Why Was Christ A Male & Why Did He Ordain Only Men?

Author: Raymond T. Gawronski


Raymond T. Gawronski

Why Was Christ A Male & Why Did He Ordain Only Men?

America, as I once heard her described in a college German class, is <das Land der unbegrenzten Moglichkeiten>, the land of unlimited possibilities. More: It is the place where you can be whoever you want to be, do whatever you like, a country freed from the shackles of "ancient prejudices and superstitions." I begin this reflection on women's ordination by pointing to our culture's rejection of tradition—and traditional wisdom—in favor of the thrill of the liberation effected by what has turned out to be the acid of rationalistic individualism. We, and the cultures dominated by ours in the second half of this century, define ourselves precisely by the freedom to define ourselves: In our national psyche is the principle that we are beholden to no authority in Heaven or on earth in "molding our destiny." "Don't tread on me," says the serpent.

And yet there is an order that has been placed in the world by that "Nature's God" whom the very Founding Fathers recognized. Catholic tradition finds a great expression of this in the natural law. The consummately anti-traditional Enlightenment found great encouragement in the supposedly non-theistic Chinese tradition, yet even there the notion of a natural order, a natural law, was magnificently appreciated: "Man models himself on earth, earth on Heaven, Heaven on the Way, and the Way on that which is naturally so" (<Tao Te Ching>).

Yet "what is naturally so" eludes us in an increasingly man-made world, in which most of our population has been isolated from the rhythms of nature for several generations. More: We pride ourselves on our freedom <from> the "laws of nature." Whether it be through the boldness of flight in which Promethean man has "defied" the laws of gravity or through the shocking mores in which ever more bizarre deviations have come to claim their place in human intercourse, we effectively believe—regardless of the creeds we utter—that we are the sole measure of all in the universe, that armed with good will and good technology we can make the lion lay down with the lamb and—why not?—allow the man to marry the man.

Thus, war has been declared on the "natural order," for according to that order, nature is to a great extent destiny—which is no problem if nature is essentially good and created by God. But again, in our Promethean age God is the enemy, for we have declared war on all that would bind our wills, and if tradition is to be believed, God has inscribed His signature in the very nature of things. And tradition is human wisdom taking expression in a form over time. In this world at war with "what is naturally so," every bulwark of tradition must be stormed, every fantasy of the (fallen) imagination must be enacted. It may be, of course, that this fits into God's Providence: that "a thousand flowers bloom" and "secrets be revealed from many hearts" before the Judgment. This, at least, is consoling.

If reality, then, does not fit into our vision, it's too bad for reality. One very visible attempt to manipulate reality is through language. We live in an age when progressive restaurants employ "waitpersons" rather than waiters and waitresses. The tragedy of this is that in our world, whose ethos is as aggressively masculine as ever, the feminine, with its own light and darkness, disappears, replaced in the case of "waitpersons" by a mere neuter. Think of a waiter, and the image of one passes with his tray; think of a waitress, and you can see the coffee being set in front of you. I challenge anyone to have an image of a "waitperson" which strikes resonance with anything other then ideological correctness. There is no image: There is nothing, a void.

"Priestess" is a powerful word: It evokes dark chthonic rites of paganism. In a Christian context, the word "priestess" is repulsive: It is certainly not a word that advocates of ordination for women would generally care to use, for it is far too pagan, far too intimidating for the mass of Catholics who must be "sold" on the ordination of women.

It is the image of the priest that is really at stake here. Why discuss the issue at all? Although the Magisterium of the Church in her infallible teaching has relied on the fact that Christ ordained only men as the ultimate reason for not ordaining women, it might help us to reflect on why this might have been so. Jesus, after all, was hated—and indeed killed—by the rulers of His day for resisting social conventions. There already were priestesses at cultic centers in His world. Why did He not call women to be apostles?

That there were women among His most intimate followers is understating the case: At the foot of His Cross, there seemed to have been virtually only women who remained faithful to Him—the sole friendly male being St. John, the Beloved Disciple. This did not disqualify the Apostles in the least from leadership in the Church: In fact, they remained the Apostles. Peter, who was off somewhere at the time, remained the Rock for Jesus knew and called Him before He was made. Jesus did not turn from him and make Mary Magdalene the rock on which He built His Church, as our contemporary common sense would have us do. No: Mary Magdalene remained the consummately loving woman she had always been, now purified by Jesus' power. And in the economy of salvation, she was given the mission of announcing His Resurrection to His chosen Apostles. Still, these men remained the Apostles, gathered with Mary His Mother and the women and His relatives, all distinct groups with distinct roles to fulfill in the Church. The Church of love—the Church of Mary His Mother and Mary Magdalene and John—was at the center, the heart of the mystery, to be sure. Yet authority was given to one outside that center, to bumbling, passionate Peter, once called "Satan" by the Son of God.

With these considerations in mind, we ask, why is it that only a male can image Jesus Christ at the altar? I cannot claim in this article to exhaust the reasons theologically: I only offer some themes for reflection, themes I hope will be fruitful.

