The feminist challenge to the Catholic faith is based upon a deep misunderstanding. Feminists accuse Catholicism of being thoroughly patriarchal. They claim that women have been oppressed since the Church’s inception by a male power structure. In the Catholic Church, they charge, men and men alone are the rulers in a hierarchically-based system of pope, bishops, priests, and deacons.
This feminist ecclesiological perspective employs three false premises. First, it is commonly believed, even among those who are not feminist, that power and authority is something intrinsically tied solely to formal public office. Second, in order for women to have religious power and authority they somehow must be identified with divinity. It seems that men have more status because God is called “Father” and not “Mother.” Third, it is believed, again even among those who are not feminist, that authentic authority is a legal-juridical category. Here authority is confused with power—essentially the power to set policies and order other people around.
Authority in the Catholic Church cannot be confused with raw juridical power. If ecclesial authority is the power to set policies and rule over others then it is true that women, generally, have had little of this power. But authority is not simply power. Authority, if it is authentic, is first based in the power to give life. The word “authority” comes from the Latin auctor which means the author, originator, source, maker of, or creator of something. Authority is essentially life-giving, thus, God possesses authority par excellence. Not only is authority the power to give life, but it is also the moral right of the life-giver to see that his created work is brought to its fulfillment.
The covenant between Christ and his Church, the means of this fulfillment, is intrinsically maritally ordered. This may sound strange to some, but Christ is not effecting salvation alone. It must be said that salvation in the world is effected by Christ in union with his Church. The foundation of feminine authority rests upon this principle. Christ is a bridegroom, and exists with his bride, the Church, according to the pattern of a one in flesh unity (Eph. 5:32). The sexual differentiation of authority is explicitly denoted by this marital covenant.
Though men and women are both necessary to bestow life, they do not give life in the same way. A most urgent theological task, given the feminist attack on the faith, is to articulate the nature of feminine authority in the Church, that is, the way that Catholic women give life. While their authority is not that of an ordained priest, it is nonetheless an authority equally constitutive of salvation in Christ.
The 1976 Vatican document Inter insigniores reiterated for several reasons that women cannot be ordained to the priesthood. First, there is the argument from tradition, namely, that Christ’s action in not calling women to be apostles is permanently indicative of the attitude of Christ toward ordaining women. The Church, if she is to remain true to her Lord, is not free to deviate from the norm Christ established. Second, the document points to the practice of the apostles and the early Church in not ordaining women. The next argument has to do with the person of Christ himself and the significance of masculine sexual symbolism in creating a “natural resemblance” between Christ and the eucharistic minister. As the document says, “Christ was and remains a man.” Indeed, the male sex of Christ “cannot be disassociated from the economy of salvation.”
Most often overlooked is the argument in Inter insigniores that in the Old Testament the covenant of salvation took the “privileged form of a nuptial mystery.” Many commentators, especially those in favor of women priests, tend to ignore this teaching of the document. Instead they focus on the argument from tradition and complain that it is not sufficiently compelling. However, the nuptial dimension of the covenant of salvation is not only enormously important in establishing why women cannot be priests, but it provides the basis of an authentic feminine ecclesial authority.
In an article published by Theological Studies (Fall 1994), Dennis Michael Ferrara stated that the primary argument of Inter insigniores was the argument from tradition: that the “teaching against the ordination of women is the constant and universal tradition of the Church.” He thinks the Magisterium has offered little theological support for this position in a “factual tradition.” This, of course, can be refuted. However, Ferrara makes a very important statement at the end of his article that the Church’s rationale for excluding women from the priesthood “will have to address the central theological issue: the alleged link between the sexual difference and the nature of the priesthood.”
The primary life-giving act of Christ, the incarnate Lord, by which his authority is most definitively expressed is that he gave himself up on the Cross. Indeed as the letter to the Ephesians states, “He gave himself up for her” (5:25). He gave himself up for the Church “to make her holy, purifying her in the bath of water by the power of the word to present to himself a glorious church, holy and immaculate, without stain or wrinkle or anything of that sort” (5: 26). Christ and the Church exist in a head-body relation. Christ is not head simply because of raw power, because he dominates, or suppresses, or restricts what he is related to. The word “head” in Greek (kephale) can be understood as “overlord” but it also means arché in the sense of being the source or beginning of something. There are numerous passages in scripture that speak of Christ as the source or vivifying principle of the Church.
Christ is head of the Church, because he is the source of her life. This is the essence of Christ’s authoritative headship. The head of the Church exists covenantally in union with the body. A differentiation and unity exists between head and body. The prime symbols of this reality are sexual. Indeed the sacrifice of Christ is the sacrifice of a masculine person. His sacrifice is his unique gift as such. The gift cannot exist apart from the concrete historical person who offers it. He offers it to another, different from himself. This is a covenantally-structured giving and receiving which can only be effectively communicated by symbols that honor its meaning, namely, the nuptial symbols of man and woman.
The nuptial structure of redemption wrought by Christ determines what authority is within the Catholic Church. Authority, because it is life-giving, is fundamentally service. Rooted in the marital structure of the New Covenant, authority entails responsibility for the faith. It is important to understand the nature of this responsibility. As we stated, male and female sexuality, from the very beginning, are the symbols of the covenant. The covenant is dependent upon these symbols and would have no concrete expression without them. From the very beginning of creation man and woman are imbued with salvific meaning—they are sacramental signs. Responsibility for the faith is differentiated according to the sexual symbols of the covenant. The responsibility of ordained men, for instance, exists over and against the feminine Church whose femininity is expressed in the very lives of Christian women.
