Why Can’t Women Be Fathers?

I have a very strong opinion on the ordination of women… which is that I am strongly uncertain about it all.

One day, I’m for it, the next, I’m against. I was both disappointed and relieved (in about equal measure) when the Church of England voted against women bishops. As a Catholic, that puts me in a bit of a pickle because the Catholic Church is adamantly against the ordination of women to the priesthood.

And that bugs me. (Rather like something that is clearly bugging this bishop…)

Fra Angelico, A Bishop Saint, c. 1425 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

So lately I’ve been reading a lot about this, trying to see what I’m missing. And I think I’ve finally figured it out: I’m missing the beauty of this truth.

I accept that the Apostles were all men and that Christ acted “in a completely free and sovereign manner” (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis) in choosing only men. I accept that the universal Tradition of the Church, both Catholic, Orthodox and until very recently, Protestant, only ordained men. I accept that the priest images Christ to the Church and acts as a spiritual father and shepherd to his flock.

I accept all of this but I don’t love it. I don’t love it like I love the mysteries of the Trinity or marriage or redemption. Those truths I want to roll around in, wallowing in it and sinking deeper and deeper. I want to be caught up in the beauty of that dance and marvel at the elegance and clarity and profundity of it all. I want to see it and taste it and hear it and touch it.

This one, I’d happily do without.

And I think the reason I don’t love it is because it feels so unbalanced. Men and women are equal, but we are not the same. There is a balance, a complementarity, between men and women. We need each other and we need each other precisely as the other. That is a beautiful truth.

In maintaining that only men can be priests, we are saying that there is a specific way that only a man as a man can image God. That, in itself, isn’t an issue for me. Both men and women are created in the image of God and obviously, men show forth God’s image in ways women don’t – and vice versa. Again, beautiful.

But what is bothering me is the lack of symmetry here, the very lack of complementarity.

What is the female equivalent to the priesthood? I don’t mean an equivalent in the sense of doing the same thing, or even something similar, but what is the thing that only women as women can be in a way that complements this priesthood?

Surely if we believe that men and women are equally created in the image of God, equally redeemed and being renewed in the image of Christ and equally endowed with the Holy Spirit, there will be some equality in this, even if it is expressed differently?

Jan Victors, Hannah Giving Her Son Samuel to the Priest, 1645 (Staatliche Museen, Berlin)

The first answer that comes to mind in motherhood. Only women can be mothers. In fact, this is probably the most commonly used counter-point to the all-male priesthood. “Just like men can’t be biological mothers, women can’t be spiritual fathers.”

Mothers and fathers are not interchangeable. Women are not men and, therefore, cannot be priests any more than they can be fathers in the physical sense. If women can step into the role of priest, then it is no longer one of fatherhood. (Jennifer Ferrara)

But that seems an inexact parallel to me.

Firstly, biological motherhood already has a natural male counter-point: biological fatherhood. No one is suggesting – at least I’m not! – that mothers and fathers are interchangeable. But both are necessary and fit together; they complement each other.

But secondly, I would agree that men can be – and are – regarded as “spiritual mothers”. Yesterday, I read St Augustine’s reflection on Christ’s words that, “Whoever hears and fulfils the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and my sister and my mother.” He says that, hard as it is to believe, we can all – male or female – become “spiritual mothers” or “mothers of Christ” in giving birth to Christians who are members of Christ.

“Now you in your turn must draw to the font of baptism as many as you possibly can. You became sons when you were born there yourselves, and now by bringing others to birth in the same way, you have it in your power to become the mothers of Christ. (St Augustine, from the Office of Readings)

But if the male body isn’t an impediment to “spiritual motherhood”, why is the female body an impediment to “spiritual fatherhood”?

Christian Tradition readily accepts that men can, in a way, be feminine. They are after all, members of the Body and Bride of Christ. The Church is feminine to Christ and every human soul is, in a sense, feminine to our Head and Husband, Christ. As Lewis said, “[W]e are all, corporately and individually, feminine to Him.” (Priestesses in the Church)

“But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” (1 Co 11:3)

The result is that we in the bizarre situation that we have men alone representing the Bridegroom while both men and women represent the Bride.

Why is that?

Eugène Delacroix, Jewish Bride, 1832 (Musée du Louvre, Paris)

So why is it that the female cannot transcend her femaleness and be, at least in some symbolic sense, male when the male can transcend his maleness and be, at least in some symbolic sense, female?

Why do we find one abhorrent and the other acceptable?

