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Not man enough to represent the 'groom'?

Not man enough to represent the ‘groom’?

by John Wijngaards

from: The Ordination of Women in the Catholic Church. Unmasking a Cuckoo’s Egg Tradition, London 2001, Darton, Longman & Todd, pp. 113 - 120.

In recent years the authorities in Rome have produced a new argument for the non-ordination of women, one that was unknown to antiquity. It is based on the symbolic relationship between Christ and the Church as the bridegroom and his bride. The imagery was commented on in Tradition, of course, but never in the context of excluding women from ordination. Also, Rome admits that this is not an argument based on facts, but an argument of ‘congruence’, an ‘analogy of faith’.(1) Let me explain what this means.

We believe in the Blessed Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The theological rationale for this can be found in Scripture and Tradition. But theologians add their arguments of congruence: reasons why it is ‘fitting’ that there should be three Persons in God. One of them was the popular notion that the Father by knowing himself generates the Son, and that Father and Son generate the Spirit by their mutual love. Such reasoning is no more than a pious reflection, or a useful image from our own, limited human experience. Arguments of congruence will never prove that there should be three Persons in God.

Such, by Rome’s own admission, is the novel argument based on symbolism. It aims to show that ‘it makes good sense’ for women to be excluded from the priestly ministry. So what do the Roman documents say? In brief the ‘argument’ comes to this:

  • At creation God gave men and women a distinct dignity and vocation.
  • When God concluded the covenant, he (!) was the Bridegroom and Israel his bride. In the same way Christ is the Bridegroom and the Church his bride.
  • This symbolism is so important that Jesus Christ had to become human as a man.
  • Jesus wanted this symbolism to continue by insisting that only male priests represent him at the Eucharist.

Let us examine this in more detail.

What makes a woman a woman?

Pope John Paul II, while repeatedly stressing that he recognises the equality of women and men, states that women are ‘different’ because of the ‘femininity’ they received at creation.

“The personal resources of feminity are certainly no less than the resources of masculinity: they are merely different. Hence a woman, as well as a man, must understand her ‘fulfilment’ as a person, her dignity and vocation, on the basis of these resources, according to the riches of the femininity which she received on the day of creation.”(2)

The Pope then continues to fill in the specific nature of femininity. Woman is first and foremost ‘mother’, a person dedicated to be open to new life. “Motherhood is linked to the personal structure of the woman and to the personal structure of the gift [of life].” “The biblical exemplar of ‘the woman’ [= Eve] finds its culmination in the motherhood of the Mother of God.” This puts women in a special category.

“Motherhood has been introduced into the order of the Covenant that God made with humanity in Jesus Christ. Each and every time that motherhood is repeated in human history, it is always related to the Covenant which God established to the human race through the motherhood of the Mother of God.”(3)

After talking about virginity as the other major vocation of woman, the Pope identifies ‘love’ in the sense of ‘self giving’ as the characteristic feature of womanhood.

“[Love is] decisive for the dignity of women both in the eyes of God - the Creator and Redeemer - and in the eyes of human beings - men and women. In God’s eternal plan, woman is the one in whom the order of love in the created world of persons takes first root. The order of love belongs to the intimate life of God himself, the life of the Trinity . . . It enables us to grasp in an essential manner the question of women’s dignity and vocation: the dignity of women is measured by the order of love . . . Unless we refer to this order, we cannot give a complete and adequate answer to the question about women’s dignity and vocation . . . This concerns each and every woman, independently of the cultural context in which she lives, and independently of her spiritual, psychological and physical characteristics, as for example, age, education, health, work, and whether she is married or single.”(4)

Now such spiritual philosophising turns out to be highly dangerous. For it imposes a particular understanding as absolutely normative, since it is supposed to derive from woman’s created nature. But can we truly say what constitutes a woman’s identity? Studies in the fields of anthropology, psychology, biology, history and sociology show that “far from being fixed and immutable from conception onward, gender identity is in fact variable and diverse and arises over a long period of time as a result of the interplay of complex cultural and other forces.”(5) The Pope’s definition excludes women from large realms of human experience. “In our ecclesiastical jargon we run the risk of confining the feminine to an essentialist cage. Woman is presented first as mother, then as virgin. Nothing is said about woman as partner. The ‘essential’ difference between man and woman is highlighted, and the nature and task of woman is seen as care and concern for others. A professional life is not envisaged for her, for that would involve concern about herself.”(6) It is the first step to banning women from the priestly ministry.

