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The Ordination of Women - Seeking a New Approach

The Ordination of Women - Seeking a New Approach

by Mary Grey

a lecture to the Annual General Assembly of Catholic Women's Ordination, London 7 May 2002, here reprinted with her permission

Since efforts for the last 20 years to address the arguments used by the Magisterium to forbid the Ordination of women have not proved successful(1) -except in showing the absurdity of their very foundations - a multi-strategic approach must be a way forward. That is, while continuing to show the emptiness and sheer untruth of the oft-repeated prohibitions -at the same time to approach the question from different angles. This paper tried to do exactly that, namely to ask what new understandings of priesthood appear, when approached through a widened notion of what is meant by sacrament. First, I ask how the idea of sacrament was changed by the Second Vatican council.

1. Post- Vatican II and the widened and deepened notion of sacrament.

Four main approaches are explored- because these seemed to offer an enriched sacramental experience. Firstly, Sacraments were seen as encounter with Christ: encounter with Christ as fundamental sacrament - not the cultic focus of seven discrete events- became understood as a more fruitful approach. Thus initiation is entry into the Christ-mystery, Eucharist is the climax of this, and ongoing nourishment from Christ, anointing is Christ’s healing, and marriage/priesthood became seen as concrete expressions of discipleship. (2)

Secondly, at the same time, a different understanding of Church arose: sacraments are ecclesial celebrations. So, the Church is the primordial sacrament/place, the graced space where the Christ-saving-events are encountered. The Community’s role in celebration of sacrament became emphasised over the rather individualised, privatised ideas of the reception of grace which had preceded the Council.

Thirdly, the incarnational dimension of sacrament began to stress the world as Sacrament - drawing on both Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions. This approach both broadened and deepened what was already an implicit sacramental theology of Creation. Finally, almost as an extension of the previous point, Sacraments are graced events, embodied events, and at the same time, celebrations of key human events or peak moments of human experience. For young people this was very appealing: the idea that a coffee house encounter revealing the love, forgiveness and healing of Christ could be sacramental, somehow made the notion of sacrament less cultic and more accessible. Thus all of these new dimensions - or ancient dimensions in a new form - are also attempts to bridge the gap between the sacred and the profane, the cultic event and the human experience which grounds it.

2.Problems arising:

Yet it proved not so easy to shift understandings. For, despite the genuine intention of realistic engagement with “the world”, the cultic understanding of sacraments still prevailed - and therefore the ordering and controlling of the cult still assumes primary importance: (3) Hence, the role of the priest as orderer of the cult is untouched. Consequent on this is the “invisibility” of women in the celebration of sacraments. Although in fact much essential women’s work is going on - in catechesis, teaching, flower-arranging, music, this is not given sacramental recognition.

Thirdly, it became apparent that there was a loss of touch with (or abstract understanding of) concrete implications of bodiliness, embodiment and materiality across a diversity of contexts. This includes a lack of attention to, a lack of focus on justice - despite the attempts of Liberation theologians (such as Tissa Balasuriya and Rafael Avila) to articulate what this means.4 There was only limited experience (or the attempt to experience) of sacraments as celebrating all of life’s sacredness and holiness. Hence a wider gulf than ever grew between Church and world. What seemed to happen was that those concerned with justice became more and more associated with groups like CAFOD, CIIR, Pax Christi: those concerned with liturgy by and large were untroubled about wider issues of justice, or if they were, did not think that sacramental experience ought to have anything to do with them! Could there be another approach?

3. New Foundations

If Sacraments are because of Christ, primordial sacrament, don’t we have to ask, how is Christ to be understood? An inclusive Christology has been developing: this sees Christ as representative of all humanity, not of biological maleness, and encountered in community, in our brothers and sisters, especially in those most marginalised, as well as having cosmic significance for the non-human creation. The cosmic Christ is the pattern which connects... Hence the representation of Christ assumes new possibilities. In fact, the presence of Christ was already understood more widely in the Vatican II Constitution of the Liturgy, Section7. Christ is present through the community, the Word, as well as through the figure of the celebrant.

