Saturday, January 10, 2015

Excerpt from Tina Beatty's "New Catholic Feminism - Theology and Theory"

from pages 302-4 (This excerpt will raise several questions that can only be adequately answered by reading the preceding 301 pages... which I encourage anyone who is intrigued by this excerpt to do.  -SG)

The Maternal Priest

At present, the debate about women's ordination tends to divide along liberal/conservative lines.  I have explored in some depth the arguments against women's ordination, in order to demonstrate the extent to which these appeal to highly problematic sexual stereotypes, which nonetheless have profound psychological resonance.  As we have seen with Balthasar and Speyr, this can result in an intensely felt psychosomatic spirituality, which feeds on dark bodily fantasies of sexuality, suffering and death, fantasies that are experienced by way of somatic mysticism by her and interpreted by way of a theological narration by him.  Those in favour of women's ordination are concerned with questions of equality and justice, so that the symbolic significance of the priest is understood primarily in social rather than psychological terms.  But sacramentality surely needs to encompass both of these dimensions:  by way of the body, in invites each individual into a space of spiritual otherness - a state of mystical holiness - which finds social expression in love of one's neighbour, in an ongoing process of personal transformation, a process of 'becoming divine'.  This inseparability of the mystical from the ethical is a hallmark of Christian mysticism.  Consider, for example, Catherine of Siena, expressing this ethos in richly maternal imagery:

Virtue, once conceived, must come to birth.  Therefore, as soon as the soul has conceived through loving affection, she gives birth for her neighbor's sake.  And just as she loves me in truth, so also she serves her neighbors in truth.  Nor could she do otherwise, for love of me and love of neighbor are one and the same thing:  Since love of neighbor has its source in me, the more the soul loves me, the more she loves her neighbors.

There should, then, be no rupture between a rich sacramental life and a commitment to social justice.  In our own time as well as Catherine's, this entails bodily worship and bodily participation in the quest for justice, because 'Every action, whether good or evil, is done by means of the body.'

The female priest might be the key to a recovered, bodily spirituality of the sacraments as well as to a renewed social ethos, because she embodies so many profound meanings associated with sacrality and embodiment.  The arguments against women priests that I have explored in this book feed on the fears that this provokes and seek to legitimize them, and we have seen that this leads to multiple contradictions and acts of rhetorical violence against the female body.  But Girard and feminist psycholinguists offer insights which, taken together, might allow for a sacramentality that is charged with the potency of life and death, through the capacity of the female priest to give corporeal expression to that which is currently repressed, hidden and denied in the expression of Catholic spirituality, thus liberating a new form of sacramental energy that derives its communicative power from the liturgical expression of what is negated and denied in our social interactions.

Psychoanalysis tells us that the maternal body is associated with desires and drives that overflow the boundaries of our orderly, rationalized identities and institutions.  Balthasar's theo-drama is premised upon a violent struggle between the two - the masculine self in encounter with its feminized other, the institutional Petrine Church in encounter with the feminine perfection of the Marian Church.  This struggle finds expression in a sacrifice that plays out repeatedly on the bodies of men and women trapped in its deadly dynamics, not least in the imagery of the casta meretrix [chaste whore] by which a male Christ conquers his carnal, sexual bride.  But when we search for the maternal body that might transform the violence of desire into the love and loss that constitute our bodily yearning for God, first awakened (according to Balthasar) by the mother's presence, we find that there is nothing there - in Lacan, a Real that is only a void, in Balthasar, a burning abyss of the imagination in which the female sex burns to extinction, so that the male body can take his and her place as priest and Bride of Christ.

When the female body steps into this void as maternal priest, the Christian revelation of the mystery of God becomes complete.  God, who is beyond all, is and is not father and mother, male and female, dazzlingly revealed and also concealed in the play of differences between Christ and Church, father and mother, male and female, Word and flesh, made present in the sacraments.  If we seek consistency with the arguments that have been offered so far in defence of the male priesthood, while also asking what kind of theological vision is needed to accommodate woman's priesthood as equal but different to man's, we might ask if the motherhood of the female priest is to the Church what the fatherhood of the male priest is to God.  She is not the Mother, just as he is not the Father.  She does not need to be a mother, any more than he needs to be a father.  She is a sexual body, a graced body, enacting a presence beyond herself - a presence that can be experienced only in absence, and an absence that can be acknowledged only in naming and signification.

The Church is the phallic mother, the cosmic Mother, representing a dream of wholeness, a longing for bliss, experienced as an intangible body of the shared Catholic psyche which is before and beyond sexual difference, capable of accommodating all bodies within herself.  She is the 'body' that comes into being at the crossroads where death yields to birth and sacrifice becomes fecundity on Calvary, where the male body of Christ reveals once and for all the power-in-vulnerability of God's love, by giving birth to and becoming the maternal body of the Church.  The male and female body together experience their redemption in the presence of the birthing body of the man on the cross and the grieving love of the mother at the foot of the cross.  The wound in the side of Christ becomes the vagina through which God gives birth to the new creation:

The heart is capable of sacrifice.
So is the vagina.
The heart is able to forgive and repair.
It can change its shape to let us in.
It can expand to let us out.
So can the vagina.
It can ache for us and stretch for us, die for us
and bleed and bleed us into this difficult,
wondrous world,
So can the vagina.  [Eve Ensler]

The birth of the Church from the body of Christ is beyond logic, beyond explanation, but it is one of the most ancient and enduring truths of the Catholic faith, repeated from Tertullian to Balthasar, but never yet accepted in all its fullness.  In the play of difference between the paternal priest who is not God and the maternal priest who is not the Church, might the sacramental imagination be inspired anew with the mystery of God, whose absence it celebrates in its carnivalesque naming and knowing of God?


  1. After finishing "Between Jesus & The Market", this seems, dare I say it, heretical to those people in that book. Open sexual references (to women being on a par with men) as per religion seem to generate a lot of fear & loathing. This could also lend itself to some twisty logic to try and integrate this into the male dominance paradigm that these folks espouse.

    But personally, it makes a lot of sense. We can all SHARE in the divine, if we just accept it as a gift. And, for the record, the faith I was raised in (Lutheran) has had women in the ministry for a long time. What's the big deal, huh?

  2. Hi Michael.

    The big deal from the Catholic side of the street is that many of the arguments posed by pro-ordination folks are framed in liberal terms. The dilemma for the church is that it is poised one one horn that is (legitimately in my view) anti-liberal and another that is (wrongly in my view) based on the preservation of exclusively male leadership for its own sake. Tina Beattie resolves this dilemma, imo, and does so as a non-liberal Catholic.