The ideal of ‘selfless love’ which the Pope proclaims to be woman’s vocation sounds like another attempt by men to curtail women’s full human growth. “The characteristics of the eternal woman are opposed to a developing, authentic person, who will be unique, self-critical, self-creative, active and searching. By contrast to these authentic personal qualities, the eternal woman is said to have a vocation to surrender and hiddenness; hence the symbolism of the veil. Selfless, she achieves not individualization but merely generic fulfilment in motherhood, physical or spiritual.”(7) It is time for women “to wake up, to bid farewell to passivity, to kiss Sleeping Beauty Goodbye and take responsibility for their lives”.(8)

The symbolism of bridegroom and bride

The Pope now turns to scriptural imagery which, in his view, expresses a key truth about the nature of God’s relationship to humanity, and the specific roles God gave to men and women. Already in Old Testament times God is presented as the husband, Israel as his wife. This symbolism reaches its climax in Christ.

“Christ is the Bridegroom; the Church is his bride, whom he loves because he has gained her by his blood and made her glorious, holy and without blemish, and henceforth he is inseparable from her. This nuptial theme, which is developed from the Letters of Saint Paul onwards (cf. 2 Cor. 11 :2, Eph. 5 :22-23) to the writings of Saint John (cf. especially Jn 3:29, Rev. 19:7, 9), is present also in the Synoptic Gospels: the Bridegroom’s friends must not fast as long as he is with them (cf. Mk 2:19); the Kingdom of Heaven is like a king who gave a feast for his son’s wedding (cf. Mt. 22:1-14). It is through this Scriptural language, all interwoven with symbols, and which expresses and affects man and woman in their profound identity, that there is revealed to us the mystery of God and Christ, a mystery which of itself is unfathomable.”(9)

The main source for this nuptial theme is found in Ephesians. It requires further discussion. The ‘church’ in this text, as everywhere else in the New Testament, stands for ‘the community of believers’.

“Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Saviour. Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendour, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife, loves himself. For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one.’ This is a great mystery, and I mean in reference to Christ and the church; however, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.”(10)

The text is part of the socalled ‘household codes’ that contain practical instructions for masters and slaves, parents and children, husbands and wives.(11) This means that the example of Christ’s wedding serves the purpose of inculcating the right attitudes between husband and wife. A metaphor has here grown into an allegory. Like a groom Christ loves his church. He cleansed her from sin through baptism - reference to the bridal bath before the wedding. He nourished her through the Eucharist - reference to the wedding meal. He became one flesh with her - reference to intercourse during the wedding night. The quotation from Genesis ‘the two shall become one flesh’ gives the author an opportunity to remark: “This is a great mystery, and I mean in reference to Christ and the Church”.

The symbol of Christ’s ‘marriage’ to the community of believers should be seen in the context of rabbinical imagery that described the coming of the Messiah as a wedding feast.(12) Perhaps there is an allusion to the ‘sacred marriage’ - hieros gamos - the marriage of a god with a human being, that was found among hellenistic writers and that would become a major theme in 2nd and 3rd century Gnostic sects.(13) The image of marriage, of ‘becoming one body’, comes naturally to the author of Ephesians because he is concerned about the building up of the body of the church in Christ, who is its head.(14)

