Feminist Dissent, Human Sexuality, and the Liturgy

Author: Fr. Jerry Pokorsky

Feminist Dissent, Human Sexuality, and the Liturgy

by Rev. Jerry Pokorsky

In recent years it has become clear that the demands of radical feminism are fueling the continuing crisis of dissent in the Church. Feminism's appetite has proven insatiable, despite the hierarchy's attempts to satisfy it. Committee documents promoting "inclusive language" and the recent decision to allow altar girls have failed to placate feminist grievances.

It should come as no surprise that this source of spiritual cacophony finds expression in abusive liturgical practices. There appears to be a close association between feminist dissent from Church teaching since the days of the Second Vatican Council and the persistent liturgical aberrations found in many parts of the country. But what exactly is that connection?

Dissent begets dissent. Those who promote the ordination of women are often the same people who promote abortion, and seek approval for various forms of sexual disorder. Throughout the year the Women's Ordination Conference promotes its agenda in advertisements placed in the (NCR), the leading voice of dissent within the Church in the United States.

The NCR has proven to be a reliable partner. In 1995 Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger described as "infallible" the Church's teaching that women cannot be admitted to the ministerial priesthood; his letter in answer to the question of infallibility was confirmed by Pope John Paul II. NCR's thinly disguised editorial rage following that declaration is documented in the December 1995 issues of the newspaper.

Sexual disorder is part of the same picture. In an October 1995 issue of the NCR (the issue was selected at random from my reading desk), a group calling itself "Brothers Together," apparently hoping to find favor with NCR readers, ran an ad promoting "regional gatherings, retreats, community with other conscious, loving men" for "gay men." In the same issue, the "Conference for Catholic Lesbians" promoted their newsletter in an ad and described themselves as "advocates for lesbian issues in political and church forums."

The NCR itself is also one of the leading proponents of liturgical aberrations. A casual review of recent issues reveals that the editors have a curious fascination with liturgical dance and feminist "liturgies." Illicit liturgical practices, reported by the NCR with apparent approval, express the spirit of dissent that pervades the newspaper.

What, then, is the underlying theological theme explaining these strange associations? Dissent on issues relating to women's ordination, abortion, and sexual disorder-and the paradigmatic expression of that dissent in the seemingly unrelated types of liturgical abuse-can be traced to a breakdown in understanding of male mediation, as that concept is conveyed through the Bible. It is the fact of male mediation that disturbs feminist sensibilities and stirs them to identify it as "male domination." Arguably, the common thread connecting these various types of dissent and illicit liturgical practices is the denial of mediation as a trait. But to deny the male's role as mediator comes at a price; it necessarily denies God's self- revelation and his plan for the authentic dignity of both men and women.

The mediation of Adam and of Christ

The book of Genesis reveals the male's role in mediating God's love. After the Fall, Genesis reports that "Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, 'I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord."' (Gen 4:1) It is noteworthy that Eve recognizes her child as a gift from God. She does not mention Adam as she delights in the birth of her child. But it is clear that Eve actively receives God's love, embodied as a child, through the mediation of the male: Adam. Even in their fallen state, the first parents recognize children as an expression of God's love, in which they are permitted to participate.

It is clear from Genesis that the male primarily God's love to the woman who primarily God's love. There is a hint of this reality even in the physiological sexual characteristics of male and female. This is not to suggest that "mediation" in a broader understanding of the word is exclusively a male attribute-any more than to suggest that "receptivity" or "nurturing" are exclusively female traits. But these categories, applied to the sexes, are predominant sexual traits in human nature. A father, for example, can nurture a child with affection, but he cannot sustain a child as a mother does by breast feeding. A mother can "mediate" God's love to her children, but not in the same way in which she received God's love in the conception of her children.

