Marriage Symbolism and the Question of Women Priests

I have suggested before that people in the Middle Ages simply did not see the same world that the modern man sees. Or to be more precise, they saw the same facts, but those facts had a different meaning. The world may have looked the same, but it did not mean the same thing. It did not mean the same because man in the Middle Ages looked out on a world made by God, a world with its meaning written into it by its Maker. And because the material world was not all there was, it could represent higher spiritual realities. Hence, St. Francis of Assisi loved the world, not as some neo-pagan nature worshiper, but (as the historian C.H. Lawrence put it), but because he saw it as a sign-book of its Creator’s love.

The modern world does not see the world this way, for the modern world has forgotten God, and so matter appears as little more than matter and symbolism- the use of matter to represent higher spiritual realities- is seen as something vague, arbitrary or subjective. To the Middle Ages, the marriage of a man and women was sign of a higher spiritual reality, the union of Christ and the Church, and so divorce was simply unthinkable. A man could no more divorce his wife than Christ could leave His Church. Yet, because the modern world does not see a marriage as having this higher symbolism, divorce is very natural to it and it cannot understand the Catholic world-view.

The same is true of the Catholic priesthood. The modern world sometimes asks why women cannot be priests, as if the priesthood were a right and all that was lacking was the permission of some overly backward pontiff. Yet, it is not so. The priesthood, like marriage, is based on certain symbolism, symbolism that defines its nature and makes it what it is. The symbolism is this: the relationship between God and his people, from Old Testament times, is described as a marriage. So too, the relationship between Christ and His Church. Jesus often spoke of Himself the bridegroom (“can the wedding guests fast when the bridegroom is with them?”), while heaven is described as the wedding feast of the lamb.

Hence, the physical reality of marriage represents the higher spiritual reality of the union of Christ and His bride, the Church. Yet, from this follow certain facts about the nature of the priesthood; for Jesus is Himself a priest (Hebrews 4:14- “A great High Priest”). And the job of the priest was to stand between God and the people and to offer sacrifice. This the priest does today as well, standing in the place of the Great High Priest, Jesus Himself. Standing in the place of Christ, the priest stands in His place in relation to the people. And Christ is the Bridegroom of his bride, the Church. Hence, standing in the place of Christ, the priest, as Christ, stands as the bridegroom in relation to the Church. For this reason, the priesthood was seen as the vocation of men, not by virtue of their worth, for they have none sufficient, but by virtue of spiritual reality.

The priesthood was thus not a matter of rights, but of the nature of reality. The marriage of a man and woman reflected the union of Christ and the Church, and the priest stood in the place of Christ. A female priesthood was simply impossible, perhaps even a contradiction in terms. The meaning did not work. And the meaning was not arbitrary, but objective, written into matter by the God that made it, and reflecting God’s own nature.

But the modern world cannot see this; it cannot see the material world as a sign of higher spiritual realities- for there are none. Symbolism thus becomes wholly arbitrary and subjective- something man made and something he might make otherwise if so wished. The American flag is a symbol of America with 50 stars and 13 stripes. But it need not have had those numbers of stars or stripes or, indeed, any stars and stripes at all. It might have had squares, or deus avertit, butterflies. In the Catholic world-view, some symbols were like that- a knight’s crest perhaps- but not all were. Some symbols had an objective meaning, a meaning because it was written into matter by matter’s maker. Marriage and the priesthood were among these and no one had the power to make it otherwise.

Women in Paganism and Christianity

In the early years of Christianity, the ancient pagan world held Christians in disgust because of their poor understanding of Christianity. The knew little about it, but they “knew” Christians practiced cannibalism, blood sacrifice, conspired against the state, and engaged in sexual deviancy. The modern world, also increasingly pagan, seems to understand Christianity little better. It knows little about Christianity, but it at least “knows” that Christians hate women and gays, are against science, and enjoy long lists of pointless rules.

All these errors are beyond purpose of this piece; rather, what concerns here is the claim that Christianity is oppressive towards women. What interests about this claim is a very odd historical coincidence: Christianity is supposed to be oppressive towards women, yet in early Christianity a majority of the converts were women. This need not disprove the claim that Christianity oppresses women, yet it is at least surely a very odd coincidence. It would be at least as strange as removing the hoods from a KKK meeting and finding a large majority of African Americans were wearing them. Not impossible, perhaps, but highly puzzling.

In, The Rise of Christianity, Rodney Stark has argued that one of the reasons for the rapid rise of Christianity from a small break-off Jewish sect to a religion that dominated the Roman empire was its appeal to women. In pagan antiquity, women had few rights and little respect. Men generally agreed that wives were too much trouble and marriage undesirable; the promise of land and money from the Roman government did little to make women and marriage more palatable. Women who married were likely to be pushed into marriage to much older men with the result that there was little affection between the spouses. For men it was easier and more convenient to find sex elsewhere, hence adultery and affairs were common- at least for men.

Women were also likely to be forced or coerced into abortions and infanticide. They had little power. The real power, the pater potestas, lay with the husband and father, who had the power of life and death over his family. And he used it. Stark has shown that infant girls were killed in enormous numbers by romans preferring a son; this led to a significant gender gap (as in modern China), and made marriage even more difficult.

Christian behavior was different. The marriage age gap was minimized. Abortion and infanticide forbidden. The double standard on adultery was abolished and, as a result, the gender gap was diminished. The pater potestas, at least in the pagan sense, was abolished. No longer did the husband have the power of life and death over his family; the headship remained, but it was now to be a headship of service. The husband was called the head of the family, but this was said, not by way of domination, but by way of sacrifice. He was, in the language of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, to love his wife even as Christ loved his Church, handing himself over for her to sanctify her. Perhaps the ideal was no more met then than now, but it was still different than the pagan, and the ideal mattered.

Why was the Christian practice so different? First was the language already discussed of Ephesians comparing marriage of a husband and wife to the union of Christ and His Church. Such an image placed higher obligations on both partners and forced them to view their marriages differently. Marriage became a sacrament, not a mere social contract.

This has another important aspect. The marriage symbolism implied a new purpose to marriage. In the old pagan view, marriage was for heir or perhaps family alliances. But the purpose of the union of Christ and the Church was holiness. In the Christian view, the purpose of marriage was not children (though they were to be welcomed) or social benefit, but the mutual holiness of the spouses. Hence women could not be seen as mere tools, as a means to an end (heirs or alliances). Because a woman was not mere matter, but had a soul, a soul for which the husband was responsible and so a woman, because she could not be seen solely in material terms, has a basis to be treated better in the Christian than pagan world- and this is what happened.

Today, with the advent of secularism and return of the materialist philosophy, the pagan world is again slowly returning. And again, the pagan world begins to see women only in material terms, which is to say, in sexual and reproductive terms. Hence, women’s “rights” are almost exclusively seen in sexual terms, which explains the paramount importance placed on birth control and abortion. This is because since women are only matter (or thought to be so), they are are seen solely in light of a material purpose- reproduction. And the modern world is becoming as proficient at preventing women from giving birth and being born as the pagan was. This keeps women more available to serve (as tools) the sexual desires of men. The propaganda has changed, cloaked in the language of “rights” but the facts have not.