Why does he call the union of Christ and his church a ‘great mystery’? Ephesians makes this abundantly clear. The mystery is God’s purpose with the whole of humankind which has now been revealed, namely “to unite all things in Christ”.(15) The stress here is on all. In the past the Gentiles had been excluded from the Covenant. God’s great mystery now revealed is that the Gentiles too can be members of Christ’s body. “You can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to people of other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets through the Spirit, that is, how the Gentiles are co-heirs, members of the same body and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus.”(16) This explains the remark in the text on husbands and wives. As the author speaks about Christ loving his body, the church, he sees ‘the great mystery’ already foreshadowed in the creation passage. “A man [= Christ, the Son of Man] leaves his father and mother [= incarnation] and clings to his wife [= the whole of humankind]. The two become one flesh [= one church].”(17)

So far so good. Rome, however, sees the ‘great mystery’ in another light. It seems to think that the ‘mystery’ reveals something about sex and gender, about God being somehow male and humankind female, about the created difference between men and women. Rome sees a cosmic nuptial symbol that transcends imagery because it is real. The bridegroom passage in Ephesians describes reality rather than speaking only in metaphors. And this reality has enormous consequences for the incarnation. For Christ, as the divine Bridegroom, had to be a man and only men can represent him at the Eucharist.

“It is through this Scriptural language, all interwoven with symbols, and which expresses and affects man and woman in their profound identity, that there is revealed to us the mystery of God and Christ, a mystery which of itself is unfathomable.”(18)

“The fact that Christ is a man and not a woman is neither incidental nor unimportant in relation to the economy of salvation . . . God’s covenant with men (!) is presented in the Old Testament as a nuptial mystery, the definitive reality of which is Christ’s sacrifice on the cross . . . Christ is the bridegroom of the Church, whom he won for himself with his blood, and the salvation brought by him is the new covenant. By using this language, revelation shows why the incarnation took place according to the male gender, and makes it impossible to ignore this historical reality. For this reason, only a man can take the part of Christ, be a sign of his presence, in a word ‘represent’ him (that is, be an effective sign of his presence) in the essential acts of the covenant.”(19)

“The Bridegroom - the Son consubstantial with the Father as God - became the Son of Mary. He became the ‘son of man’, true man, a male. The symbol of the Bridegroom is masculine . . . . The Eucharist is the sacrament of the Bridegroom and the Bride . . . Since Christ, in instituting the Eucharist, linked it in such an explicit way to the priestly service of the Apostles [who were all men], it is legitimate to conclude that he thereby wished to express the relationship between man and woman, between what is ‘feminine’ and what is ‘masculine’. It is a relationship willed by God both in the mystery of creation and in the mystery of redemption. It is the Eucharist that expresses the redemptive act of Christ the Bridegroom towards the Church the Bride. This is clear and unambiguous when the sacramental ministry of the Eucharist, in which the priest acts in persona Christi, is performed by a man.”(20)

In other words: the image of the Bridegroom, Rome says, is so important that the Son of God had to become human as a man. When the ‘Word became flesh’, the Word could not have lived among us as a woman. This symbolism may not be lost in the Eucharist which re-enacts creation and redemption. A male groom, Christ, presides at his wedding feast. Therefore he excluded women and chose only men to represent him as his priests.

Symbolism run amock?

We may begin by observing that the conclusions drawn from Ephesians 5,21-33 regarding the nuptial mystery go beyond the meaning of the inspired text. In no way does the ‘mystery’ consist in God revealing that he wants to save people as a male. The masculinity of the bridegroom may be part of the image; it is not part of the contents. When Jahweh calls Israel his ‘wayward wife’, does it follow that God is truly male or God’s people truly female? The image speaks about relationship, not sex and gender.