Secondly, whereas the Church is primordial Sacrament, place of encounter with the Christ mystery, the question has to be asked within what understanding of Church? The institutional paradigm is all too familiar and difficult to shift even in the imagination. But, the Feminist paradigm of discipleship of equals is an egalitarian paradigm: within this, there is less emphasis on control and more on respect for all creation; “this paradigm operates with a sense of power as the energy of proper relatedness”. (5) Feminist theology has spent much energy in developing understandings of power as empowerment, as the power of relation, empathy, sensitivity, presence and compassion. (6) Another paradigm of Church is Prophetic Church where the marginalised are not only welcomed but are the centre of concern. (7) Metaphors of fragmentation, on the edges are frequent here. Prophetic Church is close to understandings of the church as Suffering (for Justice and righteousness), as servant (where this is understood in a model respecting mutuality and justice for all), and the vision of the kingdom of God. (8)

Thirdly, Sacraments and Embodiment.

If the root meaning of the sacraments builds on bodily experience, on being in the body, then humanity comes in two sorts of bodies. (At least). Thus gendered experience ought to be -and never has been represented. Along with this, note the ambiguous Christian tradition with regard to the body and to decay.

This understanding of the sacrament has as its focus the weight of bodily/spiritual experience for which the sacramental moment is one condensed moment in a whole process. See the words of the poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, on the sheer amount of experience underlying the one sacramental word:

For the sake of a single verse, one must see many cities, people and things. One must know the animals, one must feel how the birds fly and know the gestures with which the small flowers open in the morning. One must be able to think back to roads in unknown regions, to unexpected meetings and to partings one had long seen coming; to days of childhood that are still unexplained... One must have memories of many nights of love... and of the screams of women in labour.. But one must also have been beside the dying, must have sat beside the dead in the room with open window and the fitful noises. And it is still not enough to have memories. ...for it is not yet the memories themselves....Not until they have turned to blood within us. Not until then can it happen that in a most rare hour the first word of a verse arises within their midst and goes forth from them. (9)

Along with this goes the immense loss of presence/representation of female bodiliness. This means that not only are female bodily processes -menstruation/lactation/menopause - not taken up into the process of bodily maturing, as symbolised by the sacraments - (note that confirmation builds heavily on initiation symbolism, but not on accompanying bodily processes,) - but that the underlying model of sexuality is the male, patriarchal, phallic model. By contrast, within the egalitarian model of Church, sexuality is understood within contexts of justice and economic realities:

The newer paradigm sees sexuality as a concern of social justice as well as of personal virtue....It recognises that the focal sign of religious devotion should not be the directing of one’s energy to controlling bodily impulses and other people but must involve a stance of ongoing commitment to the well-being of oneself and others.... And entails building social relations of respect, equality and mutuality. (Anne Patrick, p.79)

The dominant male model is based on the penetrative model of sexuality, seeing woman’s role as receptivity.(10) This is seen clearly in the Baptismal symbolism of Easter night. The Candle/ fire (=Rising Christ) penetrates the receptive waters of Baptism. We note, too, that Baptism requires rebirth in water and spirit - away from being born of woman. Many of us remember clearly the old taboo that a woman, after the birth of her child, could not receive communion before being Churched. I remember that my mother was unable to come to the baptism of many of my siblings- because of weakness, she had been unable to be “churched” and the Church demanded at that point that a baby be baptised within a week of birth. Woman were symbolised as the Chalice of the Grail this is highlighted by

the Marian symbolism of the Annunciation. Mary the receptive chalice to be penetrated and made fecund by the power of the Spirit is the model for all women. As we have seen above, this is related to the authoritative symbolism of the Bride/Bridegroom image and its weight in prohibiting women from representing Christ. As the poet Charles Williams put it:

Well are women warned from serving at the altar, Who by nature of their creature.....Share with the Sacrifice the victimisation of blood...(11)

Here we have it in one fell swoop - gender essentialism and the link with woman as sacrificial victim: this evokes the work of Nancy Jay, “Sacrifice as Remedy for having been born of woman”. She writes:

Sacrifice can expiate, get rid of, the consequences of having been bom of woman... and the same time integrate the pure and eternal patrilineage. Sacrificially constituted descent, incorporating women’s mortal children into an eternal" ..kin group, in which membership is recognised by participation in sacrificial ritual, not merely by birth, enables a patrilineal group to transcend mortality in the same process in which it transcends birth. (12)

Yet, in the context of post - Vat. II Sacraments, there was a shift from the sacrificial understanding of sacrament to the “sharing a meal” dimension of the Eucharist. Also, where the emphasis is community, to understand the sacrificial dimension of sacrament as the community’s commitment to the demands of the gospel moves away sacrifice as a male ritual handed on from generation to generation, to mimic the birthing energies of women. ."To offer your bodies as living sacrifice - this is your proper worship." (Paul, Romans 12.1) suggests this community commitment. At the same time, the cultural implications of this - that human and non-human bodies are sacrificed by violence and the economic violence of global capitalism. Sacrifice can also be rediscovered positively as ecological call to austerity to save the planet.