And where exactly can I find the female complement to the male priesthood? Or isn’t there one? And if so, why not?

Maybe I’m asking the wrong questions, maybe I’m misunderstanding the nature of the priesthood as a sacrament, maybe I’m just being plain stubborn. But it is my faith that is asking and it is my faith that is not content until I can see the beauty in this truth.

What am I missing here?

“Therefore do not seek to understand in order to believe, but believe that thou mayest understand; since, except ye believe, ye shall not understand.” (St. Augustine)


19 responses to “Why Can’t Women Be Fathers?

  1. I wrote a very long essay, but I decided to pooh-pooh it. I think a meditation on this question will suffice: How did Mary compliment her son?

    • Oh, I wish you had posted the very long essay! (If you’ve got it anyway, I’d love to read it.) Because obviously, this isn’t evident to me the way it clearly is to some people.

      I don’t understand how meditating on how Mary complemented her Son addresses the problem I’m raising? I gladly joyfully affirm the complementarity of men and women in the relational-pair we see in Adam and Eve, Christ and Mary, husband and wife, head and body etc… And I’m not concerned about the practical basis on how I as a woman live as Christian, praying for, and submitting to and serving and being served by our priests.

      But I’m trying to enter into the logic of this and that’s where I come unstuck. It’s when we come to the clergy and laity relationship that I get lost. Maybe it is its corporate nature but I don’t see why it is that both men and women can represent or image the feminine Bride of Christ and Holy Mother Church while it is only men who can represent or image the masculine Christ, who is the Bridegroom and Head of the Church.

      Do you see what I mean? Do you see that as a problem? And if not, can you walk me through how and why not?

      • I don’t see it as a problem, but the answer for which I can give does raise questions for me, of which I cannot give an adequate explanation; I can only give conjecture, however I am not readily troubled by that either.

        Firstly there is the common priesthood and the ministerial priesthood. The common priesthood is that by which all the faithful participate in (Our kingly, prophetic, and priestly roles). The ministerial priesthood is the one that refers to the clergy per se; that is, here we are referring to the sacrament of holy orders. The priest acts in persona christi, in the person of Christ. Now when we speak of the person of Christ, we of course speak of his dual nature–His Divine origin and human nature. Being incarnated, he took on flesh and therefore took on a sexuality–masculinity. Because the priest acts in the person of Christ, it is necessary for the priest to be a male, as Christ is a male. The necessity of this rises from the way sacraments work: They are visible signs of the invisible. The sacramental sign of the priesthood is the manhood of the person, which directs (or should at least) our attention towards Christ Incarnate.

        Another way of putting it is that Christ ordained men, and these men in turn ordained men. Christ established the “material” of this Sacrament just as he established the “material” for the Eucharist. Because Christ established the Sacraments, the Church does not have the authority to alter them–they have a special privilege, unlike sacramentals. Ordaining women would be like substituting bread and wine for hamburgers and soda.

        Further, and this is where I will open a can of worms, God does everything deliberately. The Word took on flesh and became a man. Christ’s sexual identity was not an accident. He may transcend us due to His Divine nature, but He is Emmanuel, God is with us, and so He became one of us–He is not sexually neutral. Christ referred to God the Father as a father, and The Word became a male person.

        Now we might ask why all the masculinity, or why did he just not enter into our world neutral, or why not enter in as a feminine person, etc..

        I don’t have an answer for these. I only know that God chose to be incarnated within manhood, and that he refers to the first person of the Trinity in a masculine way. We can’t really work our way around these. We might speculate that there is something intrinsic to manhood that God uses as a mirror. As to what that is specifically, I don’t know. But this would not mean that womanhood is inferior. It took a woman to give birth to God! (I recall a line from the movie 300 “Only Spartan women can give birth to Spartan men” lol)

        Now to specific points in your writing…

        //But if the male body isn’t an impediment to “spiritual motherhood”, why is the female body an impediment to “spiritual fatherhood”?//

        In the manner you quote Augustine, this spiritual motherhood is in reference towards “giving birth” to Christians, i.e., conversions. Therefore, following this train of thought, spiritual fatherhood could be said to be something like that which serves to protect or instruct. In such a sense, there is no impediment to women possessing a quality of “spiritual fatherhood.”

        Now I’m being a bit nit-picky with what i said above, because that is not necessarily what your aim is. I mean, when you quote Augustine, it’s out of context for your main argument, but I wanted to address this analogy regardless.