Images can be instructive, of course, but they remain no more than images. They are metaphors. Christ is compared to a bridegroom in three Gospel passages, but he is also compared to a shepherd, a judge, a rabbi, a light, a door, a vine, a loaf of bread, a path, a servant, a mother hen and a thief who comes in the night. Some of these images could be worked out as at least equally important to the bridegroom image. The Old Testament often sees God as the owner of a vineyard.(21) This is a rich symbol involving owner, workers, vines, wine. Jesus frequently refers to the image.(22) That Jesus supplied the wine at Cana is highly significant from the perspective of creation, redemption and the outpouring of the Spirit.(23) Moreover, the sign is directly eucharistic. By applying the symbol of ‘the vine nurturing the branches’ to Jesus, the Gospel of John adopts female imagery as elsewhere in the Gospel.(24) The nurturing with ‘flesh and blood’ which is more truly eucharistic than ‘presiding as the bridegroom’ could much better be represented by a woman than by a man. Why should one symbol prevail over the other?

But if we take the Pope’s eucharistic imagery seriously, the symbolic significance of the phallus is now emphasised as it has never been in Christian tradition. “To argue that Christ’s eucharistic gift of self is the action of the bridegroom in such a way that it requires a male body, is to make it an act of coitus and not of self giving in death. The symbolic function of the priesthood is therefore no longer primarily concerned with death but with sex, since male and female bodies both die and therefore either sex could represent the death of Christ.”(25) With the masculinity of the Bridegroom taking central stage, Christ’s kenosis (self emptying) at Mass assumes the overtones of a male orgasm. Hans Urs von Balthasar, one of Rome’s theological advisers, has made the image quite explicit. Von Balthasar was a member of the Papal Theological Commission since 1967 and became one of Pope John Paul II’s favourite theologians. The Pope named him a Cardinal in 1988, a few days before he died. Von Balthasar does not mince his words.

“The priestly ministry and the sacrament are means of passing on seed. They are a male preserve. They aim at inducing in the Bride her function as a woman.”(26)

“What else is his eucharist but, at a higher level, an endless act of fruitful outpouring of his whole flesh, such as a man can only achieve for a moment with a limited organ of his body?”(27)

Tina Beattie adds this comment:

“The ‘what else ... but’ implies that it is nothing else. This is the eucharist understood not primarily as Christ’s identification with the universal human tragedy of death, but rather as the identification of Christ’s death with the uniquely male experience of penile ejaculation . . . The justification given for the essentialisation of the male priesthood has reduced the symbolic richness of the Mass so that it is indeed nothing but a cosmic male orgasm, as von Balthasar suggests. The female body, lacking the ‘limited organ’ which allows for this experience, cannot represent Christ in the eucharist. Ultimately this means that women have become bystanders in the metaphysical consummation of homosexual love, a marriage between men and God in which the male body is both the masculine bridegroom and the feminine bride, the masculine God and the feminine creature, the masculine Christ and the feminine church. This makes Catholic theology more explicitly phallocentric than has been the case in the past, since the phallus has become the defining symbol of Christ’s giving of self in the Mass.”(28)

Beattie calls it homosexual love, because whereas the Pope excludes women from representing the bridegroom, he explicitly includes men when talking of ‘the bride’. “All human beings - both women and men - are called through the Church to be the ‘Bride’ of Christ, the Redeemer of the world. In this way, ‘being the bride’ and thus the ‘feminine’ element, becomes a symbol of all that is ‘human’.”(29) Men have it all, women have nothing.(30)

Making sense of it all?

There is much more that would need to be said about the symbolism proposed by Rome. For one thing, by insisting that only a male priest can represent Christ as the masculine Bridegroom, women are effectively cut off from the symbolic support they need in their own journey of faith. “The woman at the altar enlarges people’s understandings and imaginings about God. In prayers and in celebration, the ordained person is representative of the people to God and of God to the people. If the image is always male, God is represented only as male. As women are included symbolically as representative people, the image of God is larger. The feminine becomes more than the Spirit dimension. Sonship begins to include daughters.”(31)