4. Sacraments and Symbolism

We are also beginning to face the fact of the absence of women as symbolic subjects - an area being explored by French Feminism and the linguistic theory of, for example, Julia Kristeva, (herself dependent on Lacan). For Lacan and Kristeva the realm of the symbolic, the world of signifiers and signified, and the universal signifier (the phallus), which one has to enter to become a speaking subject, (in the name of the Father), means leaving behind the semiotic, (associated with the mother). (13) The world of the semiotic is what Freud used to call the oceanic. It is pre-linguistic. Each child -male or female- has to leave the semiotic, pleasurable world of being bonded with the mother, to enter the symbolic world of the Father. But this world is a male-constructed world: woman is there in the gaps, ruptures and silences- and only occasionally are there bursts of what Kristeva calls jouissance - female sexual pleasure. Kristeva argues that this gap - the absence of women - gives the possibility of a new kind of language and symbolic structure. So, the male desire/nostalgia - (for un-mediated return to the mother?) - for un-mediated relationship with the divine/transcendent could possibly lie behind the instrumental view of sacraments- the cause/effect of scholastics). (14) Is it possible that the desire for the absent mother/desire for God are linked?

Is it also possible that the world of symbolic itself represents more a move away from embodied and emotional connectedness? This is well-argued by Margaret Homans. (15) Since the “death or absence of the mother” is the very condition of language, and the “symbolic” means a move away from the literal, pre-linguistic world, (and this is a crucial stage in gender identity), then the symbol refers to the masculine and the literal to the feminine. The literal is then undervalued as compared with the symbolic. (We can compare this also with the dualistic split between also particular/ universal split). Hence the ambiguous nature of the subjectivity of women - and the dialectic of presence/absence.

It is now well-known, through object-relations theory, (16) that boys and girls negotiate the split from the mother differently, and that separation is more an issue for boys, (see, sacrifice as compensation for remedy for this) and connection for girls. Yet, though separation from the mother is not such a problem for women, women too look for individuation/subjectivity. Therefore, a symbolic system, respecting this gender difference, allowing for both separation and embodied connection is what is urgently needed - and given sacramental expression.

5. Implications of all of this for the issue of Ordination

First, the Bridegroom/Bride symbolism hangs on inadequate grasp of complexity of family relations. (Yet, it retains importance not only for its scriptural heritage, but because of its stress on bodiliness, relation, mutuality). It is dependent on false understanding of sexuality. Women - and men- are both receptive and initiative-taking. Family life is a complexity of relations. We recall Jesus’ emphasis that family life should be based on kingdom-communities and that he seemed to urge the breaking of strictly patriarchal family patterns in the name of wider loyalties.

Secondly, the experience, responsibility and authority of women in caring roles and situations needs sacramental recognition. The recognition of what happens already, for example, in teaching and in family situations the role of women in faith education, in transmission of cultural values is heavily leant-upon, but not given sacramental authority. In ministries of caring, (for the disabled, the mentally ill, the dying), as well as in spiritual direction, prayer leadership, counselling, retreats, hospital chaplaincies, there is no sacramental recognition of what already is happening. The authority of women in these situations is clearly already making a growing pastoral contribution to Church life. Thirdly, a more fluid boundary between sacrament and sacramental needed - thus an appreciation of the link between home/community, everyday life/cultic experience needs to be built. The hallowing of the everyday and the acknowledging value to ordinary experience is the way to do this.

Fourthly, the strengthening of the links between ethical, justice dimensions and the actual celebration of Sacraments must happen. (17) And finally, as a result of all this, will we see a re-naming of 1) sacramental power, and 2) sacramental grace?