First, we must ask why God came as a male, not as a female. Although in the last few years I confess I have had reason to entertain doubts, and at the risk of seeming patronizing, I have always suspected it is because men are more in need of salvation than women. I must begin by making a generic declaration of what I suppose the Christian revelation to be all about: It is that "whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my [love's!] sake will find it" (Mt. 16:25). That is, the Christian faith is a belief in and practice of a life-giving death. For the Christian, the way to life is through death.

In the traditional Catholic understanding, "grace builds on nature without destroying it." So it is no surprise to discover that built into the very nature of things, as revealed in Genesis, is a way of salvation for the male and for the female. Genesis seems to see Adam as basically lazy—he would rather listen to Eve, and enjoy forbidden fruits with her, say, than deny her in the Garden—and so his healing punishment is to till the earth with difficulty, to gather the fruits of the earth from the sweat of his brow. Eve is a hedonist from the beginning; she is pleasure loving. She would lose herself in pleasure— and in her desire for the male—but there is pain attached to wake her up from her sensuality: Her sexual desire leads to the labor of bearing children and the rigors of raising them.

St. Paul picks up on this theme for Eve when he writes that "woman will be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty" (1 Cor. 2:15). I submit that every woman who lies down to give birth to a child, lies down to die: She lays down her life for another, sometimes literally. There is the very real risk that she will actually die in childbirth. And even if she does not die, physically she will never quite be the same again. More importantly, if she perseveres in raising this child, she will have to die to self for the rest of her life, beginning with the sleepless nights of nursing the infant. That is to say, built into her very biology, woman is called to lay down her life and to learn to live for— to love—another, one she has not chosen, one who is quite free and other than herself. And in so doing, of course, she is doing that which the Blessed Trinity does, in a way: pouring self out in love for another.

Symbolizing this, the woman is full of openings that give life, from the blood she sheds every month of her fertile life to the milk her body is designed to give to the tears she seems to shed more readily than her male counterpart. Because of who she is, she is made to give, even from her wounds.

Alas for Adam, there is no such biological giftedness. His natural laziness must be disciplined; but more importantly, he must somehow <also> die to himself if he is to live. That is the rule of the Christian universe. How, then, to die, when his biology tells him to kill and live, not to die and live? He is strong, muscular, angular; his psyche naturally hardens as he matures and leaves the skirts of childhood behind. The male, untamed, is naturally headed for perdition in a way that is far more prevalent than it is for the woman. Witness the situation in our urban underclass where it is men who are dying in large numbers on our streets, not women. Military service, heroic deeds done for others in combat and adventure, has traditionally been a male "way," and a way to risk death "meaningfully"—yet one which in our Western societies seems to affect relatively few males in our age.

So it is man, then, first and foremost, who needs to be shown how to live: And, again, from the Christian point of view, this means to be shown how to die that he may live.

With this much said, it will be understood why it was necessary that God come to earth as a male: Because if God was going to descend to the very depths of godlessness, He would have to go to the male, who was naturally less religious, more prone to be stuck on himself and his own powers—which pathetically wither and fade, leaving him hanging around with his youthful boon companions as they age (one imagines the grizzled gatherings in the village squares of the Latin world). Jesus came and called men to follow Him, and many saw in Him the one they really wanted to be: the "gentle" man who was yet consummately strong, the one strong enough to appear weak the one whose whole life was given in caring for and protecting those who were in need of His strong arms. The one who could choose, in spite of His naturally strong disposition, to put his ego to death, the one who could let those strong hands be bound so that life might flow from them.

This must also be chosen by the loving woman, to be sure—but she is aided in this by biology: It is a very strange woman who is not moved to compassion by the sight of a helpless or sick child. A woman can easily put her arms around a child and hug that child and have that child sit in her lap; not so readily the male, for whom such touching stirs powerful reactions with possible physical consequences unless he is very much purified. There was wisdom in keeping individual men away from isolated situations with more vulnerable humans: Witness all the turmoil we have of child abuse today in a society without a strong female, nurturing presence, a society which refuses to give biology its due. Again, Jesus was such a male in all but sin, and the Christian men called to follow Him are called to die with Him that they may love, may embrace, chastely—that they may be "safe lovers" for all they meet. And here it might not be amiss to observe that our popular representations of Jesus hugging anyone in sight represents a distressingly effeminate and sentimental sort of affection utterly oblivious to the spiritual principle that the closest embrace knows no physical touch.

Coming to the altar, we see Jesus taking His life in His very hands and breaking it, and telling the men commissioned by Him to do the same, in union with Him. On Calvary He becomes the Lamb to be slain: His body is pierced, and from His wounds pour the life-giving fountains of blood and water which regenerate the universe. At the foot of His Cross is His mother, whose breasts had nourished Him as a child, whose tears had consoled Him in His sufferings. He is pierced: His masculine shield is penetrated by the inquisitive eyes of all the world who behold His nakedness, by the blows of the Roman soldiery, by the harsh words of His people's teachers. And from His wounds flows life for the world.

