Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Male Priesthood

Before I move on to new topics, I want to wrap up what I've been saying about priesthood and seminarian life. I have argued that the call to the priesthood that Christ offered to men has nothing to do with the fact that men are men, understood as a positive reason, but only negatively. I have also reflected on Benedict's statements to seminarians, that his warnings are primarily against careerism, ostentation, and conceit. I think he mentions these because they are endemic to the masculine tendency, quasi-natural as a pronitas caused by sin.

One reason that I feel I need to theologize differently about the theology of a male priesthood is that I am not happy with the neo-orthodox theological solution. The primary theologian in this regard is Hans Urs von Balthasar. He wrote extensively on the male priesthood, arguing that it was most fitting due to the nature of the Church as a primarily feminine, read passive, community. The Church is a passive institution, receiving its life through grace from above. He symbolically understands the Logos as male, inseminating the Church with the life of grace. For this reason the Church must be feminine. Those who are in the place of Christ, the priests, must be men because they act as Christ did toward the feminine body of the Church, symbolically reflecting his covenant with the Church, continually offering in the eucharist his (seminal) life to the receptive body of the Church. Women do not have the quasi-natural capacity to represent Christ in this way.

My problem with this is that such symbolizing can be turned any which way. Mary is the primary symbol of the Church. She is the "concrete universal" of the Church, as Blondel and De Lubac called her. Her reception of the message of the angel on behalf of the whole world is precisely the mission of the Church. Yet that was not some passive reception. It was an active incorporating and receiving that is the case in all true receiving. And this incorporation played itself out in her offering of Christ to the world as the Church does. The Church is a receiving and giving body, receiving Christ and giving him to the world. Mary is the perfect example of this, as a woman, giving from her womb the gift of Christ. De Lubac, thus, points out how Mary is the example priest of the new covenant. However, Christ then passed on to men this role as priest, and not to women.

For this reason I have to disagree with De Lubac. Mary is the pre-eminent priest of the new covenant. There is nothing in the symbolic representation of a woman's body that prevents her from being a priest. That is simply wrongheaded. Symbols are rich in the Scripture and in the Father's, and they are both feminine and masculine in relation to God and the Church and priests. As a faithful Catholic, I have to believe that men alone are called to be priests. Yet I do not think it is enough to say that that is simply the case from Scripture. That argument has even been debunked by the Vatican. It is not self-evident from Scripture that only men can be priests. Nor do I think the symbolization of neo-orthodoxy is helpful or appropriate.

It is for this reason that I turn to a different theological explanation founded upon the quasi-natural tendency that men have toward violence and domination. From the first curse resulting from Adam's sin, he is cursed in regards to the earth to demand of it its produce, to force it violently to give up to him its fruits. Towards the woman he is cursed to lord it over her, in the same way that Jesus tells his disciples that the Gentiles exercise authority. These are curses of sin, and Jesus makes it clear that "this shall not be so with you." Rene Giraud develops the theory that societies gradually build up guilt until it reaches such a critical mass that they have to violently let it out on a scapegoat that is the mechanism for releasing this tension. What Jesus revealed is not that this is not how societies work due to sin, but that this scapegoat is innocent, thereby revealing this structure for what it is by highlighting it in his own body. Therefore, because of him, we recognize for the first time the nature of this structure. He puts an end to it as necessary by revealing it in himself, in his innocence, so that this structure was finally recognized. For this reason, no other sacrifice is needed except for his, though societies continue to attempt to scapegoat groups.

Men, since they share in this violence as a quasi-part of their nature, are offered by Christ the chance for redemption in their own bodies by being priests, by offering again and again the innocent sacrifice that neutralizes their own violence nature toward domination. This is their "right" as gift, due to a tendency in their nature toward sin.

What about women? Do they not have a propounded tendency due to their own sin? Genesis says they do, it is pain in childbirth. But what is exaggerated in their nature? She is cursed to yearn for her husband, to lose her independence. Man gains "independence" from sin; women lose "independence" from sin. Genesis 2 states that men are supposed to leave father and mother and cling to their wife. Now, because of sin, women cling to their husbands. Yet the mechanism for their own healing is within their own bodies: childbirth. When Paul says that "women will be saved through childbirth," this is not to be read as it often is as through their husband, or by staying at home. It means that their salvation is in their own bodies, in the independence that comes from giving birth in pain, yet still giving birth for the world, offering gifts to the world. Men do not have this capacity to regulate their own domination, so some are offered it as priests, to offer a sacrifice that reflectively heals the wound of their nature.

This is a very elementary theory that needs much more working out. But the healing of the world comes from the wounding of the flesh. This is the purpose of marriage, to wound the flesh in a way that takes me out of myself into another. Women experience this easier than men. Men are thus offered the priesthood as a wound that heals their nature. Does it just end up compounding men's nature? It can. That is why we desperately need better seminary training. So so badly. That is why Benedict pointed to careerism, ostentation, and conceit. Men have taken the antibiotic that Christ offered for their healing, ground it into powder, and begun to snort it. Does that mean we get rid of the antidote? No, we just start using it right. Women need to help men do that. They need to stand up, and we need to let them stand up, and put us in our place as priests. Before the Fall men are to run to women for help, not vice-versa. We need to do that again.

Markel, SJ


Markel & Mason said...


We have discussed this before and I find your idea to be engrossing.

I have a few questions for you.

Since most men are not priests (while most women have given birth), do most men remain broken while most women are healed?

How do you think your argument would relate to discussions about a married clergy? Would a man who is a husband and a priest be the best off?

Mason Slidell

Markel & Mason said...


Thank you for your comments. Those are good questions, and I'm not sure I have answers for them. In regards to your first question, I don't want to overemphasize the importance of the priesthood for "curing" the proclivity that men have to violence. My point is that, unlike in a liberal social order, while all are made equally in the image and likeness of God, the order of "politics" for lack of a better word is founded upon privilege granted through grace. The "privilege" that men receive to be priests is thus theirs by grace, not right, and by grace because of a tendency to sin in their sinful nature. So, I am trying to answer, "why do men get to be priests" and not "should all men be priests." Men can be healed just like women by the grace of Christ experienced transformatively in marriage. But they receive a privilege to offer the sacrifice because of a woundedness. Separately, since priesthood is also a marriage with the Church by which men have to model Christ's sacrifice for the Church by which he gave himself up for her as Ephesians 5 says, they show married men how to live out their married vocations.

As to your second question, I am again mostly concerned with the privilege of the priesthood to men. I can see arguments both ways for a married priesthood. I can see priests being both better off and worse off. A non-celibate priesthood is still a married priesthood, with the Church as spouse that a priest must seriously sacrifice for and serve when its children awake crying at nice and need tender care. I can allow arguments for both.

On a side note, I think this may have interesting implications for gay men. Insofar as I believe that a homosexual orientation is more violent-prone than a straight orientation, since it is a sexual preference that does not welcome the gift of life as a healing of the wound of individual narcissism, then possibly for this reason gay men are more privileged to be priests. The violent nature of homosexual acts (not welcoming of the Other and the stranger in a child) would grant this privilege. However, this must be tempered by pastoral concerns about who they serve as well.

Markel, SJ