The Nuptial Nature of the Church

The Nuptial Nature of the Church

Why Catholics Don’t Ordain Women

By John Mallon

Would you rather be born and grow up in a “corporate entity” or in a happy home—in a big happy family issuing from parents who are crazy about each other—madly in love—in a happy marriage?  I would prefer the latter.  A staggering misunderstanding about the nature of the Church has been brewing for a long time now with this question at stake.  It has been illustrated most plainly in the rebellion of those demanding a female priesthood.  It is easy to understand why they are upset if they view the Church as a political or corporate body like General Motors or IBM.  This erroneous view of the Church is a case of bad ecclesiology, which emerged in the social revolution of the 60s when the Church was wrongly lumped in with what was then contemptuously referred to as the “establishment.”  Many people still hold this false view of the Church as a huge, heartless, top-heavy bureaucracy, uncaring and out of touch with “the people.”

Great advances have been made in our time in women’s equality in employment opportunities and appropriate respect in the workplace.  So if our view of the Church is based on this model it is easy to understand the dismay of women at their exclusion from the ordained priesthood.  But it is an erroneous view of the priesthood to see it as some sort of executive, or “power” position, or, on the other hand, that of a mere functionary.  

Certainly a woman could don vestments (just as she can don a business suit) and speak the words and juggle cruets, but there is more than mere gestures occurring in the Mass and sacraments.  Much more.  The Church is not based on the model of corporate business structure nor is it based on the model of the human family; rather the human family is based on Christ’s relationship to the Church.  That is, The Second Person of the Holy Trinity and His relation to creation came first.  Families, like the Church, are not “gender neutral” (nor, for that matter, is anything else).

Families have mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters.  The sex of a person in a family matters in a way it does not matter in the corporate, or business world.  No one would ever question the importance of a woman’s role in a family, or view it as being of secondary importance.  Mom is needed, she is crucial.  She is not dad but different from dad, and has a different role to play which is indispensable.  (But don’t take my word for it, ask any two-year-old.)  The Church, far from being a bloodless institution, is a living breathing organism, the Body of Christ.  She is Christ’s Bride.

From the very beginning Scripture has spoken of God’s people in very tender terms.  We see the pain of God when His people are unfaithful in the Old Testament, where Scripture speaks of the “harlotry” of God’s people, while He still yearns to receive them back and heal them and tenderly restore them.  In the New Testament, bridal imagery is constantly employed, by John the Baptist for instance, and in the Book of Revelation.  The events at the wedding at Cana have strong symbolic significance as Jesus performs His first miracle.  It is no accident that this miracle, with its strongly Eucharistic implications, takes place at a wedding.

Browsing through the Catechism of the Catholic Church I came across the section on liturgy.  It struck me that it does not take up space detailing the rubrics of the Mass, as important as they are, but rather it speaks of it in terms of the great Wedding Feast of the Lamb in Revelation, Chapter 20. It speaks of how every Mass is a participation in that.  The Church is not a boring corporate structure but a dazzling royal wedding!  Every Eucharist is a wedding night, where Jesus the Bridegroom gives himself to us, His Bride, Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity, and where we offer ourselves unreservedly, as a bride, to Him.  This is a consummation.  It is a participation in Christ’s sacrifice for us on Calvary and in the consummation of all things in Heaven depicted in Revelation 20.  Christ is the High Priest and Bridegroom.

Rather than holding an “executive job,” the priest acts in Christ’s place as the Bridegroom in the celebration of the Eucharist, the Eternal Wedding Feast, here, in time.  The spiritual life is a courtship.  Priesthood is not a job, like a corporate executive position which a woman could attain by breaking through the glass ceiling.  The Church is female, a family, a home, a bride, a mother, not a business.

We do not have female bridegrooms.  We do not have female husbands.  We do not have male maids of honor or bridesmaids.  This is precisely the principle of the male-only priesthood.  The priesthood is a husbanding role and fathering role to the Church, and also follows the Biblical principle of male headship in the family, which must be sacrificial, not self-seeking, domineering, or concerned with worldly power.  It also suggests something about the meaning of celibacy in the priesthood.

Sometimes, as part of my job as Director of Communications for an archdiocese, I have to give sound bite-sized answers to the media to very sublime questions about the Church.  My quick answer to the question about all-male priesthood is, “We don’t have female priests for the same reason we don’t have female husbands.”  This always brings a surprised smile, and look of fascinated curiosity to the reporter and crew.  Although it never makes it to the ten o’clock news, it does move the discussion out of the realm of politics and controversy and onto the Church’s own metaphysical turf where it belongs.  When I explain, they usually say, “I never thought of it that way.  That makes sense.”  They go away looking pleased, and maybe even a little more secure, because, although it doesn’t make headlines, I think it confirms that most people would rather relate to God in a home than a boardroom. 

The explanation is very simple.  The home is the Domestic Church.  A husband approaches his bride at the altar of the Domestic Church, the marriage bed, and brings human life to her through their shared sacramental love.  The celibate priest approaches Christ’s Bride, the Church, in Persona Christi, (in the person of Christ) at the altar of God, and brings Divine Life to her in their shared sacramental love in the Eucharist.  This is sacramental priesthood in the husbanding, fathering role.  In God’s vision, maleness and femaleness are neither incidental nor accidental, but essential in the Great Dance of creation.

