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Susan A. RossNovember 01, 2004

When I got married at the relatively advanced age of 42, I wore my mother’s satin wedding dress from 1946, as my three sisters had done. I also carried her prayer book, wore borrowed pearls and tossed the bouquet. Since my father had died years before, my two brothers accompanied me down the aisle. I made it very clear to them that they were not giving me away, but representing our family. There were a few other things that I did differently than my mother and sisters. I didn’t wear a veil, and I kept my maiden name. Veiling had connotations that I wished to avoid, and I wanted to keep the name I had been born with. My husband felt the same. Our notions of what it meant to be bride and bridegroom were informed by faith, love and feminism.

The same cannot be said of the most recent Vatican statement on women, Letter on the Collaboration of Men and Women, dated May 31, 2004, but not released until July 31. It contains much that is familiar to readers of Vatican documents that refer to women. The usual suspects appear, among them feminism, which in this document is characterized as emphasizing antagonism and opposition to men. There are the usual role models: Mary is raised up as a model for the church and for all humanity, with her dispositions of listening, welcoming, humility, faithfulness, praise, and waiting (No. 16). There is a strong emphasis on feminine qualities that echoes some of contemporary feminism’s concern for relationality, a recognition that distorted relations between men and women are not in accord with the plan of God but are the consequence of sin, and the statement that social policies must combat all unjust sexual discrimination (No. 14).

But no image comes across as strongly here as that of bridegroom/bride, which has been prominent also in previous Vatican writings on women. This metaphor is what theologians, philosophers and literary critics would call a ruling metaphor. It is the primary image that John Paul II uses for God and humanity, Christ and the church, men and women. There is much to be said in favor of this metaphor: it is quite ancient, going back to a time even before the Hebrew prophets, who drew upon neighboring Canaanite traditions and used it to describe the relationship between God and Israel. It was used extensively by St. Paul, and it was a favorite of medieval monks, who described their relationship to God in marital terms. It conveys intimacy as well as physical desire and delight in marriage. It is the stuff of poetry.

But as the philosopher Paul Ricoeur has written, all metaphors have both an is and an is not. And although the Vatican argues that the terms bridegroom and bride are much more than simple metaphors, it is in fact the Vatican that has oversimplified the interpretation of this metaphor to focus only on its gendered aspects. Metaphors are by their very nature filled with multiple meanings, but when one meaning dominates all others, the metaphor becomes nothing but an equation. This, I think, is what has happened to the metaphor of bridegroom and bride.

As has been traditional in all documents on women and/or sexuality, the Vatican focuses on the Genesis creation stories and shows how relationships are central to human existence. Human beings are made for each other, and although sin has wounded this relationship, the covenant between God and humanity offers the promise of healing. So far, so good. Then, in the biblical stories, we see the various ways that God has loved [God’s] people: God makes himself known as the bridegroom who loves Israel his bride (No. 9). In the New Testament, Mary sums up and transfigures the condition of Israel/bride, and Jesus assumes in his person all that the Old Testament symbolism had applied to the love of God for his people, described as the love of the bridegroom for his bride (No. 10).

It is helpful to look at how the document develops these images. Note that God is never described as bride, and women are never described as bridegroom. Men, on the other hand, are human, and as human in relation to God, can assume the role of bride in relation to God the bridegroom, as well as the role of bridegroom (as priests) in relation to the (female) church.

Why would it be so inappropriate to call God a bride, in metaphorical terms? One reason is the historical association of the bride of God with the ancient Canaanite goddesses. Both the Jewish and the Christian traditions have been uncomfortable with such an association, since it links sexuality rather too closely with God, a point Sallie McFague made some years ago in her book Models of God. Another reason would be the habits of our religious and liturgical language: God as She still does not ring familiar for most of us. Language is very slow to change, perhaps even slower than ideas.

But there is another reason for the Vatican’s use of this language for God, and it is found in the way that the document speaks of God, Christ and humanity. In this language, the divine essence is understood to be essentially and fundamentally male. Christ is male because he represents the love of God for his people. And Mary’s femaleness is representative of humanity. The logical conclusion to draw is that maleness is closer to the divine than femaleness is.

Now, to say that God has a spousal relationship with humanity is to draw on a rich panoply of images. Such images are found throughout the tradition, and they signal God’s tender love and care for humanity, God’s closeness with humanity, God’s willingness to give all for humanity, God’s sheer delight in humanity. They also convey God’s frustration and sometimes even anger with humanity. It is wonderful that we can draw on such images, taken from our experiences of marriage and other relationships.

Yet we know that these are metaphors, and metaphors are meant to be taken seriously, but not literally, as Reinhold Niebuhr once said about the myths of the Bible. If God’s relation to us is seen as spousal, we know there is an is and an is not implicit in the use of the term. But the Vatican’s way of using the term bridegroom for both God and Jesus Christ seems to say that female language could never be used of God, and that Christ’s maleness is essential to his saving work. If this is so, then men are more in the image of God than are women. Elizabeth Johnson, C.S.J., warns of this leakage of Christ’s humanity into his divinity: maleness appears to be of the essence of the God made known in Jesus (She Who Is, p. 152).