To the extent that this differentiated responsibility becomes blurred, Christianity itself, as rooted in the meaning of sexuality, ceases to be effectively communicated to the world. To undo the meaning of sexual symbols is to undo the Christian faith. This is why it is doctrinally and theologically wrong to refer to God as a female. The covenant itself exists according to differentiation. God as the creator of nature cannot be confused with his creation and neither can creation be confused with God. Yet God and the world exist in a covenantal relation. Sexual symbols reveal this truth. God is male toward his creation which in turn is feminine in relation to him. Male and female sexuality speak a truth about this transcendent relation. It is not an arbitrary choice of words or simply a matter of historical conditioning from a patriarchal culture that God is referred to with masculine pronouns and called “Father.” Masculine symbols speak a truth about the way God gives life. Similarly, nature, or creation, is truly feminine. It is within the feminine essence of nature and the Church that female authority exists. Liturgically and sacramentally women speak the full voice of creation to God.
The feminization of God strikes a blow at the covenantal structure of the Judeo-Christian tradition and takes from women their authentic role. Feminists believe it is necessary to turn God into a woman seeking thereby to imbue women with power that they would not otherwise have. This mistake is based on a non-Christian understanding of reality and authority. Feminists do not understand, or at least do not accept, that authority is shared in a covenantal fashion. Their monistic view of reality collapses all existence into the singular, isolated entity, where everything must be the same, because everything must be made to seem equal. This feminist equalization means that all that exists, and in particular women, must be on the side of divinity in order to be real. If women are considered only on the side of nature they are left disempowered as if their own creative actions are insignificant.
St. Paul provides the formula for understanding this covenantal authority with the words: “In the Lord, woman is not independent of man nor man independent of woman. In the same way that woman was made from man, so man is born of woman; and all is from God” (I Cor. 11: 11-12). This statement is a key to understanding male and female authority. It is important to note that the passage indicates the dependency of men upon women for life. The passage accounts for the differentiation—not simply between men and women—but between male and female authority.
Men are the images of the first Adam—who is the source of the woman. The first Adam is a prophecy of Christ who, in fulfillment of the first Adam, is the source and head of the Church. Women are not heads in this way. They do not stand sacramentally in the place of Christ, the New Adam, as males do, yet they are a true source of life! They are a true source of life that completes the true meaning of male authority, since male authority exists only within, and never apart from, the unity of the one flesh.
Christ is the initiating source of the Church as bridegroom to bride. The Church is the body of Christ, fulfilling him (Eph. 2:23) and completing him, and thus she is his covenantal partner in redemption. Male and female authority is a matter of being entrusted with a responsibility for redemption according to the marital order of this covenant. The sacramental priesthood represents Christ as source of the Church. But this male authority does not exhaust the essence of ecclesial authority. Christ is a man, but he is only fully male through the womanly essence of the Church. Women, and not men, are the effective expression of the Church’s feminine authority in the world.
Feminine responsibility for the faith cannot be taken over by a man if the covenantal truth about Christ and the Church is to be made real in the world. This is the truth spoken in the world and to the world in eucharistic worship. Only men can be priests if the truth about Christ’s sacrificial headship is to be authentically spoken. However, in eucharistic worship it is the woman, as the center of everything good about creation, who provides the necessary sacramental response by which the one flesh unity of Christ and the Church is historically made present. If the symbols of human sexuality by which the Church worships are altered, the religion itself collapses because its covenantal truth is not effectively communicated.
Authority is about giving life and it is differentiated between men and women. Some may still ask in exasperation, “Well, who do women get to boss around?” Posing the question this way is still to understand authority as the power to control, above and outside of a free covenantal order.
The prime example of feminine authority is Mary, the Mother of God. Her life-giving “yes” began a new creation and by it, she is rendered Queen of Heaven, Queen of Saints, Queen of Apostles. Feminine authority also can be seen residing in one like St. Monica, who exercised authority in calling her son, St. Augustine, to truth and holiness. It is found in early Church martyrs like Ss. Perpetua and Agatha who are actually the protagonists in a contest of wills against their oppressors.
It is seen in the life of St. Margaret Clitherow, who, exemplifying the ecclesia magistra, preached the Catholic faith to her husband and defied civil authority by hiding priests in her own home. It is found in the life of St. Teresa of Avila, who, as a sign of the teaching and nourishing Church, reformed a corrupted religious order. It is found in St. Catherine of Siena, who, as a true voice of the mater ecclesia, called an exiled pope to courage and guided his return to Rome. Feminine ecclesial authority is seen in the lives of Dorothy Day, Joan Andrews Bell, and Mother Teresa of Calcutta. It is seen in the countless lives of Christian women who speak and live their feminine responsibility for the faith and who thus call all people, including husbands, priests, and bishops, to live a deeper life in Christ.
There is a lot of work that still needs to be done on the subject of feminine authority. But at least we can begin by realizing that it is a reality in the Church that cannot be confused with the authority of the Catholic priesthood or male ecclesial authority in general. To do so is to kill any notion of an authentic feminine contribution to salvation. The feminists think authority is essentially quantitative power. However, even male authority is not this. As we see, Christ, the Lord, revealed the fullness of his authority in dying on the Cross.