The male principle, as observable from nature and the construction of the body, is one of initiation, the female principle, as observable from nature and the construction of the body, is one of receptivity.  Men and women make up the Bride of Christ, because, as C. S. Lewis says, we are all female before God who is the Prime Mover.  All creation is receptive to God’s initiative.  Hence expressions like “Mother Earth,” Mother Nature,” “Mother Church.” 

The male principle initiates, inseminates; the female principle receives, incubates; whether it be Divine Life (in Greek: Zoe) or human life (bios).  God the Father, through Jesus the Bridegroom has inseminated the world with Divine Life.  That Divine Life properly incubates, grows, and matures in the Church until it comes to full fruition in Heaven.  Human marriage is based on the model of the relationship of the Second Person of the Trinity to the Church.  These are not human constructs, but metaphysical realities.

It is unfortunate that the traditional feminine pronouns used for the Church such as “she,” or “her,” have fallen into disuse in many places, and I think this is indicative of this misunderstanding of the true nuptial nature of the Church.  (The Church herself, incidentally, continues to use those personal pronouns in Her official documents rather than the cold, impersonal “it.”)  

When we hear the “Institutional Church” spoken of, it is usually in terms of derision, a result of this wide-spread misunderstanding.  The “Institutional Church” is a phrase fraught with misunderstanding.  

There is no such thing as the “Institutional Church.”  Yes, someone does have to keep the books, and maintain the buildings, and someone has to safeguard the Truths of the Faith which Jesus entrusted to the Apostles.  Jesus charged the pope and the bishops teaching in union with him with this task.  They are the successors of the Apostles, and Jesus promised them the gift of the Holy Spirit to assist them by safeguarding them from all error in the task of preserving the Deposit of Faith, especially in the realm of faith and morals.  If this were not so the Church and her teachings would not have survived these past 20 centuries.

But the necessity of these practical tasks does not split the Church into an “Institutional Church” —hard, uncaring, authoritarian, and “by the book” vs. a “People’s Church” where “the spirit is free.”  (In fact, if you want to see authoritarianism develop real fast, observe one of these “People’s Church” groups who have broken away and see what happens when the question of leadership inevitably arises.)

No, we are one Body.  The hierarchy of the Church is a gift of the Holy Spirit for our good and our safety, to protect that Divine Life growing within us.  The hierarchy is made up of men—bishops and cardinals who are humbly trying to follow the Lord in the task He has given them, just like the rest of us.  When they are not acting under the very specific conditions of this gift, they also make mistakes, and are sinners like the rest of us, but that doesn’t mean the Church is wrong should a bishop or priest stumble, hurt someone’s feelings, or put his foot in his mouth.

Theirs is a fatherly role of protecting and defending that Divine Life in the Church with their very lives if necessary, just as the father of a human family defends and protects his wife and children.  It is a role of authority, leadership, teaching, and guidance.  This Divine Life incubates in Mother Church and is guided, taught, and protected by the Church fathers, not on their own authority but Christ’s.  Masculine nurturance and feminine nurturance take different forms.  Generally speaking, a mother’s love imparts a child’s sense of being, and a father’s love equips a child to make his or her way in life.  

Authority is distinct from authoritarianism, which is the abuse of God’s gift of authority via Original Sin.  Authentic authority is informed by love, and according to the encyclical, Castii Conubii, by Pope Pius XI, (December 31, 1930), it is the wife’s prophetic role in a marriage to inform her husband’s authority with love and wisdom so that in the one flesh which they comprise they operate with head and heart in harmony.  Scripture teaches that man is the head of the family, and Pius XI shows in this teaching that woman is the heart of the home.  And life, be it divine or human is nurtured under that tenderly beating heart.  

Pope Pius makes a further distinction.  The husband claims primacy in the order of authority, while the wife can and should, he says, claims primacy in the order of love.  The Scriptural teaching on male headship is thus shown not to be a matter of “who’s the boss” but of loving partnership.  This balance maintains a loving authority which is neither overly firm to the point of being harsh, nor overly soft to the point of having no substance.

Tragically, many people today suffer from a background of a broken home and have never seen this kind of partnership in action, and, understandably, have developed a cynical attitude towards this vision, such that, even if they accept it in theory, believe it to be an impossible ideal rather than the norm God had in mind.  And it follows that people hurting thus will project that pain on the Church.  Frequently this involves a kind of hurt that makes one almost afraid to believe in love, afraid to believe in goodness for fear of being hurt again, while the soul continues to pine for it, and wants to believe this model is not just an ideal.    

It is a direct attack on the fatherhood of God by the devil in our time that there is such a widespread faltering of authentic loving manhood that true fatherly love is something unknown to so many, and despaired of by so many more.  Prayer is in order for its restoration so that this model of the Church will not be something so foreign to so many, and that broken lives may be whole again.

The proper understanding of the nature of the Church is this much warmer (and more theologically accurate) nuptial imagery, and it is sad that such despair has made it almost incomprehensible to the modern mind so that a colder, corporate image would be preferable.  The Church is our home as much as a mother’s arms are our home, not a mere workplace or day care center.  True, a nuptial, familial image is a stumbling block for many people in this day where dysfunctional families, abuse, divorce, and so forth are epidemic, (often as a result of abandoning Church teachings) but this is a state of affairs that needs to be healed, not accommodated at the expense of the truth.  Who, after all is happier, a bride or an executive?

John Mallon is Director of Communications for the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, and Editor of the Sooner Catholic, where this article originally appeared.