But we know this is not so. God is neither male nor female. Indeed, as Thomas Aquinas writes, all that we really and truly can say about God is what God is not. Our language for God is analogical, based on our own experience and then applied to God. There is a vast difference between human experience and God. It is true that the biblical and theological names for God have been primarily male. But this is not because we know God is male; it is because our language shapes and reflects our thought, which is still rooted in a male-dominated world. The movement for women’s equality in society and the church has emphasized that only in recent years have women gained voices in society and in theology, and it has challenged the idea that men rule women because God is male.

There are further problems with the use of this metaphor, particularly as it describes the marital relationship. It suggests that the bride, who does not initiate, but rather responds to the bridegroom’s invitation, is always in a receptive mode. Like Mary, who constitutes the fundamental reference in the church, she listens and receives. This is not, the Vatican warns, a passivity inspired by an outdated conception of femininity (No. 16). But this usage clearly identifies the feminine side with receptivity, and the masculine side with activity. Such language may be appropriate for describing the relationship between God and humanity, where God’s invitation always comes to us first. But to suggest that this relationship is rooted in marriage is to propose that men are to be the initiators in marriage, and women the receivers.

Marriage, however, is a relationship of two different human beings, each with strengths and weaknesses not necessarily linked to gender. There are some things my husband can do better than I can: hang wallpaper, hammer a nail, decorate a cake. There are some things I can do better than he can: play the piano, find missing keys, do our taxes. There are some things we do very well together: the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle, kitchen renovation (three times!) and entertaining. Though we do fall into some of the traditional gender roleshe mows the lawn, I do the laundryour relationship is mutual and cooperative. Sometimes he initiates things, sometimes I do. And while our being male and female undoubtedly plays some role in how we relate to each otherwe found ourselves laughing in recognition when we went to see Defending the Caveman, a one-man show about relationships between men and womenwe relate to each other as persons shaped by family and culture, biology and education, not as the feminine and masculine principles working together.

Even more, to suggest that God is only the initiator, and not also responsive to humanity, is to suggest that we cannot really love and affect God in some way. Edward Vacek, S.J., suggests in his book Love, Human and Divine that God must be understood to be affected or changed by free human action. Our relationship to God and others is dynamic and mutual.

My anger and frustration at reading the Vatican statement on collaboration, however, was less over the invocation of traditional gender roles than the assumption of the normative maleness of God, and of Christ’s saving activity being linked to his maleness. I am not suggesting that we drop all references to God’s maleness, in our liturgy or even our ordinary language. The image of God as father is too deep-rooted in the tradition simply to dismiss it, and it also conveys some powerful truths. But to reinforce God’s maleness as more than metaphorical is, I fear, coming dangerously close to idolatry.

Some years ago, the radical feminist, post-Christian philosopher Mary Daly wrote, If God is male, then the male is God. While many have dismissed Daly altogether as an extremist who holds men responsible for all the evils of the world, she spoke the truth with these words. The Vatican has failed to recognize that the feminist movement is not based on hostility toward men, as the Vatican suggests. The movement was born out of the realization that women’s voices were not being heard in society or in the church, that women’s many talents were not being used, that violence against women and children was rampant in the world and that we could make a better world only when men and women, equally and together, could fully participate in its future. As created in the image and likeness of God, women and men struggle together, with the help of God, to make the world a better place. God is both our bridegroom and our bride, our partner and our support, our brother and our sister.

If we cannot name God as both bride and bridegroom, we do violence to the image of God that each of us is. Husband and wife, child and parent, friend and friend, are equally the image of God to each other, yet this has not been reflected in our language for God. To suggest that we speak of God the bride as well as God the bridegroom is, as Sister Elizabeth Johnson has written, an investigation of a suppressed world directed ultimately toward the design of a new whole. As we work together for this new wholea world of justice for women and men, poor and richwe should consider seriously the role that our images of God play and be bold enough to speak this new vision into reality.

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19 years 4 months ago
Thanks for your wonderful article. I am a lifelong Catholic, but one of the things that bothers me is that it is a male dominated church and overlooks many of the great qualities of women. Can you imagin what a meeting of men and women bishops would be like? And finally, I can not beleive that there weren't any women at the last supper. who cooked? and why has this been ignored ? Many women were the first discipes and apostles, we have just lost their names. Maybe this is what the church has to do, move forward to embrace women, all the while trusting the love of God. Thank you again.
19 years 4 months ago
Thanks for your wonderful article. I am a lifelong Catholic, but one of the things that bothers me is that it is a male dominated church and overlooks many of the great qualities of women. Can you imagin what a meeting of men and women bishops would be like? And finally, I can not beleive that there weren't any women at the last supper. who cooked? and why has this been ignored ? Many women were the first discipes and apostles, we have just lost their names. Maybe this is what the church has to do, move forward to embrace women, all the while trusting the love of God. Thank you again.

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