The male's primary role in mediating God's love is confirmed in the mediation of Jesus Christ between God and man. Christ mediates the Father's love to his Church: "For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus." (1 Tim 2:5) It is appropriate that the second person of the blessed Trinity entered into the world not only as a human being, but as a male. Why? Because the primary function of a male, physiologically and spiritually, is to mediate God's love. The Incarnation confirms God's revelation of male mediation.

Christ the mediator, using marital imagery, even identifies himself as a bridegroom. Responding to the disciples of John the Baptist, Jesus asked, "Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast." (Mt 9:14,15) St. Paul clearly establishes the image of Christ as bridegroom and the Church as bride. He compares the relationship between husband and wife to that of Christ and his Church:

For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church, his body, and is himself its savior. As the Church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. (Eph 5:23-28) Just as Eve received Cain as a gift from God through the mediation of Adam, so the Church bears spiritual children by the mediation of Christ: "But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons" (Gal. 4:4,5). Just as Eve delighted in Cain as a gift from the Father, the Church also delights in the Father's gift of grace mediated by the sacrifice of Christ: "And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, 'Abba! Father!"' (Gal. 4:6)

It is apparent from the New Testament that the maleness of Christ is significant in revealing his role as the one Mediator. Only a male can be a bridegroom. Jesus is the only mediator between God and man. According to God's design, only a male acting in the person of Christ can mediate God's love. This helps explain the theology of the male priesthood. It is the function of the priest to act in the person of Christ (), that is, in the person of Christ the Head of the Mystical Body and Bridegroom of his spouse the Church. The priest, like Christ himself, mediates the Father's love to his people, the Church. The primary function of a priest is that of mediator in the celebration of the sacraments. This paternal mediation, in which a priest shares, reflects the male and paternal principle which God has placed in both the biology and the ontology of his created world. It is a principle that was confirmed and deepened by the mediation of the incarnate son of God. In the final analysis, does the imagery of male mediation matter? Might it be appropriate to sacrifice an all-male priesthood-in order to accommodate cultural concerns, or in the face of chronic priest shortages? Recent decrees by the Holy See make it clear that the inadmissibility of women to the ministerial priesthood is a teaching that belongs to the deposit of faith; in other words, it is part of God's revelation. Some may find this teaching difficult. But the imagery of sex roles-of male mediation and female fecundity-may be the key to understanding.

"Be fruitful and multiply"

The answer to our questions can be found in the reexamination of Scripture. In Genesis, God commands the first parents to be fruitful: So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, ', and fill the earth and subdue it...' (1:27-28)

Male and female can be "fruitful" only by obeying the laws of nature. When man and woman engage in procreation, they act not only in accord with the laws of biology but also in conformity to the expressed will of God. Children are conceived as a result of the male's mediation and the female's receptivity to God's love. Male and female, Christ and his Church, priest and people-these are not in competition with one another; they complement one another in the presence of God. The male actively mediates; the female actively receives; and new life expresses the loving union of man with woman under God.

Fecundity is directly connected to man's (male and female) "imaging" of God and fulfilling his command to subdue the earth. Just as God's love is expressed in creation, man's love, created in the image of God, is expressed in new life. Man discovers his dignity as a "co-creator" with God as new life is brought into the world. And the male's role as mediator of God's love orders and directs his sexuality toward new life.

Similarly, Christ expects the Church to be holy and spiritually fruitful. Before his ascension Jesus said to his disciples, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age." (Mt 28:18-20) The Church discovers her dignity by sharing in the redemptive mission of Jesus Christ. But the Church is not fruitful unless she remains in union with Christ who, as Mediator, orders and directs the Father's love.

Just as it is the nature of man (male and female) to be fruitful, it is the nature of Christ in union with his Church to express God's creative love. A fruitful Church is an evangelical and missionary Church. A missionary Church is fruitful because she has received the redemptive grace of the Father through the mediation of Christ. That mediation continues to be fruitful through the mediation of priests . So every priest can and should be called "Father" because, by the design of God himself, he participates in and mediates the divine fatherhood of God in his plan to "fill the earth and subdue it." The spiritual children of the priest are God the Father's children, born into the Church through the sacraments.

