The Sacraments & Authentic Womanhood

Author: Dale O'Leary




I was invited here to speak about "The Sacramental Life and Authentic Catholic Womanhood". Thirty years ago the linking of these two themes might have seemed unusual, but today Catholics must explain the relationship of women to the sacramental life, if they wish to answer the two most divisive questions facing the Church in America today, namely: "Why won't the Church ordain women?" and "Why shouldn't we use 'inclusive language' or gender neutral language in the liturgy?"

While the question of gender neutral language in the liturgy has only recently been decided in the negative by the Vatican, on the question of the ordination of women, the answer is clear. You can read the full explanation of the Church's teaching in Manfred Hauke's long book or in the 100 pages of by John Paul II or in the short statement or in the even shorter . The Church will not ordain women because it cannot ordain women. You can't turn orange juice and rice cakes into the body and blood of Christ, you can't baptize in olive, oil and you can't ordain women. When it comes to the sacraments, the matter matters. The priest is a sign of Christ as the bridegroom, the Church is the bride and it doesn't make sense if the bridegroom is woman. The Church cannot do it because it doesn't have permission from Christ, from tradition, or from scripture.

Why hasn't the world accepted these answers? Why, after the absolutely definitive statement by John Paul II in , which ordered an end to all discussion of the subject, do we find in the November 4 issue of the a two page ad by the Women's Ordination Conference asking American bishops to challenge the Vatican?

Because behind the questions lies a belief system diametrically opposed to the Catholic vision. People don't understand why the Church teaches that we can't ordain women because they don't understand why the Church teaches or how the Church teaches. The Church teaches because there is a real, living God, who has spoken, who can and has revealed Himself clearly to the world. The bishops didn't make this up. The Pope didn't make it up. It is revealed by God. People who don't believe in a God who really speaks and really reveals will, of course, have trouble understanding a Church which rejects the Spirit of the Age to obey the revelation of God. They don't understand that theology isn't a democratic process, where the Church discusses and debates and majority rules. It is a theocratic process, where God reveals and we are left trying to explain it, first to ourselves and then to others. Most people, including some theologians themselves, don't understand that theologians don't make doctrine. God speaks and theologians try, sometimes successfully, sometimes not so, to guess His reasons.

We are also confronting an entrenched ideology determined to wipe out all cultural recognition of the differences between men and women. In refusing to cave in to this ideology, the Church is defending the specific originality and unique of vocation of women. The differences between men and women are natural and part of God's plan, not the result of oppressive, sexist, patriarchal, gender socialization. The Church is not denying women something they need, the Church is defending the right of women to be women, against the lie that women can be human only when they imitate men in all things, and against the lie that women must exercise influence in the same way as men do, or they will have no influence at all.

The demands for the ordination of women and "inclusive language" did not simply spring up; they were generated by the radical feminist movement. In order to understand why radical feminist do not and will never accept the teachings of the Church, we must understand the roots of their ideology.

In the late 1960's women involved in radical political movements rejected what they saw as the compromises of the liberal feminist movement and adopted a Marxist analysis of power and social change. The book which best explains the radical feminist ideology is Shulamith Firestone's .

Firestone applied classic Marxism to gender relations. According to Marx, all history is the history of class struggle. In the book by Fredrich Engels we have the Marxist Genesis narrative. In the beginning according to Marx and Engels, there was a classless matriarchal society. Men didn't know that they were fathers. What little personal property there was passed from the mother and her family to her children. Then, according to the Marxist explanation of the fall, men discovered their fatherhood and enslaved women into marriage, creating the father-headed family (patriarchy) and private property. This, according to Marxism, was the first oppression and the cause of all other oppression. Marx insisted that the elimination of private property would weaken the economic foundation of the father-headed family. This, when combined with easy divorce, acceptance of illegitimacy, all women in the work force, 24 hour free day care, and the elimination of religion, would destroy the family and free the world from classes and all oppression.

Firestone argued that Marx hadn't gone far enough. If the family was the cause of the all oppression, then the family must be attacked directly. According to her analysis, it was in the family that the children first experienced the dualism of classes. They saw the class "fathers" (oppressors) who benefitted from the labor (reproduction) of the class "mothers" (oppressed) and the class "children" (really oppressed). Children born into traditional families are, according to Firestone, forever socially conditioned to accept class distinctions.

