Women priests or not, gendered theology is hurting the church

One thing everyone can agree on about Pope Francis: His press conferences give us something to talk about. This week’s was no different. When asked about women’s ordination, the pope recalled St. John Paul II’s assertion that women could never be considered for the priesthood as a final, settled matter. Joshua McElwee of the National Catholic Reporter reports that Francis said:

“But women can do many other things better than men,” the pope continued, before repeating remarks he has said in the past about the Catholic church having two dimensions: a Petrine, apostolic dimension led by the bishops and a Marian dimension, which he called “the feminine dimension of the church.”


More troubling than the question of whether women can participate in the church’s sacramental ministry as priests is the infiltration of such a gendered ecclesiology into the highest echelons of the church’s hierarchy. This language of Marian and Petrine dimensions has two primary sources. The notion of the church as Christ’s bride, of course, has scriptural roots: It comes from the Gospels and the Letters of St. Paul and is expanded upon in the Book of Revelation. The association of that metaphor with Marian and Petrine dimensions of the church, however, comes from a theologian who was a favorite of both St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, a Swiss onetime Jesuit named Hans Urs von Balthasar. While he is well known for his contributions to theological aesthetics, many theologians take issue with the gendered language he uses to describe the church as a masculine/feminine complementary reality, where Mary and Jesus, or Mary and Peter, correspond to separate dimensions of the church.

For Balthasar, the Petrine dimension centers on leadership and initiative, while the Marian dimension has more to do with receptivity and fruitfulness—and these distinctions are rooted in the biological distinctions of men and women. In fact, he takes the difference in sexual organs between men and women as the basis for many of the characteristics of his complementarian view of humanity, and by extension, of the church. Coupled with the spousal metaphor (the church as the “bride” to Christ), this complementarity also casts the laity in the Marian role and the clergy and hierarchy in the Petrine office. This is potentially problematic, as it rests on the passivity and submission of the “Marian” principle (the laity) to the Petrine (the clergy).

To cite just one example of his ideology of gender in his major work Theo-Drama, Balthasar describes woman as “man’s answer” and the “vessel of his fulfillment.” Men are not defined in relation to women but as the beings who pose the question, who initiate fruitfulness. By placing sexual difference as the most significant difference among human persons (and not, for example, age or race or ethnicity or any of the myriad other differences we see in humanity), Balthasar’s vision of complementarity informs his whole ecclesiology and casts men and women into specific, rigid roles.

Our Full Humanity

Of course, our tradition is replete with gendered language for God, and with complementarian understandings of God and humanity. But this is not the only way in which the church has been imagined. Theologians, citing Scripture, have called the church a “Mystical Body,” “the People of God” and “the Sacrament of Salvation.” Francis’ remarks, however, echoed Balthasar’s understanding of the church as a masculine/feminine complementary duality, and this is profoundly problematic for scientific, sociopolitical and, most important, theological reasons.

Science has revealed that a person’s sexual biology is far more intricate than the sex organs that are visible on a person’s body. Genes and hormones coursing through the bloodstream affect the development and expression of a person’s “biological” sex. Some women and men have three chromosomes (XXY); others have female sex organs but, on balance, more male sex hormone than female sex hormone. All of this is to say that human biology is infinitely more complex than the “It’s a boy!” or “It’s a girl!” statements from new parents (or their doctors or midwives) might lead us to believe. Scientifically, even biologically, there are many factors that contribute to “maleness” and “femaleness.” Any claim that there are only two kinds of humans, male and female, is simplistic. Similarly, even if “femaleness” is biologically anchored, what counts as “feminine” is culturally constructed and varies through time and place. For one community, femininity might mean being shy and retiring; for another, a person who is proudly beautiful and wears makeup and attention-getting clothing might be viewed as very feminine.

Sociopolitically, rigid complementarity cheats both men and women of their full humanity. To assume that women make up for what men lack, or vice versa, reifies stereotypes of masculinity and femininity by dictating the relative strengths and weaknesses that people are to have if they are true to their genders. This ideology proceeds as if all men and all women were alike, instead of the variety of persons we meet daily. Our human experience contradicts the assertion that all men are aggressive or that all women are overly emotional. As the mother of two sons, I can attest that each human is different from the other in interests, abilities and talents and that my boys are more different than alike—and they came from the same gene pool and have the same upbringing! We can also affirm, from our experience with others, that not all men and women fit into this complementary mold, and that human relationships are infinitely more complex than “she makes up for what I lack.” At the very least, human relationships are based in reciprocities that change over time.

In the social and political spheres, we also see the damage done to boys who are not allowed or encouraged to express emotions other than anger, and to girls who are called bossy for taking initiative or, worse, for standing up to bullies. Sexual stereotyping, then, does not just disadvantage women; it stunts men’s possibilities as well.

In the church, complementarian thinking of the kind espoused by recent popes, including Pope Francis, asserts that women have crucial gifts for the church but that these gifts complement men’s gifts, which include, presumably, the charisms required for ordination. Francis takes this a step further, putting women on a pedestal when he claims that the Marian principle in the church is more important than the Petrine, because as God’s mother, Mary is more significant in salvation history that Jesus’ disciples.

Two things to note of theological import here. First, Jesus’ mother is not the only woman in the New Testament. Mary Magdalene, Martha and Mary, and others were also in Jesus’ circle of disciples, listening to him and, in Martha’s case, ministering to him. Mary Magdalene was the first witness to the resurrection in the Gospels. The women in the early church cannot all be subsumed into the Virgin Mary; the church should say their names and know their stories, because even these early narratives reveal that not all women express femininity in the same way (see Martha and Mary for a shining example of this fact).

Second, casting the church in a feminine role and assigning obedience (as in Mary’s fiat) and receptivity to only the feminine aspect of the church, as opposed to the Petrine and clerical aspect, means that the role of the laity is obedience and receptivity. Does this fit with the ecclesiology of the Second Vatican Council, which says in “Lumen Gentium” that the whole people of God are called to minister in the church? If leadership is only Petrine, and Petrine only means clergy, then some men in the church image the masculine aspect of the church while other men (in the laity) image the feminine. But the reverse is impossible: Women, because they cannot be ordained, can only ever image the feminine. This rules out women’s leadership in a church that celebrates Teresa of Avila, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and Catherine of Siena as models of faith.

Pope Francis may or may not have ruled out the possibility of seeing women priests in the Catholic Church on the plane from Sweden this week. But in reaffirming the Marian and Petrine construct of the church, he (intentionally or not) sent a message about the people of God that truncates our imaginations and limits our possibilities for full human flourishing. And that’s a bigger issue than who stands at the foot of the altar.

Natalia Imperatori-Lee is associate professor of religious studies at Manhattan College, New York.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
John Walton
2 years 3 months ago
I wouldn't spill so much ink on this -- if you put your wife first and your kids second, everything seems to work out OK.
Michael Barberi
2 years 1 month ago
A good article for serious reflection. I hope one day that we will see women in the priesthood despite St. JP II's proclamation that the Church has no authority to ordain women. We need to recognize that while Christ only choose men as his apostles, the culture at the time did not permit women to own property, inherit, nor did men give a woman's testimony much weight in legal, ecclesial or religious matters. Prohibiting women to become priests will continue to be controversial and will be debated for years to come. In the meantime, let's pray that in the near future we will see women as ordained deacons and women in decision-making offices of authority and responsibility at the parish, diocesan and Vatican levels.


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