The Gnostic Feminism of Phyllis Zagano

One of the most high-ranking feminists in the Catholic Church is Phyllis Zagano, the well-known advocate for the ordination of women to the diaconate. A member of the papal commission to examine the historical precedents of deaconesses, Zagano has researched the subject extensively and is the author of many learned articles and several books.

Phyllis Zagano is unusual amongst feminist theologians in that, while she is pushing for female ordination to the diaconate, she insists that she has nothing to say about the ordination of women to the Catholic priesthood. Indeed, she is very careful to distance herself from the Catholic women priests movement. She protests vociferously if anyone suggests that her advocacy for women deacons might be part of an incremental campaign for women priests.

Zagano, along with the dissident Dutch priest John Wijngaards and others, have made arguments over many years for or against women deacons in the Catholic Church. It is a curious proposal. If one digs deeply enough, it does seem that there was an ancient order of deaconesses in the Church. There were even ordination-like rituals for their commissioning. They had various tasks in the Church, among them to retain modesty for female catechumens who would have been unclothed for their baptism by immersion. Ms. Zagano has unearthed some obscure references to deaconesses in the Eastern Churches, but eventually the office of deaconess seems to have died out.

We should ask why the enthusiasm exists to uncover and restore this particular churchy curiosity? Do we really need female deacons? What would they be able to do that lay women cannot already do? Why the push to bring back deaconesses, for instance, but not the minor orders of subdeacon, acolyte, lector, exorcist and porter?

 

Indeed we could uncover a whole range of ecclesiastical antiques. Shall we have a campaign to restore the camelaucum? The sede gestatoria and the peacock fan? Shall we restore these antiquities simply because we are nostalgic for the archaic? Of course not, and neither do the proponents of women’s ordination to the diaconate wish to restore that ancient order. They want Catholic women clergy for other far more obvious reasons.

This obscure church practice is being discussed because it is part of a feminist agenda. It is possible to wrangle about the wisdom of such a step, but rather than engage in the debate about women deacons, it is worth taking a moment to examine the underlying feminist ideology that drives it.

As a key Catholic feminist who is in the front line of the discussion, it is worth examining two particular aspects of feminism that Zagano treats. The first is the topic of Christian anthropology and male ordination. The second is the patriarchal imagery associated with God which, for obvious reasons, feminist theologians find irksome.

“Single Nature Anthropology”
It is not surprising that Phyllis Zagano has difficulties with these traditional understandings of Christianity. She explains the sore points in an extended passage in her book Holy Saturday – An Argument for the Restoration of the Female Diaconate in the Catholic Church. Zagano doesn’t like what she calls a “dual nature anthropology.” A dual nature anthropology recognizes men and women as complementary— different but equal. Instead Ms. Zagano argues for a “single nature anthropology.” What exactly is a “single nature anthropology”?

It is the belief that men and women, at the ontological level, are not just equal, but the same. According to Zagano the Church should reflect this reality. So she calls for an ecclesiology that will “ultimately be rooted in a singe-nature anthropology, which sees human nature and existence as the same for both males and females.”

The “iconic argument” for male priesthood is the understanding that the priest who stands in the place of Christ in the liturgy must be male because Jesus Christ was male. Zagano argues that this explanation for the male priesthood attacks single nature anthropology. Following standard feminist thought, she seems to believe the God-created complementarity of male and female is no more than a cultural construct.

Speaking about the fact that the male priest is an icon of the male Christ, she writes, “One might agree that the cultural appurtenances of contemporary priesthood are such as to make entrance into it iconically impossible for women. However, this second impossibility is not because of the intrinsic nature of priesthood, but due to the Church’s understanding of priesthood. That is the present ecclesial acceptance of the iconic argument is at root a cultural one.”

Is the masculinity of Jesus Christ (and by extension the necessary masculinity of the priest) simply a cultural construct? Zagano refers to Pope St. John Paul II’s 1988 letter on the dignity of women, Mulieris Dignitatem, in which the pope specifies the iconography of the male priest as being an intrinsic part of the image of Christ the bridegroom. Biologically, the role of bridegroom (and therefore husband and father) can only be male. Therefore the iconic argument is not simply a cultural construct. It is integrated with the reality of human biology and the mystery of the sacrament of Holy Matrimony and the nuptial imagery of redemption that threads through the Sacred Scriptures and the theology of the Church.

However, on page 26, Zagano uses some smooth theological sleight-of-hand to dissent from Pope John Paul’s teaching in Mulieris Dignitatum. She declares about his teaching on Christ the bridegroom-priest, “this view is independent of the shift in contemporary theology to a focus on priest as minister who, by and because of his ministry presides at the altar.” In this way, Ms. Zagano deftly corrects Pope John Paul II.

The mystery and wonder of human sexuality is pondered from the beginning. While men and women are created equal in God’s image, they are clearly not created the same. At the foundational level, Zagano seems to obscure or even obliterate the differences between male and female.  She uses Thomistic terminology to make her point: “That men and women are ontologically identical, that is, ontologically beyond sexuality in their substance while embracing sexuality in their accidents, argues even more strongly for the all-encompassing nature of God…”

A Caitlyn Jenner Jesus?
Elsewhere she seems to suggest that Christ himself is somehow androgynous: “God become human, whom Christians know as Christ, is exemplar to women and to men, precisely because in his Incarnation he became fully human. That is, God did not become fully male to the exclusion of becoming fully female; God become ‘man’ means God become ‘human.’ To restrict the Incarnation is to restrict the act of Incarnation. It is the responsibility of the human—male or female—to draw from within his or her likeness to Christ, and that likeness begins with humanity as a whole concept, not with sexuality as a restricting limitation.”