Firestone understood clearly that hers was a war against nature. She recognized that the family was rooted in the biological reality that only women become pregnant, but believed that women could be freed by: 1) an absolute sex class revolution "not just the elimination of male but of the sex itself"; 2) absolute female "control of reproduction", including abortion on demand; and 3) total sexual liberation, including the absolute right for individuals to engage in sexual activity regardless of age, gender, number, marital status, or family relationship. Firestone saw nothing wrong with mothers have sex with their children or children having sex with adults.

This agenda was promoted in women's consciousness-raising sessions and women's studies programs in American universities.

According to radical feminist Ellen Herman:

In the late 60's, the radical young women who reclaimed the derisive term "feminist" and made it central to their own developing political identities pinpointed the family - specifically, the Western, patriarchal, bourgeois, child-centered, nuclear family - as the most important source of women's oppression.

... These young women... wanted the freedom to design their present and future families in myriad ways, without penalty: to love women or men, to have sex with one person at a time or several...without fear of ridicule or self-loathing.

Firestone envisioned reproductive technologies which would free women from pregnancy by creating artificial uteruses. Her followers have settled for abortion-on-demand.


The radical feminists know that the greatest enemy of their agenda is the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church absolutely and categorically opposes every item on their agenda: abortion, contraception, reproductive technologies, lesbianism, sex outside marriage, sex for children, destruction of the family, denial of the differences between men and women, and absolutely statistically equal participation of men and women in all areas of human endeavor. Within the Catholic Church lay women and religious indoctrinated into radical feminism sought to change Catholic teaching to bring it into conformity with radical feminist ideology, creating "feminist theology". Feminist theologians have openly rejected revelation and tradition. They have promoted practices which involve witchcraft, the occult, and elements of paganism. They have denied the teaching of the Church on life and sexuality.

At the heart of feminist theology is a rejection of the natural. The natural differences between men and women are labeled "discriminatory sexist stereotypes". The vocations of father as protector and provider and mother as maker of the home concerned with the care of the person are condemned as "oppressive gender roles".

Feminist theologians reject the major tenants of the Christian faith including the redemption and the Fatherhood of God. I quote from feminist theologian Mary Hunt:

Christianity is an abusive theology that glorifies suffering. Is it any wonder that there is so much abuse in modern society when the dominant image of theology of the culture is of 'divine child abuse' - God the Father demanding and carrying out the suffering and death of his own son? If Christianity is to be liberating for the oppressed it must itself be liberated from this theology.

Because they couch all this in the language of liberation and equality, many honest and good souls, women and men, priests and lay have been taken in by their rhetoric. I know devout Catholic women, lay and religious, who really believe that women should be ordained, some desire ordination for themselves. But when we look at the movements which support and promote the ordination of women, we don't find people who, in all other areas, support the teachings of the Church. Among the signatories of the Women's Ordination Conference ad, we find the pro-abortion Catholics for a Free Choice and the pro-homosexual Dignity. Supporters of ordination of women are more likely to favor: abortion and contraception; remarriage after divorce; sex outside marriage, including sex for teenagers; witchcraft and goddess worship; lesbianism and bisexuality. This should give us a hint that there is something seriously wrong with their theology. They are don't believe in a God who speaks clearly because they don't like what He has said.

We need to look behind the ideology and the rhetoric. I believe that the leaders of radical feminism have been deeply hurt by men, or more particularly by their fathers. Behind the rhetoric I see little girls who desperately needed the concern and approval of their fathers and received instead abuse or neglect. They found in the ideology of Karl Marx a justification for their anger, a vehicle for their envy. Their personal hurt has been universalized. All men are oppressors, and male oppression is the cause of all evil, but inside they are still little girls crying: "If only I were a boy, Daddy would play with me"; "If I were the man I would be safe from rejection and pain"; "I won't be like mother who couldn't protect me." The radical feminist rhetoric resonates with women who have been injured by men.

The answer to personal pain is not, however, to pull down the family, but to encourage forgiveness. Unless you forgive your brother, or father from your heart, you will never be free. When I suggested in a column that women forgive men, I was viciously attacked by radical feminists. The irrational anger of their response proved to me that I had struck a nerve.

