The Iconic Value of Gender

Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. "For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh." This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. (Eph 5:22-32)

An aspect of Catholicism that seems to irritate a lot of people is the role placed on women. Only men can be priests and bishops, which implies that only men can lead; women are restricted to the role of follower and obedient wife. Is this really true?

Iím going to argue that this is not true. It is true that only men can enter the clerical state, but it is not true that such clerics are meant to be leaders. They are meant to be icons. I appreciate it when they lead, but that is not really their role.

In the bible, there is a lot of talk of family. As Iíve mentioned in a previous post, such family imagery is an analogy to the Divine Family: the Most Holy Trinity. One of these Divine Persons is called the Father and another is called the Son Ė both male. Such masculinity in the Godhead has been (wrongly) interpreted to mean that men are superior to women, as God is superior to us. Recently, as a reaction to such patriarchalism, more than a few have proposed that to complete the family imagery of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit must be female Ė the Mother. They point to the fact that the word for spirit in Hebrew and Greek is a feminine noun. I like their attempt to discredit patriarchalism, but I do not agree that it is meaningful to refer to God as female.

The real reason for invoking gender in the Godhead is, I believe, completely unrelated to any cultural gender roles. I say this, because I believe in the inspiration of Scripture. God inspires Scripture to be correct and the use of gender in Scripture is quite constant and profound, therefore important, therefore deeply meaningful. It cannot be meaningful if it is related to a cultural construct; such constructs mean different things to different people. I believe that the gender images in Scripture are based on that which never changes: sexuality. Long ago, long before modern science discovered genetics, people did not know how procreation worked. In ancient times, people knew that if they planted a seed in the ground, a plant would grow. Likewise, if a male planted his seed in a woman, a child would grow. Male = seed; female = ground. The new creature comes from the ground. Thatís about it. For the ancients, the male seed was the principle of life. The womanís womb was fertile ground, a passive element where the active principle of life generated new life. This is a perfect description of spiritual generation. God (male) gives us (female) His life (seed) and it grows into a new creation (we become new).

This is, I believe, why God has revealed Himself as male. Not because He is Lord of the manor or big & strong or some other such cultural notion. Itís because He gives us life. This is why we, the Church as well as Israel before us, are cast as female: we receive the life from God. We are transformed into the child. Itís an easy analogy; weíve merely lost track of it.

And this is why priests are men. It has nothing to do with patriarchalism or some absurdity that only men are capable of teaching or something like that. It has to do with the iconic character of the priesthood. Our religion is a religion of symbols; without symbols, we can know nothing of God. We cannot know the Unknowable directly; only by analogy with things we know can we come to know Him. Therefore, symbols are actually very important in religion. Scripture is profoundly anagogical and images of water, trees, numbers, bread, wine, mountains, temples, families, weddings, etc. all have meaning Ė how can we understand revealed truth if we discard these symbols? The symbolic imagery of gender and procreation is a profound one and very meaningful. The priestís primary job is to administer sacraments and preach the Gospel Ė both of which provide Godís grace Ė His life Ė to us. These are the male seed of God; we are the spouse who receives it. Therefore, the priest who does this on Godís behalf is male, to image these matrimonial acts. So, a gender-based priesthood is meaningful.

In a marvelous book, ďThe Authority of Women in the Catholic Church,Ē Ann Arbor theologian Dr. Monica Migliorino Miller explains that a common problem is misunderstanding the word authority. Authority is so often abused by tyrants that we tend to define it by its abuse, rather than its meaning. The root of authority is author Ė one who creates and who puts something of himself in his creation. This is the very definition of Godís relationship with us. As I often ask people, when was the last time God forced you to do something? Heís hardly a tyrant. Godís authority is a creative (and redemptive) act; no willful forcing involved. Before He ascended to heaven, Jesus gave His definitive statement on authority and the Apostlesí job description:

ďAll authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.Ē (Mat 28:18-20)

Their job is to baptize (sacraments) and teach, which are part of Godís creative/redemptive act. Thatís it. No leadership, force of will or anything of the sort. That is because all they are to do is act in this delegated position as an instrument of Godís grace Ė Godís seed. The role is that of an icon, not that of a political leader. The iconic symbol is male; a female Ė while quite capable of carrying out the pragmatic duties of a priest and anyone else Ė is not correct for the iconic role. The iconic role of women is to symbolize the Church, the people of God, the recipients of Godís grace. (This will be the subject of my next post.) We Christians are not a pragmatic people; we use imagery, symbols and icons to understand God; this should be our preference. It is beautiful and meaningful Ė why would we want it any other way?

At the top of this post is a controversial quote from St. Paulís letter to the Ephesians. The key is the last sentence. Without that, it is just so much nonsense. The teaching of St. Paul is that marriage is the most iconic of all Scriptural images. Husband and wife are to image Christ and His Church. In this case, the wifeís submission refers to a passive role, receiving the husbandís love. This is what we, the Church, do. We do not obey Christ as we would a tyrant; Christ asks nothing of us except to let Him love us and give Himself to us. So should Christian marriage reflect this relationship as a mirror. And so, women do not have an inferior role compared to that of men; our sexuality offers iconic images which are analogous to our relationship with God.

To summarize: Man is a symbol of God only because manís role in procreation is to provide the ďprinciple of life,Ē the seed. Woman is a symbol of us, the Church and Israel before us, because her role in procreation is to receive the seed and let it grow into a new creature. These gender roles are our precious symbols to analogously explain the covenantal relationship between God and us. In no way do we reduce the dignity of women by using men as priestly icons.

Had not so many in the clerical state abused their role by applying a false, secular notion of authority, perhaps there would be no confusion about this today. I give thanks to God when I encounter good and holy priests, who focus on the sacraments, the liturgy and the preaching of the Gospel. I also give thanks to God when I encounter men and women who aspire to nothing, save to enjoy their relationship with God in their ordinary lives.