Attack on the male ministerial priesthood

The attack (and it must be described as an "attack") on the exclusively male priesthood is an attack on the male's role, set out by God's design, as mediator. This has immediate and unwelcome consequences. Since mediation is the primary function of a male, it is fitting that the priesthood should maintain the marital imagery established in Genesis and confirmed in Christ. That imagery would be destroyed by the ordination of women; it would redefine the nature of the priesthood and would sever the priesthood of the Church from the priesthood of Jesus Christ. Why? Because the attack on the exclusively male priesthood suggests that the Church can exist without a mediator. But a Church without a mediator is a Church without Christ. Ultimately the denial of an exclusively male priesthood breaks man's contact with an infinitely transcendent God and denies both men and women access to their right to divine adoption in Christ.

Of course all of the Christian faithful, by way of their common priesthood, "mediate" the Father's love, most explicitly in the lay apostolate. But the common priesthood should not be confused with the ministerial priesthood. The consequence of confusing the common priesthood of all believers with the sacerdotal priesthood is a denial of the essential meaning of the Eucharist. While absence of the activity of the common priesthood (ordered to and formed by the Eucharistic presence of Christ) would disable the Church's evangelical mission to the world, if there were no sacerdotal priesthood there would be no immanent Eucharistic presence. A "headless body" is not the Church; it is merely an "assembly."

The attack on the exclusively male priesthood is also an attack on Adam's role as mediator. If we fail to recognize the primary role of the male in mediating God's love, then Eve can no longer delight in the conception of children precisely as a gift from God. The denial of Adam's role as mediator gives the illusion that the child is not a gift from a transcendent and loving God. Eve no longer sees herself as the receiver and a of her children, she perceives herself as the . Eve is tempted to see the child as a mere extension of her own body, a "growth" to which she is free to either grant or deny life.

But recognizing the male's role as mediator impels man to order the sexual act toward new life, according to its nature. The male is a "go-between"-an agent acting between God and the woman in bringing about new life. This agency anticipates the reception of God's grace, which is brought through the one mediator, Jesus Christ, to all men and women. The sexual act was designed by God to express and be open to new life. Man was designed to be "fruitful" and to "multiply" by graciously accepting and cooperating with the gift of God's love. God's order and plan for human sexuality is safeguarded by the awareness of the male's role as mediator. To recognize the gift of male mediation entails a profound act of humility the male is "merely" an instrument of God's love, not the author of love. The woman "merely" receives God's love as a good steward; she is not the owner of that love. Therein lies the dignity of both men and women. By respecting God's plan, men and women participate in God's continuing creation under his loving Providence.

The deliberate denial of male mediation therefore is an act of sinful pride. Devoid of male mediation, the exercise of sexuality no longer makes reference to a transcendent God. (A "mediator" after all, is not acting on his own; he belongs to the person he mediates.) Denial of the male's role in mediating God's love unleashes the illusion of self- sufficiency on the part of both male and female. Both are tempted to claim exclusive "ownership" of their sexual powers and to use them in accordance with their inclinations of the moment.

But the consequences of original sin, combined with the illusion of self-sufficiency, are devastating. Sexuality becomes disordered and dysfunctional. Eroticism, masturbation, contraception, homosexuality, and abortion are symptoms of a selfish and autonomous sexuality. Given the naturally aggressive character of the male after the Fall, the denial of his role as a "mere" mediator of God's love has set the stage for male domination. In general, when sexuality is no longer regulated by God's plan, male irresponsibility (and often brutishness) is quick to emerge. Ironically, when the reality of male mediation is denied (in our day, often the result of feminist activism and an eager acceptance of the feminist ideology on the part of men), it is women who suffer the most.