All of this sacrifice—this bloody sacrifice—is re-enacted at the unbloody sacrifice of the Mass, where, standing in the place of Christ, the priest makes present the perfect offering of Calvary. It is the priest who takes the body of Christ into his hands and breaks it: It is the priest who, explicitly in the Byzantine Rite, takes a spear in his hands and pierces the side of Christ. That is, bluntly put, the priest is the one who takes a knife into his hands and offers a sacrifice on an altar. That is what most obviously distinguishes priesthood from something called "ordained ministry." Ministries come in all different shapes and sizes: There is only one sacrificial priesthood of the altar. And, having killed the Lamb, the priest shares the torn-apart victim with the believers, doing this at the insistence of the Lamb Himself: "Do this in memory of Me." That is, humiliated because he is a sinner, yet called by Christ, the priest must acquiesce in the saving death of Jesus Christ for humanity.

This is a sacramental action. It takes off from the highest human symbolism. Infused by the power of the Holy Spirit, the sacrifice of the Mass actually makes present the Lord of the universe in this memorial sharing in His Passion and Death: "When we eat this bread and drink this cup we proclaim your death, Lord Jesus."

Why can a woman not do this? Basically because it would be very wrong symbolically. The sacrifice at the altar, at the foot of the Cross, is all about blood. A man does not bleed of himself: He must take a knife and cut. A woman bleeds naturally. The sacrifice is a meal: A man has no nourishing breasts to offer, unlike the woman. And the paradox of the peculiar dignity of the male is that at this alter he is able to be by intention that which the woman is by nature: an initiate into the mystery of life-giving, nourishing death. Here it is the supernatural life that he is begetting.

In addition to the profoundly rich symbolism of the sacrificial priesthood, there is the no less profound symbolism of mystical marriage. The first Mass I celebrated at the parish where I was assigned as a newly ordained priest was in the early morning: It was attended by a handful of nuns whose smiles I misread as benign. They stood around the table that served as an altar. During the Consecration, the oldest of the nuns put out her hands and said the words of Consecration along with me: And I realized that something of great violence had happened.

It was only in the following months of reflection that I understood what was profoundly wrong with her attempted "concelebration." The Mass is the consummation of the love between Christ and His Bride, the Church. Thus, the Mass is the real re-enactment of Christ's supreme act of love with and for His people: At the altar, the priest acts <in persona Christi>, standing in the place of the Bridegroom Christ. He initiates, He bends down over His beloved. She is to respond, to surround, to give that sweet music and perfume that only the feminine can. The aggressive nun in her pants assaulted me in what was a profoundly disordered act. There was certainly no lovemaking taking place. Instead, there was a challenge from a very wounded ego that had refused to blossom in the role to which she had been invited in this cosmic drama. If Christ is the Bridegroom that Scripture portrays—and if we still have hearts to which such a universal symbol can speak—it would be utterly bizarre to have a woman at the altar symbolizing the Bridegroom. Only a male can symbolize the Bridegroom, lest the symbolism be homosexual. Must the congregation then be all female? Hardly: But male and female must allow themselves to be receptive to and, yes, passive and thus feminine before the action of God, even as the priest, if he is really to lead His people in prayer, must allow the Spirit of Jesus to flow through him and to His people. The priest symbolizes the Bridegroom, but he is not the Bridegroom; rather he lends his male body and soul to Jesus to re-enact these symbolic nuptials.

Every female is already a priest if she lays down her life, if her body is that altar from which life comes into the world: I think that is what St. Paul is saying. Obviously, for some women, for many valid reasons, the statement their body makes might become sublimated either by will or necessity, even as there are eunuchs of nature and eunuchs for the Kingdom. But the body cannot be changed.

It becomes ever more clear that we are in tremendous need of a healing from the violence done to us in a rationalized, technologicized world where we are defined by function. In this rationalized world, any sense of symbolism and symbolic action disappears, and the Mass, rather than being a mysterious re-enactment of the sacrifice of Calvary and anticipation of the wedding Feast of the Lamb, becomes a sort of Christian committee meeting. As women can head committees even more efficiently than men, why not officially ordain them to head the assembly?

In this male world run wild, there is nothing but contempt for the truly feminine, and for the "gentle man." In a well-ordered world, the feminine is loved and treasured as the only stance worthy of the creature before God: And the masculine is ordered to learn from the feminine how to receive from God, and how to die in order to nourish life. The Church must help men learn to do this, and the Church must insist on the dignity of the feminine, for the sake of those who so beautifully bear the dignity of femininity as a symbol for the world in their bodies.

By insisting that only males can be ordained, the Church is safeguarding the distinct dignities of both male and female at the high altar of symbolic reality which is the Eucharist, which is mankind's perfect act of thanksgiving to God. We hardly give thanks to the Maker by radically refusing to be how He made us: And we will only find peace by ordering ourselves to the vision He has given us in His holy Word and in the tradition of His holy Bride, our Mother the Catholic Church.

The Rev. Raymond T. Gawronski, S.J., is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Marquette. He is the author of <Word and Silence: Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Spiritual Encounter Between East and West>.

This article was taken from the January-February 1996 issue of the "New Oxford Review". For subscription information please write: New Oxford Review, 1069 Kains Ave., Berkeley, CA 94706, 510-526-5374. Published monthly except for combined January-February and July-August issues.