Let us read that again: “God did not become fully male to the exclusion of being fully female.” I’m sorry, but I can’t help seeing a Caitlyn Jenner Jesus here. I’m not being facetious. It doesn’t take an expert in gender politics to connect the dots and see that a “single nature anthropology” and Zagano’s suggestion that maleness and femaleness are a Thomistic “accident” are academic big-word talk for the current transgender ideology. The idea that one’s gender is fluid, not given but self-chosen, fits perfectly with the neutered humanity Zagano seems to endorse. Watch this video of college students explaining their idea about gender and ask whether (if they understood the philosophical language) they would embrace Zagano’s “single nature anthrolopology” or not.

How is Zagano’s feminist lingo gnostic? The gnostics taught that the incarnation of God’s son was an illusion. The specific physical and historical details of Jesus of Nazareth were unimportant—distasteful even. What really mattered was “the Christ” who was above and beyond the specificity of the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Zagano has said elsewhere that “The Risen Lord is different from The Christ or Jesus, and it is the Resurrected Christ who lives in all of us.” In Zagano’s version, Jesus Christ’s masculinity comes across as a necessary but messy accident of incarnation.

If the Church reflects this “single nature anthropology” as Zagano recommends, then our maleness and femaleness will be an accident of hormones and genitalia. Since men and women would be the same, it follows that not only must the diaconate be open to women, but so must the priesthood and it would seem that Zagano is being disingenuous when she pretends to have no interest in promoting the ordination of women to the priesthood.

The Incarnation of the Son of God presents us with the “scandal of particularity”—that God chose to enter not only human history, but that he took on the form not of an androgynous humanoid, but a man with a beard, broad shoulders, testosterone, testicles and all the rest. His masculinity was not an accident—not in the Thomistic sense nor in the common understanding of the word, and furthermore, his “humanity” is not something that transcends his masculinity. Instead, his masculinity is the sign and seal of his authentic humanity.

The images of the naked Christ child with his mother and the startling nude crucifixes of Michelangelo and Donatello drive home not only the humanity of Jesus Christ, but his unavoidable masculinity. Likewise, the image of Mary nursing the Christ child reminds us that she is a woman, that breasts are for the nourishment of her child, and that these attributes are what make her and her son fully human. They are not accidents.

God the “Loving One, Beloved and Co-Beloved”
One of the agenda points of Christian feminism is the push to redefine God himself. The intrinsically patriarchal terminology of “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” is inimical to feminists. Zagano is unsatisfied with the traditional Trinitarian formula. “Christian tradition is full of images of God that are specifically male,” she writes. “On the philosophical level, God the Father is equally limiting, and equally incorrect, to God the Mother.” The reach of Zagano is astonishing. She asserts that to call God “Father” is “incorrect.” Is it too simplistic to remind ourselves that Our Lord himself commanded us to call God “Our Father”?

Zagano goes on to ponder other formulas for the Holy Trinity which she suggests are more correct. “The formula Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer can also lend itself to confusions… Perhaps here the formulation of Richard of St Victor diligens, dialects, condilectus (understood as loving one, beloved, and co-beloved) is more appropriate, as the way to know and love the Trinity intellectually and wholly, that is within and beyond sexuality.”

There is a fundamental problem with this renaming of God. Not only does it blatantly contradict the specific command to call God “Our Father,” but it also eliminates the possibility of a personal encounter with God. If God is reduced to terms that describe what he does rather than who he is, it will be impossible for human beings to enter into an intimate relationship with him. If we call God “Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer” or “Loving One, Beloved and Co-Beloved” we are referring not to him but to his behavior—the roles he performs.

As men and women—male and female—we respond in relationship to everyone else and indeed everything else as sexual beings. I respond to other females as a man. I respond to other males as a man. The same is true with reference to God. We are commanded to call him “Father” because he is our progenitor. He wants to be in a relationship with us as a Father to his sons and daughters. Simply calling him “Creator” or “Loving One” is to give him an emotionally distant job-related title like Chief Executive Officer or Madame Chairman.

One only has to read their literature to realize that members of the feminist movement intend to overhaul not just the sacrament of ordination, but the traditional understandings of human anthropology, the doctrine of the incarnation, and the Holy Trinity. Zagano protests vociferously when someone critiques her work, but it is blatantly obvious that feminists are using the discussion of a female diaconate not only as a stalking horse for women priests, but also for the whole feminist agenda.

(Photo courtesy of Phyllis Zagano, uploaded January 25)

Rev. Dwight Longenecker

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Rev. Dwight Longenecker is the parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary parish in Greenville, South Carolina. His latest book is The Mystery of the Magi: The Quest to Identify the Three Wise Men (2017). Check out his website and blog at www.dwightlongenecker.com.

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