        Now your main argument…

        //Christian Tradition readily accepts that men can, in a way, be feminine. They are after all, members of the Body and Bride of Christ. The Church is feminine to Christ and every human soul is, in a sense, feminine to our Head and Husband, Christ. As Lewis said, “[W]e are all, corporately and individually, feminine to Him.”


        The result is that we in the bizarre situation that we have men alone representing the Bridegroom while both men and women represent the Bride.//

        When we say that all are feminine to Him, as I understand it, this comes from the latin word anima which we know as soul. Notice that it’s a feminine word. Why is the word for soul feminine? Maybe it’s gender stereotyping, but I think there is truth to this: Femininity is more passive and perceptive as compared to masculinity. This not a bad thing, though our modern cultural ethos would have us think otherwise. The soul is considered feminine, and so passive and perceptive, because it does not act–it re-acts! And it reacts to God, who acts first. And the soul perceives reality; it does not create it.

        [Now if we had a devil’s advocate here to say that this makes femininity lower than masculinity, because femininity is passive while masculinity is active, I would have to strongly disagree. This kind of ordering is one that belongs to the modern mindset of extroverted individuals as being better than introverted ones. If anything, femininity is more suited to the task of philosophy, for philosophical inquiry is a skill that requires a mastery of perception and passivity to see reality as it is. Indeed, perhaps that is why a woman is the seat of Wisdom…]

        This bizarre situation only comes about when you make a list of what men/women can/can’t do. I want to point out that, yes, men and women compliment each other–But–Does this mean that they *should* have the exact parallel roles? I mean, in reference to differing but parallel roles, such as in the family, we might say that the mother acts as a comforter while the father acts as a rule enforcer; the mother is sweet but the father is stern; etc etc.. But is it the same way for everything? *Should* it be the same way for everything?

        //But what is bothering me is the lack of symmetry here, the very lack of complementarity.

        What is the female equivalent to the priesthood?//

        *Is* your symmetry necessary? Women can enter the religious life, but by not being able to be a priest does not mean that they start with some kind of handicap for glory. We don’t hear much about Mary as in comparison to the apostles, except during the wedding feast, the fiat, and towards the Passion. And yet she is considered the highest in all of creation, for she was the most humble–we pay her hyperdulia whereas to the other saints, and these include the 12 apostles, we give dulia.

      • Something else i forgot to address…

        //Christian Tradition readily accepts that men can, in a way, be feminine.//

        When we say that men can act like women, but women can’t act like men, there is the problem of equivocation here. I mean, you are making two kinds of argument but treating it as one. Firstly, and this is the main pointt, that women can’t be priests because they are male. The second argument, that men can act like women but women can’t act like men and so cannot be priests and therefore it’s bizarre, is a different argument from your first–The second argument is one of analogy whereas the first is literal. In the second argument, it is possible for certain “qualities” or “traits” to go between the sexes. As you said–Christian Traditions accepts that men can, **in a way**, be feminine. You are not speaking in a literal manner, as in comparison to the first argument which deals directly with one’s sexuality.

        • Thank you writing all this! I meant to reply earlier and say thank you but I got all absorbed in the arguments themselves. I’ll respond soon but didn’t want you to think I was being rude at all. I do appreciate it. Thanks! 🙂

          • Oh no not at all 😉 For someone to want me to actually say/write something very long… Well. Let’s just say my friends don’t like it when I do that lol They’re so boring.

  2. Laura – like you I have deeply mixed feelings. I accept that tradition militates against a female priesthood, but are we bound forever by tradition – the original 12 were all Jewish – we dropped that tradition swiftly.