Contraception, for example, has not turned out to be the widely heralded means of the liberation of women. Contraception neutralizes fertility; it is designed to make male mediation impossible. But what has been the result of the widespread practice of contraception? Women have been reduced to objects of lust; promiscuity has skyrocketed; statistics reveal that the divorce rate coincides with the rate of the availability of contraceptives. When contraception fails, and male mediation takes place after all, the baby conceived often suffers the grim fate of an intruder.

The effect on liturgical practices

The denial of male mediation as essential to the priesthood of Jesus Christ also deforms the celebration of the liturgy. Without a male priest, there can be no liturgical expression of mediation between God and man. Without a male priest, there can be no liturgical expression of man's contact with an infinitely transcendent God. Only a male, by the plan of God, can mediate his love through the Eucharist to his people. A community which denies the priest's role as mediator can no longer be open to new life. In its quest for autonomy, it has deliberately and liturgically disconnected itself from the Author of grace and life.

This explains the liturgical disorder associated with illicit liturgical practices. At times a priest might be uneasy about his role as a mediator. There is a hint of this attitude when he illicitly changes the liturgical greeting, "The Lord be with you," to "The Lord is us." Another example occurs at the dismissal when a priest may feel compelled to say "May almighty God bless us..." instead of "May almighty God bless you...." At other times, the priest may feel the need to "jazz up" the liturgy to make it more appealing or "relevant" to the community.

Just as the denial of male mediation is an act of sinful pride, so the denial of the priest's role as a mediator in the liturgy sets up the celebrant as the center of attention. He is no longer a mediator but a presider. Devoid of mediation, the celebration of Mass no longer makes reference to a transcendent God. The focus is on the priest, often in competition with the community. The attitude unleashes the illusion of self-sufficiency on the part of both priest and people. Both are tempted to claim exclusive "ownership" of the celebration and to use it according to their inclinations of the moment.

Unexpected changes in the Mass break the solemnity built up through centuries of organic growth in the crafting of liturgical rubrics. The innovations may be entertaining, on a certain level, but they distract from what is really going on at the Mass; the opportunity for contemplative prayer is disrupted. At the very least, the priest becomes a poor mediator (his liturgical practices render the Mass "valid but unlawful"). In the extreme (should he fail to use bread made of wheat, for example), he does not mediate at all, because his Mass is invalid. A priest who takes liberties with the liturgy implicitly denies his role as mediator in Christ and renders the liturgy infertile.

Liturgical promiscuity

It is not at all difficult to see parallels between liturgical abuse and sexual promiscuity. Unlawful activities in the celebration of Mass express a spirit of disorder and dysfunction. Liturgical aberrations are like contraceptive sex, in which "routine" sexual behavior cannot satisfy the most essential appetites. So there is a constant need to go beyond the normal into various forms of eroticism. Liturgical dance, for example, is an example of something "new" and "exciting" in the liturgy. But rather than opening up the community to a transcendent God, it merely occupies the attention of the community until something more entertaining comes along. Liturgical aberrations are also symptoms of a self-absorbed and autonomous community, a community without a strong father. Like a wife who has rejected her husband, or a husband who has rejected his role as father, the community is barren. It has closed in on itself, incapable of new life because it has shut itself off from God's grace.

Evidence of this barren individualism in contemporary celebrations of the liturgy can be found in some attitudes toward adoration of the Blessed Eucharist. The Eucharist-the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ-is the gift of the heavenly Father through the mediation of the priest. In adoration outside of Mass, a properly formed Catholic does not worship by contemplating the work of the male priest as a mediator. The attention is on the Eucharist-just as Eve delights in her child, not in Adam who mediated the child. (Of course this does not exclude Eve's appreciation of Adam, any more than the Catholic community's worship of the Real Presence excludes an appreciation of the priest. But the priorities should be clear.) If the Mass has been so reduced that many participants see the liturgy as nothing more than a community meal, adoration of the Eucharist would be senseless at best, perhaps even irritating.