In the debate over "inclusive language" we frequently hear the argument that for some people the word "father" conjures up memories of abuse and rejection. This is undoubtedly true, but the answer is not to ban the word "father", but to heal that hurt. We are not doing the injured a service by confirming their anger. The feminists who attacked me insisted that women could never forgive until men changed. To which I replied that if women's freedom depends on men being perfect, women will never be free. We must recognize that allowing these hurt, angry women to deal with their pain by destroying fatherhood won't help them and it will hurt all of us.


Radical feminism will never be satisfied with minor changes in the Church, even the priesthood wouldn't satisfy them. Their revolution isn't against forms but against nature itself.

Masculinity and femininity aren't arbitrary concepts imposed on reality. They are part of creation from the beginning - images of the possibility of spousal love between Christ and the Church, the great mystery that is celebrated in every Mass when Christ the bridegroom gives himself in communion with the Church his bride. The signs aren't arbitrary or interchangeable. Masculinity and femininity are universal concepts like time and space, number and color.

Gender neutral language isn't more fair to women, it is less descriptive of reality. The problem isn't that English is an exclusive language, but that English isn't gendered enough. I realized this when I was forced to read the Catechism in French because the English translation wasn't available. In French nouns, adjectives, and particles are gendered, just as they are in Latin and Greek. The pervasiveness of gender in the text made it feel more equal. Hebrew is even more gendered. The verbs in the second and third person singular and plural are male and female. It would be impossible to neuter Hebrew the way we have dumbed down the traditional hymns.

Backing away from gender specific language isn't pro-woman. Finding three or four examples of scriptural references to God as mother doesn't affirm me. I don't need God to be mother. I am thrilled that He is my father. Strong women have strong fathers. I am not afraid of a gendered universe. I am affirmed by the image of the Church as mother.

Feminists see administration of the sacraments as a source of power, probably because they do not understand power. In Greek there are three words translated as power: Kratos, God's mighty arm; Dunamis, the in-filling of the Holy Spirit; and Exousia, authority which flows from obedience to higher authority. The centurion whose servant was ill, explains exousia perfectly, "I am a man under authority, and I have men under me." The centurion understood that his power over his troops did not rest on him physical strength or his great personality, but on the fact that he was obedient to Caesar who ruled the Empire. Spiritual authority flows from obedience to those God has placed in authority.

Radical feminist reject hierarchies and obedience and then are angry because they have no power.

Radical feminist theologians don't want to obey, they want to rule. They don't believe in a God who reveals. They believe that the priests and the bishops and the Pope make up the teachings of the Church and so they want to be priests, and bishops, and Pope so that they can make up new teachings.


Men and women are equally called to image God. It isn't that feminist theologians don't like the male images, they don't want to image God at all. They want to create a God in their own image and likeness. Last year in Minneapolis Protestant feminist theologians held a conference where they "re- imaged God" and "re-imaged sexuality and the family". One of the speakers bragged that they had not done anything "in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit." Another said, "We do not need atonement, we just need to listen to the god within."

We, as Catholics, must begin with reality: God has revealed Himself as Father; Jesus, the Son, became flesh as a male. Male and female are the plan of creation from the beginning. The language of Scripture is gendered. Pointing to places in scripture where God is spoken of by analogy as Mother, talking about Jesus's feminine side, only make the differences more pronounced. No matter how much we might be willing to give up - no matter how much gender neutral language we are willing to accept - we can never satisfy those who demand absolute statistical sameness. It isn't there.

Those who think they are being kind to women, by trying to hide the facts, are missing the point. Gender neutral language isn't inclusive; its a lie. We have to face the reality of sexual differences head on and that is what authentic Catholic womanhood is all about. God is absolutely loving and absolutely just. He loves women; he didn't make them second class human beings. In perfect wisdom. perfect justice, and perfect love God chose to divide humanity into two sexes with very different vocations, to call himself Father, to send his Son as a man, to allow only men to be priests. These things aren't' mistakes or oversights that we in the enlightened 20th century are able to correct; they are all acts of God's perfect love for women. Men may be insensitive to women, even cruel and oppressive, but God cannot be anything but love.


