.

We must add that the positive aspects of the constant tradition of the Church concerning the ministry (or rather ministries) of woman are often very little known or understood, and to this day can even legitimately be seen as still too inexplicit and undefined. It is therefore not only desirable but necessary to show that the negative consequences of the preceding lines of argument are neither the only ones nor the most important.

Yet it is very clear that if man, vir, is defined within bisexual humanity as being representative of transcendence—more explicitly, the transcendence of a God who is revealed and communicated to us in his Son made flesh of our flesh, taken on in the womb of a woman—it is not a matter of meaningless chance that he became a man and not a woman, and that, further, he called into association with himself in his mission apostles of the same sex—a mission which has been continued up to our time by bishops and priests who have also been men. At the risk of raising tempests of virtuous indignation, let us say bluntly that it would have been monstrous if the Son of God had become a woman, and that it would consequently be a total contradiction to wish that he be represented among us by both men and women without distinction, in his work of revealing the Father and of reconciliation.

On the other hand, it was only by a woman that he was able to be born among us, as one of us. And if, as St. Thomas made clear, following the whole of patristic tradition since St. Irenaeus, it was the role of the Virgin Mary not only to give him our flesh, but, by her fiat, to involve the freedom of all humanity in a salvation which otherwise would not truly have saved us,(1) neither is it here a matter of meaningless chance that this role fell upon a woman and not a man.

In the same way, let us add, it was not without reason that the Evangelists insisted on the role held by women, whether in the immediate preparation for the coming of the Messiah—by Elizabeth’s faith, anticipating visions by a sort of tactile apprehension,(2) and in the invincible hope of the prophetess Anna (3)—or by the receptive welcome his words were given by the humble and penitent love of Mary Magdalene, (4) by the sinner at the house of Simon,(5) or by Mary of Bethany.(6)

If it falls to man rather than to woman to represent the gift of God in the transcendence of the giver, it belongs to woman no less, we repeat, not only to represent but to realize the immanence of the gift: its reception in the deepest levels of our being, from the flesh to the spirit. It was by the divine Spirit that the Word was made flesh, as it is by the same Spirit that he consummated the redemptive oblation of himself to the invisible Father while still in the flesh.(7) It is not, therefore, in vain that, after having overshadowed by his consecrating presence the Virgin who was to give birth while remaining a virgin, this Spirit allowed the same Virgin Mother and the other holy women to remain silently in the shadow of the cross at the moment when the most peremptory of the apostles defected, the most outspoken denied him, and only one single disciple, unnamed and called the beloved, remained with them after the Son of God had commended to him as his own mother her whom the Spirit had made the Mother of God. (8)

What great meaning, finally, is assumed by the fact that, even though the apostles were the only ones who officially and publicly witnessed to the resurrection, it was again the women who were the first to believe in it. So that the very message which the apostles would soon be preaching to the entire world was one which at first impressed them as the babbling of foolish women.(9)

They did not, however, begin their task of announcing and dispensing the divine mysteries without having received the Spirit, and it was grouped around Mary and these same women that they awaited and received his power. Similarly, it was in the presence of her who from the beginning had kept and pondered all these things in her heart that the last and greatest interpreter of the Gospel message set down what we might call the “definitive version.”(10)

It is quite typical that the Church of the Fathers, which confirmed the practice of reserving the apostolic function to men as well as the succession of this function in the bishops and presbyters, nonetheless maintained that the vocation and the sanctity of Mary surpassed not only the priests, but even that of the angels highest in glory and those most prestigious in their ministry among the elect.(11) However, we must emphasize that the primitive Church was persuaded that what she recognized in Mary as unique and unsurpassable was something with which all believing women were called to associate themselves through diverse vocations, in complementary ministries. Thus, alongside the apostolic ministry, there is perpetuated among us until the end of time this other ministry, inaugurated on earth by the Virgin Mary at the marriage of Cana and continued by her in heaven until the marriage of the Lamb, as all of Catholic tradition affirms.

The ministry of the apostles and their successors is a ministry of representation: sent by the Word, they are bearers, in their preaching, of its permanent relevance. In the sacramental celebration they extend to our time its immediate reality even to us, and, by this fact, though they are simply lambs in the herd of the eternal Shepherd, they exercise in his name the pastoral function which remains wholly his. The ministry, or rather ministries, of woman are, like that of the Virgin, essentially ministries of intercession, in the broadest and deepest sense. That is to say, they have the task of drawing us to the reception of the gift of God by loving contemplation of the mystery which is dispensed to them as to us by the apostles and their successors, and beyond that of leading us into the assimilation of this mystery by living faith exercised in charity.

