Ad Limina Apostolorum (Blog) | St. Augustine's Library
Tuesday, December 06, 2005

The 'Sexual Mission' of Christ 

Phil A. Webb at Pontifications reviews and critiques an article entitled 'Women's Ordination and the Church's Order', written by Dr. Ephraim Radner of the Anglican Communion Institute.

Among the fundamental presuppositions of Dr. Radner is the following:

"[I]f we are to address the matter of women's ordination, we must do so within a framework of revealed truth ('what has God told us about this matter?'), and not primarily on the basis of speculations regarding the order of creation ('what does it mean to be a man or a woman?')"

Careful. Pull yourself slowly up from the floor. Dust off your trousers. Return to your seat in a slow, measured manner.

The assumption that the 'order of creation' gets no say in theological debate strikes me as such a horrendous notion that I can't bring myself to believe it could possibly be taken for granted in any community of theological scholars, even the Anglican. (Perhaps it gets some say, but not the 'primary' say. I'll give Radner the benefit of the doubt.) Dr. Radner's reasoning to this point is that ontological demands a priori rule out certain theoretical possibilities (e.g., 'homosexual marriage'), whereas the question of priestesses is not so ruled out, and therefore must be settled by discussions of history and ecclesial tradition.

Such a position might even be reinforced by the most recent papal teaching on the question, in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, which opts for historical-biblical arguments over properly anthropological-philosophical approaches. This Apostolic Letter refers to the 'constant practice of the Church,' the weight of her 'living teaching authority', and then lays down as its primary argument the precedent of Christ's selection of men as apostles. This, by my reading, was the worst approach that the Letter could possibly have taken in defending Magisterial teaching. (As a preemptive self-defense, I note the obvious: we are obliged to assent to solemn ecclesiastical teaching; we are not obliged to accept that the arguments with which the Magisterium expresses this teaching are the best possible arguments by which it could be expressed.)

The reason is that the argument from Christ's precedent simply invites a tidal wave of criticism, since most modern scholars (good and bad) are no longer in the habit of referring to the historical record of the Bible as theological precedent. Most modern biblical scholars do not even trust the historical record of the Bible as accurate history. Certain uncautious phrases of St. Paul's can even be conjured up to argue that women were chosen as apostles. The Holy Father's assumption that Christ was unaffected by sociological prejudices of his day would be rejected by a majority, perhaps, of modern christology experts (mental note: allowing a solemn teaching to rest upon certain assumptions about the conciousness of Christ, however true, is never a good idea).

John Paul the Great was not, however, writing from a blank slate. He had before him the CDF's document Inter Insigniores, published two years before the commencement of his pontificate. The 1976 document spills the bulk of its ink reviewing ecclesiastical practice, and the precedent of Christ and the apostles (much of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis is drawn word for word from Inter Insigniores, choosing, in my opinion, the weaker of the two arguments available to it). But the earlier document does not stop there: it proceeds to a deeper, metaphysical-theological argument, which points to the priest's role of acting in persona Christi, the sign value of the sacrament of holy orders, and the nuptial mystery of the Incarnation:

The Christian priesthood is therefore of a sacramental nature: the priest is a sign, the supernatural effectiveness of which comes from the ordination received, but a sign that must be perceptible and which the faithful must be able to recognize with ease. The whole sacramental economy is in fact based upon natural signs, on symbols imprinted upon the human psychology: "Sacramental signs", says Saint Thomas, "represent what they signify by natural resemblance". The same natural resemblance is required for persons as for things: when Christ's role in the Eucharist is to be expressed sacramentally, there would not be this "natural resemblance" which must exist between Christ and his minister if the role of Christ were not taken by a man: in such a case it would be difficult to see in the minister the image of Christ. For Christ himself was and remains a man.

That is why we can never ignore the fact that Christ is a man. And therefore, unless one is to disregard the importance of this symbolism for the economy of Revelation, it must be admitted that, in actions which demand the character of ordination and in which Christ himself, the author of the Covenant, the Bridegroom and Head of the Church, is represented, exercising his ministry of salvation which is in the highest degree the case of the Eucharist-his role (this is the original sense of the word "persona") must be taken by a man. This does not stem from any personal superiority of the latter in the order of values, but only from a difference of fact on the level of functions and service.

The document does not, regrettably, undertake an explanation of why, in the first place, God became incarnate as man at all. But it is to this question that all this points: what is the 'sign value' of sexual difference? Phil A. Webb goes to Adrienne von Speyr for the answer. I would have gone to her male counterpart: Hans Urs von Balthasar, who is far more lucid on this question.

For Balthasar, the sign-value of feminity is receptivity, responsiveness, vis-a-vis God. The sign-value of masculinity is generativity and self-giving. Both signs have values inasmuch as they reflect the inner life of the Triune God (Balthasar even allows that the Son is 'quasi-feminine' in relation to the Father, since He is receptive to Him, but we won't get into that here. That's an order.) Once such sign values are understood, it makes much more sense why Mary and the Church can only be feminine, and why Christ and the priest can only be masculine.

I would humbly propose that the Magisterium could provide a much more satisfying answer to the question of women's ordination if it moved away from historical questions, and towards a more profound, anthropological-philosophical analysis of the meaning of sexual identity as such. It would also be much more fun to talk about. Balthasar's work may not be the touchstone for such an approach, but he could certainly be a starting point.

# posted by Jamie : 12:57 PM


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