It is the vocation of every person to be an image of God. Women do not need to imitate men to image God. Women no less than men are called to image Christ, "to have this mind in us that was in Christ Jesus, who did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped but humbled himself and became obedient". We are all part of that royal priesthood, a people set apart.

Looking at it with human eyes it might appear that the God's choice to allow only men to be ordained is unfair and discriminatory, but we know that cannot be. If God gave the gift of the priesthood only to men, if He allows only men to have the gift to stand at the altar in say the words that will change the bread and wine to the body and blood of Christ, if only men can say the words which assure the forgiveness of sins, if only men can lay hands on the candidates for the priesthood or confirmation, what has God given women? How are women to be equal participants in the royal priesthood? Is there a special way for women to participate in the sacramental ministry of the Church.

I believe there is. I think we have overlooked the obvious. The ordinary work of the mother is the pattern for the sign of the sacrament, not the work of men. I noticed this first as I watched the priest cleaning the chalice after communion, brushing up the crumbs, doing women's work at the altar. Mothers are a living, daily sign of sacramental life of the Church. As the mother washes her child, so the Church was us from sin in the waters of baptism. As a mother feeds her child, nursing the baby from her own breast, preparing solid food when the child is ready, setting the table for her family, so Church feeds souls with instruction and distributes communion from the Lord's table. As a mother reconciles the child who is naughty with punishments and hugs, so the Church brings the sinner home with penance and assurance of forgiveness. As the mother blesses the child's vocation, so the Church ordains and marries. As the mother tends the sick, so the Church offer its holy anointing. The Church isn't supposed to function like a bureaucratic institution, but like a mother. People know what to expect from the Church, because they have had mothers.

In scripture from beginning to the end, the Church is imaged as a woman. The Holy City, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God is a bride adorned to met her husband. Every woman is called to a sign of the Church as Virgin, as Bride or as Mother. The virgin, whether she is simply waiting for human marriage or consecrated to Our Lord for life, is a escatalogical sign of the Church that waits for the end of time, the Church that cries "Marantha, Come Lord Jesus".

And every bride is a sign of that moment, the union of the soul and of the whole Church with the one bridegroom who is Christ. In each wedding we are supposed to see a symbol of that the great mystery, the union of Christ with the Church. The mother, conceiving, bearing, and nurturing new life, is a sign of the Church's mission in the world.

The most perfect image of the Church is of course Mary, about whom too much cannot be said, who is both ever Virgin and always Mother. It is so typical of the double mindedness of this age that on the one hand they criticize the Church for not respecting women and on the other they criticize it for too much veneration of Mary.

As authentic Catholic women we are called to be images of the Church and images of Mary. Every woman is called to be a sign of God's love made manifest in the world. The widow, the deserted wife, the barren woman are also signs. As we read in the prophet Isaiah: "Shout for joy, you barren women who bore no children. Break into cries of joy and gladness you who were never in labor. For the sons of the forsaken one are more in number than the sons of the wedded wife. For you will forget the shame of your youth and no longer remember the curse of your widowhood. For now your creator will be your husband. Like a forsaken wife, distressed in spirit the LORD calls you back." Even those women who have failed to be faithful and chaste, are called to return to the LORD and be signs of reconciliation, signs of God's all forgiving love.

If we, as women, are signs of the sacramental Church in the world, then it is obvious why contraception and abortion are wrong. Could the Church love contraceptively, join with its maker in holy communion without desiring that souls be born of that love or worse abort those souls seeking new birth? It is impossible. Can the one Holy Church be unfaithful to its spouse or throw away its virginity, chase after lovers? When we consider what women are called to image, we realize how terrible it is when women deny this call.

Does being an image of the divine relationship limit women? Is the world of women to be circumscribed by the home and family? Of course not, women have skills and talents, women should make their voices heard in the world, but they should do everything as women - as images of God's love ministering to the world. Regardless of the work women do, we must never forget that motherhood is the most important vocation in the world. Nothing is more important than bearing and raising children.

John Paul II sees all this with perfect clarity. In his new book he writes: "I think that a certain contemporary feminism finds its roots in the absence of true respect for woman.... in the midst of this very situation the authentic is being reborn. The spiritual beauty, the particular genius of women is being rediscovered, the bases for the consolidation of the position of women in life, not only family lie but also social and cultural life, are being redefined."