The City of Man

The other day I drove to Chicago to be interviewed by Mike Wallace for a prospective 60 MINUTES segment on women in the Church. In a hotel suite turned into an ad hoc studio, we recorded three reels of film. Since out of that extended conversation little more than a sentence or two is likely to be used and since driving up and driving back, if not during the interview itself, something like clarity seemed to invade my thoughts, I put before you here what seems to me to be a fundamental source of confusion in such matters.

What struck me was simply an Augustinian echo, the saintly bishop’s contrast of the City of God and the City of Man. It is by confusing what is appropriate to the latter with what is appropriate to the former that serious mistakes, misgivings and resentments are generated.

It is easy to reject the radical feminist, whether lay or religious, whose agenda is dictated by an outlook other than and inimical to the Church’s. But since those who lose their faith now wish to remain within and redefine the Church, others have been infected, innocent forms of malevolent accusations are heard ,and it becomes a widespread expectation that the “hierarchical Church,” self-acknowledged as an abuser of women, is on the verge of change.

Take the single issue of the ordination of women discussed as one issue of “empowerment.” I am reminded of Thomas Hardy’s remark that Graham Greene put as the motto of The Honorary Consul: “All things merge in one another — good into evil, generosity into justice, religion into politics….” Alas, they do indeed. But how in the world can the priesthood be regarded as a position of power?

Looking into the agate eyes of Mike Wallace I did not expect, and did not get, understanding when I suggested that the priest is not a master but a servant, so too the bishop, and that the most cherished title of the Pope is servus servorum Dei. Mike Wallace, an affable man, can be forgiven if he sees the Church as an odd mixture of the corporate and political, with the clergy a cross between bosses and representatives of the people. It is more serious when we Catholics forget what a priest is. A priest offers sacrifice. The priest par excellence is Jesus Christ. Our Lord offers himself in sacrifice for the sins of us all. The Mass is the memorial of that sacrifice with the celebrant standing in for Christ himself. Gender aside, is it the thought of power that occurs when we reflect upon these simple truths?

Each time we trace upon our body the sign of the cross we proclaim ourselves followers of one of the world’s greatest losers. Christ’s passion and death give us a new and paradoxical perspective on the judgments of this world. To lose is to win, and vice versa. The first shall be last, the last first, and this is no earthly prediction. A simple Galilean virgin is the most perfect creature, our tainted nature’s solitary boast. Power in the political sense is weakness.

The particular issue of women’s ordination thus reminds us swiftly of the wider matter, what does it mean to be a Christian? Grace and nature, the city of God and the city of man. If these were simply antithetical, things would be easier for us than they are. But the supernatural order both elevates and depends upon the natural. The society that is the Church encompasses relations which are like the purely political. It may be that more democratic procedures are desirable in certain areas of governance. But it will never be the case that such arrangements involve power in the secular sense of the term.

We may find dark humor in the spectacle of those who, having taken the vow of obedience, object to being told what to do. But let us turn the laugh upon ourselves. We are a communion of sinners, our salvation bought at a great price, the sacrifice of Our Lord. Does any of us find it easy to see true power hidden in Christ’s humiliation?

The measure of our common confusion can be found in the distance between Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, where the pitiful whiskey priest mystifies his political oppressor, and The Honorary Consul, where the politicized priest becomes an oppressor in his own right.

To be associated with Jesus Christ is perhaps meant to be a humbling ordeal. During Lent I spent a few days at Conception Abbey in Missouri and heard the prior in a sermon say that there is no suffering or humiliation that we can bear that Christ has not borne before us. A solidly edifying thought. It occurred to me that chief among Our Lord’s sufferings was to be a priest.


Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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