Why would Eucharistic adoration be irritating, rather than merely irrelevant, to those who have abandoned faith in the Real Presence? In a Mass where the Eucharist is reduced to a community meal, the Real Presence mediated by the priest is denied. To a person who insists upon denying the role of the priest as mediator, adoration of the Eucharist can only call attention to the himself who confected the Eucharist (almost as if the priest were the chief "minister of hospitality" and "cook"). It would be as if Eve would look upon Adam with envy: as someone who competes with her for duties she might perform equally well. Eve might even overlook or deny the humanity of her child as she resents being excluded from Adam's activities. Consequently, in some convents, visiting priests are disinvited to concelebrate Mass with the chaplain because of the alleged appearance of "male domination." Such a preoccupation betrays, at worst, a faithless attitude toward the Real Presence and at best, a misunderstanding of the proper role of priests as mediators.

Authentic male mediation

Is it possible to reverse the sad effects of post-conciliar liturgical aberrations? If it is correct to say that liturgical aberrations are expressions of the denial of male mediation, then a parallel between sexual promiscuity and liturgical abuse is unavoidable. For clergy and laity alike, the answer to the question depends on a rediscovery of the authentic meaning of male mediation in general. A father must be aware of the nature of his fatherhood. Jesus himself warns, "And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven." (Mt 23:9) A "father" can dare to call himself "father" only if he participates in the Fatherhood of God. And he participates in the Fatherhood of God by mediating God's love according to God's design, whether sexual or liturgical.

The answer to the question of whether or not the effects of liturgical abuse can be reversed also depends upon whether bishops and priests are willing to humble themselves, to be "mere" mediators of God's grace to his people. This may require a radical change of attitude regarding the priest's relationship with his people. A mediator has been given the obligation to confer God's grace upon his people. A priest should be aware that his blessing is more efficacious than a layman's blessing. He should also be aware that his prayers, offered in the name of the people, will be heard more readily because he has apostolic authority conferred by way of Holy Orders. Saints are heard more readily because of their personal holiness; priests are heard more readily because they have been commissioned to approach the Lord on behalf of the community. So the priest's attitude and demeanor in the celebration of the sacraments should reflect this sacred dignity.

Nomenclature also needs attention. Although the priest "presides" as the "celebrant," he is actively and intimately involved in the celebration of the Mass as a "go-between" between God and the congregation. The priest's role as mediator preempts his role as "president of the assembly." Without denying the legitimate roles of other liturgical ministers, he must dismiss any thoughts of "enabling" or "facilitating" them as if his primary role as "presider" were to delegate duties for purposes of "inclusion" in ministry. He does not properly "build community." God's grace forms and transforms the community of believers through priestly mediation. As priest and mediator the priest offers sacrifices on behalf of the congregation. He efficaciously speaks to the heavenly Father on behalf of the community. He directs and orders the liturgical celebration according to its nature. The liturgy is not a committee meeting, and liturgical actions are not theater. The liturgy is a representation of the history of redemption, which relentlessly unfolds and engages the community in worship. Through the mediation of the priest, the liturgy solemnly expresses and orders God's love, which is received by the community with spiritual fecundity.

As priests become more aware of their role as mediators, should we be concerned about the emergence of clericalism? Not if authentic male mediation is understood correctly. When priests and bishops recognize their role as mediators, they recognize the limits to their authority. They are commissioned to present the Word of God without distortion. And the liturgical expression of the Word is regulated by the Church which insists that "...no other person, not even a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority." (Vatican Council II, , 22)

The authority of priests is not their own. As paternal mediators, they belong to the Father and they are sons of the Church. Defined and regulated by God's plan, they ensure that their priestly exemplar of mediation is none other than Jesus Christ, who "came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." (Mk 10:45).

This article appeared in the March 1996 issue of "The Catholic World Report," P.O. Box 6718, Syracuse, NY 13217- 7912, 800-825-0061. Published monthly except bimonthly August/September at $39.95 per year.