It is these last two ministries that the ancient Church recognized in what she very early on considered the order of consecrated virgins on the one hand, and that of deaconesses and widows on the other. It is appropriate here to examine more closely, in the light of the preceding considerations, all the meaning contained in these two fundamentally feminine “orders.”The virgins, doubtless, were not the object of a fully developed liturgical and quasi-sacramental consecration until after the development of both masculine and feminine monasticism.(12) But it is very characteristic that the liturgy of their consecration still reflects what was clear in the preceding centuries: that the virgin consecrating herself to the Lord by her commitment to perpetual virginity is much more than, and completely different from, a feminine expression of a type of ascetic life pursued indifferently by Christian men or women. In her, the Church is represented and anticipated par excellence in her eschatological realization. Limited as she may be by the bounds of a particular personality, one might still say that this anticipation already encompasses all future reality. Consecrated to Christ, the virgin becomes in effect the spouse of the Second Adam, the ultimate man. In him, humanity is able to realize itself totally by adhering, belonging, identifying itself with the transcendent model of man, the eternal Son. In the virgin bride of Christ, then, this all-encompassing virtuality, containing in potentia, as belongs to feminine nature in its integrity, all the possibilities proper to what is human and creaturely, far from being mutilated by the deliverance of her whole being to such a Spouse, becomes thereby perfectly actualized.

Obviously, all the multicolored variety of divine Wisdom’s external plan for creation cannot be realized in an individual as it will be in the whole Church. Yet this variety finds itself, as it were, maternally enveloped, nourished, prefigured by the purity and integrity of created love responding to the uncreated in a womanly heart. For the heart of woman, of every woman, is potentially as vast as the world, since its nature is to envelop all human and created reality. A spontaneous, essentially limitless cosmic sympathy is, as we have said, a property of feminine consciousness. If therefore this consciousness, in a total abandonment of the heart, comes to espouse the very consciousness of the Son of God made man, there awakens there something like an anticipatory echo of all that will ever be known by created consciousness raised to the level of the uncreated—in the fusion of all hearts in the universal heart of the God-Man.

This is why it has always been considered as the proper, irreplaceable, fundamental function of the virgins consecrated to Christ to be for the whole mystical body a living testimony of praise to his glory: in other words, to live perpetually in loving contemplation and adoration of the mystery of Jesus as the mystery of God revealing and communicating himself to man. “Mary pondered all these things in her heart,” and, in the same way, it is the task, the specific work, of the consecrated virgin to be in her purity and totality—in her totality by the consecration of her purity—the living consciousness of the Church, as it were. Living from now on only for Christ, it falls to her in a privileged way to live in the intimate sphere of the eternal exchanges between the Father and the Son—within the movement of the Spirit of life which proceeds from the Father, rests on the Son, and recapitulates in the Son and, with him, all things, ad Patrem.

To the bishops and priests belongs the essentially masculine function of being the apostles of him who is himself the primordial apostle, the One sent by the Father, in whom he makes himself present to us, by the Word preached with authority, by the sacraments celebrated in the name of him who sends them, by the pastoral responsibility of which they become the instruments. But this function would be deprived of its effectiveness and, in fact, of any content which could be assimilated, without the silent cooperation of the consecrated virgin, with her fundamentally feminine function. It is she who constitutes the witness of the Spirit par excellence—that is to say, of the whole reality of the growth of divine charity in human hearts which attests to the reality of the communication of this Spirit.

Certainly, the Spirit is present and at work among the entire ecclesiastical hierarchy of ministers, and at the same time is diffused among all the members of Christ, men or women. But this ministry of the consecrated virgin—certainly not exclusively, but in an exemplary way—attests to this presence in anticipating all its eschatological fruit. Once again, her experiences can and must be shared by other Christians, whatever their sex. But it is to women in general, and in particular to the virgin exclusively and totally vowed to Christ, that it belongs first of all and most properly. All others (including men, beginning with the most elevated in the apostolic hierarchy) are drawn into this preserve by a maternal communication, in the most profound sense of maternity.

Let us repeat that it is not by chance that it was women and not men, not even the apostles, who remained at the foot of the cross, and women again who were the first to believe, and whose faith inspired or gave birth to the faith of the apostles themselves—from John, the disciple Jesus loved, to Peter, the head of the apostles. In the same way, the apostolic ministry, called to be continued until the end of time by the succession of bishops and the cooperation of priests, would be without effect, would have little or no echo, would ultimately transmit nothing, without the profound assimilation of its content: the all-powerful intercession of living faith, the faith which approaches, though in obscurity, its realization, the faith which appeared in the Virgin Mary and continues resplendent in all the consecrated virgins who have come after her—certainly too in all the faithful, but led, accompanied and enveloped by these women.

