Balthasar on Mary, The Church and “female priests”

I’ve spent the past several weekend afternoons dipping into Balthasar’s A Short Primer for Unsettled Laymen, a book consisting of short reflections on various topics, many of which are familiar to Catholic bloggers (“pluralism”, “progressivism”, “authority”, “traditionalism”, et al.). 1

In the chapter “Mary – Church – Office,” Balthasar impressively ties together — in the space of ten pages — man’s relationship to woman, Mary’s relationship to the Church, the proper interpretation of Paul’s advice to spouses in Ephesians 5: 21-33, and how this pertains to the modern feminist identification of the sexes and the struggle for “female priests”.

Someone who disregards the place of Mary in the history of salvation, as the Church has come to know it in her prayer and contemplation, will pay the price in the long run; he will sooner or later land in a feminism that demands the equality, which means in practical terms the identification, of woman and man. . . . [p. 88]

>Woman is the inseperable unity of that which makes it possible for the Word of God to take on the being of the world, in virtue of the natural-supernatural fruitfulness given to her. As the active power of receiving all that heaven gives, she is the epitome of creaturely power and dignity; she is what God presupposes as the Creator in order to give the seed of his Word to the world. In no religion (not even in those of matriarchal cultures) and in no philosopy can woman be the original principle, siince her fruitfulness, which appears more active and explicit in the sexual sphere than the fruitfulness of man, is always ordered to insemination. This is also true of Isis, Astarte and Cybele. In the philosophy of antiquity, man appears for this reason as number one and woman as the number two. Eve is drawn from Adam’s side that his creaturely creative power may not be in vain. [p. 90]

What’s this? — women “ordered to insemination”? rendered subordinate to man? — I can already imagine someone reading this passage and exclaiming “why, how absolutely chauvinistic!” . . . for which reason the next paragraph struck me as being an appropriate clarification. Where, lest man should boast of his innate superiority over the lesser sex, Balthasar puts it all into perspective:

The following words of Paul must be placed into this cosmic context: “Man is the image and reflection of God, while woman is a reflection of man.” (1 Corin. 11:7). “Reflection” (doxa) in the last part of the sentence can and must be understood as “glory”, i.e., that through which man is glorified. God does not need Adam in order to have his glory in himself. Adam, however, is poor and fruitless if he does not have that which brings forth fruit bodily and spiritually, that which, as the principle of fruitfulness and as wife and mother, fructifies him. “For as woman stems from man, so man in turn stems from woman, but everything [man and woman] stems from God. (1 Corin. 11:12). . . . [Christ] must represent the Father in the world by his Incarnation . . . but he does so as a man who comes from woman (the Old Covenant community of salvation, which finds its peak in Mary) and is again fruitful in woman (in the same community of salvation that becomes the Church in Mary. [p. 90-91]

And what, then, does this mean for the Church?

One must pay attention to the connection between Mary and the Church. The assent given to the angel by the “lowly handmaid” on whom God has looked graciously is the fundamental act of her entire life. . . . at the Presentation of the Temple, she fundamentally offers and returns her child to God. On the Cross, this return — in the same godforsakeness as the Son: “Woman, behold your son!” — becomes a secret and indespensable part of the New Creation or birth. . . . [The Church] comes to be in virtue of the fact that the feminine assent to all that God wills becomes the inexhaustible fruitfulness of the new Eve. It is the Church that Paul (Eph. 5:27) calls the “immaculata”, which, after all, she is truly and literally on earth only in her archetype, Mary. The Cross (to which Easter and Pentacost belong, inseparably) is the fulfillment of all the nuptial spirit between man and woman and indeed between heaven and earth. . . . [p. 92]

And the claim to the priesthood?

Situated withhin this comprehensive femininity of the Church is the eucharistic mystery that Jesus entrusts in advance to his Apostles . . . Men are to carry out the office in the Church; in so doing they are not to be Christ but merely to represent him. It is part of the nature of the office that it merely represents, so much that it can speak, not its own words, but the words of Christ: “This is my Body”; “I absolve you”. It is completely unthinkable that Mary should speak such words. For under the Cross she did not represent the sacrifice of her Son — but in being set aside and given away to another son — she was a silent, invisible part of this sacrifice. For she, the woman, is the Church that gives her assent, and everyone in the Church has a part in this assent. Even the man, even the priest, is in this respect feminine, marian.

The woman that would strive for the male role in the Church thus strives for something “less” and denies the “more” of what she is. This can be overlooked only by a feminism that has lost the sense for the mystery of sexual difference, wich has functionalized sexuality and attempts to increase the dignity of woman by bringing about her identification with man. [pp. 93-94]

This complimentarity of the sexes and the distinct, yet I think equally dignified, roles of male and female, not to mention the interpretation of Mary as the mystical archetype of the Church, are worth consideration — especially by those who approach the question of a female priesthood with a simple “well, why not?” 2 There is much in Catholic tradition that would be lost by such an indiscriminate leveling of the sexes.

Balthasar’s chapter reminded me of another article by Genevieve S. Kineke, on “The Lost Essence of Femininity” (Canticle No. 1), with which I think is fitting to close:

Emulation of the Blessed Mother would also be an intrinsic dimension of an authentic daughter of the Church. She would see in Our Lady the first fruit of God’s plan of redemption and a perfect example of each human virtue. Through meditation on the Gospel texts referring to Mary and on the mysteries of the Rosary, she would see the delicacy and “feminine genius” of this beautiful woman. . . .

The difference that sets women apart is that she imitates the Church, the Bride of Christ. As peculiar as this might seem at first glance, let us consider what the Church does. In supernatural ways, the Church welcomes new members, she cleanses them in the waters of baptism, she feeds them at the Eucharistic feast, and she reconciles them in the confessional. She heals them with her anointing balm and finally lays each to rest in the hope of rising again. Throughout she consoles, sustains, and most importantly teaches each member in order that he might find his dignity and the meaning of his life.

What could be more feminine?

In a natural sense, this is where a woman finds her dignity and meaning. It is not a strict formula or a straight-jacket. On the contrary, she takes these elements, combines them with her talents and her circumstances in life, and forges a path unique and charged with beauty. With these elements as guides, she will ponder her vocation and discover what God wishes her to do that is squarely in the folds of the Mystical Body of Christ, and yet unrepeatable and life-giving to all who are touched by her influence.

  1. I have recently begun to explore the writings of Hans Urs von Balthasar, finding his longer and more academic works a bit intimidating. Fortunately, many of his shorter books (published by Ignatius Press), however, are written for a popular audience. A Short Primer For Unsettled Laymen is definitely one that I think most any Catholic would enjoy, and very pertinent to our times.
  2. For example, none of these factors come into play in the British historian Paul Johnson’s almost-casual dismissal of gender differences and endorsement of female priests in The Quest for God: A Personal Pilgrimage (Harper Collins, 1996); which, I think, is an otherwise good read.
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