Analysing the experience of women priests in other Christian denominations and probing the Catholic search, Kelley Raab has convincingly demonstrated the absolute need of female identity persons in the Catholic Church of our time. Women priests are now psychologically required for a healthy spirituality and a truly Catholic liturgy. It is a dimension I am not able to do justice to in this book, but it exposes the male-only symbolism still defended by Rome to be injurious to the Church.(32)

By Rome’s own admission, the symbolism of the Bridegroom and the bride is no more than an ‘argument of congruence’. And, as Thomas Aquinas (1224 - 1274 AD) pointed out, “a theology based on symbols does not prove anything”.(33) Moreover, our reflections have shown that the symbolism, in its sexual application, does not have a valid scriptural basis and does not make sense.

Rome often mentions the bridegroom ‘argument’ in one breath with the argument based on acting in persona Christi which we discussed in the previous chapter. It clearly attempts to present the traditional argument in a new garb. But even with this face lift the argument fails. Women can represent Christ, as validly and as fully as men can.

John Wijngaards


(1) Inter Insigniores, § 24; Commentary on Inter Insigniores, § 81-82.

(2) Mulieris Dignitatem (15 August 1988) § 10.

(3) Mulieris Dignitatem § 18-19.

(4) Mulieris Dignitatem § 29.

(5) Joanna Manning, Is the Pope Catholic?, Toronto 1999, pp. 69-70; see also Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender, Berkeley 1978; Judith Butler, Gender Trouble - Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, New York 1990; Sarah Coakley, ‘Creaturehood before God - Male and Female’, Theology 93 (1990) pp. 343-354.

(6) Roger Burggraeve, ‘De schepping van de mens als man en vrouw’, Collationes 3 (1997) pp. 243-281.

(7) Mary Daly, The Church and the Second Sex, Boston 1985, p. 149; see also Gyn/ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism, Boston 1978.

(8) Mary Grey, Redeeming the Dream, London 1989, pp. 15-19; see also Carolyn Heilbrunn, Reinventing Womanhood, London 1979, pp. 125-170; Jean Majewski, Without a Self to Deny: Called to Discipleship When We Were Yet Un-Persons, Chicago 1984.

(9) Inter Insigniores § 29-30.

(10) Ephesians 5,21-33 (italics are mine). The letter is now commonly attributed to a disciple of Paul.

(11) Colossians 3,18-22; Ephesians 5,21-6,9; 1 Peter 2,18-3,7; Titus 2,1-10; 1 Timothy 5,1-6,2.

(12) Isaiah 61,10; Exodus Rabba 15,30; 4 Esdras 10,40-43; 1 QumranIsa 61,10; Pesiq 149a; J. Gnilka, ‘Bräutigam - spätjüdisches Messiasprädikat?’, Trierer Theologische Zeitschrift 69 (1960) pp. 298-301.

(13) Philo of Alexandria, Abraham 99; Cherubim 40-44; Vita Moysis 2,69; see R.A. Batey, ‘Jewish Gnosticism and the Hieros Gamos of Eph 5,21-33’, New Testament Studies 10 (1963/64) pp. 121-127.

(14) Ephesians 1,23; 4,1-16; E. Best, One Body in Christ, London 1950.

(15) Ephesians 1,9-10; 6,19; cf. 2,11-22.

(16) Ephesians 3,4-6, 8-10; A.E.J. Rawlinson, Mysterium Christi, London 1930, esp. pp. 225-244; J.T.Trinidad, ‘The Mystery hidden in God’, Biblica 31 (1950) pp. 1-26.

(17) E.Neuhäusler, ‘Das Geheimnis ist gross’, Biblisches Leben 4 (1963) pp. 155-163; J. Cambier, ‘Le grand mystère concernant le Christ et son Église’, Biblica 47 (1966) pp. 43-90, 223-242; J.Gnilka, Der Efeserbrief, Freiburg 1971, pp. 273-294.

(18) Inter Insigniores § 29-30.

(19) Commentary on Inter Insigniores § 100 - 102.