The properly paternal sacrament of the episcopal and presbyteral order represents the fatherly function in the Church which, incarnate through and in its head, Christ, encompasses the whole priestly order. This order has as its counterpart the consecration of virgins (i.e., the consecration of the womanly freedom of creation, espousing the masculine liberty of the Creator), which is the sacramental par excellence. For it is the expression which realizes this ex opere operantis Ecclesiae, for lack of which the divine power of the ex opere operato of the sacraments, whatever their efficacy, would find no welcome in the heart of man. The all-powerful motherly intercession, which is above all that of the Virgin, the Mother of God, communicates and extends itself throughout the entire Church. With a supplication inspired by and breathed in the eucharistic prayer, such intercession envelops all the still-unformed intentions of us who are believers and in whom Christ only begins to be formed.

Along with the original womanly ministry of the consecrated virgin, the early Church, beginning in apostolic times, also recognized that of "widow"—more or less synonymous with that of the deaconess.(13) The problem posed by this lack of distinction needs to be raised, as well as that posed by the lack of distinction between the male and female diaconate. Their common solution can only be found in a clear elucidation of womanly ministries in general, which cannot be attempted without a deepened understanding of the mystery of woman.

We must observe first of all that the attempts, already made in the early Church, to find a real distinction between the male and female diaconate were unfruitful, and are destined to remain so. They are based, in effect, on the idea, having no basis in apostolic tradition, that the diaconate is an inchoative though incomplete participation in the priestly ministry: a sort of embryonic priesthood, arrested before the completion of its development. This idea arose from a faulty interpretation of the practice which seems to have become prevalent very early: that of not conferring the status of bishop or priest upon any of the faithful except those previously tested by the exercise of the diaconate. It is clear, nevertheless, that the deacon, like the lesser ministers who simply shared his secondary tasks—as opposed to the priest or bishop—did not receive by his ordination any power to accomplish anything any baptised and confirmed Christian could not do—indeed, must do in certain circumstances and, in fact, did do in the absence of a deacon or where there was an insufficient number of deacons.

The deacon ordinarily assists the bishop or priest at the celebration of the Eucharist by leading the prayer of the faithful as well as bearing their gifts to the altar or helping the priest to redistribute them after they have been consecrated. Extraordinarily, by mandate of the bishop, he may preach or celebrate baptism. But there is no doubt that what he does ordinarily any layman could do extraordinarily and even, in a case of urgent necessity, that which even the deacon does extraordinarily. Any layman can, in fact, in certain cases, preach or give baptism, and all the more exercise the functions which derive from preaching, such as catechetical instruction or spiritual direction of others among the faithful.

The deacon is, therefore, simply consecrated to the regular exercise of those functions in the Church by which the common ministry, let us say even the common priesthood of the faithful, is connected to the ministerial priesthood and is nourished by it as by food. Every one of the faithful is, in fact, called to pray the prayer of faith which is the heart's openness to the divine Word, and which culminates in the eucharistic prayer. Likewise, all the faithful are called to offer the very thing which will be the matter of the eucharistic sacrifice, by which the design of this word is to be realized in us: the nourishment of our natural life. Finally, we are called to participate in this food transsubstantiated into the Bread of Eternal Life: the very flesh and blood of Christ, by which we all become the Body of Christ and thus are able to "make up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for his body, the Church, in our own bodies."

Only the bishop, however, with the priests as his helpers can preach the Word with the authority, the actual reality of Christ himself —the Word of God made flesh—and, therefore, only they can preside in his name at the eucharistic prayer, where his body is consecrated by that same Word whereby he delivers himself to us and for us in such a way that we are all encompassed in his offering as we are all gathered into him.

These two ministries—the universal ministry of all the members of the body and the particular ministry of those who are the representatives of the perpetual presence of the Head without which the body would not be able to subsist—are so closely linked to each other that neither would be able to be exercised, or even to exist, without the other: neither the Church "without the bishop nor the bishop without the Church. To conjoin them is, therefore, not properly speaking a supplementary function: it is simply of the nature of the body to lend itself to that, and those who apply themselves to it more particularly do nothing more than exercise in and for the body what belongs to it as a whole, since it is a body in which all its members spontaneously cooperate even if all cannot ordinarily exercise such a function, although each individual may do so if there is a need.

Considering this, it does not seem that any essential distinction can be made between the male and female diaconate, even if the ways in which they are exercised might differ more or less according to circumstances. As neither, in fact, ever does anything more than every believer, man or woman, may do when necessary, it is difficult to see any basis for this distinction.