In conclusion, I offer the suggestion of the French linguistic philosopher and psychotherapist, Luce Irigaray. Her project is enormous: to build an entire female symbolic imaginary, redeeming the loss of this in western philosophy. Her idea is quite surprising for someone who is not a Christian. She wants to redeem the mother/daughter separation - noting its absence in the iconography of the west. (In this respect she is delighted when she discovers the paintings or statues of St Anne and Mary: this shows it was not completely absent from the Christian tradition). Women, she advises, should celebrate the Eucharist together: not only would this do much to heal mother/daughter wounds; it would also emphasis the creative, fruitful, birth-giving dimension of Eucharist. It would reveal the true meaning sacrifice: look, this death is not the end -we eat of the fruits of the earth, I who gave you life, am saying to you that this is not the end: life goes on in the eating and sharing of life. And the fruitfulness we give each other. (18)


(1) This is a brief summary of the key arguments:

(a) 1976 Inter Insigniores
Basically there are two arguments: drawn from what is assumed to be tradition: the historical example: Jesus only called 12 men to be apostles. This remains of lasting significance. Secondly, the “mystery” of sacramental representation, in which the “natural resemblance” of the minister to Christ as a male is normative. “Mystery of the covenant ” is referred to and the Bridegroom -Bride model reveals that Jesus is the bridegroom and head of the Church and as such is necessarily male. (See Elizabeth Johnson’s critique in “The Maleness of Christ” in Concilium, The Special Nature of Women).

(b). Mulieris Dignitatem. 1988. “On the Dignity and Vocation of women”.
The spousal image is grounded in Genesis 1. Human beings achieve unity by the integration of the “masculine ” and the “feminine”. The real nature of women is described in terms of “openness and orientation to the gift of life”, “readiness to accept life,” the vocation of motherhood as identifying the core of womanhood- motherhood both biological and spiritual. Mary is the model for womanhood The core of the spousal image is described in gender-loaded terms: “The bridegroom is the one who loves: the bride is the one who is loved. It is she who receives love, in order to love in return”.(par,2)

(c).Vatican directive for Non-ordained Pastoral Workers. Nov. 27th, 1997.
The background is the growing participation of laity in preaching/extraordinary ministry of the Eucharist and generally in pastoral ministry where there is a great shortage of priests.The mission of the laity is affirmed in evangelization -but this is a secular mission -in the world. They may assist the ordained priest in his task, but assist does not mean substitute for. Those priests who have accepted the assistance of laity without upsetting the necessary aspect of hierarchy despite the emergency of the situation are complimented. Also, ministerial priesthood is different in essence from the priesthood of all the faithful. It is vested in potestas sacra.

(2) I explored these ideas in M.Grey, In Search of the Sacred: Sacraments and Parish Renewal, (Wheathampstead: Anthony Clarke, 1983).

(3) See 1997 Vatican document above.

(4) See Tissa Balasuriya, The Eucharist and human Liberation, (London:SCM,1979)

(5) See Anne Patrick, Liberating Conscience, (London: SCM, 1996), pp.78-9

(6) See M.Grey, “Listening to the disinherited” in Priests and People, August/September 1997, pp.306-311.

(7) Francis Moloney, A Body Broken for a Broken People, (Melboume: Dove Books, 19) argues that the Eucharist from its origins has been all about breaking boundaries and welcoming people who do not fit into respectable categories.

(8) The notion of the kin-dom of God comes from Ada Maria Isai Diaz, and the Hispanic women’s community in the US. The word kin expresses that we are all sisters and brothers in the new creation.

(9) Rainer Maria Rilke,

(10) See Paul Quay, SJ: “The man’s initiative and the omen’s opening are not merely physical but also psychological. The man’s dominance in penetrating and taking possession is an attitude of mind and heart, not merely bodily power”. The Christian Meaning of Sexuality. (San Francisco: St Ignatius Press, 1985), p.29.

11. Charles Williams, “The Region of the Summer Stars”, (London: Editions Poetry 1944), pp.26-7

(12). Nancy Jay, Throughout your Generations forever: Sacrifice, Religion and Paternity, (Chicago University Press. 1992), p.40

(13) Jane Flax, Thinking Fragments, p.99.

(14) See Louis-Marie Chauvet, Symbol and sacrament, (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1995).

(15) Margaret Homan, Bearing the word: Language and Female Experience in 19th Century Women’s Writing. (Chicago University Press, 1986). This is argued in Susan Ross, Extravagant Affections; A Feminist Sacramental theology, (NY: Continuum, 1998), pp/149 ff.

(16) Nancy Chodorow, Gender and the Reproduction of mothering, (University of California, 1986).

(17) See the huge body of work in Feminist Theology on care, justice in vastly different contexts. See also, Carol Gilligan, In A Different voice? (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982).

(18) This is a paraphrase of some of her ideas. See, Irigaray Reader, 1997, M.Whitford, Blackwell: Oxford

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