  3. A quick point – using the grammatical gender of words in order to discern a metaphysical meaning is dangerous at best, meaningless at worst. For one, it has been determined that early Proto-Indo-European – the precursor of languages as varied as English, Latin, Greek and Hindi – originally used ‘noun cases’ to distinguish between animate and inanimate objects – masculine and feminine distinctions didn’t exist. This was probably the case around 7000 years ago, so a ‘female’ soul is not an ingrained social phenomenon. Furthermore, the Latin for soul is masculine animus, while the Greek is the feminine psyche. Anima was invented to translate psyche in the Vulgate. The word for spirit is neuter in Greek (pneuma), and masculine in Latin (spiritus). In Hebrew, the word for Spirit is feminine (ruach), so when we have ‘the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters’, (Gen: 1-2), its a feminine. The idea that the soul is feminine, in more than a grammatical sense, is a more recent philosophical development. Additionally, it is my opinion that Jesus rejected the importance of gender and sexuality. For one, his celibacy forced him to discard the earthly and physical duties of husband and father, and thus allowed him, to some degree, escape the gendered cultural norms of his society. Furthermore, to him, the ideal Christian is not defined by their sexuality, but is a non-sexual child (the word used is neuter in gender, btw, though that in itself proves nothing). E.g. Matt. 18:3-4: ‘And he said: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.’ This view is strongly reflected in his self-characterisation as the ‘Son of Man’, and his claim that marriage will no longer exist in heaven, but people will be like ‘The Angels’. As such, in heaven, there is no divine ‘Feminine’ or ‘Masculine’. There are no gender roles, because there is no need for production of children. Complementary roles on Earth have no spiritual value, but only practical value, as our souls are not gendered as our bodies are. Take, for instance, Galatians 3:28: ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ If Priests are imitating Christ in a spiritual sense (which is the only sense which is important), I don’t see why women should be excluded because souls do not contain gender differences.

    • Hi Nicola, thanks for commenting! 🙂 I agree its dangerous for linguistic conventions to dictate metaphysical realities. And I couldn’t agree more that the ideal Christian isn’t definied by their gender, but by their Christlikeness. That said, I’m not sure I agree we have no gender in Heaven. The Church at least teaches that we are male or female persons, which encompasses both our bodies and souls. Also, while their won’t be marriage or procreation or sex in Heaven, we will still have bodies, glorified in the Resurrection. In Jesus’ resurrection body, He is clearly male so that suggests that we still be male or female. I’d be interested to know why you think our souls are genderless? Thanks again for commenting! 🙂
      God bless,

    • Thanks Ryan, that essay was actually helpful. I think it’ll take a fair bit more thinking but pondering. And I do like Hans Urs von Balthasar – from the little I’ve read anyway! 🙂

  4. Surely if we believe that men and women are equally created in the image of God, equally redeemed and being renewed in the image of Christ and equally endowed with the Holy Spirit, there will be some equality in this, even if it is expressed differently?

    Why would we assume that? The issue is not that men and women are equally created in the image of God, but that men and women are not equally in the image of Jesus. Priests are the vicars and the vessels of Christ in the Sacraments. And for whatever reason, Christ took on human flesh as a man. Though God is neither masculine nor feminine, acting as both a Mother and a Father, Jesus did not come equally as man and woman.

    • Hey Joseph, I think what you’ve said helps. And in many ways its true. But although Jesus didn’t come as a woman, still he received His humanity from a woman, and more importantly I think, pushing that argument too far means that women are no longer renewed in the image of Christ. What has not been assumed, has but been redeemed. Obviously, there’s a distinction between this more profound spiritual reality and the sacramental reality. But I think what I’m trying to get at is that, even while I accept the Church’s teaching, I find this distinction rather arbitrary. And it just *feels* wrong. But I’m still working on it all! Thanks again for commenting and being a wonderful blog friend. 🙂 God bless brother.

      • I’ve been thinking about this more since I posted: How wonderful and how great the role of women in the Church really is. Of course women are renewed in the image of Christ also; but in terms of our sex and our gender roles, women can be mothers — both biologically and spiritually — in a way that men can’t. They take an intimate, nuclear role in the act of creation that men can never share: men are the donors of genetic material, but women are the crucibles in which God actually forms new life. Babies are literally flesh of their mothers’ flesh. In the same way, women mirror the creation of new life from Holy Mother Church, the Body of Christ: certainly this is the way they mirror Christ in a way more exactly than men can. As mothers of families, they take such a nurturing and life-giving role in the spiritual development of their children. In the Church, too, as teachers and mentors, they can be spiritual mothers and nurturers on a level that men never can. I think, for some Protestants, that is an argument for why women should be pastors; but for me, it’s an argument for why they don’t have to be: how they can offer so much in a special and unique role and don’t have to mirror the role of men exactly. Thank you, too, for always being a wonderful blog friend and sister in the Lord. God bless. 🙂

    • Thank you for comment! I did read some of Sr. Sarah Butler’s and found her very helpful – particularly in distinguishing between the fundamental reasons (i.e. from the authority of the Christ thru the Church) and the theological reasons (the ones we use to explain why what is so, is so). I had no idea she had a website tho, I’ll be scouring that now I think! Thanks again and God bless 🙂

  5. Pingback: “Misbegotten Males”: Why Women Can’t be Priests | CATHOLIC CRAVINGS·

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s