“Christ the Spouse”: Pope Francis and Women’s Ordination

March 31, 2014 at 4:48 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 11 Comments
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(The following is longer than my usual blog-post–1500 words instead of my usual 750 or so–so you may want to put your feet up.)

Well, what John Allen of the Boston Globe calls “pope- mania” continues unabated. On NPR’s “Weekend Edition” a while back, Sylvia Poggioli quoted U.S. and European journalists to the effect that Pope Francis is bringing about the “biggest change in the Catholic Church in a thousand years.” And when I gave a copy of my book, Sister Trouble, to Sister Helen Prejean at a celebration of the twentieth anni- versary edition of Dead Man Walking  in November, she told me that with the new pope, all the trouble between the nuns and the Vatican is going away.

I hope these women are right. I really do. A well-informed nun-friend assures me that the current heads of the Sacred Congregation for Religious are much better than the former head, the one who initiated the “visitation” of U.S. women’s religious communities in 2009. On the other hand, Pope Francis recently made Gerhard Mueller, the conservative prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), a cardinal. The CDF investigated and then subsequently issued a harsh doctrinal assessment of the U.S. Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). And the pope has not ordered the retraction of that assessment.

What really concerns me, however, is not the theopolitics of various Vatican prefects but the words of the pope himself. In particular, I am concerned about the sections on women (103 and 104) of Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (EG)  (The Joy of the Gospel). Francis has, of course, received praise, even adulation, for this document, which, like many of his public statements and interviews, places a long-needed (re)emphasis on justice and love of the poor.

But a number of Francis’ statements about women in EG are troubling. These include what he writes about women’s “sensitivity, intuition and other distinctive skill sets,” as well as their “feminine genius”. These are surely references to John Paul II’s 1988 Mulieres Dignitatem, and his ideology of “complementarity,” no matter what the citation in EG suggests. But what concerns me most is the first half of a sen- tence in section 104: “The reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the Spouse who gives himself in the Eucharist, is not a question open to discussion…”

At first, I hoped the word “Spouse” was an intentionally more gender-neutral term than the distinctly gendered “Christ the Bridegroom” that has been used to dismiss the possibility of women’s ordination for decades. Alas, when I examined the versions of EG in Italian and Spanish (one or the other of which is surely the language in which the document was written), I discovered that “Christ the Spouse” is simply an-other example of bad Vatican translations into English: In Italian and French (and in German), the words mean “Christ the Bridegroom” or “Christ the Husband.”

Now the metaphor of Christ, or God, as the Bridegroom, appears throughout the Jewish and Christian scriptures and in many other Christian writings. It is one of a wide range of metaphors for the relationship between God and God’s people. What some of us will recall, however, is that “Christ the Bridegroom” played a pivotal role in Inter Insigniores, the 1976 CDF declaration, approved by Paul VI, that dis missed the possibility of women’s ordination. John Paul II does not use “Christ the Bridegroom” in his 1994 apostolic letter, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, which declares women’s or-dination as contrary to the faith, and which some conservative Catholics believe to be an infallible statement. Francis’s use of the phrase “is not a question open to discussion,” how-ever, is surely a reference to the last paragraph of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, which states that the Church has “no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.” And in his 1988 apostolic letter on the dignity and vocation of women, Mulieres Dignitatem, John Paul uses “Christ the Bridegroom” twenty-eight times. For him, “Christ the Bridegroom” sets absolutely the limits of woman’s vocation.

In 1993, before the publication of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, Sister Elizabeth J. Picken, CJ, published a rebuttal of a previous article by the conservative Catholic theologian, Sara Butler, MSBT, “The Priest as the Sacrament of Christ the Bridegroom”; both appeared in Worship magazine.. Picken argues compellingly that Butler, following Inter Insignores and Mulieres Dignitatem, uses “Christ the Bridegroom” as the singular framework for ordination in a way that makes the relationship between God and God’s people essentially gendered. (Butler, Sara, “The Priest as Sacrament of Christ the Bridegroom.” Worship, 66:6 Nov. 1992, 498-517. Picken, Elizabeth J. “If Christ is Bridegroom, Must the Priest Be Male?” Worship, 67:3. May 1993, 269-278.)

There are, we learn, multiple problems with this approach. First of all “Christ the Bridegroom” is a metaphor, but Butler makes it a “primordial symbol” that cancels out, or tries to subsume within it, other equally or more important, metaphors. In point of fact, Picken argues, the primary analogy of the Christian tradition is the relationship between Christ and the Church, the covenant between them, not between husband and wife. The core meaning of this bond is fidelity, not nuptials. In the He-brew Bible, the covenant of fidelity is sometimes represented between God and single leaders of the whole people: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, etc.; also between womb and infant; between lord and slave; between shepherd and flock; be-tween gardener and vineyard. In addition, sexuality is used in ways that extend beyond marriage to represent the covenant; sometimes the prophets describe the people of Israel as prostituting themselves to foreign gods—breaking the covenant. Similarly, the author of Ephesians says that marriage partners are to model themselves on the pattern of Christ to the church. But Butler, and the papal documents she defends, have got it all turned upside down. Christ’s fidelity to the church is the model for marriage partners; marriage partners are not the model to which Christ and the church should conform.