In fact, even if only vestiges of the female diaconate exist any more (in the West, despite recent efforts which have not yet borne much fruit, the situation of the male diaconate has for a long time not been much better), there appears even among these no trace of such a distinction. The Carthusian nuns are alone in the Latin Church in still having ordained deaconesses, who have always worn the maniple and stole, publicly sung the Gospel, and have been allowed, at least in principle, to distribute communion. The same can be said of the abbesses of the Maronite rite, and more generally of other women religious among whom similar privileges have been preserved.

In the early Church, however, it appears that the principal liturgical functions of deaconesses were the exercise among women, particularly in relation to baptismal initiation, of the same functions as the deacons exercised among men.

Moreover, inspired explicitly by what the Acts of the Apostles tells us of the seven associated with Stephen, the early Church always considered it a function of deacons, no less essential than their liturgical functions and closely linked to their presenting the offertory gifts and distributing communion, to exercise public charity in the Church and in her name, particularly by coming to the aid of the poor. By taking care of all the material aid the Church could offer to her members in need, indeed also to non-Christians, the deacon is the first witness of the extension of that charity, supernatural but completely incarnate, which is at the heart of the Gospel message.

Here we encounter the confusing and more or less complete identification in the early Church of the female diaconate with the ministry of widows. It can be easily understood if we recall the apostolic exhortation not to admit into the ecclesiastical order of widows, recognized as such by the Church, any except those who in marriage have raised their children properly and have practiced hospitality particularly with regard to the saints (I Timothy 5:9 ff.)-

What does this mean? First of all, for the women who were not called to virginal consecration, that their life in Christian marriage was to have been, in the home, like an apprenticeship to this ministry of public charity, to which the widow, consecrated as such, was then called, in participation with the ministry of the Church with regard both to its own members and those outside and in conformity with the truly Christian spirit of charity. Secondly, it means that there is, in the exercise of this charity and certainly also in its material realization, a maternal aspect which those who have experienced natural motherhood in a fully Christianized sense would be particularly apt to manifest.

Thus one might say that as the male diaconate has, since the beginning of the Church, in a way seminally contained and synthesized from the outset all the particular ministries both inside and outside the Church that lay Christian men could be called to fill, centering on and extending from those directly rooted in the Eucharist, the same has been the case for the feminine diaconate among Christian lay women.

It is very revealing, however, that there has never been felt a need to subdivide the female diaconate into specialized ministries, as was the case everywhere, both in the East and the West, with the male diaconate. For it is proper to man, vir, to realize himself by adopting a public role, a specialized profession which transcends his personality, whether a role within organized human society, in the state or the Church, or the representation of a properly divine role, as is the case with the priesthood or the episcopate. On the other hand, it is proper to the feminine personality, insofar as it is feminine, to define itself not by some particularity which tends to abstract from the cosmic and human community, but rather by a faculty suited to in some way bearing this community in its entirety within herself, enveloping it in the most intimate and quasi-physical sense with a solicitude not at all exterior, but rather comprehensive.

It is clear that this does not exclude for woman, on the plane of either grace or nature, the possibility of a specialized vocation—at least certain ones. But, underlying these, her maternal vocation always remains, which she brings to realization either literally in a home or analogically in a domain larger than that of the family. And, we must add, in the very exercise of vocations which woman can exercise as well as man, beginning with the diaconate, but extending to teaching, medicine, indeed even to the exercise of judiciary, political or simply administrative functions, her tasks will be to introduce into them that character of maternal empathy with those in whose interests she is working. Only woman can bring this dimension to bear in all the human activities in which she engages, in just the same sense that it is up to her alone to realize efficaciously and completely the spousal character of response to creative activity which is the supreme, ultimate vocation of every creature and of all creation.


1. Summa Theologica, Pars tertia, quaest. 30, art. 1.

2. Luke 1:41 and 44.

3. Luke 2:36 ff.

4. Matthew 28:1 and parallels, and also John 20:18.

5. Luke 7:40 ff.

6. Luke 10:39 and John 11.

7. Cf. Luke 1:35 and Hebrews 9:14.

8. Matthew 27:55 and parallels and John 19:25 ff.

9. Matthew 28 and parallels. Cf. John 20.

10. Luke 9:19 and 51; Acts of the Apostles 1:14;John 19:26 ff.

11. Already present in St. John Damascene, the theme becomes classic in post-iconoclastic theology, in particular in St. Theodore the Studite.

12. On the consecration of virgins and the theologywhich it implies, see Rene Metz, La Consécration des vierges dans I’Eglise romaine (1954).

13. There is no good modern study on this twofold subject. But one can find all the texts in the publications of Wilhelm Loehe, the founder of the Lutheran deaconesses, where he justified his resurrecting this order in Protestantism.

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