(20) Mulieris Dignitatem § 25-26; see also Christifideles Laici § 51.

(21) Isaiah 5,1-7; 27,2-5; Jeremiah 2,21; 5,10, 6,9; Ezekiel 15,1-8; 17,3-10; Psalm 80,8-18; etc. etc.

(22) Matthew 20,1-16; 21,33-46; Luke 13,6; John 8,37; etc.

(23) John 2,1-10; L. P. Trudinger, ‘The Seven Days in the New Creation in St. John’s Gospel’, Evangelical Quarterly 44 (1972) pp. 154-158; J. A. Grassi, ‘The Wedding at Cana (Jn II 1-11): A Pentecostal Meditation?’, Novum Testamentum 14 (1972) pp. 131-136; K. T. Cooper, ‘The Best Wine: John 2:1-11’, Westminster Theological Journal 41 (1979) pp. 364-380; R. F. Collins, ‘Cana (Jn. 2:1-12) - The first of his signs or the key to his signs?’, Irish Theological Quarterly 47 (1980) pp. 79-95; V. Parkin, ‘On the third day there was a marriage in Cana of Galilee (John 2.1)’, Irish Biblical Studies 3 (1981) pp. 134-144; etc.

(24) John 15,1-7. Cf. “You are in me”; J. Wijngaards, The Gospel of John, Wilmington 1986, pp. 195-203; M. Vellanickal, ‘Divine Immanence in St. Jobn’, Biblebashyam 1 (1975) 312-332; J. Dupuis, ‘Cbristus und die advaita-Erfahrung’, Orientierung 41 (1977) 168-172.

(25) Tina Beattie, God’s Mother, Eve’s Advocate. A Gynocentric Refiguration of Marian Symbolism in Engagement with Luce Irigaray, Bristol 1999, p. 64.

(26) H. U. von Balthasar, Wer ist Kirche? Vier Skizzen, Freiburg 1965, p. 24; Hedwig Meyer-Wilmes has called von Balthasar’s reflections “male daydreaming that comes closer to ecclesiastical soft porn than to a theological treatise on the Church”; ‘Vater Gott und Mutter Kirche’, in Marie-Therese Wacker (ed.), Theologie feministisch, Düsseldorf 1988, p. 150.

(27) H. U. von Balthasar, Elucidations, trans. John Riches, London 1975, p. 150.

(28) Tina Beattie, ib. p. 65.

(29) Galatians 3,28; Mulieris Dignitatem § 25.

(30) About the ‘bridegroom’ argument, see also: P. Lakeland, Can Women be Priests?, Dublin 1975, pp. 64-65; C. Stuhlmueller, ‘Bridegroom: a Biblical Symbol of Union, not Separation’, in Women Priests, Leonard Swidler and Arlene Swidler (ed.), New York 1977, pp. 278-283; J. R. Donahue, “Women, Priesthood and the Vatican,” America, 136 (April 2 1977), pp. 286-287; R. Radford Ruether, Sexism and God-Talk, London 1983; D. Coffey, ‘Priestly Representation and Women’s Ordination’, in Priesthood. The Hard Questions ed. G. P. Gleeson, Dublin 1993, pp. 79-99.

(31) J. Morgan, Women Priests, Bristol 1985, p. 171.

(32) Kelley A. Raab, When Women Become Priests, New York 2000; see also Mary D. Donovan, Women Priests in the Episcopal Church: The Experience of the First Decade, Cincinnati 1988; Sue Walrond-Skinner, Crossing the Boundary: What Will Women Priests Mean?, London 1994; Hilary Wakeman (ed.), Women Priests: The First Years, London 1996; B. Brown Zikmund et al., Clergy Women: An Uphill Calling, Westminster 1998.

(33) “Symbolica theologia non est argumentativa”; Thomas Aquinas, I Sententiarum prol. Q.1; dist. 11, q.1. ; I am indebted to René van Eyden for this reference.

John Wijngaards

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