Picken also details other ways in which the theology of Christ the Bridegroom is reductive, profoundly narrowing of the tradition. Butler, and the documents from Paul VI and John Paul II, limit the whole question of ordination to the framework of Christology. They fail to take into account the Christian anthropology (theology of the human being) and pneumatology (theology of the Spirit) that are also essential parts of the meaning of ordination. For example, using Christ the Bridegroom to argue that the priest must be male draws on one view of Christian anthropology, complementarity, that presumes opposite roles for men and women. But there are also Christian anthropologies of differentiation that understand sex roles to be interchangeable. Butler, and those in her camp, believe that if a pope draws on the theology of complementarity, that settles the question. But complementarity is not an infallible doctrine; quite the contrary.

Similarly, pneumatology, and ecclesiology in relation to the Eucharist and the church, are almost ignored in these documents, making them a primarily medieval interpretation of ordination. (I am using the word “medieval” literally here.) Picken draws on the great twentieth-century theologian Yves Congar to make her point here: “Christ, ‘by his Holy Spirit, builds up the Church and raises up and institutes its ministries.’ If it is Christ by the Spirit that builds up the Church,” Picken asks, “is it required that the ordained minister be of the same gender as Christ?” Or to put it more baldly, is the Holy Spirit also a bridegroom?

Lest we be too disheartened by Pope Francis’ use of the theologically and scripturally reductive symbol favored by his predecessors to limit women’s roles in the church, I refer you to a critique of Evangelii Gaudium that appeared on the America magazine blog page last December. It was written by another Jesuit, Francis X. Clooney, the brilliant professor of comparative theology at Harvard Divinity School. Clooney expresses disappointment with two sections of Evangelii Gaudium: 254, on “non-Christians,” Clooney’s own area of expertise, and 103 and 104, on women. With regard to the latter, Clooney stresses that “the language of Christ as ‘Spouse’ ‘giving himself in the Eucharist,’ while a beautiful image, is out of place in this Exhortation, an echo of another view of Church.”

Clooney’s post is well worth reading. What particularly strikes me, however, is its title: “Pope Francis: Still Finding His Own Voice?” Clooney argues that the whole section on non-Christians “is not sufficiently integrated with Francis’ more exciting vision, in the rest of the exhortation,” of “an outward looking Church that is in the streets, with the people, soiled and wounded in the work of justice, combatting the real enemies of economic and political degradation and the deprivation of human dignity.” He argues as well that the sections on women seem to be “in someone else’s voice.” What’s needed, Clooney tells us, is for Francis to speak about these questions in his own voice and not just as the successor to John Paul II and Benedict.

From Father Francis’ lips to Pope Francis’ ear.

 

(This article is a slight revision of an article by the same name that appeared in the March-June 2014 edition of EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference. EqualwRites is published three times a year, and you can subscribe by sending a donation of any amount to SEPA WOC PO Box 27195, Philadelphia, PA 19118. Make your check payable to SEPA WOC.)

 

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11 Comments »

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  1. Thanks, Marian. Maddening isn’t it?

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  2. PS. Thanks for keeping on keeping on. Love, Pam

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    • Pam, thank you for reading my blog and commenting. It means a lot.

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  3. Shouldn’t that be ‘from Fr. Clooney’s lips to Pope Francis’ ear’? Hard stuff, but good, thanks Marian.

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  4. I liked that they have the same first name. Or maybe it should be Father Clooney’s lips to Pope Bergoglio’s ear?

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  5. The metaphors of fidelity are lovely. And I’ve never heard of pneumatology, which sounds like an intriguing field of study. Thanks for such a clear elucidation of these issues, Marian!

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  6. I really like what I know of Clooney, too. I hope he’s right. I admire from afar the optimism! Thanks for this amazing detailed post.

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  7. […] nuns and the Vatican is gender, plain and simple. However benign Pope Francis may be, he shares, as I have argued, the embarrassingly medieval theology of gender that his predecessors promoted. In point of fact, […]

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  8. Hello Marian,
    As a ‘corrective’ to your current Commonweal reading listed above, I’d recommend Alison Weir’s “Against Our Better Judgement: The Hidden History of How the U.S. was used to Create Israel”.
    It’s time to educate the truth about how our tax dollars are murdering innocent Palestinians.
    Jan L. Ph.D.

    Like

  9. […] point the president of the board of the U.S. Women’s Ordination Conference. I even published a blog post criticizing what Pope Francis says about women in the previous document he wrote, “Evangelii Gaudium.” I get it that the […]

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  10. […] theology and activism, in Catholic teaching on climate change and environmental destruction. As I argued previously, despite the occasional action to the contrary (such as washing women’s feet on Holy Thursday), […]

    Like


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